Baron responds to VCSD by adding a defamation claim and allegations of player bullying

Enterprise file photo – Michael Koff

Robert Baron, for the first time, gives his version of the events that he says led him to resign as Voorheesville basketball coach under false pretenses.

VOORHEESVILLE – The latest salvo in the pitched battle between the Voorheesville Central School District and Robert Baron, who claims he was tricked out of his job as coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team, was the filing last week in Albany County Supreme Court.

In an affidavit filed on June 14, Baron, who wants his job back and his reputation restored, is seeking to amend his original complaint by adding a cause of action against Voorheesville for defamation.

Also, for the first time, Baron included emails that were sent to Superintendent Brian Hunt and Athletic Director Joseph Sapienza from the parent of a basketball player who claimed that bullying of some players by others on the team was rampant.

Baron, in court papers, claims that, at a Nov. 21, 2017 meeting when the school board accepted his resignation, Doreen Saia, the board president, “made the following gratuitous defamatory comments”:

“Youth sports is enormously important, and I sit on those sidelines all the time .... So – understand – that we care very, very much about what happens to your children, and this team .... This one hit me hard too, because I see how important sports are for students – incredibly important .... We were faced with some difficult issues .... At the end of the day, these girls deserve our best.”

These comments were published several times in The Altamont Enterprise, the filing states. “Speculation was immediately born as to the meaning of Ms. Saia’s comments in this ‘Me Too’ era,” according to the court documents. “As a result, rumors began to swirl around the Voorheesville community as to whether Baron had sexually assaulted any of the players on his team.”

“The district believes that it has a number of very strong defenses to Mr. Baron’s claims, and we will continue to vigorously defend the district in the court action,” Beth Bourassa, of Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna, the law firm representing Voorheesville in the suit, told The Enterprise as her sole response.

Baron’s story

In a deposition that took place on April 17, Baron recounts the events that, according to him, led to him being fraudulently induced to resign.

On Nov. 8, 2017, before basketball practice started, Baron was called into a meeting with Hunt and Sapienza who told him a complaint had been filed against him by the parent of a player.

The parent said that Baron had told her daughter: “If I had a gun, I could shoot you.” Baron was told that what he had said was verified by the junior-varsity coach, Andrew Karins – it was also verified by Baron himself.

“You don’t have to get verification from Andy Karins,” Baron said, according to court papers. “I don’t lie.” Baron admitted that he had said, “If I had a gun, I would shoot you,” during practice the previous night, on Nov. 7.   

“It was just a saying,” he added during his deposition.

Baron explained that he had asked the players if they had any scheduling conflicts so he could set up a practice schedule; no one mentioned conflicts. On Nov. 7, after the practice schedule was set, the player – whose mother complained – said she had a post-season soccer game.

The Enterprise is withholding the names of the players.

Baron recounted the interaction: “So at that point we get up to do our warmups, some stretching in place and so forth, and as I’m walking by Student 1 [throughout the deposition, the players’ names are used, but in the transcript they are identified by numbers], she says Student 1 says, ‘Coach, I have a conflict on Friday morning. I have a senior all star game.’ I was disappointed as she had been dishonest and not told me the previous night. So I say, ‘Student 1, if I had a gun, I could shoot you,’  just so disappointed she didn’t tell me up front. So I kind of took a breath and said, ‘But if you are going to play, if you want to go and you want to play, just be careful and don’t get hurt.’ And she said, ‘Okay.’ And then I walked on.”

Baron was then asked by William S. Nolan, an attorney for Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna, the law firm for the district, if he was sure if that is exactly what he had said.

He answered: “Actually, I believe I said – there is one version or the shorter version; ‘I could shoot you.’ But I believe I was told and I believe I said, ‘If I
had a gun, I could shoot you.’ And I said it just that way. And I didn’t say it with any force or anything. I just said it in disappointment because I know she had been dishonest to me.”

Later in the deposition, Baron recounted a meeting that he had with a different player [Player 6] who had been standing close by when Baron made his “gun” remark. According to Baron, Player 6 told him, “I was standing right next to Student 1 when you made the statement”; according to Baron, she said, “You did not threaten her.”

At the Nov. 8 meeting with Hunt and Sapienza, Baron said, he was handed a letter by Hunt and was told that he was being put on administrative leave, and that he was not allowed to be on school grounds or allowed to talk to any school employees or students.

At the next meeting, on Nov. 14, of Baron, Hunt, and Sapienza, according to Baron, he was told by Hunt that an investigation into the allegation had taken place. According to Baron, Hunt said, “We have some concerns about you may have been tough with some of the girls.” And, according to Baron, Hunt said, “So we are a little concerned about a few issues."

In an attempt to rebuke concerns, Baron had arrived to the meeting armed with emails from the mother of Student 1 to Baron.

“As far as my relationship with Student 1 and Mother of Student 1,” Baron in the deposition says, he said to Hunt at the Nov. 14 meeting, “I have a trail of emails here going back for a year … Do you see anything in these emails that said I ever had an issue with Student 1 or Mother of Student 1?”

Baron said that he recommended Student 1 for a scholar-athlete award, and that he attended the event honoring her along with his wife and the mother of Student 1.

At the third and final meeting of Baron, Hunt, and Sapienza, on Nov. 16, Baron said Hunt told him, “I don't think it’s going to work. We are going to go in a different direction.”

Baron said that he understood Hunt’s statement to mean that he was going to be fired.

Baron asked what happened.

He said he was told by Sapienza that “the floodgates opened,” and that, “I don’t see how we can resolve this.”

Baron said he asked Sapienza what he meant by “floodgates.”

“Well, compliance,” Sapienza said, according to Baron. Sapienza said there were several complaints against Baron, according to the deposition.

“I don’t want to be where people don’t want me,” Baron said.

Baron says that he asked if he could resign rather than be fired, and was told that he could. He said he had two conditions: “You protect my reputation,” and, “I would like to understand what this floodgate of complaints were.”

Sapienza, according to Baron, said, “We feel we owe you an explanation.
I will have a conversation with you.”

According to Baron, Sapienza said he needed a week to get things in order, then he would “sit down and have that conversation.” Baron said, “OK.” And, according to Baron, Hunt nodded his head.

“So based upon the fact you are protecting my reputation and I will have the explanation, I will give you my letter of resignation,” Baron said, according to the deposition.

Baron’s letter of resignation said that he was resigning for “personal reasons.”

Nolan asked Baron why he hadn’t included the two conditions he laid out to Sapienza and Hunt in his resignation letter.  

Baron said, if the letter ever became public, it would undo the “protect my reputation” condition. “So, if this became a public document, it would basically say I didn’t really resign for that reason,” Baron said, referring to resigning for personal reasons. He also said that he had dealt with Sapienza for 20 years and “based upon his reputation and the fact that I have worked with these people and I thought I could trust them, I saw no reason to have to include it,” Baron said in the deposition.

To date, Baron said that, he has never been provided with the results of the district’s investigation.

Baron investigates

In his deposition, Baron claims that the district spoke to only two players in its investigation.

“I resigned based on the fact they talked about a floodgate of complaints. They led me to believe this was from the current team, that they actually did a true investigation and that they talked to the members of the team, which they did not; they only talked to the two girls, did not talk to the other eight,” Baron said during the deposition.

According to the most recent Memorandum of Law filing, after his resignation was accepted by the board of education, Baron claims to have spoken with the parents of six members of the team, who told him that neither they or their daughters had ever made any complaints against him.

A May 18 email to Hunt from the father of a player included a petition that had been signed by 15 parents of varsity and junior-varsity basketball players requesting that Baron be reinstated as coach for the next season.  

“The parents’ signed petition evidences and confirms the fraudulent nature of the School District Respondents’ misrepresentations regarding the nature and extent of the complaints against me and the nonexistence of a true ‘investigation’ into the same,” Baron’s affidavit states.

After Baron had conducted his investigation, and before he took any legal action, Baron said, he attempted to reach out to the district through back channels.

Baron, in his deposition, says that he contacted current school board member James Coffin, who had been on the board when Baron himself had been a trustee. The school board has seven members; at the Nov. 21, 2017 meeting, all four members present – which made a quorum – including Coffin, voted to accept Baron’s resignation.

Baron said that he and Coffin later spoke “off the record” for about three hours. Coffin, according to Baron, didn’t know the whole story; he hadn’t been told the whole story, as Baron saw it.

Baron relayed to Coffin the conversations he had had with parents, and said that he supplied documents to Coffin, the same ones he gave to Hunt at the Nov. 14 meeting, one of which was a letter of recommendation for Student 1.

According to Baron’s deposition, Coffin said, “Everything you show me, I don’t see anything here. I’m going full steam ahead. I will see what I can do … I’m going to see if I can head this thing off. I can't make any promises. I’m going to see if I can help this thing.”

“He went down with the board president and talked to Brian [Hunt] and they did not want to head this thing off,” Baron said.

Coffin did not return a call from The Enterprise this week, seeking comment.

Allegations of bullying

Baron, in his affidavit, states that it has been reported to him that two players – according to Baron, the same and only two players with whom the district spoke during its investigation of Baron – have bullied other players on the girls’ varsity basketball team, and, in some cases, he alleges, because players expressed support of him.

In an undated email to Hunt from the father who circulated the petition, the father writes that he “saw a number of troubling issues that arose during this past girls basketball season.”

The varsity girls’ basketball team this past season, coached by Karins, won sectionals and made it to the regional playoffs.

The father told Hunt in the email that he would like to schedule a private meeting with Hunt, Sapienza, and five or six parents of students on the basketball team. The father also asked that several school board members participate as well.

A May 18 follow-up email from the father to Hunt and Saia included a petition signed by 15 parents that asked that Baron be reinstated as coach for the next season.

The father also referenced a meeting that took place on April 27, writing: “It troubles many of us that the bullying that we discussed at our meeting continues to run rampant. In fact, the very afternoon we had our ‘private’ meeting, several of our daughters began receiving texts about it. What has the district done to investigate it? Would it be possible to discuss?”

On May 21, Sapienza emailed the father to ask specifically what was texted or said to [name blacked out in court papers] following the April 27 meeting.

On May 22, the father responded that he was reluctant to continue “as information seems to be leaking from your organization.”

The father reiterated what he had written to Hunt, that after the April 27 meeting, “many of our girls were bombarded with communications from [named blacked out in court papers] and [name blacked out in court papers].

The father wrote that the entire point of the April 27 meeting was to protect the girls from harassment, which he said continued after he sent Hunt the email on May 18. (See related story on Voorheesville’s policy for handling harassment.)

Claims

Following is a description, all from court papers, of the actions Baron sued for, the district’s response, and Baron’s response to the district:

– Declare that the district fraudulently induced Baron to resigns as the girls’ varsity basketball coach:

A declaratory judgement defines the legal relationship between parties and their rights in the matter before the court, according to the Legal Information Institute of Cornell Law School; it states the court’s opinion regarding the exact nature of the legal matter without requiring the parties to do anything.

Baron, according to the district, is seeking “nothing more than an empty declaration characterizing the context of his decision to resign from his coaching position.” His claim “does not seek any accompanying or related relief that would serve any practical end, stabilize any relationship, or resolve any future dispute.”

On being fraudulently induced to resign, the district states that Baron’s “only apparent objective in asserting this claim is to obtain judicial recognition of what he believes happened to him”

Baron claims:“The only question is whether a proper case is presented for invoking the jurisdiction of the court to make a declaratory judgment, not whether plaintiff is entitled to a declaration favorable to him.”

Baron’s allegations, according to the filing, are specific in establishing a justiciable controversy, which is a controversy involving a real issue that can be settled by a court, involving a present claim made by one party and another party disputing it.

The district advised Baron that an investigation had been completed, and that a “floodgate” of complaints had been made against him by his players, and that the results of the investigation would be provided to the former coach, Baron’s latest filing says. “These statements are uniformly false,” according to Baron. Baron asserts that only two players, along with their parents, were ever questioned by district, nor was he ever provided with the results of the investigation, although it was requested, according to the latest filing.

Baron alleges that the district’s “misrepresentations regarding the scope and tenor of complaints, and the supposed completion of the ‘investigation’ with respect to the same,” were motivated by the district’s underlying desire to induce Baron to resign and replace him with a younger coach that was preferred by both the district and the two complaining students.

Baron asserts that the district “misrepresent[ed] a material fact, which was known by [them] to be false and intended to be relied on when made, and that there was justifiable reliance and resulting injury,” according to the latest filing.

Baron claims that the district’s characterization of his request for declaratory relief as failing to “seek any accompanying or related relief that would serve any practical end, stabilize any relationship, or resolve any future dispute” is “completely misplaced” because the former coach does seek relief, by having his resignation nullified and invalidated due to the district’s “arbitrary and capricious determination not to accept his rescission of his resignation”;

– Nullify and invalidate his resignation as well as the district’s acceptance of his resignation, and reinstate him as coach:

In New York State, an Article 78 proceeding is a device for challenging and reviewing an administrative action in court.

The district states this claim should be dismissed for three reasons: First, Baron resigned, so there is no administrative action to review; second, under New York law, once a district accepts an employee’s resignation, it is permanent unless it is shown to be involuntary, which according to the the filing, “New York courts have only deemed employee resignations to be involuntary under very narrow circumstances, which are not present here”; and third, Baron would have lost his job whether or not he chose to resign, “and whether or not any misrepresentations were actually made to him as he claims. The District cannot be subjected to liability for threatening to exercise its right to terminate Baron from his position”

Baron’s latest filing asserts that he is eligible for Article 78 relief because, “Authority cited by School Respondents on that front is irrelevant as such cases consistently and differentiably focus on voluntary resignations not, as here, procured by fraud and for which an explicit request for rescission based on such fraud, as here, was not denied”;

– Declare that Baron is covered by the collective bargaining agreement that the district has with the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, and is entitled to certain protections; and

– Award him damages for separate breaches (evaluation and grievance procedures, claims five and six in the lawsuit) of the collective bargaining agreement for damages to his reputation:

A month after stepping down, Baron attempted to rescind his resignation and, for the first time, the district says, claimed to be a member of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association, and was therefore subject to the grievance procedures in the union’s collective bargaining agreement, according to the district.

The district and New York State United Teachers, in a separate motion seeking dismissal of all claims against the union defendants, state that Baron was never a member of the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association; that he never paid union dues or agency fees, and never sought assistance from the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association prior to submitting his irrevocable letter of resignation, according to the NYSUT filing.

The collective bargaining agreement between the Voorheesville Teachers’ Association Voorheesville Central School District states: “The Board agrees to deduct from the salaries of its employees, as said employees individually and voluntarily authorize the Board to deduct, (1) dues for the Association and (2) contributions to the NYSUT Benefit Trust …”

Harold D. Gordon, Baron’s lawyer, was asked by The Enterprise why, if Baron were a member of the teachers’ union, which he claimed to be, hadn’t he ever had union dues deducted from his paycheck per the union contract.

Gordon said that, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the union and the district, “The union member can authorize dues to come out, if that’s how they want to pay them,” which, he said, is the usual course. But, he added, there is nothing in the contract that says you have to be a “dues payer” to be covered by the contract. “There’s no link; there’s no connection,” he said.

The Taylor Law, which governs New York State public-sector collective bargaining, says: “Every employee organization that has been recognized or certified as the exclusive representative of employees of the state within a negotiating unit … shall be entitled to have deducted from the wage or salary of the employees in such negotiating unit who are not members of said employee organization the amount equivalent to the dues levied by such employee organization, and the state comptroller shall make such deductions and transmit the sum so deducted to such employee organization.”

Put another way, according to the Taylor Law, a worker in a negotiating unit must pay either full union dues or agency fees to the employee organization representing the unit. An “agency fee,” is a charge that covers a union’s expenses related to collective bargaining and contract administration for non-members, but not political activities.

Gordon admitted that Baron had never paid an agency fee to the VTA.

He also said that no one ever requested that Baron pay an agency fee. “No one ever asked him to do so. You can’t pay anything unless someone requires or asks you to do it,” Gordon said.

Carl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT, told The Enterprise this week that Baron would have had to make a request to become a fee-payer, which never happened. But before that, Korn said, the district and the VTA would have had to agree that coaching positions are covered by the CBA, which NYSUT, in its filing for dismissal from the suit, asserts they are not.

“The CBA’s Recognition Clause defines the Association’s unit as ‘... all teachers and other professionals including psychologists, guidance counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, nurses, social workers, and dean of students, and any other approved positions. The clause makes no mention of coaches. Plaintiff argues he is included in the category ‘other professionals.’ However, it is clear from the illustrative list which follows that term, that a coach is not a ‘professional’ contemplated by the parties, despite possessing a coaching license. Furthermore, both the District and the Association explained to the Plaintiff that non-teacher coaches have never been members of the Association,” according to NYSUT’s filing.

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