Knelman case update

The case of James A. (JAK) Knelman v Middlebury College and William Beaney was argued in federal district court in Vermont on May 2. Pending before the court (and the subject of the May 2 hearing) is Middlebury’s and Beaney’s motion for summary judgment in the case. A motion of summary judgment (MSJ) is a motion that is available in civil litigation to the party that can show that there is no “genuine issue as to material fact” and that, based on those undisputed facts, it is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law. In this case, Middlebury (and Beaney), as the moving parties, are arguing that, as a matter of law, Knelman was not entitled to a hearing or any other independent review to challenge Beaney’s decision to dismiss him from the team in January of 2011 for leaving a hockey banquet shortly before it ended.

The case is scheduled to go to trial on July 1 of this year. A ruling on the MSJ is expected shortly and could affect that trial date. If Middlebury and Beaney prevail on their MSJ, Knelman is likely to appeal the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. (The case is being litigated in the federal court system due to “diversity of jurisdiction” (Knelman is a Minnesota resident and Middlebury is located in Vermont).) Conversely, it is possible that Middlebury and Beaney will appeal an adverse ruling too.

For those who have forgotten the details of this case, you can go here for a detailed discussion of Knelman’s complaint and Middlebury’s and Beaney’s original response to Knelman’s claims.

Middlebury is now, in effect, arguing that Knelman had no rights other than a Beaney-administered review of his own decision to dismiss Knelman from the Middlebury hockey team for leaving a January 15, 2011, banquet for Middlebury hockey alumni  early in order to meet his father for dinner. After going back and forth as to whether to suspend Knelman for a week or whether to dismiss him from the team for showing disrespect to the team,  lacking commitment to the team, and being selfish, Beaney decided to dismiss him from the team and did so on January 24, 2011. Knelman attempted to file a grievance or secure some other type of independent internal review of Beaney’s actions by Middlebury officials but ran into road blocks at every turn and could not obtain a bona fide review of Beaney’s decision, turning to the court system for relief by filing this lawsuit on May 11, 2011.

College officials have testified (through depositions, declarations, and affidavits)  that the college’s judicial process is not open to this type of dispute (the essence of their argument is that Middlebury’s internal procedures are intended for dismissals or suspensions from school and are not available for disputes over student access to college benefits such as participation in intercollegiate sports). They now claim that Beaney’s actions were subject to review only by the College’s Athletic Director, Erin Quinn. Quinn, in turns, acknowledges in testimony that he did little more than talk to Beaney and Knelman regarding the dispute and did not conduct an independent review of Beaney’s actions vis-a-vis Knelman, effectively deferring to Beaney and rubber stamping his decision to remove Knelman from the team.

This is a tough case for the judicial system as, one the one hand, a student was booted off a college hockey team and had his college career prematurely ended for reasons that seem specious while, on the other hand, historically the courts have tended not to interfere with the ability of colleges to run their sports programs with an iron hand regardless of collateral damage to participants. If the court rules in Knelman’s favor (either at this stage or later on), it will likely be because it finds Middlebury’s conduct to be so egregious, arbitrary, and unfair that it falls outside of the boundaries of the coach’s discretion and triggers rights of review and due process protections for the affected athlete. That question lies at the core of this case and could be an appeals court question as district courts typically (but not always) do not like to forge ahead and break new legal ground in a way that would alter the somewhat arbitrary relationship between student and coach that has long been tolerated in the world of college sports.

For those interested in the details of this case in particular and NESCAC hockey in general, the documents generated by this case contain a treasure trove of interesting information, much of which is not particularly complimentary to Middlebury. For this and other reasons, it is surprising that Middlebury officials did not step in long ago and ensure resolution of this dispute before things spun out of control. There was a mediation session  on December 15, 2011, that ran for nine hours (from 10 am until 7 pm) but did not produce a settlement. Middlebury’s insurance carrier was represented at the mediation session, implying that it is likely footing some or all of the bill for this litigation.

Among the many items that have been raised in the litigation to date are the following:

–Middlebury hockey players allegedly committed multiple violations of school and team rules during the season of Knelman’s dismissal, with some occurring the very night of the banquet  (underage drinking and disrespect for the program in partying after a bad loss to Wesleyan (this is the opinion of an unnamed alumnus who attended the party and then narked to Beaney about the party)) and several involving team leaders (these alleged violations are detailed on pages 24 – 27 of Knelman’s statement of the facts). If you want to dig around in the depositions you can figure out who each person is who engaged in the behavior in question. The list of possible violations is long and contains allegations of violations that generally seem more consequential than Knelman’s yet testimony in the case indicates that the players were apparently not punished for these activities. (Knelman, in contrast, has a squeaky clean record and reputation, according to testimony provided by multiple witnesses.)

–Beaney seeks to buttress his claim that Knelman was “selfish” by pointing to Knelman’s request to be given the opportunity to play forward and on the power play (testimony indicates that Knelman generally played the “back” position in Middlebury’s three-backs two-forwards systemsand was heavily used on the penalty kill). The record does not contain evidence showing that Knelman’s request was out of the ordinary, that Knelman was demanding in making this request, or that Beaney voiced objections to Knelman for raising the issue.

–Middlebury AD Erin Quinn’s surprising lack of awareness about the possible complaints of various players who have been dismissed from the team, have been demoted to the B team, or had other clashess with Beaney. The list of players Quinn is asked about in his deposition include: James Guay, Kyle Koziara, Mike Kretschmer, Brett Shirreffs, Chaz Svoboda, Charlie Brewer, Ian Drummond, Tom Cantwell, and Tom Clayton. In each case, he indicates that he has little to no awareness of their complaints.

The former Middlebury player who complained about Knelman’s early departure from the banquet is Nickolai Bobrov, captain of the 1999 team and a native of Russia who now lives in the Boston area. He sat at Knelman’s table (along with Martin Drolet and others).

–While Middlebury AD Erin Quinn is technically Beaney’s supervisor, his testimony suggests that his oversight of Beaney is limited.

–Beaney makes about $100,000 per year and has just reached the end of a 7-year contract but said in his deposition that he does not know exactly how much his salary is.

–According to Beaney, four or five players, including Mike Griffin, Charlie Nerbak, and Eric Zagorski, came to him and asked him to re-instate Knelman to the team. Martin Drolet and Mathieu Dubuc also offered strong statements of support in the form of declarations.

–Several players come off as overly willing to toe the company line, first supporting Knelman and then backing off as Beaney’s position hardened, with some later making Knelman uncomfortable in social settings.

Former Middlebury player Tom Clayton, who was demoted to the JV team just a few weeks before Knelman wass dismissed from the team, receives very little explanation for his dismissal other than Beaney’s assertion that, in his estimation, Clayton is not sufficiently “committed” to the hockey program.

An extraordinary letter from the father of Trevor Dodds to AD Quinn in April of 2010 in which he details his son Trevor’s bad experiences with Beaney (Trevor Dodds was dismissed from the team in the fall of his junior year (2009)); Quinn responds to Mr. Dodds by citing the “many positive reviews” of Beaney’s performance he has received from other players and essentially dismisses his concerns.

Below are links to the key documents in the case associated with the pending motion for summary judgment:

Middlebury’s and Beaney’s motion for summary judgment, filed on December 13, 2011.

Key supporting documents for this motion include:

Defendants’ statement of material facts

Affidavit submitted by Middlebury Assistant Coach John Dawson

Letter of support for Beaney sent to Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz by former Middlebury players on May 23, 2011 (12 days after Knelman filed his lawsuit)

Excerpts from Knelman’s deposition (much more of this deposition is excerpted below as a supporting document for Knelman’s opposition to the pending MSJ)

Middlebury AD Erin Quinn’s affidavit

Knelman’s opposition to Middlebury’s and Beaney’s motion for summery judgment, filed on April 5, 2012.

Knelman offered almost 60 documents in rebuttal to the defendants’ claim that no material facts were in dispute and that Knelman was not entitled to a hearing or any other procedural safeguards to contest his dismissal from the Middlebury hockey team. These include:

Knelman’s statement of the facts

Beaney’s deposition

Assistant Coach John Dawson’s deposition

Knelman’s deposition and declaration

Middlebury hockey player Mathieu Dubuc’s declaration in support of Knelman

Middlebury hockey player Martin Drolet’s declaration in support of Knelman

Former Middlebury hockey player’s Tom Clayton’s deposition

Middlebury Captain Charlie Strauss’ deposition

Middlebury AD’s Erin Quinn’s deposition (part 1 and part 2)

Letter to AD Quinn from the father of Trevor Dodds regarding Dodds’ 2009 dismissal from the Middlebury team and Quinn’s response to the Dodds letter

Deposition of an expert on professional hockey (Craig Sarner) assessing likely earnings and the number of D3 products playing professional hockey

Summary of student assessments of Beaney’s performance for the 2010-11 season

Middlebury President Ronald Liebowitz’s 2005 letter to Beaney regarding the renewal of his contract for 7 years

Middlebury’s and Beaney’s reply to Knelman’s opposition, submitted to the court on April 23, 2012.

Documents submitted by Middlebury and Beaney in support of this filing include:

Middlebury’s and Beaney’s supplemental statement of facts

More of Charlie Strauss’ deposition

Nickolai Bobrov’s affidavit

23 Responses

  1. The lack of integrity and fairness on the part of the hockey coach and the AD should be examined. Equally disturbing is the lack of accountability and transparency on the part of Middlebury College.

  2. Abuse of power within an athletic department? How unusual…..

  3. –Middlebury AD Erin Quinn’s surprising lack of awareness about the possible complaints of various players who have been dismissed from the team, have been demoted to the B team, or had other clashess with Beaney. The list of players Quinn is asked about in his deposition include: James Guay, Kyle Koziara, Mike Kretschmer, Brett Shirreffs, Chaz Svoboda, Charlie Brewer, Ian Drummond, Tom Cantwell, and Tom Clayton. In each case, he indicates that he has little to no awareness of their complaints……..Some of these players issues happened prior to Quinn’s tenure as AD so he would have limited knowledge of the issues

    • Middlebury is not a big place. Quinn has been an employee in the Middlebury athletic department since 1990. (also the son-in-law of a previous AD) In any case, as AD, he would have full access to all notes and records of prior complaints.

  4. “College officials have testified (through depositions, declarations, and affidavits) that the college’s judicial process is not open to this type of dispute (the essence of their argument is that Middlebury’s internal procedures are intended for dismissals or suspensions from school and are not available for disputes over student access to college benefits such as participation in intercollegiate sports)”
    NOT TRUE!
    In other student cases (swim team and member of social clubs), Middlebury followed the judicial process and internal procedures according to the MC Handbooks. We read about these proceedings in the Campus newspaper. In these cases, members were denied “access to college benefits such as participation” which is the same as in this case.
    Middlebury needs to come up with yet another version………. because…………. This lie doesn’t fly!

  5. Time to clean up Middlebury’s athletic dept.- the attached documents expose Middlebury’s shameful behavior!

    • With all of the negative information that has been brought to light about the inner workings of the Middlebury team, it is difficult not too wonder if Beaney’s ability to recuit top prospects has been impaired.

  6. It will affect recruiting for Middlebury. Who would want to play for Coach Beaney, a coach who has knowingly destroyed multiple players’ careers for arbitrary and capricious reasons. After reading over the case, one has to ask why Middlebury’s President Liebowitz has and is allowing this type of behavior to continue. This will only hurt Middlebury’s reputation as long as leadership does not take a stand against the mistreatment of player/scholars.

  7. middlebury has mishandled this issue terribly. they have been intransigent in their defense of the indefensible—namely, coach beaney and his arrogant, hurtful behavior. in doing so they are hurting middlebury athletics and the middlebury brand in general.

    there has been an appalling lack of leadership from the school on this from day 1 and everybody involved, from the president on down has been at fault. they have chosen the wrong player and family to defame. their normal stonewalling/bullying techniques will work against them this time.

    someone in authority–ie AD quinn—needs to publically stand up and right this unconscionable situation. the days are over where coaches can run roughshod over their players without consequences. equally, the administration pretending to be unaware of such a circumstance is preposterous and embarrassing. coach beaney should be immediately fired for his actions. and AD quinn should be required to grow a pair of cahonnes at the earliest possible date.

    finally, i feel bad fpr jak knelman and his family. the dream of playing for middlebury has clearly turned into an ongoing nightmare. i can only hope that jak’s love of the game has not been diminished by such arbitrary, capricious and mean spirited behavior.

    • In the end it has to be Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz’s responsibility to clean up this mess, doesn’t it?? His inaction is more puzzling than anything else abut this case.

      Obviously a guy like Bill Beaney is going to dig in his heels if he can get away with it because that’s been his way for decades. It’s unlikely that he will recognize the errors of his ways and self correct on his own. And AD Erin Quinn apparently had zero interest in reining him in. Perhaps Quinn is just too junior for this task due to a relatively short tenure as AD.

      So responsibility ultimately rests in the President’s hands, who perhaps is failing even more spectacularly in this case than are Beaney and Quinn. After all, he does not come with Beaney’s emotional baggage or vested interest in the status quo or Quinn’s weakness vis-a-vis Beaney. Liebowitz is the person one would expect to be responsible for seeing the larger picture and the importance of resolution of this destructive battle and implementation of reforms. Yet, we are more than a year into this battle, with no sign of intervention by Middlebury’s leadership to resolve this matter, which is, in some respects, a serious indictment of Liebowitz’s leadership.

  8. This episode makes it hard to understand why any student-athlete would choose to play hockey for Bill Beaney and Middlebury. Multiple examples of negative, insecure, unrestrained behavior paint Beaney as the kind of phony “tough guy” who abuses because he lacks the skills to encourage and teach…and because he can.
    I played 8 yrs of major league sports and represented players for 10 more, including NHL first round picks and Hall of Famer’s. I know the “Beaney type”. Shame on Pres Liebowitz and AD Quinn for their weak supervision and lack of character. It bespeaks inadequate professionalism and leadership. Particularly from senior representatives of the “surrogate parent” to which parents entrust their children.
    The Student Assessments from many players still vulnerable to the whims of the hockey coach were particularly telling. “Negative”, “lack of communication” and “no confidence” are words symptomatic of the antiquated, pathetic, bullying coach. He has no place in modern college hockey. Does he nonetheless have a place at Middlebury?

  9. Leaving a banquet early may be a serious faux pas in Russian etiquette but in this country, an early departure does not justify a coach’s vengeance, a coach bent on bullying, defaming and ending an athlete’s hockey career.

    This lawsuit exposes Middlebury’s mismanaged personnel, especially in its athletic department. A coach’s unchecked power is a college liability and no amount of personal trust should ever avert a thorough investigation. President Liebowitz is keenly aware that hockey alumni provide significant financial support for the College. However, a coach’s elevated status as a leading fund-raiser and “local hero” does not justify behavior that violates College rules and the integrity of Middlebury College.

    One can only wonder why President Liebowitz remains silent, relying on College lawyers to concoct stories and search for legal technicalities. He was not tapped as President of this College to sit idly -not when the issue at stake is for students to be treated fairly.

    • The May 23, 2011, letter to Middlebury President Ron Liebowitz from 59 former Middlebury hockey players, announcing that they “expected” Middlebury to mount a “vigorous defense” on Beaney’s behalf, may very well have locked the Middlebury administration into its current untenable position of blindly supporting Beaney no matter the consequences for the hockey program or the school. The second name on the letter to Liebowitz is, of course, Nickolai Bobrov, the guy who got the precipitated the crisis by complaining to Beaney about Knelman’s departure from the balcony.

      • Nick Bobrov married up – His employment, positions and entitlement, courtesy of daddy-in-law, ex-Representative William Delahunt, a former Middlebury Trustee.

        It appears that Nick Bobrov has funneled Delahunt for Congress campaign funds into Middlebury’s graduate school, the Monterey Inst. of International Studies…….. with this and other family donations, he “expects” Middlebury and Coach to heed his ridiculous demands.

        Ultimately, it is Pres. Liebowitz who allows money and power to outweigh fairness, transpararency, ethics and accountability.

        • Noticed the Delahunt-Bobrov connection, the mixing of the political and the personal on the money side of Delahunt’s campaign operations, and the extent to which Bobrov’s career depends on his father-in-law. Still, one would think that the money side of these relationships on the Middlebury end would be on the inconsequential side in the grand scheme of things and not sufficient to justify Middlebury’s institutional behavior in this case. And of course, with the damage to its reputation that PSU is experiencing for decisions that primarily flowed from its willingness to allow its long-time football coach to call the shots, one would think that the Middlebury president would think more than twice about its current path . . .

  10. This whole situation is a major black mark on Middlebury College. Coach Beaney’s conduct has been egregious, arbitrary and unfair to Knelman and is contrary to everything Middlebury supposedly stands for. The only hope for resolving this situation is for President Liebowitz to rise above this fiasco, embrace the College’s core values, do the right thing and suspend or terminate Beaney. In that process, it would behoove the President to ask himself how the College’s conduct in this situation measures up to the ideals and values he espouses in his convocation and other addresses. Coach Beaney suspends an honors student hockey player with no history of any problems or bad conduct from the team because he leaves a 3+ hour long alumni hockey event a few minutes early to have dinner with his out of town parent. At the same time, Beaney does nothing to other players on the team who actually violate team and/or school rules that same weekend. Knelman apologizes and then Beaney irrationally increases the suspension for the balance of the season. This isn’t the first time a hockey player under Beaney has been badly treated and hurt by a bullying coach wanting to prove his authority. Knelman tries to work through proper channels to resolve the matter, but the College and Athletic Director did not have a review process or procedures in place to provide due process and protect Knelman or any other student who is wronged by a coach. Knelman consults with teachers and advisors who support his not letting Beaney’s terrible conduct go unchallenged, but to no avail. Ultimately Knelman’s only recourse is to pursue a legal remedy because the College never showed what it says it is trying to teach students to do, namely demonstrate the “courage to follow their convictions and accept responsibility for their actions.” The school’s mission is to help students demonstrate integrity and ethics, yet the President has absolutely failed to ensure coaches and other college administrators are held to the same standards. The President needs to apply the values and ideals he eloquently expresses in speeches to students and their parents by doing the right thing and suspending or terminating Beaney.

    • ” Knelman consults with teachers and advisors who support his not letting Beaney’s terrible conduct go unchallenged, but to no avail.”

      It’s the College community (teachers and advisors) who attempt to uphold the ideas, values, ethics and principles of Middlebury College.

      Could President Liebowitz be compromising College values for some undisclosed reason?

  11. Any updates on this?

  12. […] those requesting an update of the Knelman case, the status of the case remains unchanged since our last update as the judge has not yet issued a decision on the motion for summary judgment that was argued on […]

  13. “The NCAA ruling holds the university (PSU) accountable for the failure of those in power ……… and insists that all areas of the university community are held to the same high standards of honesty and integrity.”
    Associated Press/July 23,2012

  14. I have a midi in/out to usb cable which i am able to use with my midi controller for sounds on my computer. I want it to go midi controller to computer for sounds to my amp. Any idea on how i can do this?.

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