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Lotief v. Board of Supervisors for University of Louisiana System

United States District Court, M.D. Louisiana

July 31, 2019

MICHAEL P. LOTIEF
v.
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA SYSTEM D/B/A/ UNIVERSITY OF LOUISIANA AT LAFAYETTE, ET AL.

          RULING AND ORDER

          JOHN W. DeGRAVELLES UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE.

         Pending before the Court is the Motion to Transfer Venue filed by Defendants Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System, E. Joseph Savoie, Jessica Clarke Leger, and Bryan Maggard (collectively, “the defendants”). (Doc. 7). Plaintiff Michael P. Lotief opposes the motion. (Doc. 12). The defendants have filed a reply brief in support of their motion. (Doc. 14). Oral argument is not necessary. After careful consideration of the parties' arguments, the facts alleged, and the applicable law, and for the following reasons, the Motion to Transfer Venue (Doc. 7) is granted and this matter is transferred to the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The following is a recitation of the facts alleged in Plaintiff Michael Lotief's state-court petition. Lotief resides in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana, and was head coach of the women's softball team at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette from 2003 until he was terminated on November 1, 2017. (Doc. 1-1 at 8-13). On September 20, 2018, he brought suit in the 19th Judicial District Court for the Parish of East Baton Rouge against the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System (“Board”) doing business as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (“ULL”), ULL President E. Joseph Savoie, ULL Athletics Director Bryan Maggard, and ULL Deputy Athletics Director Jessica Clarke Leger. (Id. at 1). ULL itself is located in Lafayette Parish, while the Board is domiciled in East Baton Rouge Parish. (Id.). Savoie, Maggard, and Leger are all residents of Lafayette Parish. (Id.).

         During Lotief's tenure as head coach, he “became aware of the inequities and discrimination between female and male athletics at ULL” and voiced his concerns to Leger, Maggard, and Savoie. (Doc. 1-1 at 17). Despite raising his concerns, “the inequities and gender based discrimination continued.” (Id.). Additionally, Lotief documented in writing various instances of discrimination against female athletes and provided these writings to Leger, Maggard, and Savoie. (Id.). The alleged discrimination included inequities with respect to medical care, playing facilities, office space, training, pay for coaches and staff, and funding, among other things. (Id. at 17-19).

         ULL ultimately terminated Lotief in November 2017 purportedly for three incidents: “using vulgar and offensive language” on the team bus after a game in College Station, Texas, in April 2017, a similar incident involving language after a game at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in June 2017, and allegedly “poking” a strength coach in the weight room at ULL in October 2017. (Doc. 1-1 at 19-20). Lotief alleges that comparable instances involving men's athletic teams at ULL did not result in the termination of any coaches. (Id.). He claims that Leger “manipulated” a former student-athlete into filing a complaint against Lotief on August 2, 2017. (Id. at 21-22). Leger allegedly directed the former athlete to contact three players to corroborate her complaint and “undermine Lotief and the student-athletes Leger was supposed to be serving.” (Id. at 22-23). Lotief alleges that if the allegations against him had merit, Leger would have been required to start an investigation; however, she failed to do so and on August 22, 2017, recommended approval of a $21, 000 bonus for Lotief. (Id. at 23). Maggard and Savoie also approved the bonus and “expressed vocally their support for Lotief” at a dinner for the team on August 21. (Id. at 24).

         On October 29, 2017, the softball team signed a statement stating that the investigation into Lotief's conduct was “unjust, ” and that ULL administration was “intimidating players [and] lying about the ongoing investigation.” (Doc. 1-1 at 28). The statement provided that the complaints of a hostile environment were “untrue” and that “there was instead a competitive environment holding the team to championship standards.” (Id.). Finally, the statement affirmed “the team's belief that Lotief was being targeted and retaliated against for standing up for female athletes, and indicated the team's belief that they were being treated unequally because of their gender.” (Id.). Additionally, when Sara Corbello[1] presented Savoie with statements from the team in favor of Lotief and “evidence exonerating” him, Savoie “immediately ordered that Corbello be fired.” (Id.).

         Savoie, Maggard, and Leger ignored the “exculpatory statements, documents, and evidence, ” while Savoie “ordered the false, incomplete HR [investigative] report to be released to the public.” (Doc. 1-1 at 29-30). In October 2017, Lotief spoke with Deputy Athletics Director Nico Yantko “about the severely disparate treatment of female athletics as compared to men's athletics.” (Id. at 33). In response, Yantko became “defensive” and “attempted to intimidate Lotief into submission by hitting Lotief in his chest with the back of his hand, and moving in closer and closer towards Lotief as the conversation continued.” (Id.).

         When ULL terminated Lotief, it published a press release stating, “Lotief violated ULL and [University of Louisiana] System policies by subjecting student-athletes and coworkers to violent, vulgar language and verbal and physical assault, creating a hostile learning and working environment.” (Doc. 1-1 at 37). Lotief alleges that “[t]his press release was false, defamatory, and slanderous and known to be so by the Defendants.” (Id.). The fact that ULL released this information to the public without including information favorable to Lotief “is further evidence of ULL's malicious intent.” (Id.). So too was Savoie's decision to fire Lotief yet retain coaches of various men's teams for what Lotief alleges are similar incidents of alleged misconduct. (Id.).

         Lotief alleges that ULL's stated reason for terminating him was pretextual. (Doc. 1-1 at 38). Instead, he maintains that ULL terminated him for “reporting numerous forms of gender discrimination as well as the unequal treatment of female athletes as compared to male athletes.” (Id.). “After Lotief's engagement in this protected activity [under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972] increased, ULL began its attempt to silence and ultimately terminate him by accumulating false and misleading evidence to support their [sic] ultimate decision.” (Id.). Lotief additionally alleges that ULL defamed him by “actively propagate[ing] false, misleading, and damaging information through various local news sources following Lotief's termination in an attempt to publically [sic] discredit and humiliate him.” (Id. at 40-41). “ULL falsely accused Lotief of being verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive to softball players as well as employees of ULL.” (Id. at 41). Lotief also alleges that ULL's conduct violated his rights under the First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Id. at 43-47).

         Additionally, Lotief brings state-law claims for wrongful conversion of property and breach of contract. (Doc. 1-1 at 47-49). In support of his conversion claim, Lotief alleges that while he was on administrative leave on October 6, 2017, he was locked out of ULL's softball facilities without access to his personal property. (Doc. 1-1 at 47). Lotief asserts that ULL still possesses and refuses to return his “family pictures, memorabilia, his notary seal, his prescription sunglasses, his most valuable autographed photo of Mother Theresa and Father Brennan, multiple pictures of [his] deceased dad with family members, and family heirlooms.” (Id.). Lotief also claims that he spent over $120, 000 in equipment for the ULL softball team, which has not been returned. (Id. at 47-48). Despite attempting to recover the property, ULL has not returned all of it, and instead “engages in multiple piecemeal deliveries to the Lotief's [sic] storage unit[.]” (Id. at 48). “[T]o this day, ” the university is still in possession of “numerous pieces of equipment, personal items, and documents which belong to Lotief.” (Id.). ULL is also in possession of “roughly” $20, 000 worth of softball equipment used by Lotief for a summer camp program. (Id.). Lotief's breach-of-contract claim arises out of a “contract which . . . may be evidenced in writing but is otherwise at least oral and which guaranteed a minimum term of employment.” (Doc. 1-1 at 48). He alleges that he had five years remaining on his employment contract after winning a regional tournament. (Id. at 49). ULL's decision to terminate his employment constitutes a breach of the employment contract. (Id.).

         II. DISCUSSION

         The Court notes at the outset of this discussion that venue is proper in the Middle District of Louisiana. In federal court, venue is proper in “a judicial district in which any defendant resides, if all defendants are residents of the State in which the district is located.” 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b)(1).[2]Here, the Board of Supervisors for the University of Louisiana System is the managing body of ULL and is domiciled in East Baton Rouge Parish, which is located in the Middle District of Louisiana. As all of the individual defendants are residents of Louisiana according to Lotief's allegations, venue is proper in this district.

         This, of course, does not end the Court's inquiry. The federal venue transfer statute provides that “[f]or the convenience of parties and witnesses, in the interest of justice, a district court may transfer any civil action to any other district where it might have been brought[.]” 28 U.S.C. § 1404(a). Because all of the individual defendants reside in Lafayette Parish, which is located in the Western District of Louisiana, and “a substantial part of the events or omissions giving rise” to Lotief's suit occurred there, venue in the Western District is also proper.[3] Under § 1404(a), a motion to transfer venue should be granted if “the movant demonstrates that the transferee venue is clearly more convenient.” In re Volkswagen of Am., Inc., 545 F.3d 304, 315 (5th Cir. 2008) (“Volkswagen II”). While deference is given to the plaintiff's choice of venue, a movant need only show “good cause” to prevail on a motion to transfer. Id. That is, the movant must “satisfy the statutory requirements and clearly demonstrate that a transfer” meets the § 1404 threshold of convenience and serves the interest of justice. Id.

         In the Fifth Circuit, courts apply a host of public and private interest factors established by the Supreme Court in Gulf Oil Corporation v. Gilbert, 330 U.S. 501 (1947), to determine “whether a § 1404(a) venue transfer is for the convenience of parties and witnesses and in the interest of justice.” Volkswagen II, 545 F.3d at 315. The private interest factors include: “(1) the relative ease of access to sources of proof; (2) the availability of compulsory process to secure the attendance of witnesses; (3) the cost of attendance for willing witnesses; and (4) all other practical problems that make trial of a case easy, expeditious and inexpensive.” In re Volkswagen AG, 371 F.3d 201, 203 (5th Cir. 2004) (“Volkswagen I”). The public interest factors are: “(1) the administrative difficulties flowing from court congestion; (2) the local interest in having localized interests decided at home; (3) the familiarity of the forum with the law that will govern the case; and (4) the avoidance of unnecessary problems of conflict of laws [or] the ...


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