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October 2, 2013

Ousted ME teacher loses latest appeal

MANCHESTER — The U. S. First Circuit Court of Appeals — a body that sits one rung below the Supreme Court on the U.S. judicial ladder — has shot down the latest appeal by a former Manchester Essex Regional High School girls basketball coach who was ousted over claims that he fondled a then-17-year-old female player in 2005.

In addition, the court judgment indicates that former coach and teacher Thomas A. Atwater must pay the school district’s and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s legal costs for the appeal. Atwater was fired by then-Superintendent Robert Shaps in 2005.

In accordance with state law, Atwater sought to review the school district’s actions and settle the dispute with the state DESE with a third party arbitrator assisting in that process.

But a 90-page summary by the third party supported Atwater’s termination, according to court documents.

In 2006, Atwater took his case deeper into the court system, alleging that the arbitrator failed to measure up to the standard of determining Atwater’s initial petition. Atwater also claimed that the arbitrator exceeded her authority and that she exhibited bias toward the DESE, which had backed the school district.

Eventually, the state court proceedings upheld the termination proceedings, supporting the Manchester Essex Regional School District and the state DESE.

In Atwater’s most recent challenge, he had asserted that he had the right to have his procedural complaints heard in federal court.

The federal court, however, decided that Atwater’s federal claims could have been held in state court and were essentially already ruled upon.

“Consequently, his footnote-based argument has no traction,” reads a judgment handed down by the federal appellate court on Sept. 20.

While anyone forced by a federal judge to keep state-law claims in state court can come back to federal court to have federal claims heard, Atwater’s case did not perfectly fit those qualifications, according to the court document.

The defendants — listed as Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of education, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the regional school district itself — all contested Atwater’s right to have the alleged violations heard at every turn, “a tipoff that they would call on preclusion principles to dash his litigation hopes,” the court document states.

James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x 3455 or at jniedzinski@gloucestertimes.com.

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