BERKELEY COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - The former head football coach of Berkeley High School has filed a lawsuit against the Berkeley County School District alleging wrongful termination and defamation.
Jeffrey Lance Cruce claims he was wrongfully terminated for not making his players "hit" more during football practices and that agents of the school district made "false and defamatory statements" about his fitness for his profession to employees, students, volunteers, potential employers and members of the community.
The suit states Cruce, whose personnel file has no record of any discipline for job performance issues, was employed from May, 2011 until Dec. 16, 2015, worked as a teacher, athletic director and head football coach. He worked under contract in his capacity as a teacher, but was an "at-will" employee as athletic director and head coach.
The suit alleges his teaching contract was renewed year after year and that he never received an indication of any job performance problems, never received any goals or performance evaluations about the athletic director position or head coach position.
Cruce's lawsuit claims he was terminated because Principal Steven Steele "did not approve of Coach Cruce's coaching philosophy which included less hitting during practice." Cruce also alleged a "strained" relationship with Steele from the start because of past incidents between the two dating back to when Steele was a track coach.
The suit alleges Steele threatened to fire Cruce "on multiple occasions over the past four years," and states Cruce filed a formal grievance against Steele in 2013 because of what he called "Steele's obvious disdain for him." Cruce said the day after the grievance was filed, Steele terminated him, stating he "wanted to go in a different direction with the football program." The termination was reversed by Superintendent Dr. Rodney Thompson within 24 hours, the suit states.
The December termination came after Thompson had stepped down as superintendent, and Steele allegedly wanted to require more hitting during practice, something Cruce claims he avoided to help prevent practice-related injuries and fatigue in his players, the suit states.
Cruce claims Steele demoted him from a driver's education teacher to a guidance counselor at a district middle school, a move he called "a set up for failure."
The suit also alleges the day after a Jan. 6 meeting with the district superintendent to resolve the situation without litigation, Cruce's former office was ransacked, student athletes' files were opened and examined by several people, and an athletic trainer sent an email to many of Cruce's former co-workers and subordinates that implied Cruce had not "properly maintained student athlete files," an accusation the suit calls false and defamatory.
The suit seeks lost wages, benefits, and other earnings, as well as "other actual, consequential, and compensatory damages."
A request for comment from the Berkeley County School District has not yet been returned.