By Phil Anastasia
Cetshwayo Byrd, who was dismissed as the Camden High School boys' basketball coach last April after leading the Panthers to back-to-back South Jersey titles, has filed a lawsuit against the district and several of his former supervisors.
Byrd, who guided Camden to South Jersey Group 3 crowns in his two seasons with the team in 2011-12 and 2012-13, filed a five-count civil action Feb. 24 in Camden County Superior Court.
The lawsuit names the Camden school district and board of education as defendants as well as former district superintendent Rueben Mills, Camden High School principal James Thompson, Camden High School athletic director Mark Phillips and former district human resources director Maryann Greenfield.
"I just want answers," Byrd said. "No one has ever said to me, 'This is why you have been removed as Camden's basketball coach.'"
Louis Lessig, attorney for the Camden board of education, did not return phone calls on Thursday.
Brendan Lowe, spokesman for the Camden district, said Thursday that the district has not yet been notified of Byrd's lawsuit.
The lawsuit accuses the defendants of: 1. violation of the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act; 2. breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; 3. wrongful discharge in violation of public policy; 4. civil conspiracy, 5. defamation.
Byrd is seeking relief in the form of compensatory damages as well as incidental damages, consequential damages, punitive and/or treble damages, attorney's fees and "such relief as the Court deems just and equitable," according to the lawsuit.
"His reputation has been damaged," said Camden attorney Andre Norwood, who is Byrd's legal representative. "What happened to him was wrong and he doesn't want it to happen to anyone else."
Byrd, 43, is a special-education history teacher at Pennsauken High School. He was an assistant coach for Pennsauken's football team in the fall and has been named the school's head baseball coach for the spring.
Byrd, a 1988 Camden High School graduate, indicated a willingness to return as Camden's basketball coach.
"Why wouldn't I?" Byrd said. "Camden High is my alma mater. I'm purple-and-gold (the school colors) through and through."
Byrd became Camden's coach in November, 2011. He took over a team that had gone 8-18 in the previous season and led the Panthers to consecutive sectional titles.
Byrd's teams were 39-24 in his two seasons, including a 9-2 mark in Group 3 tournament play.
"I felt like I did a pretty good job, like we had the program going in the right direction," Byrd said.
Former long-time Cherry Hill East coach John Valore was named Camden's coach in May of 2013. This season, Camden has a 19-9 record and will play Haddonfield in the South Jersey Group 2 quarterfinals.
In the lawsuit, Byrd said that he was called into a meeting on Jan. 28, 2013 with Greenfield and assistant superintendent Andrea Kirwin and questioned about a documentary that independent filmmaker Tony Paris had produced during the 2011-12 season.
Paris was granted access to the team during that season and his documentary, which was showed several times on The Comcast Network in February and March of 2013, focused on the program's history of success and included interviews with Camden High School administrators as well as behind-the-scenes footage in the locker room and at practices.
Byrd said he received a letter from Greenfield on Feb. 7, 2013 indicating that he would suspended from coaching the team for the 2013-14 season. Byrd said that Phillips was aware of the letter but told Byrd to finish the season "strong."
Camden went 10-4 after Byrd received the letter, capturing the program's 43d sectional title with a 67-54 victory over Timber Creek on March 5, 2013.
Camden also won the state semifinal game before falling to Newark East Side by a 60-54 score in the state championship game at Rutgers University on March 10, 2013.
The lawsuit notes that "Phillips and Thompson appear in the film," and claims that "Mr. Byrd was the only employee reprimanded and suspended as a result of the film being shot and aired."
Byrd said he doesn't understand how he could be disciplined for allowing a filmmaker access to his team when his supervisors, Thompson and Phillips, were interviewed and appear in the documentary.
"If that was the case, why was I the only one who was reprimanded?" Byrd said. "When I got the letter, it didn't say anything about the documentary. If it did, there wouldn't be a lawsuit because we would have dealt with it at that time."
Paris said Thursday that he was informed by Phillips after the film was aired that his project needed board of education approval.
"Nobody said a word to me while I was filming," Paris said. "All the coach (Byrd) did was agree to interviews like everybody else did."
The lawsuit claims Byrd's suspension was a "retalitory action" because he had pointed out that Phillips and Thompson were interviewed for the documentary and, as his supervisors, were responsible for informing the board of education.
The lawsuit said Byrd has suffered "humilation, emotional distress, mental pain and anguish and continues to suffer substantional losses in earning, job experience and other employee benefits."
Byrd said he sent a letter to the board of education through another attorney in late May of 2013, asking for an explanation for his suspension. Byrd said he never received a response, prompting his legal action.
"I'm not trying to be vindictive," Byrd said. "I'm not trying to come at anybody or hurt anybody's livlihood.
"But I want some answers. That's why I did this. They wouldn't give me an answer. Now they have to answer me."
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