For the third year in a row, under the tutelage of coach Phil Hoang, the M-A girls wrestling program earned the title of Central Coast Section (CCS) champions and achieved top-10 finishes at CIF State Championships, finishing second in the state this year. Hoang has coached wrestling at M-A for eight years, the last three years as head coach of the girls wrestling team, creating what the San Mateo Daily Journal called a “golden age of wrestling” for the girls team at M-A.
This year’s success comes despite a complicated lawsuit involving the girls wrestling program. The lawsuit, filed by M-A senior and former girls wrestling team member Kiernan Dunn, alleged that the District and its representatives discriminated against her because of a complaint made against a former coach. However, court documents filed in opposition to her claims allege that rather than being a valid complaint about discrimination, the lawsuit was an attempt by a parent to get Hoang fired and seize control of the team.
The lawsuit implicated Hoang, the Sequoia Union High School District, Superintendent Mary Streshly, M-A’s Principal Simone Rick-Kennel, Vice Principal Stephen Emmi, and Athletic Director Steven Kryger. The lawsuit was ongoing from November 2018 until January this year, but the story of this legal dispute really starts in 2017.
Back in 2017, Hoang asked Kevin Dunn, whose daughter Kiernan was on the team, to be a volunteer coach since Dunn had wrestled in college and trained wrestlers at all levels. As Kevin Dunn said, “I’ve been involved in the sport of wrestling for over 40 years; as a collegiate wrestler and as a coach. I have coached Olympians and All-Americans. I have helped middle schools and high schools.”
Shortly thereafter, Dunn complained to Hoang that assistant coach Cliff Olson was making the teams complete dangerous moves while blindfolded that allegedly led to one wrestler fracturing his neck, as claimed in court documents.
Court documents also state that ‘around October 2017,’ Kiernan Dunn said that she complained to her father about Olson; she said he was making sexist statements towards girls on the team. The amended complaint notes that “in or around October of 2017” Kevin Dunn observed Olson making racially inappropriate remarks, which he reported to Hoang and assistant coach Daniel Williams, along with Kiernan’s complaint. Dunn then made a complaint to Athletic Director Paul Snow, an investigation was conducted by the district, and Olson was let go as a coach on or around February 1, 2018.
After Olson was let go, Kevin Dunn was himself removed as a volunteer coach by M-A administration because, as stated in court documents, “there were many issues related to his conduct, including his behavior of undermining and being rude to coaches.”
During the spring and summer of 2018, after Kevin Dunn was told he could not be a coach, he began making complaints to M-A administration about Hoang, according to court documents. He alleged that Hoang had some female wrestlers tell the team they had to report their weight every week or face punishment. “This conduct was in violation of CCS rules and harmful to young women,” according to the Dunn complaint.
However, these weight inquiries were not related to school wrestling at all. John McDonnell, a father of a female wrestler and an attorney representing interested parties in the case, said that the interactions between Hoang and wrestlers in the summer had to do with a private club run by Hoang in which members of M-A’s team voluntarily participated. Therefore, these communications could not be in violation of CCS rules, like Dunn claimed. The District added in its legal filings that Hoang “did not direct correspondence to the girls’ team regarding recording their weight,” but rather “the wrestlers and parents…requested the information so the wrestlers would know which weight classes were open.”
Despite the success of the girls wrestling program both before and after Dunn’s involvement, in an email to Vice Principal Stephen Emmi of April 4, 2018 that is part of the public record of this lawsuit, Kevin Dunn wrote, “The coaching staff are credit hogs and intimidating, even disrespectful to those who have knowledge of the sport. Phil took 100% credit for the girls’ success this year even though I coached them more in terms of teaching technique than all of the coaches.” He went on to call Hoang a “fraud” and an “opportunist,” as well as “incapable of bringing in good coaches because he himself is not.”
Kevin Dunn again complained to Steven Kryger and Vice Principal Stephen Emmi, and allegedly Kryger “admonished” Dunn for making these complaints. According to her legal statement, Kiernan Dunn “had seen Phil Hoang commit assault and battery against her father,” and was so uncomfortable with Hoang’s conduct by this point that she told her father she would not wrestle if he was coaching; Kevin Dunn met with Emmi and Kryger, who promised they would set up a meeting with Hoang to resolve the issue, which allegedly never happened.
As a result, court documents say, “Kiernan and Kevin Dunn filed a retaliation complaint with the district alleging misconduct by Phil Hoang and Steven Kryger” on August 22, 2018, that accused them of violating Title IX provisions prohibiting discrimination based on sex for institutions receiving federal funds. Under Title IX, retaliation against individuals who complain about sex discrimination is considered intentional discrimination, and that is what the Dunns said happened.
The Title IX complaint was an administrative complaint filed by Kiernan and Kevin Dunn with the District against Phil Hoang and Steve Kryger. Court documents allege that after Olson was fired, Dunn “was immediately retaliated against by Phil Hoang” because Dunn was told he could not coach the girls wrestling team anymore, and Hoang allegedly told wrestlers to stop participating in group lessons that Dunn had been conducting at his home. This caused Kiernan to become isolated from her teammates, according to the complaint.
However, other team members have said that Kiernan Dunn was welcome at any team events they hosted, and chose not to participate. McDonnell stated in court documents that some students stopped going to Dunn’s practices because their parents told them to; they were uncomfortable with sending their daughters to the sessions late into Saturday evenings where the girls were encouraged to watch ultimate fighting.
While the administrative complaint was pending, on October 26, 2018 the District informed Kevin Dunn that he would not be allowed to coach for the 2018-2019 season, stating in a letter to Kevin Dunn that, “Due to your conduct, the District has received employee concerns regarding safety. Therefore, you may not coach the Menlo-Atherton High School wrestling teams” or “be present during wrestling team practices.” At public events, the letter continued, Dunn was “not to make contact with Coach Phil Hoang, […] and not interfere with Mr. Hoang’s coaching duties or wrestling team activities.”
Several days later, on November 6, 2018, Kiernan Dunn filed a lawsuit in state court, making substantially the same allegations as those made in her administrative complaint filed with the District, alleging violation of Title IX. However, there were legal flaws with the complaint because it did not properly assert any actionable legal claims, so Dunn’s lawyer had to submit a “First Amended Complaint.”
McDonnell, who filed court documents in the case on behalf of interested parties, said that Kiernan’s initial Complaint for Title IX violations was not valid. He explained that the original Complaint made claims against individuals— Hoang, Emmi, Streshly, and others— that can legally be made only against institutions. So the Dunns’ lawyer had to amend the complaint to drop the individuals from the allegations, which he did when he filed a “First Amended Complaint.” But in the amended Complaint the Dunns’ lawyer also asserted different legal claims based on the same allegations of discrimination and retaliation against Kiernan Dunn.
McDonnell said, “The amended Complaint was just as flawed as the original Complaint — both legally and factually…Not only did it include the same lies as the original Complaint, it failed to assert any actionable legal claims. For example, it alleged violations of a variety of laws without actually alleging any facts to support a violation.”
He added that, “The ‘retaliation’ discussion in the Complaint was about how Kevin Dunn – not Kiernan Dunn – was allegedly harmed,” and the complaint was “based on the same allegation of discrimination against Kiernan— but without any allegation of any facts showing how she had been discriminated against.” The complaint also alleged that Coach Hoang changed the girls practice time from afternoons at 3:30 p.m. to early mornings at 5:30 a.m. to deliberately prevent Kevin Dunn from coaching. It also alleged that changing the practice time “deprived [Kiernan Dunn] of necessary sleep and made it difficult for [her] to concentrate in class,” said her lawyer.
But other wrestlers had been following this schedule without issue since the previous year, before Kiernan Dunn became a student at M-A; in addition, morning practice is commonplace for high school sports, like basketball and swimming. The District and members of the wrestling team also contend that the time was moved simply because there was not adequate space for the girls and boys teams to practice in the afternoon, and that this decision was made before any issues with the Dunns. As members of the girls wrestling team informed the Chronicle, the team had scheduled early morning practices for that same reason the previous year.
A key allegation of the amended Complaint involved an altercation at the CCS championship tournament in February of 2018 where Kevin Dunn physically threatened Coach Hoang. According to Kiernan Dunn’s amended Complaint, Hoang allegedly told Olson to sit with wrestlers at the CCS tournament, though he was no longer a coach, and Kiernan Dunn called her father to complain. Dunn eventually came to CCS and told Hoang to remove Olson, which allegedly he did not. Dunn later sat in a wrestler’s corner during a match—where a coach would sit even though Dunn was not an authorized coach for the tournament—and, as Kevin Dunn alleged in court documents, “Phil Hoang approached me from behind and pushed me in the back” and “Hoang was threatening me with physical violence.”
After the CCS altercation, Kevin Dunn reported this to Athletic Director Steven Kryger, but according to Dunn’s lawyer, M-A failed to take action “against Phil Hoang for his assault and battery on Kevin Dunn.” However, video taken from the altercation shows a distinctly different scenario: Hoang approaching Dunn and asking him to leave without yelling, and Dunn threatening Hoang and cursing in response. In commenting on the District’s decision to not allow Kevin Dunn to be a coach for the 2018-2019 seasons, the District’s counsel referred to the video in court papers, stating that, “The concern expressed by the District stems, in part, from Mr. Dunn’s threat to coach Hoang that he would ‘fuck [him] up.’ …Mr. Dunn acknowledges making this threat, probably because he was captured on video making [it].”
In court documents, McDonnell said, “contrary to the assertions of [Kiernan Dunn], her counsel and [Kevin] Dunn, the video shows that [Kevin] Dunn … refused to move and then threatened to “fuck up” Phil Hoang, falsely and irrationally accusing Phil Hoang of having the former coach there to intimidate [Kiernan Dunn] — even though Phil Hoang had no idea why the former coach had been fired and had no authority over him.”
The dispute came to a head after the District lawyers had the case transferred from state court to federal court because Kiernan Dunn’s claims involved federal law. Immediately after the transfer, Kiernan Dunn filed a motion with the federal district court in San Francisco under the auspices of a temporary restraining order (TRO) to have the court order the District and M-A to appoint her father as her coach at M-A and as a coach for the boys team. She requested that in the alternative she be allowed to compete for the girls team of Fremont High School where her father was a coach, despite not being a student at that school and contrary to express CIF rules.
The District lawyers and McDonnell filed separate opposition papers to the Dunns’ motion. In describing the case to the court, the District’s counsel stated that “this unfortunate situation arises from the conduct of Kevin Dunn, who […] seeks a Court order to seize control of the interscholastic wrestling program at Menlo-Atherton High School. In so doing, Mr. Dunn has placed himself in conflict with the school’s administration, including the girls’ wrestling coach, Phil Hoang. Kiernan Dunn has not been prohibited from wrestling at Menlo-Atherton; rather, [she] has chosen not to wrestle with the girls’ wrestling team this season.”
McDonnell’s opposition papers stated, “[Kiernan Dunn] and her father would have this Court believe that Phil Hoang is a terrible person and terrible coach who was out to get them and retaliate against them, and…that all of this was somehow an effort to harm and/or retaliate against [Kevin] Dunn and [Kiernan Dunn]. In fact, the opposite is the case: [Kevin] Dunn has taken every possible effort to attack, harass and intimidate Phil Hoang, including filing dubious claims and by asserting demonstrably false allegations to this Court.”
Commensurate with its filing of TRO opposition papers, the District’s lawyers also filed a “Motion to Dismiss” to have Kiernan Dunn’s amended Complaint dismissed. According to the District’s filing, the amended Complaint failed “to state a claim against Defendants upon which relief can be granted.” The Motion to Dismiss had been scheduled to be heard by the same judge for early March of 2019, but the Dunns dismissed the case before this hearing occurred.
McDonnell, who attended the TRO hearing, noted, “The judge rather quickly saw through the Dunns’ baseless allegations and told Kiernan’s lawyer in no uncertain terms that the District’s Motion to Dismiss would likely be granted at the March hearing, that the case ‘sounded like a beef between a dad and a coach’ that did not belong in federal court, and that it was definitely not in Kiernan’s best interests in the first place.”
The judge then summarily denied the TRO, and Kiernan Dunn’s lawyer then filed his own motion to dismiss the case a few days later, thereby ending the entire legal dispute. McDonnell pointed out that had the District’s Motion to Dismiss been heard by the court, the court not only would have likely granted it, but would have likely had the Dunn family pay the District’s legal fees.
In commenting on the dismissal, McDonnell said, “The judge got it right: this case was about Kevin Dunn, not about Kiernan, and should never have been brought in the first place.” When asked for further elaboration on his views, McDonnell referred M-A Chronicle staff to his court filings. In those court filings McDonnell stated, “I have never seen a parent — or anyone — behave in such a reprehensible manner and demonstrate so little self-control or self-awareness of the appropriate time, place, and method to resolve disputes, as has [Kevin] Dunn.”
When discussing the decision to drop the case that would allow her to wrestle for another school or install her father as a coach, Kiernan Dunn said, “We knew this would be a long shot – usually requests are denied in these hearings. The judge explained that he wasn’t willing to change the way a school district operates in an emergency hearing where he didn’t have the chance to study and understand all of the issues. Since our motion was denied and our only objective not fulfilled we had no reason to keep going and we dropped the suit.”
McDonnell added that “Under Phil Hoang, the Girls Team has become the epitome of what a high school sports team should be: positive, welcoming, structured, organized, honorable, diligent, good natured, respectful of each other and their opponent, and successful – traits which derive directly from Phil Hoang himself.”
When asked how the lawsuit affected his experience this season, Hoang said, “The lawsuit was meritless, my primary concern was with how the lawsuit could affect the team. I was focused on running a program and all the usual things a coach should be doing — recruiting, hiring assistant coaches, working with students on academic eligibility, letters of recommendation, keeping the team focused on their goals. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to our parents, wrestlers, and school administration for providing their continued support. It helped me stay focused on our goals.”
A senior wrestler voiced similar support for Hoang, and said, “The amount of dedication and sacrifice Coach Hoang has put into this team over my past four years is incredible. He has made us stronger physically, mentally, and emotionally. He has helped us build the team culture we have today and it is one of the reasons we have achieved this amount of success.”
Wrestlers on the team agreed with this sentiment. One senior wrestler said, “I can’t say enough good things about him [Hoang]. He is a person in my life, and in my family’s life, and in so many other wrestlers’ lives where he’s been a life mentor, a coach, someone who is just supportive of us, respects us, I just can’t say enough good things. When I think of good people in this world, he is on that list.”
She went on to say that she was devastated by the attack on Hoang’s character, but according to she and other wrestlers, the team remained close and focused. They called a meeting at the beginning of the season to discuss the tension surrounding the case, which allowed them to move forward.
The team, led by Coach Hoang, had their best season in recent memory despite the conflict, and one wrestler said that she believes their team became even more closely bonded as a result of going through this turmoil together. She described a team that is supportive of each other and of their coach.
Hoang attested to the strength of the team, saying, “Have you seen this team? I was told they were doing pull-ups in their prom gear. Nothing phases this group.”
Another senior agreed, saying, “As a team I don’t think we let the lawsuit deter us from our goals or distract us in practices and competition. The wrestling room is a safe space and like a home to many of our wrestlers so we didn’t want to bring that negativity into the room.”
A freshman on the team said that she barely heard anyone discuss the lawsuit. “At first, I only heard it from other people asking me about it,” she said, “Initially, the only information I had about it was from the Almanac.”
She went on to praise Coach Hoang, saying, “I’ve done a lot of sports, but wrestling is really the only one that is a family, and Coach Hoang creates that…When I first heard the claims I was already skeptical, because I knew his personality…You’ll always see Coach Hoang super calm [at tournaments], always super supportive. The most emotional and worked up I’ve seen him is when one of our girls won. I’ve never seen him in the way he was described by the Almanac.”
Indeed, other wrestlers agreed, and one said, “It saddens and angers me that someone would make false accusations towards someone who is just trying to make a positive impact on a group of teenagers.”
Hoang noted, “There are outcomes you can control and there are outcomes you can’t control. You can waste a lot of energy on outcomes you can’t control. I had the full support of the school administration and the district to run a program; I focused my energy on providing the best possible experience I could for our team.”
In November, the Almanac posted an article outlining the details of the lawsuit, including the official document at the bottom.