Jury finds PAISD retaliated against coach after defamation suit victory; Awards $42K to plaintiff

A local man, who has already been awarded $60,000 from the Port Arthur Independent School District for defamation, won another favorable judgment, as jurors found that the district took adverse employment action against him because of his previous suit. According to the complaint filed Jan. 28, 2011, in Jefferson County District Court, plaintiff and football coach Trinidad Rivera claims a Port Arthur coach and principal concocted a false story in which they blamed Rivera for allegedly choking a student. The case went to trial Jan. 28 in Judge Milton Shuffield’s 136th District Court and ended Feb. 7. Jurors found that the district took adverse employment action against Rivera because of his previous suit, which also alleged wrongful employment practices and retaliation, according to the court’s charge to the jury. Rivera was awarded $21,100 for his past lost earnings and an additional $21,000 for his emotional pain. The suit alleges defendants Barbara Polk, principal of Edison Middle School, and Jermaine Cooper, coach of the sixth through eighth grade boys at Edison, each had their own reasons for wanting to see Rivera terminated from his position as coach and teacher in the PAISD. Cooper, an uncertified teacher, wanted to see Rivera gone so he could replace him, while Polk, an African American principal, wanted the Hispanic Rivera removed from his position because of his race, the suit alleges. PAISD superintendent Dr. Johnny Brown was also a defendant in the suit. In his original petition, Rivera claims the attempts to thwart his career began after he filed suit against PAISD and won $60,000 in damages. “This action arises out of a conspiracy to rid PAISD, in retaliation, of the troublesome and oppositional Plaintiff,” the complaint says. Following Rivera’s lawsuit, the administration, including Brown, allegedly began to prod personnel to give them a reason to terminate Rivera, the suit claims. Cooper found his opportunity when he saw Rivera touch a football player during a game on the sidelines, the suit states. Rivera and Cooper provide varying accounts as to what occurred during the Edison football game on Sept. 15, 2009. Rivera claims a referee repeatedly told him to keep players out of the refs’ running lane, as the players could get hurt, according to Rivera’s suit. He claims he followed the ref’s request and told his players to move out of the way. All but one of the players obeyed, the suit states. “When Student 1 did not heed Mr. Rivera’s repeated directives to move back, Mr. Rivera placed his hands on the front V of Student 1′s shoulder pads to physically move him back from the running lane,” the complaint states. “In response to Mr. Rivera’s placing his hands on his shoulder pads, Student 1 slapped and pushed Mr. Rivera’s hands.” When the student again entered the running lane, Rivera claims he held the student by the shoulder pads to move him out of the way. However, the second time the student pushed Rivera’s hands away, the motion caused his hand to move upward, scratching the student’s neck, according to the complaint. Hurt and embarrassed, the student began cry, the suit states. Seeing the student weeping, Cooper seized his opportunity to implicate Rivera, the suit alleges. “Cooper suggested to Student 1 that he had seen Plaintiff ‘choke’ Student 1,” the complaint says. “Student 1 accepted Cooper’s suggestion and, in the spirit of retaliation against the coach who wouldn’t let him play with his family watching in the stands, fell in line with Cooper’s suggested accusation.” When the student left the game, he allegedly told his mother that Rivera had choked him. Soon, the rumor had spread to the principal’s office, where four students discussed the incident, Rivera claims. As they were recalling the details of the incident to the principal, the students were in the same room and repeated similar stories, according to the complaint. “The investigation was a concocted sham designed to take suggestible youths who had been groomed by Cooper and the administrative culture of the school to state falsehoods against the Plaintiff,” the suit states. Rivera claims the story caused the Port Arthur Police Department and Child Protective Services to investigate him. However, neither agency filed charges against him, according to the complaint. Still, Brown allegedly pushed to have Rivera fired, instigating charges against him with the Texas Education Agency, which found no wrongdoing on Rivera’s part, the suit states. Although Rivera did not lose his job because of the allegations, he filed the lawsuit alleging defamation, the suit states. Court records show the district filed an amended answer on Jan. 13 asserting a general denial. The district and its employees are represented by Melody Chappell, attorney for the Beaumont law firm Wells, Peyton, Greenberg & Hunt. Larry Watts of Watts and Associates in Missouri City represents Rivera. Case No. D189-258

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