June 6, 2014

O'Fallon softball coach sues former athlete's parents for defamation

A letter from an athlete to her former softball coach, blaming the coach for mental abuse, is at the center of a defamation lawsuit filed in St. Clair County Court.

The coach, Katherine Walsh, a physical and health education teacher at O'Fallon Township High School, is seeking more than $700,000 in damages from Patricia and James Cavins, of O'Fallon, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit, filed May 9, alleges an email that the Cavinses sent out last May to numerous people, including OTHS coaches, faculty members, administrators, softball athletes and their families and others, caused harm to Walsh's professional and personal reputation. Walsh is currently on maternity leave and did not coach the OTHS softball team this season.

The email stated their daughter, Alexi Cavins, resigned from the OTHS softball team for reasons "beyond her control," and it included an attached copy of the three-page letter that Alexi wrote to Walsh.

"I was mentally abused, intimidated and bullied by the OTHS softball coaching staff," Alexi states in her letter. She accused Walsh of unfairly targeting her for mistakes on the field.

"In conclusion, I write this letter not as a disgruntled athlete but in hopes that no other girl endures what I have the past year and a half," according to the complaint, which quotes portion's of Alexi's letter.

A copy of the letter was filed with the court along with the lawsuit and is included in the court file. Also included were copies of newspaper articles in which Walsh talked about team losses and mistakes by individual players.

The Cavinses "recklessly" republished the letter to opposing team coaches, opposing team players, future OTHS softball families and former OTHS softball players with a "conscious disregard" for the rights of Walsh, the suit states. The letter was emailed to more than 70 different addresses.

Swansea attorney Bill Stiehl said his clients, James and Patricia Cavins, intend to "vigorously" contest the lawsuit and plans to file a response soon.

"The sum and substance of this lawsuit is troubling," Stiehl said. "It's brought by a softball coach who is apparently upset with some criticism leveled at her."

If every manager and coach of a sports team sued every time someone expressed displeasure with them, the courts would be clogged by lawsuits, Stiehl said.

"Things expressed in the email were expressions of opinion," he said. "The First Amendment protects opinions whether or not we like the opinion."

Stiehl said the lawsuit is "off base. If she hadn't filed the suit, nobody would have remembered her," Stiehl said. "It's a long time ago. My clients have moved on. I'm not sure why she can't."

The complaint filed on behalf of Walsh by her attorney, Tyson Mutrux of the Mutrux Law Firm, denies Walsh ever mentally abused, intimidated or bullied Alexi.

Since the email/letter was distributed, Walsh has suffered "humiliation, extreme emotional distress and mental suffering and suffered other and further damage," the complaint states.

Mutrux said Walsh has asked only for an apology from the Cavins for the last year, but they have refused.

"Instead of addressing their concerns with Ms. Walsh in private, the Cavins chose to send a misleading and defamatory email to over 100 people, most of whom werecoaches, faculty members, administrators, athletes and their families.By sending the email, the Cavins intentionally tried to harm Ms. Walsh's good reputation as a member of the community and as a softball coach," he said. "In filing this lawsuit, Ms. Walsh is simply responding to the bullying tactics of the Cavins and wishes only to hold them accountable for their inappropriate conduct. To say the conduct of the Cavins is protected by the First Amendment is a blatant misstatement of the law."

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or Follow her on Twitter at @BND_JForsythe.

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