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Leach v. James, ESPN, and Spaeth Communications: Amarillo Court of Appeals Affirms Dismissal

Current Washington State University head football coach Mike Leach (“Leach”) filed suit against Craig James, ESPN, and Spaeth Communications (collectively “Defendants”) alleging the Defendants “uttered falsehoods against him as they endeavored to terminate or otherwise interfere with his contractual relationship” with Texas Tech University (“Tech”). This matter resulted from Leach ordering Craig James’ son, Adam James, to stand in a dark room during practice after suffering a concussion. Craig James became incensed and contacted Tech administrators and members of the board of regents to complain of Leach’s behavior. After an investigation and subsequent disagreements, Leach was terminated by Tech. Following his termination, Leach sued the Defendants and set forth claims for defamation, tortious interference with a contract, and civil conspiracy to tortuously interfere with his contract. The trial court dismissed his claims against the Defendants and the court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

The court’s opinion begins with a quote from Bob Seger and states “There I go, turn the page.” The Defendants attacked the element of causation of Leach’s claims by arguing Tech terminated Leach after an independent investigation. Although Tech acknowledged that Craig James advocated for Leach’s termination and insinuated that he would file suit if action was not taken, the court believed that Tech conducted an independent investigation that led to Leach’s termination. The court indicated and found that 1) “accusing an employee of impropriety and demanding his termination does not ipso facto mean the allegation proximately caused the employee’s termination;” and 2) the “independent investigation undertaken by the employer…creates or verifies [the] basis for termination attenuates the legal nexus between the complaints instigating the investigation and the ultimate decision.”

The court also concluded Leach failed to point to evidence that Tech terminated Leach as a result of Craig James’ actions (and/or those allegedly working in concert with him). Specifically, the court stated:

Leach cites us to no evidence from which a rational juror can reasonably deduce that [Tech’s] president and athletic director actually succumbed to pressure exerted by James or others on his behalf. Nor does he attempt to illustrate that a rational juror could infer that calling a concussed player a ‘fucking pussy ass’ and requiring the athlete to stand for long periods of time in a darkened room since he was ‘a distraction’ who ‘defied team rules’ was insufficient basis to warrant discipline or termination.

Accordingly, the court affirmed the summary judgment of the trial court denying Leach’s requested recovery against the Defendants.

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