A lawsuit filed by former Hatton football coach Tyler Berryman seeking to reinstate his coaching status was dismissed Friday by Lauderdale County Circuit Judge Mike Jones.
Berryman filed the lawsuit in June against the Lawrence County Board of Education and Superintendent Heath Grimes. Berryman was relieved of his coaching duties in May and was moved as seventh- and eighth-grade science teacher to physical education instructor.
Jones heard testimony from 1:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. Thursday. The case was moved to Lauderdale County after a Lawrence County judge recused himself.
In his ruling, Jones said the school board has “absolute immunity from the lawsuit” and that Berryman’s attorneys failed to meet the burden of proof in the case.
Berryman said he was told at a May 14 meeting with Grimes that he would no longer coach football. Berryman said the school board had no input in the decision.
Berryman’s attorneys claim school board members and the superintendent went into executive session during an April 2 board meeting and discussed his job performance.
Attorneys contend the executive session was illegal according to the Alabama Open Meetings Act because board members allowed members of the public to attend the session.
Attorneys for Grimes and the school board maintained the executive session was to discuss the good name of an employee.
Jones said the executive session “complied with the applicable statutes.”
“The judge held that the meeting was not illegal and even if it was, there is nothing for him to set aside that the board did,” said Huntsville attorney J.R. Brooks, who represented the school board and Grimes.
Patricia Prather, a Huntsville attorney who was one of Berryman’s attorneys, said she was disappointed with the ruling.
“I don’t agree with it,” she said. “But (Berryman) had an opportunity to present his side of the story.”
The school board’s attorney had requested the case be thrown out because elected officials cannot be sued personally.
Jones stated the superintendent is not a member of the board and is not a defendant in the case. He added that “members of the school board may be sued in their official capacities, not their individual capacities.”
Jones pointed out that only the members of the board who attended the executive session may be sued in their official capacity.
He also noted that a month after the executive session the board decided not to renew all supplements, which follows standard practice.
Jones said Grimes “had the right and power” to change Berryman’s work status “without board oversight or control.”
Grimes said he is pleased with the judge’s decision.
“As a board and superintendent, (the lawsuit) questioned if we were doing things legally,” Grimes said. “We had the opinions of our attorneys and the attorney general, that what we were doing was legal. It’s important that people know we conduct our business in a way that is lawful and legal.
“There was no deliberation, no decision made in that meeting. It was simply to hear complaints from the public, which we feel like we were supposed to do. This was done in an effort to protect the individual.”
According to board members who testified in Thursday’s hearings, Berryman’s performance as a coach was called into question during the executive session. Parents voiced their concerns about his 19-31 record as a coach, board members testified.
Prather said she plans to meet with Berryman and his other attorneys to weigh their options.
Tom Smith can be reached at 256-740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.