Plainfield (N.J.) High School Athletics Director John Quinn, a New Jersey Football Coaches Association and NJSIAA Hall of Fame inductee, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against his previous employer, the Elizabeth (N.J.) Board of Education, alleging that it unlawfully terminated him as the high school’s head football coach.
The lawsuit, a copy of which MyCentralJersey.com obtained, alleges that the Elizabeth Board of Education turned its head football coaching position into one of “political patronage” in violation of the First Amendment and “discriminated against (Quinn) on the basis of race.”
According to NJ101.5.com, which was the first to report the lawsuit, Quinn is the 10th former Elizabeth Public Schools employee to file a suit claiming political retaliation following the 2015 school board election in which the Board of Education’s balance of power shifted to the city’s Democratic leaders,” who are repeatedly referred to throughout the 22-page complaint as the “majority Bollwage faction,” a reference to Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage.
Quinn’s attorney, Mark B. Frost, of Philadelphia-based Mark B. Frost & Associates, said he believed Jamil Jackson, who was hired last summer as Quinn’s successor, was not nearly as qualified as Quinn to be Elizabeth’s head football coach and had Jackson not been “politically connected” he “would never have had the job.”
“The football coaching vacancy at Elizabeth High School was filled in the same manner as all other coaching vacancies,” Pat Politano, a spokesman for Elizabeth Public Schools, said in a prepared statement. “In accordance with state law, board policies and contractual obligations, the position was posted on the district’s website to enable all those who wished to apply to do so. Interviews were conducted with multiple candidates. Upon the recommendation of the Superintendent of Schools, the Board of Education voted to appoint the head football coach.”
The lawsuit alleges that someone affiliated with the school district commented “that the Athletic Department had become ‘vanilla,’ which was code for the fact that (Quinn) was white,” and that Quinn did not have “connections to the community,” which was “code by the defendants” that Quinn was “not of a minority race and/or was not an individual who was politically connected to the now-majority Bollwage faction.”
Frost told MyCentralJersey.com he did not know who specifically made those comments. Six members of the school board are listed as defendants in the complaint, which was filed May 1 in the U.S District Court for the District of New Jersey.
Jackson, who is black, is the brother of Malik Jackson, whom the lawsuit describes as an “Elizabeth politician who unsuccessfully ran for Elizabeth school board in 2015 as part of the Bollwage slate, who donated to the majority Bollwage faction of the school board, and who outwardly supported the Bollwage faction in the 2015 election.”
The Jackson brothers were star football players at Rutgers University and Elizabeth High School. Jamil Jackson played for the Scarlet Knights from 1990-94. He was an assistant coach at Elizabeth from 1996-2000 and also coached at New Jersey City University as defensive coordinator. Jamil Jackson previously served as defensive coordinator at Linden and Lakewood high schools.
The lawsuit described Jamil Jackson as a “journeyman assistant coach” who “had never held a head coaching position before, and had not even graduated from college, nor had he obtained his teacher’s certificate.”
The Board of Education unanimously approved Jamil Jackson’s appointment as head football coach last summer with school board President Charlene Bathelus stating at the time “there was complete consensus that the district needed a home-grown coach with deep roots in Elizabeth.”
Frost said that Jamil Jackson did not reside in Elizabeth at the time of his hiring.
Elizabeth Schools Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer recommended Quinn be reappointed as Elizabeth’s head football coach for the 2017 season and Quinn’s contract for the 2016-17 academic year had already been renewed before Jackson was named his successor, Frost told MyCentralJersey.com.
“You need not belong to a political party to be a head football coach,” Frost said in explanation of filing a civil rights complaint on Quinn’s behalf, adding that he believed Elizabeth’s decision to hire Jackson because of his political connections over his client violated the First Amendment.
“Obviously he wasn’t terminated because he couldn’t do the job,” Frost said of Quinn, who compiled a 47-19 record during six seasons at Elizabeth, which reached three sectional finals and won one sectional championship under his tutelage. “If you had someone not running a successful program, clearly that would be grounds.”
Scholastic coaches in New Jersey work under one-year contracts and school boards are not required to provide a reason for not rehiring any coach.
Quinn, who previously coached at New Brunswick and Roxbury during his 20-year head coaching career, is widely regarded as one of the state’s most successful football coaches. He was named the NJFCA Coach of the Year in 2012 and was named the Home News Tribune’s Coach of the Decade in 2009.
Quinn turned New Brunswick into a perennial state power, compiling a 68-17 record, including three sectional championships, while grooming 16 Division I scholarship players, including future NFL stars Jonathan Casillas and Dwayne Jarret.
Quinn left New Brunswick before the start of the 2010 season to become the head football coach and assistant athletics director at Elizabeth.
According to the lawsuit, despite receiving “consistently positive annual performance reviews,” Quinn was not rehired as Elizabeth’s head football coach and was “going to be demoted to gym teacher.” He earned $140,000 annually through his coaching responsibilities and working as an assistant athletics director at Elizabeth, according to the lawsuit.
“As a result of losing his coaching title and other duties, (Quinn) was to lose his coaching, weightlifting, and camp stipends, which equaled approximately $30,000 per year,” the lawsuit states. “As a result of his diminished duties, (Quinn) was constructively discharged” and “forced to leave his position at the Elizabeth School Board and instead obtain a position as Athletic Director at Plainfield High School.”
Frost said Quinn, Jamil Jackson and one of Quinn’s assistant coaches were granted interviews during the summer of 2016 to be Elizabeth’s head football coach for the upcoming season. The lawsuit alleges questions during the interview process “made it clear that they were over-simplified and phrased in a manner in which Jamil Jackson — the board member’s preferred candidate who had no head coaching experience — would be able to answer them.”
The lawsuit states that Elizabeth had not previously posted the head football coaching position until 2016. Politano previously told NJAdvanceMedia that the coaching position is meant to be posted every year but had not been until 2016.
Allegations that Jamil Jackson’s hiring was political surfaced in August, at which time Politano told NJAdvanceMedia in a prepared statement that the month “is the start of political silly season in Elizabeth when wild, false allegations are made by the disgruntled” and that the allegations “are baseless and without foundation.”
Elizabeth finished 5-6 under Jamil Jackson last season marking the first time the football program had a losing record since the 2009 campaign in which the team went 1-9 in the year before Quinn was hired.
In addition to lost wages and salary, the lawsuit alleges that Quinn suffered emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, that his reputation as a coach has been harmed and that he has lost opportunities for career advancement.
Quinn seeks undisclosed monetary damages and a declaratory judgment that his civil rights were violated.