A recent ruling in the negligence lawsuit against Essex High School says it must provide copies of all discipline records on the boys hockey team over a four-year period. But the judge in the case will allow school officials to redact student names and ordered the two parties to keep the documents confidential.
The ruling gives the plaintiffs access to previously-confidential documents that their attorney, Jerome O’Neill, said were vital to proving their case. But Judge Robert A. Mello’s decision to allow redactions is a compromise from the initial request, and his order to effectively seal the records from public disclosure went beyond what the district had asked.
In his July 30 ruling, Mello said the conditions balance the “privacy interests of students with the plaintiffs’ interest in the requested documents.”
Mello’s orders come just over a month after a hearing that featured arguments on two subpoenas issued in the suit, which alleges the school failed to protect the plaintiff’s son from assault, hazing and harassment while he was a freshman on the hockey team.
O’Neill had said in court filings that redacting documents obtained in discovery made it impossible for his clients to further investigate the claims or locate witnesses.
O’Neill said his clients are “pleased” that they will receive the documents and “look forward to using them for purposes of establishing our case.”
The subpoenas sought discipline records for all students who played on the boys hockey team over a six-year period starting in 2010, five years before the victim joined the team. O’Neill believed those records would shed light on what high school officials knew about misconduct prior to the victim’s abuse in late 2015 and early 2016.
Arguing for the extended timeframe, the plaintiffs’ lawyers described hazing as a tradition passed from generation to generation. Knowledge of prior events in a location as specific as the team locker room, they argued, is enough to warrant additional supervision, regardless of whether the acts occurred a day or a decade before the victim’s abuse.
Mello, however, found the request too broad. He trimmed the timeframe by two years, agreeing with the district’s argument that the earliest any of the victim’s teammates were at the high school is 2012.
O’Neill also asked for sets of documents showing the main perpetrator was a star player on the team, thus explaining why the district took no punitive action amid an otherwise successful season. And he sought records that he hoped would prove team captains were awarded a high level of responsibility, making them – as he put it in a court filing – the “eyes and ears of the coaches.”
Showing that would help substantiate a position suggested in court filings: That the school had notice of the misconduct several months before it began investigating because the victim reported some of the incidents to a team captain.
The second half of Mello’s ruling involved motions to quash from Alexander Giummo, a then-sophomore said to be one of the main perpetrators, and his parents.
At a June court hearing, the plaintiffs’ lawyers said Giummo exposed himself to the victim, repeatedly punched him, damaged his belongings and urinated on him, among other inappropriate behaviors. Both the high school’s internal investigation and a subsequent independent review found the victim’s claims were credible and concluded Giummo violated school policies on bullying, hazing, harassment and retaliation.
A criminal investigation into Giummo’s behavior was eventually referred to family court, where proceedings are confidential. But O’Neill subpoenaed Giummo and his parents for any documents related to any criminal proceedings as well as any communications between the family.
At the June hearing, Brooks McArthur, an attorney representing the Giummos, argued the confidentiality provided by family court should extend to the juveniles themselves, and the family shouldn’t be forced to share their communications.
Mello agreed with the former, ruling the Giummos must produce only documents that aren’t typically confidential under Vermont law. But he fell short of declaring the family communications exempt from disclosure, citing the lack of a parent-child privilege in Vermont law.
Mello’s ruling came days after he handed down an analogous decision in a strikingly similar negligence lawsuit filed by a Milton hazing victim. His ruling cited that case extensively.
A week before learning the result of their subpoenas, the plaintiffs’ lawyers ramped up their efforts, issuing requests to depose five individuals. Among them: Essex High School athletic director Jeff Goodrich and former boys hockey coach Bill O’Neil.
Meanwhile, EWSD attorney Pietro Lynn said he will likely file a motion for summary judgment, asking Mello to dismiss the case, but not until the Vermont Supreme Court rules on another hazing case, filed by family of the late Milton hazing victim, Jordan Preavy.
“We wouldn’t file a [motion for summary judgment] only to have the Supreme Court potentially change the law,” Lynn said. “It’s prudent for the defense to wait for its decision, assuming one comes relatively soon.”