Latest VCSD filing seeks to throw out Baron’s defamation claim  

VOORHEESVILLE – The Voorheesville Central School District in its latest filing, on June 26, states that Robert Baron’s June 14 motion to amend his complaint against the district to include claims for defamation, fraud, and a request for punitive damages “are patently devoid of merit.”

Baron, in March, filed a lawsuit claiming the district fraudulently induced him to resign as the longtime head coach of the girls’ varsity basketball team. The suit seeks Baron’s reinstatement as coach as well as payment for lost wages and damage to his reputation.

The district maintains that nothing in Baron’s most recent filing “alters the conclusion that five of his six claims should be dismissed.”

The only claim that the district’s motion does not seek to dismiss is Baron’s request for lost coaching wages, citing the state’s Human Rights Law. His suit alleges the district has a pattern of terminating coaches after age 60. Baron was 67 when he resigned.

In June 14 court papers, Baron claimed 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.”

“A plaintiff must be ‘clearly identifiable,’” the district asserts, citing case law, “from the statement in order for the statement to be defamatory”

The district, in the June 26 court filing, states that the comment makes no reference to Baron, “does contain any negative remarks, and is neither false nor capable of being proven false.”

This statement, the district asserts, is “non-defamatory as a matter of law.”

Harold D. Gordon, Baron’s lawyer, told The Enterprise that there are examples from other cases that makes it clear: “You don’t have to say it was Sean Mulkerrin addressed so-and-so.” Rather, Gordon said, if it’s reasonably understood who the subject of the defamatory remarks was – that’s enough.

Baron, in the June 14 filing, claims that, after the comment had been published several times in The Enterprise, “Speculation was immediately born as to the meaning of Ms. Saia’s comments in this ‘Me Too’ era. 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 says that Baron’s “claimed injury to his reputation” had nothing to do with Saia’s statement, “but rather the gratuitous and unnecessary statements made by the Altamont Enterprise in a newspaper article dated November 30, 2017.”

“In that article, the Altamont Enterprise took it upon itself to insinuate that Baron had resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct, even though the newspaper simultaneously recognized that the statement made by the School Board President did not make that implication,” the district states.

The Enterprise first reported, accurately, Saia’s statement in a news article posted online on Nov. 22, 2017.

The district is referencing a Nov. 30, 2017 editorial by The Enterprise – an editorial is not a news article. An editorial is an opinion, and openly expressed as such; a news article, unbiased and objectively, presents facts.

The editorial did not “insinuate that Baron had resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct”; rather, The Enterprise called on the district to explain to the public the reason for Baron’s resignation because, as stated by the editorial: “Rumors can be destructive. We won’t print them.”

The Enterprise, in its editorial, gave context as to why rumors can be so destructive: “The rumors that are swirling in this era when so many female victims of sexual assault are coming forward — one of them is swimmer Diana Nyad who was 14 when, she says, she was sexually assaulted by her coach, a pillar of the community — may very well be unfair to Coach Baron.”

On the fraud claim, that Baron alleges he had been fraudulently induced to resign, the district says Baron’s own testimony “shows that he was not asked, pressured, or ‘induced’ to resign.”

The district was “literally in the process” of firing him, and, court document state, it was Baron who “raised the idea of resigning himself, and followed through with it,” the district’s filing states.

Holding the district accountable for Baron’s own action, the filing says, is “inconceivable.”

The motion should also be denied, the district says, because Baron is seeking reputational damages, which “are not available in a fraud action.” Only “out of pocket” losses occurring as a “direct result of the wrong,” would be available to Baron, the district claims, which, it asserts, he is not entitled to.  

Also, according to the district, under New York law, “public corporations, including school districts, are not subject to punitive damages.”

Gordon was asked if Baron was eligible for punitive damages.

“It depends,” he said.

Gordon then tried to draw a distinction between Saia, the individual, and Saia, the board member, not subject to punitive damages.

“It depends on whether or not the statements were made within the scope of her [Saia] authority at that time, or not,” Gordon said of Saia’s comments at the Nov. 21, 2017 school board meeting, adding later, “Whether she was acting in her official capacity or whether she was acting in her personal capacity” is an issue that needs to be “fleshed out.”

“It’s not appropriate at this time to make a motion to dismiss,” Gordon said.

With its motion for dismissal, Gordon said, the district is “swinging for the fences,” hoping that it won’t have to face issues of wrongdoing and things that it allowed to happen, like bullying claims made in Baron’s June 14 deposition.

“They don’t want any of that stuff to come out; they want to sweep it under the rug,” he said.

More New Scotland News

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.