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Cass v. Town of Wayland

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

May 30, 2019

STEPHEN F. CASS, Plaintiff,




         This case stems from the decision not to renew Plaintiff Stephen F. Cass's position as athletic director of the Wayland Public Schools. Cass asserts that his contract was not renewed in retaliation for his bringing Title IX concerns about gender equity and questionable budgetary and fundraising practices in Wayland's sports programs to school officials' attention. Cass also claims he was arrested and prosecuted for not returning a used school laptop in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights. Defendants contend that he was not renewed for entirely performance-driven reasons. Cass has sued the Town of Wayland, and other institutional and individual defendants, alleging: unlawful retaliation and discrimination in violation of Title IX (Count I); unlawful retaliation and termination in violation of the Massachusetts Whistleblower Act (Count II); malicious prosecution (Count III); intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IV); violations under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 12, § 11H (Count V); defamation (Count VI); and intentional interference with contractual relations (Count VII). Defendants move for summary judgment on all counts. After hearing, the Court ALLOWS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Defendants' motion (Docket No. 76).


         Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are undisputed.

         I. First Year (2013-2014)

         In the spring of 2013, Stephen F. Cass applied to be the athletic director for the Wayland Public Schools (“WPS”) in Wayland, Massachusetts. During the interview, Dr. Paul Stein, superintendent of WPS, told Cass about the “need to tighten up on the athletic budget a little bit.” Docket No. 96-1 at 5. Cass signed a 1-year employment contract for the 2013-2014 school year on July 31, 2013.

         John Ritchie served as Wayland High School (“WHS”) interim principal for the 2013-2014 school year. An ongoing source of tension between the athletic coaches and Cass was the athletic department's budget and the school's fundraising policy for sports teams. Principal Ritchie and Assistant Superintendent Brad Crozier were helpful throughout the fall in supporting Cass's efforts to restrict expenditures. On November 24, 2013, Cass sent Superintendent Stein an email emphasizing his concerns about the imbalance in fundraising between different sports teams, and a resulting disparity in funding between the boys' and girls' sports teams. On January 6, 2014, Cass provided the Wayland School Committee with an overview of some of the fiscal issues facing the athletic department. As reported in the meeting's minutes, Stein “praised [Cass's] efforts in taking on a vast number of issues related to the athletic program in his first year as Athletic Director.” Docket No. 81-12 at 2.

         In early February 2014, Assistant Principal Allyson Mizoguchi was chosen as the next principal of WHS, to begin in July 2014. Throughout the spring, Cass continued to meet frequently with school officials concerning fundraising, fiscal issues, and problems with specific coaches. On May 21, 2014, Cass met with Principal Ritchie, Assistant Principal Mizoguchi, and Scott Parseghian - head football coach and another assistant principal at WHS - to review the year.

         Ritchie's term as interim principal ended on June 30, 2014. At that time, Ritchie provided Cass with a generally favorable performance evaluation. He stated that given the challenges Cass faced, “he did a good job in his first year in many ways, most particularly in beginning to bring order and control to expenditures, and imposing certain restrictions on how monies are spent.” Docket No. 81-20 at 2. But Ritchie also pointed out two areas where Cass could improve:

The first involves spending significant time trying to build supportive relationships with the coaching staff, and indeed with the teaching staff at the school. The second involves eliciting administrative support for any initiatives, alterations, or restrictions that need to be implemented, so that difficult changes or decisions are not perceived as emanating solely from the Athletic Director.

Id. One part of this, Ritchie continued, was for Cass to work on his “tendency to see himself as, and then be seen as, the ‘new sheriff' in town.” Id.

         II. Second Year (2014-2015)

         In mid-June 2014, Cass entered into a second 1-year employment contract to serve as the athletic director for the 2014-2015 school year. Like the first contract, the second contract provided that “[i]f the Superintendent intends to reappoint Stephen Cass at the end of this contract, he will so notify Stephen Cass of that intention before April 1 of the year in which the contract would terminate.” Docket No. 81-21 at 2.

         A. Fundraising Guidelines

         Throughout the summer, Cass continued to discuss fiscal concerns about fundraising with now-Principal Mizoguchi. In mid-August, Cass sent an email to select parents of student-athletes to advise them of an informational meeting later that month to discuss, among other things, team fundraising policies. Additionally, at Cass's request, at the beginning of the 2014-2015 school year, Mizoguchi sent a letter to all WHS coaches containing new fundraising guidelines. On September 1, 2014, Cass sent Mizoguchi an email in which he stated that after “doing a lot of thinking [the past] weekend over the fiscal state of Wayland athletics and [his] role in fixing it, ” he “realized that [he was] totally alone on an island regarding the issue of fiscal responsibility - at odds with select coaches, schools administrators and . . . parents.” Docket No. 81-28 at 2. Cass told Mizoguchi that he would like a meeting with her, Stein, Parseghian, and a member of the school committee to further discuss his concerns.

         B. Tension with Coaches

         At the same time, Cass's relationship with some of WHS's coaches was becoming strained. In August, Cass had tense exchanges with Guy Enoch - the WHS girls' soccer coach - and Dave Gavron - the WHS boys' soccer coach. On September 8, 2014, Mizoguchi emailed Crozier and Stein, stating in part:

I am struggling with supporting Stephen Cass and could really use a bit of time with either or both of you to get some advice. . . . [H]e is frustrating some coaches both because of these new practices (coaches are accustomed to having a long leash) and sometimes because of his interpersonal manner. I have mediated two difficult conversations between him and a coach in the last two weeks.
. . .
This is a point of transition for Athletics, and I have tried to understand and support Stephen with many of his ideas for change. . . . At the same time, I am feeling that I am spending a lot of (too much?) time on Athletics issues.

Docket No. 81-29 at 2.

         Two days later, Cass emailed Mizoguchi with additional complaints about Parseghian, Gavron, and Sean Chase - the wrestling coach - because of perceived violations of school policies. Cass also noted Title IX concerns, stating:

We have three people/programs that have consumed so much of my time and energy over the last two years - football, wrestling, BSoccer . . . the old guard. The latter two have been by far the most selfish with their resources, and football works independently of the school and is a walking Title IX violation.

Docket No. 81-30 at 4 (alteration in original). On September 12, 2014, Mizoguchi responded to Cass's complaints in part, and expressed her view that his last voicemail to her was a “rant” and that his comments about coaches were “pretty caustic and unproductive.” Id. at 6; Docket No. 81-31 at 2. She did not appear to address his Title IX statement. Later that evening, Mizoguchi forwarded the email chain to Crozier, stating that she had “stopped trusting that Stephen's communication can be civil or productive.” Docket No. 81-32 at 2.

         C. “A Walking Title IX Violation”

         On September 15, 2014, a WHS parent emailed Cass his thoughts in response to the informational meeting Cass held with select parents in late August. Cass forwarded the parent's email to Stein, Crozier, Mizoguchi, and others stating:

Hello All,
I am beyond exhausted being the lightening rod for all the fiscal problems in athletics. I did amazing things bringing us close to budget last year - and took lots and lots of abuse from parents and coaches to make that happen.
WHS athletics is a walking Title IX violation. The gender inequity is atrocious and has been so for some time. However, I cannot bring fairness and equity to the program by myself.
I would like some public support for [sic] the administration and school committee on these issues. Otherwise, this is a losing battle and I'm not going to fight it alone any longer.
Thank you, Stephen Cass

Docket No. 81-33 at 2. This was the first time Cass raised Title IX concerns with Stein and Crozier, although he had voiced his concerns to Mizoguchi earlier in the month. Stein instructed Crozier to meet with Cass about the allegations. At the time, Crozier oversaw WPS's human resources function, including Title IX complaints. Crozier immediately responded to Cass: “This is the first time that you are expressing a concern about a Title IX issue. I would like to hear more about the specifics, so that we can officially look into the concern and address any issues. Please set up a meeting with me to discuss ASAP.” Docket No. 81-33 at 2.

         At the time of Cass's email, the WHS staff handbook included a discrimination policy which instructed that anyone with a Title IX complaint “shall bring it to the attention of the principal as soon as possible, ” and that “[t]he principal will investigate the complaint and respond in writing within seven days.” Docket No. 91-32 at 2. Then, “[i]f the complaint is not satisfactorily resolved, it may be forwarded to the superintendent or his designee who will investigate the complaint and respond in writing within fourteen days.” Id.

         Cass and Crozier met on September 18, 2014 to discuss Cass's Title IX concerns. At some point during the meeting, Cass stated that he raised the Title IX concerns to “cover [his] ass.” Docket No. 79-3 at 178:11-19; see also Docket No. 92 ¶ 54. Cass explained that he “was putting Mr. Crozier on notice that if they fire me for upholding gender equity, they would be in violation of the law.” Docket No. 91-1 ¶ 99. When Crozier asked Cass about specific data or instances to support his allegations, Cass provided an excel sheet he maintained detailing expenditures broken-out by sports team, but not cost per athlete. On October 9, 2014, Crozier emailed Cass to follow-up on the meeting. His email stated, in part:

Thank you for meeting with me on 9/18 regarding an email you sent . . . . Several days have past and I wanted to be sure that you were clear that I was expecting some follow-up from the meeting.
At the meeting you provided me with some general accounting expenses to support the claim of inequity. I asked for more background on the expenditures . . . specifically, historical data by sport for both boys and girls broken out by cost per athlete.
In our meeting, you indicated that the Title IX claim was more to protect your job, never the less, now that you have raised the concern, I want to be assured that the concerns are addressed . . . . I would even suggest we seek a third party to review the data and your concerns. Please let me know your thoughts as soon as possible.

Docket No. 81-34 at 3. Cass did not respond to this email.

         On October 28, 2014, Cass emailed Mizoguchi expressing concern about the Henley Foundation providing the boys' golf team, which had won the state tournament, with jackets because “[i]t's part of the gender equity piece that is still problematic and part of the need for things to flow through the athletic office and not have too many things done independently.” Docket No. 81-39 at 2. Mizoguchi responded: “Got it. Add it to the list.” Id.

         The school department's outside counsel, Attorney Gini Tate, presented a ninety-minute Title IX training on November 4, 2014. Crozier, Mizoguchi, and Cass all attended the training.

         Throughout the fall of 2014 and spring of 2015, Cass continued to experience tension with some of WHS's coaches on non-gender-related issues. For example, he sparred with the football coach, Parseghian, concerning the cancellation of the Thanksgiving Day football ...

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