Coach and teacher Jim Adams has filed for a temporary injunction blocking his paid suspension by Norton School Board pending investigation of allegations of sexual harassment.
Filed Monday in Wise County Circuit Court, the complaint says the longtime Burton High School head football coach seeks to "enforce his constitutional and contractual rights as a teacher with continuing contract status."
Adams claims he is "irreparably harmed if the violations of his employment contract and his civil rights are not promptly enjoined."
Football practice starts on Aug. 1 and Burton's first game is Aug. 30, the complaint notes. "If the suspension continues indefinitely, then the remainder of the pre-season and much of the season will have been lost to Mr. Adams and his players," the complaint argues, noting that the coach "has a years'-long relationship with the football players, including the senior class."
A teacher with a continuing contract cannot be terminated, except for good and just cause, the complaint says, noting Adams has been employed by Norton schools as a licensed teacher for more than 20 years. Under separate contract, it says, Norton School Board unanimously hired Adams as J.I. Burton High School head football coach at its June 10 meeting, a post he'd held for two decades.
After that meeting, at which two former students made public their accusations against him, Adams was notified by Norton Superintendent Gina Wohlford that his teaching assignment for the 2019-20 school year would be the in-school suspension teacher at Norton Elementary and Middle School. He had been a high school history teacher.
But on June 24, the complaint says, Adams was notified his employment as teacher and coach was suspended with pay because of the investigation of complaints against him that had been received subsequent to the June 10 meeting. "The letter prohibited Mr. Adams from coming onto school property without the Superintendent's authorization and from having any contact with current students," according to the complaint.
Prior to his suspension, Adams was not given notice and opportunity to respond to the proposed action, the complaint says, but instead was allowed a postsuspension appeal from the superintendent's decision to the school board.
The reasons for the suspension were not disclosed as required by law, "except to say that complaints of unknown veracity and substance had been made and more were expected to be made," the complaint says.
Adams exercised his right to appeal to the school board but a hearing could not be scheduled before July 22, the date of the school board meeting.
On that date, he alleges, "Wohlford presented no information about the reasons for the suspension, other than that complaints had been made and more complaints were expected, an outside investigator was hired, and the investigation was ongoing and incomplete. No names, dates, or other facts were presented. No description of alleged misconduct by Mr. Adams was offered. No attempt was made to explain how Mr. Adams' employment in his new position would threaten 'the safety or welfare of the school division or the students therein.’"
Virginia law says the employment of a teacher cannot be suspended, except "for good and just cause when the safety or welfare of the school division or the students therein is threatened," the complaint says.
At that meeting, the complaint says, "the express representation was made by the superintendent and the school board's counsel that the details of the investigation were unknown to the superintendent, the school board, and the school board's counsel."
The complaint says Wohlford stated Adams will not be allowed to coach again before the suspension of his employment as a teacher is lifted. She also said the period of his suspension may continue for more than the 60-day limit the law provides for suspension by the superintendent, according to the complaint. The suspension of his employment as a teacher is indefinite, it also said.
As a public school teacher with continuing contract status, Adams has a property interest in his job and in not being suspended from that job under Virginia law, the complaint argues.
Under the Fourteenth Amendment, it continues, "no state actor shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. The school board is a creation of state law. The members of the school board in their official capacities are state actors constrained by the Fourteenth Amendment."
The essence of due process is notice and the opportunity to respond, the complaint states, noting a federal case that found, "The tenured public employee is entitled to . . . notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the employer's evidence, and an opportunity to present his side of the story."
Notice is sufficient if it was "timely and reasonably specific" and informed the employee "of the subjects to be considered," and provided him with "an opportunity to prepare a defense," the complaint states, citing a Virginia Department of Corrections case.
"In breach of contract and violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Mr. Adams has been deprived of his property without being given adequate notice and an adequate opportunity to respond to the reasons for his suspension," his attorneys contend.
"One of the benefits of Mr. Adams' position as a teacher is the opportunity to also serve as coach. But for the suspension, Mr. Adams would still be coaching."
The complaint alleges the wrongful suspension as a teacher "has cost him the opportunity to perform his coaching contract that was renewed on June 10, despite the Superintendent's recommendation against renewal."
On June 5, Wohlford made a written recommendation to the school board that Adams' coaching contract should not be renewed, saying they had decided to go "in a new direction." A "vacancy notice" was posted online June 6, before the school board met to consider the superintendent's recommendation, which it did at the June 10 meeting.
"Notwithstanding the matters raised during the meeting, the school board overruled the superintendent's recommendation and voted 5-0 to renew Mr. Adams' contract as the head football coach," the complaint notes.
By letter June 26, Wohlford stated that the applicable period under the school board's policy for conclusion of the investigation into the sexual harassment allegations would be extended from 14 business days to 21.
Adams seeks a temporary injunction requiring the school board to discontinue the suspension unless and until there is evidence to support it is in compliance with state law and Adams is given an opportunity to respond to that evidence.
The complaint asks that the school board be permanently enjoined from suspending Adams from his employment except in compliance with state law and the requirements of due process.
Adams further seeks the award of his attorney fees and such other relief as he is entitled to receive.
The action was filed by attorneys Steven R. Minor of Bristol and Richard D. Kennedy of Wise.