Defamation trial of former Brunswick County superintendent continued until August

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Superintendent Dr. Edward Pruden. File photo.
Superintendent Dr. Edward Pruden. File photo.

A defamation lawsuit from a local charter school management company against Brunswick County’s former superintendent has been continued.

A series of motions on both sides of the case has pushed back the civil superior court trial of Dr. Edward Pruden—set to begin on Feb. 29—by another six months.

Baker Mitchell, who operates The Roger Bacon Academy, filed the lawsuit against Pruden in January 2015. The 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.

Mitchell claims that while superintendent of the Brunswick County school district, Pruden made a series of false accusations between 2012 and 2014 about Mitchell and his management company. Pruden, who was hired in 2010, was fired in November 2014, seven months ahead of his previously announced retirement date.

Part of the recent delay in the proceedings rests with a motion to dismiss the case, Pruden’s attorney Edwin West said. A New Hanover County Superior Court Judge denied that motion in November and West has since appealed the decision in the N.C. Court of Appeals. West now wants that appeal to be heard before the prosecution moves forward with the trial.

In the lawsuit, Mitchell says Pruden openly exhibited a “combative attitude” toward the charter school system, particularly when Roger Bacon Academy applied with the state Office of Charter Schools in 2013 to open South Brunswick Charter.

“Pruden has falsely stated to third parties that public charter schools assist in ‘dismantling’ North Carolina’s system of public education…and that public charter schools have ‘morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity,’” according to the original suit.

Mitchell further claims Pruden leaked the district’s Local Education Agency Impact Statement–a document Pruden submitted on behalf of the school board to the state as part of the charter approval process–to the media in an effort to cast doubt on “Mitchell’s honesty, character and moral standing in the community.” Impact statements are routinely drafted to show the possible negative outcomes a proposed charter school could have on school districts’ budgets and enrollment.

In his statement, Pruden accused Mitchell’s “private companies” of profiting from taxpayer dollars in the amount of $16 million.

Mitchell alleges Pruden’s public campaign against him continued with his attempt to show the N.C. Board of Education that there was a “conflict of interest” between Mitchell, Roger Bacon Academy and charter schools, including Mitchell’s position on the Charter Day School’s Board of Directors.

West, however, has argued his client was only acting on behalf of the Brunswick County Board of Education.

The original motion to dismiss states, “each of the letters at issue is on Brunswick County Schools letterhead and is signed by the defendant as ‘Superintendent, Brunswick County Schools.’” Those items were endorsed by the board and reviewed by legal counsel, West said.

Since Pruden was acting in his duty as superintendent for his employers, West said he is covered by sovereign immunity, which protects an employee of the state from liability. More basically, West said Pruden’s words were not defamatory because they were not false, and he is therefore protected under the First Amendment in making “truthful speech about issues of public concern and about public figures.”

In addition to more than $50,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, Mitchell is seeking additional special damages in excess of $313,200. Pruden, too, is seeking compensation in the form of attorneys’ fees for what the motion to dismiss calls a “frivolous and malicious” lawsuit.

According to New Hanover County Courthouse records, the new trial date is Aug. 29.

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at hilary.s@portcitydaily.com.

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