A federal judge on Monday moved to reopen a wrongful termination lawsuit that former College of Charleston baseball coach Matt Heath filed against the school, throwing a settlement agreement in the case into jeopardy.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel said the “landscape has changed” following the discovery of text messages in the case. He also compelled College of Charleston athletic director Matt Roberts and current baseball coach Chad Holbrook to hand over electronic devices and emails to a forensic expert.
At the heart of the case is Heath’s claim that he was fired by Roberts so that he could hire Holbrook, the former head baseball coach at South Carolina and a close friend of Roberts.
Roberts and the school have countered that Heath was fired for “just cause” for his alleged physical and verbal abuse of his players that created a “toxic environment” for the two seasons he was the Cougars’ head coach.
Heath filed his wrongful termination lawsuit in July 2017, just days after he was fired.
In October 2018, the parties “entered into a settlement agreement” of the original lawsuit that would have paid Heath $166,000. However, Heath’s lawyers filed a motion to reopen the case after a forensic expert discovered text messages between Holbrook and his father that seemed to contradict statements made by Roberts.
“Don’t say anything but Matt Roberts really wants me to come be his baseball coach at the College of Charleston,” Holbrook texted to his father on April 24, 2017. “I’m thinking about it strongly. Please don’t say anything.”
Holbrook was still the head coach at South Carolina at the time.
The College of Charleston’s attorneys objected to reopening the case, but Gergel said the discovery of Holbrook’s texts showed that further forensic review is warranted.
“There looks to be some inconsistencies and the plaintiff may explore this,” the judge said.
Gergel granted Heath’s lawyer’s request to examine a second hard drive from Roberts’ laptop, Holbrook’s cell phone, other electronic devices owned by Holbrook and Roberts and examination of Roberts’ email on his college of Charleston account.
Before Gergel made his ruling on Monday he suggested that both parties should try and "resolve the case" before going to trial and that there might be an "innocent" explanation for Holbrook's text messages.
Holbrook said in an affidavit that he texted his father because he didn't want him to worry about his financial future after he was forced to resign from South Carolina. South Carolina and Holbrook reached a $600,000 settlement when he left the school.
The original settlement was contingent on a forensic examination of Roberts’ and Holbrook’s electronic devices to determine if “there were any messages contradicting” the athletic director’s sworn statement.
There were several phone calls between Roberts and Holbrook prior to Heath’s firing, but Roberts said in his affidavit that he never discussed Heath’s job status with Holbrook until July 1, 2017.
Roberts’ phone was configured to keep messages for only 30 days.
Steve Abrams, a forensic expert hired by Heath’s lawyers, found the text messages on Holbrook’s iPhone between him and his father, Eddie Holbrook, that appear to contradict Roberts’ sworn testimony.
In June 2017, the school launched an investigation into Heath’s conduct as head coach. The school’s investigation uncovered several allegations of misconduct by Heath.
Roberts suspended Heath without pay during the investigation.
After the investigation was completed on June 14, 2017, Roberts notified Heath that he had initiated a termination action for “just cause” — meaning the school would not be required to pay Heath the balance on his contract. Heath had three years remaining on his five-year contract. He made $154,875 in 2017.
Roberts submitted his final recommendation that Heath be terminated for “just cause” on June 23, 2017, to College of Charleston president Glenn McConnell, who has since retired.
Five days later, Heath submitted a written reply to Roberts and McConnell objecting to the findings of the investigation, saying the report was “biased” and that he never had a chance to produce “evidence” or witnesses at a hearing or have a “face-to-face” meeting with McConnell.
The suit contends that the investigation by Roberts was “designed for one purpose only, to end Heath’s tenure as head coach in bad faith” no matter the cost and not to uncover the veracity of the allegations of misconduct.
Heath, 39, was 59-57-1 in two seasons as the Cougars' head coach from 2016-2017. The team was 28-31 during Heath’s final season in 2017. It was the Cougars’ first losing season since 2001.