Joe Paterno’s family lost a partial ruling in its lawsuit over penalties levied against Pennsylvania State University’s football program after the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal.
The Paternos and four members of the school’s board of trustees sued in May 2013, challenging the National Collegiate Athletic Association sanctions, which included a $60 million fine. The NCAA also stripped the football program, which Joe Paterno coached for decades, of 112 wins.
State Court Judge John Leete in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, today said that the family of the deceased former coach couldn’t pursue breach-of-contract claims over the sanctions or seek to void them without the university’s permission. The Paternos can pursue defamation and conspiracy claims, the judge said.
“Penn State has interests in the action arising from its contract rights, and those interests are essential to the merits of the claims,” Leete said. “It would be unjust to rule upon the meaning of the terms of Penn State’s contract and whether its conduct was voluntary and authorized in its absence.”
Paterno, who set records for on-field success as the coach of Penn State’s Nittany Lions, died Jan. 22, 2012, at the age of 85. He was fired in November 2011 after 46 seasons at the university, following criticism that he failed to contact police when told of an abuse case involving Sandusky, an ex-assistant.
Sandusky, 69, who spent 31 seasons as a defensive assistant under Paterno, was sentenced in October 2012 to at least 30 years in prison for sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period.
NCAA Chief Legal Officer Donald Remy applauded Leete’s decision.
“As this was the last remaining legal challenge to the validity of the consent decree, we hope the court’s decision finally brings closure to this issue and allows the Penn State community to continue to move forward,” Remy said in an e-mailed statement.
A July 2012 report commissioned by the university said Paterno and three senior school officials, including President Graham Spanier, who was fired, hid critical facts surrounding Sandusky’s abuse in an attempt to avoid bad publicity.
The university’s board of trustees and the NCAA relied on the report, which was prepared by Louis Freeh, the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, without appropriate review or analysis, the Paternos have alleged.
The Paternos accused the Indianapolis-based NCAA of improperly interfering with and mishandling a criminal matter outside the scope of its authority. The NCAA argued that the Paternos weren’t eligible to bring claims because they weren’t parties to Penn State’s agreement with the association.
Penn State isn’t a party to the lawsuit and has declined to comment in the past on the litigation.
Leete allowed claims alleging that the NCAA’s actions, which were based in part on the 2012 internal investigation, defamed past coaches and damaged Paterno’s reputation.
“Plaintiffs have at least a possibility of recovery based on a commercialized interest in Paterno’s personality or reputation as a football coach,” Leete wrote.
Leete’s ruling is a “significant victory” for the plaintiffs, said Wick Sollers, an attorney for the Paternos.
“This is a case that deserves transparency and due process,” Sollers said in an e-mailed statement. “It is a case that can never be resolved until the full truth is known. With this ruling the bright light of legal discovery will finally shine of the facts and records of all parties involved.”
The case is Estate of Joseph Paterno v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, 2013-2082, Court of Common Pleas of Centre County, Pennsylvania (Bellefonte).