Former Coach Rich Rodriguez faces Suit for Defamation, Slander, Amid Other Claims

Former Arizona head football coach Rich Rodriguez has recently been sued for $8.5 million by his former administer assistant, Melissa Wilhelmsen. The lawsuit alleges “slander, defamation and false light, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.” It is the second suit filed by Ms. Wilhelmsen. The first suit alleges sexual harassment and a hostile work environment and sought $7.5 million in damages. Rodriguez now faces approximately a combined $16 million in damages.

Controversial Coaching Career

Rodriguez was fired by Arizona earlier this year without cause although speculation of his departure swirled after Ms. Wilhelmsen’s lawsuit. Kevin Sumlin, who formerly coached Texas A&M University, was hired to replace Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a native of West Virginia and has previously coached at Glenville State, Tulane, the University of West Virginia and Michigan. Rodriguez’s departure from West Virginia was not without conflict and resulted in litigation in West Virginia. Rodriguez left Michigan in 2011 with the lowest winning percentage of any coach in Michigan’s history.

Rich Rodriguez narrowly missed being the head coach at the University of Alabama, having received an offer to lead the program on December 7, 2006. Rodriguez eventually turned down the offer and stayed on as West Virginia coach.

Apart from finding a new coaching job, what can Rodriguez expect in the pending lawsuit against him?

Defamation & Slander

As mentioned above, Rodriguez now faces two hefty lawsuits from his former administrative assistant. The most recent claim alleges defamation and related torts. Although the law differs from state to state, the general elements of slander are 1) A false and/or defamatory statement; 2) Publication (conveying the statement to another person or third party) 3) Negligence on the part of the speaker; and 4) actual damages.

Defamation laws are in place to ensure patent falsehoods aren’t used against you in an unfair way. Defamation can be spoken (slander) or written (libel). Some communications are defamatory per se, which means the aggrieved party doesn’t need to show actual damages. These per se defamatory communications may include crimes of moral turpitude, allegations impugning character, morality or chastity, communications impairing someone’s livelihood, allegations of venereal disease, and other categories depending on state law.

Invasion of Privacy & False Light

Invasion of privacy and false light are more recently recognized torts. In fact, not all states recognize these torts. Some states may recognize versions and variations while other states may recognize additional privacy torts. Invasion of privacy is often used as an umbrella to include torts such as false light, public disclosure of private facts, intrusion upon seclusion, and appropriating name or likeness.

A claim of false light generally requires a showing of a public disclosure of information about the aggrieved party; 2) the information falsely and negatively portrayed the aggrieved party; and 3) such a portrayal is highly offensive.

Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

The tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress (IIED) requires a showing of 1) extreme or outrageous conduct; 2) intention to cause severe mental anguish; and 3) in most instances, actual distress occurred. IIED is a difficult tort to prove but is often included or alleged in a civil complaint. It is closely related to the Alabama tort of outrage. IIED is subject to a statute of limitations like most other torts.


To reiterate, the claims described above vary from state to state and are nuanced depending upon the facts of a given case. While the law in Arizona differs from the law in Alabama, what’s clear is that Rich Rodriguez has a formidable legal battle on his hands.

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