Federal judge throws out lawsuit alleging illegal hazing on Davidson football team

Published: Mar. 28, 2022 at 7:18 PM CDT
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MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) - A federal judge has sided with Davidson High School’s former football coach in a lawsuit accusing him and others of encouraging “hazing” of players, including one incent that resulted in a broken arm.

The allegations sparked an investigation that resulted in criminal charges against some of the players and eventually forced the ouster of head football coach Fred Riley in 2018.

U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer, however, ruled in favor of Riley, three of his assistant coaches, former Davidson principal Lewis Copeland and several other school system officials. The judge ruled that “qualified immunity” applies in this case. That is a legal doctrine that shields government employees from lawsuits unless “clearly established law” has put defendants on notice that their conduct violated the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs.

“Further, Plaintiffs have not presented additional clearly established law that would have put the Defendant Coaches on notice their acquiescence in the hazing was a violation of Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights,” the judge wrote in his 46-page ruling. “Therefore, Plaintiffs have not discharged their burden to show their constitutional right was clearly established, and the Defendant Coaches are entitled to qualified immunity.”

Rena Philips, a spokeswoman for the Mobile County Public School System, praised the decision.

“It’s unfortunate that this incident occurred,” she told FOX10 News. “But we’re pleased that the judge found it was not the fault of these employees.”

Charles Bonner, an attorney for the plaintiffs, vowed to appeal.

“The court, essentially, allowed the children to be unprotected,” he said.

The allegations drew national attention, buttressed by a cell phone recording of several players pummeling then-freshman quarterback Rodney Kim, who recently had been promoted to the varsity squad. Mobile police at the time said 20 players were involved in the beating.

Kim and three other players, along with their parents, sought $12 million in damages. The lawsuit alleged that Riley and knew about and actively encouraged the violence. During the attack caught on video, Kim suffered a broken arm, according to the allegations.

But Moore cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “mere approval of or acquiescence” in the actions against a plaintiff are not sufficient for a claim under the 14th Amendment. In this case, the judge noticed, the evidence shows that Riley in one instance told his players to “knock it off” when he saw them assaulting a player in the team in spring 2017 that resulted in a broken collarbone. The coach also reprimanded players who had assaulted two other players, according to the judge’s ruling.

“Plaintiffs have not produced evidence that shows more than inaction, much less active encouragement, of the alleged constitutional deprivations,” Moorer wrote.

The plaintiffs argued that Riley’s “custom of hazing” amounted to excessive corporal punishment that the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has recognized as “arbitration and conscience-shocking behavior.” But the judge disagreed, ruling that the plaintiffs must demonstrate that the coaches directly inflicted the excessive corporal punishment and that they failed to do so.

Moorer also ruled that the coaches were acting in their official capacities as school system employees, giving them immunity from lawsuits unless the plaintiffs demonstrate that their conduct was “willful, malicious, and in bad faith.” The judge ruled the plaintiffs had failed to do so.

“Viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to Plaintiffs, their evidence shows the Defendant Coaches witnessed assaults on Plaintiffs but there is no evidence that shows the Defendant Coaches had a plan or intention to injure Plaintiffs,” the judge wrote.