Former Brunswick County school district superintendent Dr. Edward Pruden’s motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed by a local charter school management company has been continued.
That action came during a hearing in New Hanover County Superior Court on Monday to allow a request from the plaintiff, Roger Bacon Academy, to hear an amended complaint against Pruden.
Baker Mitchell, who operates The Roger Bacon Academy Inc., filed a civil lawsuit against Dr. Edward Pruden in New Hanover County Superior Court in January.
Founded in 1999, Roger Bacon Academy oversees four public charter schools–Douglass Academy in Wilmington, Charter Day School in Leland, South Brunswick Charter School in Southport and Columbus Charter School in Whiteville.
In the lawsuit, Mitchell claims Pruden, while acting as superintendent of the Brunswick County school district between 2010 and 2014, made a series of false claims against Mitchell and Roger Bacon Academy. The Brunswick County Board of Education fired Pruden in November, seven months ahead of his previously announced retirement date.
Mitchell alleges that Pruden showed a “combative attitude” toward the charter school system in a variety of public formats including a YouTube video, and that when Roger Bacon Academy applied with the state Office of Charter Schools in 2013 to open South Brunswick Charter, Pruden began an “obsessive public campaign to derail approval” of the new site.
In his motion to dismiss the matter, Pruden’s attorney Edwin West argues that his client was acting at the behest of the Brunswick County Board of Education in any statements or letters to the state charter school office.
For example, the motion to dismiss states, “each of the letters at issue is on Brunswick County Schools letterhead…” and is endorsed by members of the school board. Further, items were reviewed by the board’s legal counsel.
Since Pruden was acting in his duty as superintendent for his employers, West argues, he is protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which protects an employee of the state from liability. More basically, West claims Pruden is protected under the First Amendment in making “truthful speech about issues of public concern and about public figures.”
Mitchell’s attorney, George Fletcher, hit back with an amended complaint, arguing Pruden knew before publishing information about Roger Bacon Academy and its charter schools that he had “no information to support his false and defamatory statements” and therefore acted with malice.
Fletcher also claims the Brunswick County School district and the board of education never authorized Pruden to write and publish defamatory statements. Since he was therefore acting “in his individual capacity, outside the scope of his students as superintendent,” the amended lawsuit goes on to state, then the sovereign immunity defense does not hold.
In addition to more than $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, Mitchell is now seeking additional special damages in excess of $313,200.
The next hearing date in this lawsuit has not yet been set.
Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or firstname.lastname@example.org.