PA coach accused of choking student sues district for defamation

By Kelly Holleran | Feb 3, 2011

A Jefferson County man who has already been awarded $60,000 from the Port Arthur Independent School District has once again filed suit against the district, alleging employees conspired against him to make him lose his job.

Football coach Trinidad Rivera claims a Port Arthur coach and principal concocted a false story in which they blamed Rivera for choking a student.

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 Port Arthur School District, according to the complaint filed Jan. 28 in Jefferson County District Court.

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.

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 defendant Superintendent Johnny Brown, started prodding personnel to provide them with a basis for Rivera's termination, according to Rivera.

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 an Edison football game on Sept. 15, 2009.

According to Rivera, a referee repeatedly told him to keep players out of the refs' running lane as the players could get hurt.

Rivera 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, he claims.

"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 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.

In his complaint, Rivera is seeking a declaratory judgment that the PAISD has violated his rights.

He is also seeking a permanent injunction preventing the district from further violating his constitutional rights. In addition, Rivera is seeking attorney's fees, declarative and injunctive relief, actual and punitive damages and other relief the court deems just.

Larry Watts of Watts and Associates in Missouri City will be representing Rivera.

The case has been assigned to Judge Milton Shuffield, 136th District Court.

Case No. D189-258

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