A Centre County judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Penn State brought by former football athletic trainer Tim Bream, who in a separate capacity served as live-in adviser to the now banned Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
President Judge Pamela Ruest found Bream's claims of constructive discharge, civil conspiracy and intentional infliction of emotional distress to be legally insufficient and dismissed the complaint against the university, athletic director Sandy Barbour and senior associate athletic director Charmelle Green.
Bream has 20 days to file an amended complaint.
A Penn State alumnus, Bream came to the Nittany Lion football program in 2012 as director of athletic training services and head athletic trainer for football, later being promoted to assistant athletic director overseeing training for all 31 varsity sports. He was relieved of his role as assistant athletic director in February 2018, about one year after pledge Timothy Piazza died following an alcohol-fueled initiation at the Beta Theta Pi house.
As adviser to the Beta Theta Pi chapter — in which he was employed by the fraternity's alumni corporation — Bream was present the night a heavily intoxicated Timothy Piazza fell down the basement stairs during bid acceptance night, but has testified that he was asleep that night and unaware of what occurred. He also claimed he did not know about or approve alcohol at fraternity functions.
He was not among the nearly 30 people who faced charges in that case, though attorneys for defendants in the resulting criminal cases have questioned his testimony. Surveillance video footage showed Bream walking through the hall, about 10 feet from where Piazza was on the floor, shortly after 5 a.m. on Feb. 3, 2017.
In the original lawsuit filed in November 2019, attorney Steven Marino wrote that actions taken by the university against Bream were done so with the "ulterior motive of avoiding the appearance of impropriety, wrongdoing or scandal at the expense of” Bream’s rights. In taking away his athletic director duties, the university substantially reduced Bream's pay and made his working conditions "so intolerable that he was compelled to resign,” Marino wrote.
Ruest, sustaining Penn State's objections, wrote that in Pennsylvania "there is generally no cause of action for the discharge of an at-will employee," and that Bream failed to show that the university's action violated any public policy.
Bream contended that the university violated NCAA guidelines and Pennsylvania policy promoting the health and welfare of student-athletes by allowing Green to conduct his performance reviews instead of medically trained personnel and that his last review was used to justify his removal as assistant athletic director.
"Although the health and well-being of student-athletes is an important public interest, [Bream] has failed to show a clear mandate of public policy was violated by his firing," Ruest wrote.
Citing the NCAA Sports Medicine Handbook, Ruest wrote that the NCAA guidelines referred to by Bream are not legal standards, nor are they mandates that institutions must follow. Relevant Pennsylvania laws, meanwhile, require athletic trainers to work under the supervision of a physician, which Bream did, but do not impose duties on employers or allow for them to be sanctioned.
"[Bream] failed to allege facts showing how his discharge threatened the health and well-being of student-athletes," Ruest wrote. "None of the Defendants' actions appear to put any student athletes' health and well-being at risk. It does not appear there was any disproportionality in [Bream's] discharge and there was not any viciousness or impropriety on Defendants' part."
Ruest added that Green's performance evaluation of Bream also showed separate, legitimate reasons for Bream's discharge. He failed to inform Penn State of his role as in-house advisor for Beta Theta Pi, Ruest wrote. He also kept keys to a safe in the athletic training room in an unlocked desk, leading to prescription drugs being stolen twice, and made unauthorized purchases outside of Penn State's procurement process, according to Ruest's order.
"Multiple situations show [Bream] had exercised poor judgment in his roles as assistant athletic director and head athletic trainer," Ruest wrote.
Civil conspiracy, meanwhile, requires two actors agreeing to act in an unlawful way, Ruest wrote, and courts have ruled that universities are single actors that cannot conspire with themselves. An exception exists when employees act for their sole personal benefit, but Bream does not claim Barbour or Green did so or that they acted outside the scope of their university employment.
Bream's claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress was dismissed because he did not establish that Penn State's actions were "outrageous or extreme," Ruest wrote.