PTO volunteers sued by coach they forced off the court
A conflict that originated on the Encinal School basketball court appears headed for a court of law after a father who was stripped of his volunteer coaching position filed a lawsuit against the school's Parent Teacher Organization and three parents who volunteer as PTO officers.
Lawrence Hecimovich, the father of two boys and coach for two years of his older son's after-school basketball team, names Kelly Perri, Julie Roth, and Leslie Burke in addition to the nonprofit PTO in a lawsuit filed in late August in San Mateo County Superior Court.
Among the causes of action listed in the suit are libel and slander, negligence, intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, and fraud.
Mr. Hecimovich, who is a deputy city attorney for San Francisco, is seeking reinstatement as a head coach in the school's basketball program, punitive damages in an unspecified amount, and attorney fees and costs associated with the lawsuit.
He also wants to require the PTO to provide program coordinators and volunteers "the training and resources needed to provide a safe school environment for Encinal students," asserting that "PTO's unsafe practices needlessly expose students to the risk of serious physical injury."
The defendants, through their attorney Robert A. Muhlbach, declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Muhlbach said a court date is set for Nov. 17, at which time he will argue for a motion to dismiss the case based on California's "anti-SLAPP" law, which prohibits lawsuits brought primarily for the purpose of intimidating others into making concessions rather than face a costly court fight.
Although he declined to comment on the lawsuit itself, Mr. Hecimovich said in an e-mail, "I offered to settle for (no monetary damages) a number of times, asking only for an apology, and got no response, so a settlement seems unlikely." He is asking for a jury trial.
The basketball program is under the auspices of the city of Menlo Park's community services department, but the school's PTO appoints the coaches and is the program coordinator.
Behind the lawsuit
The conflict arose during the 2008-09 school year, when a player on the fourth-grade team Mr. Hecimovich coached "engaged in behavior that went beyond disruption to posing a serious risk to his own safety and the safety of other players," the lawsuit states.
That behavior included "kicking and throwing basketballs at the gym lights, clock and fire alarm in an effort to break them; throwing or kicking balls at other players or other players' basketballs to disrupt their shooting or dribbling; and disappearing without notice during practices, including the final incident lasting half an hour," according to the lawsuit.
Mr. Hecimovich's attempt to make the boy's parents aware of the problem was first ignored, then resulted in "extreme anger and hostility ... and the threat that the parent had rallied and would continue to rally team parents" to remove him as coach, he says in the lawsuit.
The document also says that appeals to the PTO basketball coordinator, Ms. Roth, to allow him to respond to the boy's misconduct by reducing his playing time were rejected; Mr. Hecimovich's persistence resulted in threats to remove him as coach.
The following year, the lawsuit says, Ms. Roth, her successor Leslie Burke, and then-PTO President Kelly Perri "found Hecimovich unfit to coach and permanently barred (him) from participating in the Encinal League."
The lawsuit cites conflicting statements allegedly made by the defendants regarding whether complaints had been made against Mr. Hecimovich by parents, and states that, after the end of the 2008-09 season, "virtually every parent complimented (him) for a wonderful season and several confirmed their son's interest in being coached by (him) the following year."
When Mr. Hecimovich asked for a review of the decision to take away his coaching position, district Superintendent Ken Ranella assigned a consultant, former Hillview Middle School principal Michael Moore, to investigate the matter. (Mr. Moore was on a retirement contract that year to perform a number of services for the district, Mr. Ranella said.)
Mr. Hecimovich asserts that the investigation was not carried out in the way he was told it would be, but in spite of flaws in the process, the consultant found, among other things favorable to Mr. Hecimovich, that "there was no truth to (Leslie) Burke's original rationale for the decision to ban Hecimovich, ... that the PTO had acted despite the absence of any complaints or other information from the other team parents," and that an allegation that the coach had assaulted a child "was entirely without merit."
Before being dumped by the PTO, Mr. Hecimovich had coached basketball, baseball and soccer for five years, and had intended to coach throughout his sons' adolescence, he says in the lawsuit. He hasn't coached since, the lawsuit asserts, because of "the defamation and other unlawful conduct" by the defendants, and he "will not be able to coach until (they) acknowledge their deceit and clear his reputation."