A Bellevue Wolverines running back gets tackled during the season opener in 2015 against Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in a non-league contest. File photo

A Bellevue Wolverines running back gets tackled during the season opener in 2015 against Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in a non-league contest. File photo

Judge rules in Bellevue School District’s favor in former football coach’s defamation lawsuit

Former coach Patrick Jones claimed the district inaccurately reported he violated WIAA rule.

A defamation lawsuit against the Bellevue School District by former Bellevue High School football coach Patrick Jones has ended after two years.

On March 19, King County Superior Court judge Theresa Doyle dismissed Jones’ claims that BSD allegedly made false statements about Jones, that the district allegedly defamed him and painted him in a false light when it reported in May 2016 that Jones and another coach violated a Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) rule.

That rule, Rule 23.1.1 (Rule 23), states that “coaching stipends and all gifts to a coach exceeding a total of $500 in a season must be approved by the school’s board of directors.”

And it is this rule violation that the district pointed to when it put Jones on paid administrative leave in June 2016 and subsequently never renewed his contract. In response to the district-reported rule violation, KingCo (a previous defendant in the lawsuit, along with Sea-King and WIAA before they settled in January 2018) issued sanctions, which included suspending Jones and another coach for ultimately four years.

The school district’s investigation into the Rule 23 violation came after WIAA hired outside investigators to look into other claims alleging that BHS football had violated other WIAA rules.

Jones claimed in the lawsuit that the report is false and that he never violated Rule 23.

However, in the dismissal ruling, judge Doyle wrote that the school district’s May 2016 reports that Jones had violated the rule were true, “which is a complete defense to defamation.”

Additionally, “the opinions that rules were violated are not statements of fact and therefore are not actionable as defamation,” she wrote.

And, despite an August 2017 Public Employment Relations Commission ruling that found the district broke union rules when they failed to bargain with Jones and another football coach prior to decisions that led to their contracts not being renewed, the court ruled that commission ruling did not prove the district’s statements were false.

“Despite Mr. Jones’ continuous attempts to blend his personal lawsuit with a union matter before the Public Employment Relations Commission and an employment arbitration that he filed in 2016 is inappropriate, his personal lawsuit against Bellevue School District was an entirely distinct proceeding,” a BSD spokesperson wrote in an email . “However, to clarify any misleading statements made previously, the court did review the PERC decision of August 2017 and rejected Mr. Jones’ claims that the decision was proof of false statements by Bellevue School District.”

The judge threw out Jones’ claims that the district had publicized a matter that placed him in a “false light” because it is not recognized in the state of Washington. Doyle also disregarded claims the district violated the Appearance of Fairness Doctrine because it only “applies to decision-makers in quasi-judicial proceedings.”

“Here, Bellevue School District was not the decision-maker but rather, was the reporting party,” Doyle wrote. “WIAA and KingCo were the decision-makers.”

In response to the judge’s ruling, Jones issued a statement that said he is puzzled with the court’s determination that the school district is not the decision-maker on this WIAA rule “as the rule itself requires Bellevue School District determination.”

“Our settlement agreement with the WIAA, Sea-King and KingCo made it very clear that these three entities relied on Bellevue School District’s determination,” Jones wrote. “However, as with a decision made by a referee in an athletic contest, we must respect and adhere to the decision made by the judge. Given the court’s decision regarding immunity, we have no further interest in appealing or fighting this issue and it is time for all sides to move on.”

However, it doesn’t appear Jones could appeal the decision even if he wanted to because on March 30, the court entered a stipulated order of dismissal with prejudice, indicating Jones has no further appeal or opportunity to re-litigate his claims, the school district reported.

And while the PERC ruling had no bearings on this court’s ruling, Jones said he is pleased with that outcome, which determined that BSD coaches did “deserve just cause and due process,” that “the $500 in a season rule in the summer was in fact unlawfully enforced against coaches” and that “the two-year hiring ban against coaches was unlawful.”

In a previous report, it was noted Jones’ lawsuit against the WIAA, Sea-King, KingCo and the district was among many others, including a suit brought by the BHS football booster club (which was dismissed by a judge at an early stage of the case in December 2016) and a suit brought by Butch Goncharoff, the other coach involved in BSD’s Rule 23 self-report (which Goncharoff voluntarily dismissed in August 2017).

The most recent lawsuit was filed in November 2017 by three BHS students and a parent alleging the WIAA was negligent and violated civil rights when they “repeatedly racially profiled” black students on BHS’s football team in 2015 during an investigation.

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