Ridpath v. Board of Governors Marshall University

Decision Date11 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 04-1328.,No. 04-1314.,04-1314.,04-1328.
PartiesB. David RIDPATH, Plaintiff-Appellee v. BOARD OF GOVERNORS MARSHALL UNIVERSITY; Dan Angel; F. Layton Cottrill; K. Edward Grose, Defendants-Appellants, and Bob Pruett; Richard Hilliard, Defendants. B. David Ridpath, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Bob Pruett, Defendant-Appellant, and Board of Governors Marshall University; Dan Angel; F. Layton Cottrill; K. Edward Grose; Richard Hilliard, Defendants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

ARGUED: Charles R. Bailey, Bailey & Wyant, P.L.L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellants. Jason Eskwith Huber, Forman & Huber, L.C., Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Cheryl L. Connelly, Edward M. Kowal, Jr., Campbell, Wood, Bagley, Emerson, McNeer & Herndon, Huntington, West Virginia, for Appellant Bob Pruett.

Before WIDENER and KING, Circuit Judges, and HENRY F. FLOYD, United States District Judge for the District of South Carolina, sitting by designation.

Dismissed in part and affirmed in part by published opinion. Judge KING wrote the opinion, in which Judge FLOYD joined. Judge WIDENER wrote a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.


KING, Circuit Judge.

David Ridpath initiated this lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia in August 2003 against the Board of Governors of Marshall University; three of the University's administrators, Dan Angel, Layton Cottrill, and Edward Grose (collectively, the "Administrators"); then-Head Football Coach Bob Pruett; and Richard Hilliard, who had been retained by the University as its Special Legal Counsel.1 Ridpath, a Marshall University employee and former athletics official, alleged multiple state and federal causes of action against the Defendants in their individual and official capacities, centered on their conduct with respect to an investigation of the University's violations of National Collegiate Athletic Association ("NCAA") rules. These causes of action included claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (collectively, the "§ 1983 claims") that Ridpath's Fourteenth Amendment right to due process was violated by the Board, the Administrators, and Hilliard, and that his First Amendment right to free speech was infringed in one way by the Board and the Administrators, and in a second way by these Defendants and Coach Pruett. Asserting various grounds, the Board, the Administrators, and Coach Pruett promptly sought dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The district court denied these motions in part, rejecting, inter alia, the Board's and the Administrators' assertions of qualified immunity on the three § 1983 claims. See Ridpath v. Bd. of Governors, No. CA-03-2037 (S.D.W.Va. Feb. 17, 2004) (the "Opinion").

By these appeals, the Board, the Administrators, and Coach Pruett seek review of the district court's denial of qualified immunity, relying on the collateral order doctrine for appellate jurisdiction. As explained below, we dismiss Coach Pruett's appeal for lack of standing, and we conclude that the appeal of the Board and the Administrators is properly before us. On the merits of qualified immunity, we affirm the decision of the district court in rejecting this defense at the Rule 12(b)(6) stage of these proceedings.2


The facts relevant to these appeals are largely drawn from the operative complaint in these proceedings, i.e., Ridpath's "Amended Complaint" of December 19, 2003, superseding his "Initial Complaint" of August 4, 2003.3 According to the Amended Complaint, Ridpath's chosen career is in intercollegiate athletics administration, particularly in the area of overseeing compliance with NCAA rules. See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 14-15, 52. Ridpath was hired by Marshall University in November 1997 as an Assistant Athletic Director in charge of the Compliance Office, or "Compliance Director." Id. at ¶ 16. At some point, Ridpath was also assigned teaching responsibilities as an Adjunct Professor in the Exercise and Sports Science Department. Id. at ¶ 46.

On approximately July 2, 1999, it was reported to Ridpath that several Marshall football players were involved in academic fraud, having received an advance copy of a physical education test. See Amended Complaint at ¶ 19. Ridpath informed the NCAA of this allegation, prompting an investigation conducted by the NCAA and the University. Id. at ¶ 20. During this investigation, the University discovered and informed the NCAA of further infractions involving certain "props," i.e., students seeking academic eligibility to join sports teams. Id. at ¶¶ 20-21. Members of the coaching staff had improperly alluded to employment opportunities in recruiting these props, and assisted them in securing jobs — at above-market wages — with a local business known as McCorkle Machine Shop. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22.

Prior to the investigation, Ridpath had no knowledge of the props' employment at the Machine Shop, as the relevant information was not (but should have been) reported to the University's Compliance Office. See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 22, 24. During the investigation, members of the coaching staff attempted to cover up their wrongdoing, and Coach Pruett, in testimony, suggested that Ridpath and the Compliance Office were to blame for any improprieties. Id. at ¶¶ 23, 25-26. Meanwhile, Ridpath was not allowed to personally interview witnesses or investigate facts relating to the props' employment at the Machine Shop. Id. at ¶ 27. Indeed, he was specifically directed not to interview the Machine Shop's owner, Marshall Reynolds (who had a history of involvement in NCAA infractions at the University), a directive that came from Cottrill, Hilliard, and Coach Pruett. Id. They and Angel encouraged Ridpath, however, to defend the University vigorously throughout the investigation and at a hearing conducted on September 22, 2001, by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. Id. at ¶¶ 30-32. Cottrill and Hilliard also assured Ridpath on several occasions that he did not need personal legal representation during the NCAA proceedings. Id. at ¶ 51(a). Ridpath's defense of the University was not well received by the NCAA committee. Id. at ¶ 38. Thereafter, although Ridpath had not been involved in the NCAA rules violations, he became a "convenient scapegoat" for the University. Id. at ¶¶ 38-39.

On approximately October 1, 2001, Ridpath agreed to be reassigned from being the University's Compliance Director to become its Director of Judicial Programs, despite lacking the necessary education or training for this position. See Amended Complaint at ¶¶ 33-34.4

Ridpath consented to this reassignment "for numerous reasons both personal and professional." Id. at ¶ 33. Ridpath was given a raise to accept the new position, and, at the time he filed the Amended Complaint, he was being paid some $15,000 more annually than his predecessor as Director of Judicial Programs. Id. at ¶ 34. As an additional inducement for the transfer, Cottrill and Grose (as agents of the University) agreed to inform the NCAA and the public that Ridpath's reassignment was not the result of any wrongdoing on his part as Compliance Director. Id. at ¶ 35. In contravention of this agreement, however, Hilliard subsequently informed the NCAA that Ridpath's reassignment was a "corrective action" taken by the University to remedy its NCAA rules violations. Id. at ¶ 36.

Ridpath was excluded from the decision-making process with respect to the designation of his transfer as a "corrective action." See Amended Complaint at ¶ 51(b). Moreover, during a meeting held on approximately November 1, 2001, concerning the University's violation of its agreement with Ridpath, Cottrill warned Ridpath: "You [Ridpath] have no say in the matter. You need to think about your family young man." Id. at ¶ 57(a) (alteration in original). At this same meeting, Grose threatened Ridpath: "I am telling you. You do anything to resurrect this [NCAA Infractions issues] and I will bury you personally and professionally." Id. (alteration in original).

On December 21, 2001, the NCAA Committee on Infractions published its report (the "Infractions Report"). See Amended Complaint at ¶ 57(b). Its findings included two major NCAA rules violations — academic fraud and impermissible employment of props at the Machine Shop — and it labeled Ridpath's reassignment as a "corrective action" taken in response to these infractions. Id. at ¶¶ 37, 41, 51(c). An advance copy of the Infractions Report had been provided to the University and, in the days leading up to its public release, a group of school officials met to review and discuss it. Id. at ¶ 57(b). During this meeting, some participants raised concerns about "cheap shots" taken against Ridpath in the Infractions Report. Id. Additionally, the group discussed the fact that Ridpath would wish to clear his name. Id. In this regard, Angel, the University's President, asserted that he "would cut the dead limb from the tree" if Ridpath commented publicly. Id. Angel further stated that he had previously dealt with similar situations, and that he would have "no problem firing [Ridpath] on the spot" if he spoke publicly about the NCAA investigation. Id. Because of the threats articulated by Angel, and those previously made by Cottrill and Grose, Ridpath initially refrained from publicly challenging the findings of the Infractions Report and the "corrective action" label that had been placed on his reassignment. Id. at ¶ 58.

Later, however, Ridpath retained counsel and filed a civil action based on alleged constitutional violations. See Amended Complaint at ¶ 62.5 Subsequently, on July 14, 2003, Ridpath was relieved of his responsibilities as an Adjunct Professor in the Exercise and Sports Science Department (but not as the Director of...

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