Schools - January 19, 2011

Coach's lawsuit: Ruling appealed to higher court

by Renee Batti

The lawsuit filed by a former Encinal School basketball coach against the school's Parent Teacher Organization and three of its officers has moved out of the local courtroom and up to the appellate court level after the defendants appealed a San Mateo County Superior Court judge's ruling in November.

Parent Lawrence Hecimovich filed the lawsuit last year after being stripped of his volunteer coaching position, which he had held for two years. Encinal PTO officers denied him the position as a result of conflicts arising during the 2008-09 school year, when Mr. Hecimovich attempted to address a fourth-grader's alleged behavioral problems.

The volunteer PTO officers named in the lawsuit are parents Kelly Perri, Julie Roth, and Leslie Burke.

In November, Judge Gerald Buchwald denied the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that it violated California's "anti-SLAPP" law. That law prohibits lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of intimidating others into making concessions rather than face a costly court fight.

Judge Buchwald also ruled that Mr. Hecimovich's complaint was legally insufficient; he allowed Mr. Hecimovich to amend the complaint, which he did in December.

Robert Muhlbach, the defendants' attorney, said his clients have appealed Judge Buchwald's ruling that the anti-SLAPP law doesn't apply, and now the matter is in the Court of Appeals facing a process that is likely to take 18 months to two years.

The three defendants in the case declined to comment, but Mr. Muhlbach said it is their intent to convince the court that the actions they took as PTO officers are protected by the First Amendment, and therefore the lawsuit should be dismissed entirely.

"Our goal with the anti-SLAPP (defense) isn't to refute, point by point, what we consider spurious claims by Mr. Hecimovich," he said. But if the appeal is unsuccessful, he added, "We have every intent to defend (their position) in court."

In his lawsuit, Mr. Hecimovich, a deputy city attorney for San Francisco, is seeking reinstatement as a head coach in the program, punitive damages in an unspecified amount, and costs associated with the lawsuit. Among causes of action listed in the suit are libel and slander, negligence, infliction of emotional distress, and fraud.

Effects of dispute

In an e-mail exchange with The Almanac, Mr. Hecimovich said it was "never my intention to seek damages (or to sue) based on being denied a coaching slot. Rather, what I wanted to address was the total lack of a review process for decisions by PTO volunteer administrators."

His fight with the PTO, he said, has had tangible results. "I think it is significant that, in response to my claims, the PTO has adopted a comprehensive set of policies governing the basketball program ... . The policies, which every parent must sign, provide the kinds of behavioral guidelines (for players, parents and coaches) and right of appeal of administrative decisions, up to the PTO Board itself, that were explicitly denied me."


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