Apr 10

Foul Shot: An Employment Law Perspective on the Rutgers Basketball Situation, Part One


Photo Credit: slgckg

Photo Credit: slgckg

By now, most have heard about the series of events that transpired at Rutgers University involving the head coach of the men’s basketball team.  Many have seen the video that has caused public outcry.  The actions of Coach Mike Rice and the response of Athletic Director Tim Pernetti raise a number of legal questions, including whether Rutgers, as the employer, had the ability to discipline Rice twice for the same underlying infractions and whether any of the students who played for Rice have claims against the university for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention.

For those not familiar with the story, here is a summary of the facts.  At various times between 2010 and 2012, video recordings were made of basketball practices conducted by Rice[1].  The videos showed Rice undertaking various forms of abuse[2].  His conduct included hitting and kicking players, throwing basketballs at players, and using, among other forms of verbal abuse, gay slurs to address the players[3].  The footage was given to Pernetti in November by a former employee of the basketball program[4].  Pernetti then sought outside review of Rice’s conduct[5].  A report prepared by Connell Lacey LLP allegedly concludes that Rice could have been fired for the behavior captured in the video[6].  Rather than fire Rice, however, Pernetti suspended Rice for three days and levied fines that ended up costing Rice a total of $75,000[7].  No further action was taken until the tape was made public; subsequent to the tape being aired and the resulting public outcry, Rice was terminated[8].  The firing came approximately four months after Rice was suspended[9].  In its announcement of the firing, Rutgers stated that officials based their decision on “recently reviewed information” and a “review of previously discovered issues[10].”  Rice’s termination was followed shortly by Pernetti’s resignation[11].  At the time he resigned, Pernetti claimed he had advocated for terminating Rice last year rather than issue the suspension, but that his suggestion was rebuffed by those senior to him[12].  Earlier this week, Rutgers announced it would be undertaking a further review of the situation and the way in which university officials responded[13].

Before delving into a discussion of the potential employment law implications related to Mike Rice’s coaching style and his termination, it is important to highlight a few factors.  First, New Jersey, where Rutgers University is located, is an at-will employment state, which means there is no cause requirement for an employee’s termination[14].  Second, there is no indication that Mike Rice’s employment contract with Rutgers contained provisions for discipline or requiring just cause (or any cause) in order to terminate his contract.  Finally, there has been no indication that Rice was a member of any union or had the protection of any collective bargaining agreement.

The most immediate question raised by Rice’s termination following the public release of videos showing his behavior during team practices is whether Rutgers could level a second punishment against Rice for the same incident of misconduct.  Remember, Rice had been suspended in December for the conduct displayed in the video[15].  Now, without new publicly-known facts (although Rutgers referenced new information it had considered[16]), Rice was fired for the conduct shown in the video.  Does this constitute an impermissible application of a second punishment for the same offense similar to the criminal law doctrine of double jeopardy?  The New Jersey courts have not dealt with the idea of double jeopardy in employee discipline in any cases that can be analogized to the present case.  There were, however, two recent arbitration decisions that can be.

In In re Calumet Specialty Products and United Steelworkers International Union, Local 13-245[17], a union grieved on behalf of an employee who failed to report for a scheduled shift after shifts for all employees had been altered[18].  The employee was given a notice stating the discipline being applied to him and the reasoning for it; the following day, he received an amended notice of discipline[19].  The union argued, in part, that the receipt of two separate notices for the same incident was double jeopardy[20].  In reviewing the case to determine whether double jeopardy was a claim that could be raised, the arbitrator looked to how double jeopardy had been viewed in relation to discipline in the employment setting.  The arbitrator concluded, “Once discipline for a given offense is imposed and accepted, it cannot thereafter be increased, nor may another punishment be imposed, lest the employee be unfairly subjected to ‘double jeopardy[21].’”  The arbitrator then held that the employee in Calumet Specialty Products had been subjected to double jeopardy[22].

Later that same year an arbitrator reached the same conclusion in In re Chicago Transit Authority and Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 241[23], where a union had filed multiple grievances on behalf of an employee[24].  The grievances involved challenges to discipline “other than discharge[25].”  The arbitrator held that applying two different disciplinary actions to the same employee for the same incident constitutes double jeopardy[26].

Applying these two cases to the Mike Rice situation, it appears that the concept of double jeopardy would generally apply.  Rice was disciplined for the conduct he was shown to engage in during practices in December by way of suspension[27].  Thus far, no evidence has been made public to show that he continued to engage in the inappropriate conduct during practices or other interactions with players.  And yet, last week, his employment was terminated because of the conduct displayed in the video[28].  Therefore, two separate punishments were meted out for the same acts of misconduct.  As Calumet Specialty Products and Chicago Transit Authority clearly demonstrate, such action by an employer constitutes impermissible double jeopardy[29].  Had there been intervening occurrences of the same misconduct or other forms of misconduct, the termination would be more likely to be seen as escalating discipline.  Again, however, it should be noted that New Jersey is an employment at-will state, meaning Rutgers does not have to provide a reason for terminating Rice’s employment with the univeristy[30].  Further, both cases discussed, supra, involve unionized workers.  It is unclear whether the concept of double jeopardy would apply to workers outside the unionized workplace who are subject to at-will termination.  As such, Rice would likely not enjoy the protection afforded by the rule against double jeopardy.

Turning attention now to the individuals who were on the receiving end of the behavior shown in the video, the second question raised by this incident is whether the players on the men’s basketball team have a claim against Rutgers for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention of Rice.  Tim Pernetti has said that prior to Rice being hired as the head coach, Rice and Pernetti had a lengthy discussion about Rice’s reputation when it came to his coaching style[31].  After Pernetti was made aware of how Rice was conducting practices, he chose to merely suspend Rice because the coach appeared to demonstrate that he knew the behavior was wrong[32].  Does this give rise to a situation in which the players would have a claim for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention for the timeframe represented by the video?  If the conduct continued after Rice served his suspension, would the players have a claim for the subsequent timeframe?  The New Jersey courts have looked at the issue of negligent hiring, supervision, and retention in two recent cases.

In Jafar v. Elrac, Inc.[33], the court defined negligent hiring, supervision, and retention as “broader forms of liability than under the doctrine of respondeat superior[34].”  One year later, in D.T. v. Hunterdon Medical Center[35], the court again looked at the requirements for negligent hiring, supervision, and retention under New Jersey law.  The court provided two requirements necessary for a claim to be successful[36].  The first requirement is that the employer was aware of the possibility that the employee may cause harm to others[37].  The second requirement is that the employee’s actions proximately caused the injuries claimed to have been suffered and this causation would not have been possible absent the employee being hired by the employer[38].  The employer must have “[known] or had reason to know” about the possibility that the employee could harm others[39].  The opinion points out that “The Court has explicitly recognized ‘the tort of negligent hiring or retention of an incompetent, unfit or dangerous employee and h[e]ld that one may be liable for injuries to third persons proximately caused by such negligence[40].’”

It appears clear from public reports that, at the very least, Tim Pernetti was aware of Mike Rice’s reputation as a coach and felt the need to counsel him about his coaching style prior to bringing him on board at Rutgers[41].  There are also indications that after Rice’s hiring, at least one of the employees of the basketball program raised concerns about Rice’s coaching techniques with Pernetti[42].  And lest Pernetti be held out as the only party who knew of the behavior at the administrative level, it should be noted that the President of Rutgers University was made aware of the video footage at the time it was presented to Pernetti and declined to watch the footage[43].  Given that it appears Rutgers was aware of Rice’s behavior at the time he was hired, the players shown being subjected to abuse in the video would likely meet the first requirement for a claim of negligent hiring, supervision, and retention.  Further, since the university was made aware of the behavior displayed by Rice after being hired as the head coach, if the conduct continued after the school was made aware and disciplined the coach, those students harmed at that time would also likely meet the first requirement of knowledge on the part of the employer.  What may be harder for the students to demonstrate is the second requirement.  A student hoping to prevail on his claim will have to be able to demonstrate that he was injured in some way by Rice’s conduct and that the university’s hiring and subsequent retention of Rice was the proximate cause of that injury.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out going forward.  So far, Mike Rice seems not to be challenging his removal as the head coach of the men’s basketball team, but that could always change down the road.  Were he to attempt to challenge his termination as a double jeopardy punishment, Rice would likely not succeed, as New Jersey is an employment at-will state and he was not a unionized worker.  It also seems as though there are no players coming forward at this time to claim they were directly injured as a result of Rice’s conduct.  If they were to come forward in the future and can demonstrate the injury and the connection between the injury and Rutgers’ hiring of Rice, it is likely the students would prevail on a claim of negligent hiring, supervision, and retention.

[1] Steve Eder, Rutgers Fires Coach Over Abuse and Slurs, New York Times, April 3, 2013, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/04/sports/ncaabasketball/rutgers-fires-basketball-coach-after-video-surfaces.html?_r=0.

[2] Associated Press, Mike Rice fired from Rutgers after abuse video goes public, Newsday, April 3, 2013, available at http://www.newsday.com/sports/college-basketball/mike-rice-fired-from-rutgers-after-abuse-video-goes-public-1.4998367.

[3] Eder, supra at note 1.

[4] Associated Press, supra at note 2.

[5] Id.

[6] ESPN, Rutgers AD Tim Pernetti resigns, ESPN, April 7, 2013, available at http://www.espn.go.com/new-york/mens-college-basketball/story/_/id/9137089/tim-pernetti-rutgers-scarlet-knights-athletic-director.

[7] Associated Press, supra at note 2.

[8] Id.

[9] Eder, supra at note 1.

[10] Id.

[11] ESPN, supra at note 6.

[12] Id.

[13] Associated Press, Rutgers commissioning review of basketball scandal, USA Today, April 8, 2013, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2013/04/08/rutgers-basketball-scandal-mike-rice-tim-pernetti/2063013.

[14] New Jersey State Department of Labor (NJDOL), Wage and Hour Compliance FAQs, accessed April 2013, available at http://www.lwd.dol.state.nj.us/labor/wagehour/content/wage_and_hour_compliance_faqs.html.

[15] Associated Press, supra at note 2.

[16] Eder, supra at note 1.

[17] 130 Lab. Arb. Rep. (BNA) 563 (June 27, 2012).

[18] Id at 564.

[19] Id.

[20] Id at 567.

[21] Id at 570, citing Elkouri & Elkouri, How Arbitration Works, 6th Edition, 1997, 2003.

[22] Id at 570.

[23] 130 Lab. Arb. Rep. (BNA) 1575 (November 7, 2012).

[24] Id at 1576.

[25] Id.

[26] Id at 1581.

[27] Associated Press, supra at note 2.

[28] Id.

[29] See discussion, supra.

[30] NJDOL, supra at note 14.

[31] Don Van Natta, Jr., The coach, the assistant and the AD, ESPN, April 5, 2013, available at http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/9133038/bliss-hiring-tim-pernetti-mike-rice-rutgers-university-short-lived-coach-abuse-scandal.

[32] Associated Press, supra at note 2.

[33] 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 974 (Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division 2011).

[34] Id at 20, citing DiCosala v. Kay, 91 N.J. 159, 174, 450 A.2d 508 (1982); Lingar v. Live-In Companions, Inc., 300 N.J. Super. 22, 29-30, 692 A.2d 61 (App. Div. 1997).

[35] 2012 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2204 (Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division 2012).

[36] Id at 30.

[37] Id.

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id, citing DiCosala v. Kay, 91 N.J. 159, 174, 450 A.2d 508 (1982).

[41] Natta, supra at note 31.

[42] Keith Sargeant, Rutgers’ Big Ten move could have delayed Mike Rice firing, USA Today, April 7, 2013, available at http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/ncaab/2013/04/07/mike-rice-big-ten-rutgers-robert-barchi-tim-pernetti/2061579.

[43] Id.

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  1. Blowing the Whistle: An Employment Law Perspective on the Rutgers Basketball Situation, Part Two » LABOR AND EMPLOYMENT LAW FORUM

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