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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Minnesota high court rules basketball coach is not public official in defamation case

State Supreme Court

By Shanice Harris | Sep 12, 2019

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (Legal Newsline) – The Minnesota Supreme Court has ruled a high school basketball coach is not a public official under the defamation standard and has affirmed in part a ruling in the coach's favor.

"Having reviewed the undisputed facts regarding (appellant Nathan) McGuire’s duties as coach and regarding the lack of any controversy concerning his performance before the allegedly defamatory statements were made, we conclude that McGuire is neither a public official nor a public figure," Justice Natalie Hudson wrote in the Sept. 4 ruling.

"However, because McGuire did not appeal the district court’s conclusion that the statements of respondents Joy Szondy, Chelon Danielson and Cheryl Hewitt fall under a qualified privilege, we nevertheless affirm summary judgment as to those three respondents," Hudson wrote. 

"Because the district court granted summary judgment to respondent Julie Bowlin solely on the basis of McGuire’s status as a public official, we reverse as to McGuire’s defamation claim against her and remand for further proceedings on that claim."

Hudson's ruling states from fall 2012 to spring 2014, McGuire was the head coach of the girls’ basketball team for Woodbury High School. During that time, he oversaw the entire program, managed five assistant coaches, and scheduled games and practices. 

The respondents, who are parents of the players, expressed concern over McGuire’s alleged behavior. He allegedly swore, touched players inappropriately and flirted with them. In 2014, the ruling states Bowlin, Szondy and Hewitt met with school administrators to discuss McGuire’s behavior. He was placed on administrative leave and let go soon after.

After his termination, several of the parents allegedly continued to talk about McGuire through email and other media. In 2015, McGuire filed a complaint, claiming the respondents were engaging in defamation and civil conspiracy. The respondents alleged that since he was a public figure, their statements were made under a qualified privilege and McGuire needed to prove malice.

The trial court dismissed McGuire’s claims against Szondy and Hewitt, as well as defamation claims against Danielson.

"The district court granted the motions reasoning that McGuire was a public official and that there was no evidence that Bowlin or Danielson 'knowingly or recklessly' made a false report," Hudson wrote. "The district court did not reach the issue of whether McGuire was a public figure."

The court of appeals ruled that McGuire was a public official and that "nothing in the record" showed the respondents acted with malice. McGuire then petitioned the high court.

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