Sunday, March 3, 2024

Judge awards $140M damages to victims in Michael Kelly case

The last legal battle regarding a former NHCS teacher’s sexual abuse of students was resolved Wednesday in New Hanover County court. (Port City Daily/Amy Passaretti Willis)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The last legal battle regarding a former NHCS teacher’s sexual abuse of students was resolved Wednesday when the court ruled in favor of the victims’ request for damages. 

READ MORE: NHCS will settle in Kelly sexual abuse case

Michael Kelly, a former New Hanover County Schools teacher who pleaded guilty to 59 sex crimes against children in 2019, has been ordered to pay $140 million in damages to the 14 plaintiffs in a civil case. The amount reflects the maximum award the plaintiffs’ could have received under North Carolina law. 

The decision, handed down by Judge Phyllis Gorham in one of her last cases before retirement, was a default judgment — Kelly and his representation chose not to attend the hearing. 

Only one of the plaintiffs was present for Wednesday’s proceedings; he, along with the other 13, was represented by Martin Ramey and Elise Wilson of Rhine Law Firm, along with Mary Charles Amerson of Lea/Schulz Law Firm.

“Sometimes Lady Justice swings her sword for mercy; sometimes she swings her sword for vengeance,” Ramey said during his opening statement. “Today we’ll be asking that she swing the sword for vengeance.”

Kelly was employed as a chemistry teacher at Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College. From 2003 to his arrest in 2018, he allegedly committed a number of predatory acts with multiple students. Accusations include sexually explicit conversations with students, exposing them to pornography, possessing and sharing child pornography, performing sex acts on children and directing them to perform sex acts on him. 

Per the 2019 conviction, Kelly is serving a 16 to 24 year sentence for first degree sexual exploitation and statutory sex with a minor. The additional charges were consolidated for judgment; Kelly will serve a second sentence of 20-84 months after completion of the first. 

The plaintiffs’ attorneys stressed the importance of the civil case to deter Kelly, projected for a 2035 release, from further abuse. They noted Kelly was not prosecuted for other alleged crimes, nor the abuse suffered by the three victims included in the civil case, but not the criminal. Two of those victims accused Kelly of drugging and raping them in a classroom. According to the attorneys, 16 others have come forward with accusations against Kelly.

The ruling is also meant to reverberate beyond Kelly. 

“We need to deter anyone who would ever think about doing this to a child, who would ever think about allowing this in our school system,” Wilson said during the hearing.

The court must consider three things in punitive charges cases: fraud, malice, and willful and wanton conduct. Wilson argued that by defaulting in the case, Kelly admitted to all three.

The estimation for damages was completed by Jeffery Dion at the Zero Abuse Project; Ramey explained he conducted interviews with the 14 plaintiffs and determined economic and noneconomic costs of living in the wake of Kelly’s abuse. 

The $140 million estimation includes projected psychological treatment costs and lost earnings. Dion took into consideration the severity of the crimes, number of years exposed, the presence of photo or video evidence, and the impact of abuse. 

To further demonstrate the latter component, several of the victims’ video testimonies were played for the judge Wednesday.

One of the survivors detailed his experience of being taught how to search for porn by Kelly, who then escalated the abuse by inviting him to the YMCA. The victim said Kelly convinced him to remove his clothes in the sauna; Kelly fondled himself in front of him and directed him to touch him. 

In the aftermath, the John Doe said he suffers from a porn addiction. Amerson reported the victim solicited himself as a prostitute and was eventually arrested, causing him to lose his job and marriage. 

Another John Doe said Kelly would make him watch porn at school. That escalated to groping and pressure to have sex with Kelly. According to Amerson, Kelly massaged the minor’s genitals under the table at school and kissed him in a car. The near constant abuse caused the student to drop out.

One plaintiff said Kelly would try to get students to make videos of them doing sexual acts. He described his experience filming a video with Kelly in UNCW’s Dobo Hall; afterward, the John Doe said Kelly remarked the lighting was not good enough and directed him to film another in the Isaac Bear building.

Wilson said Kelly would pose as a porn recruiter. She presented an email from Kelly discussing payment for such videos. Wilson said, though the attorneys do not have possession of it, a video file was sent back to the teacher. 

Almost all of the victims mentioned reported being diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, suffering from panic attacks, having problems with alcohol, self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts. 

One of the victim’s mothers took her own life after learning of her son’s abuse. For the survivors, many reported difficulty getting through every day.

“Education is the great equalizer; for many children, it’s their way out … Kelly’s abuse derailed so many of these children who are academically gifted and inclined to be very successful in their life,” Amerson said. 

Wilson argued several of Kelly’s actions constitute fraud, including his pretense as a porn agent. For the two victims allegedly drugged and raped by Kelly, Wilson argued the teacher committed fraud by telling the students they were going to do a chemistry experiment.

As for malice, Wilson made an argument that was incontrovertible. 

“None of us sitting at this table think it’s possible for a teacher to unzip his pants and pull out his penis without malice towards the students,” Wilson said. 

And willful and wanton conduct: Wilson said none of Kelly’s actions were committed by accident. 

Though Wednesday’s case did not focus on the school system’s actions in relation to Kelly, the district’s failure to protect students from him was an additional source of trauma used to determine the justification for punitive damages.

However, several plaintiffs did try to hold the school system accountable for Kelly’s abuse. 

A separate civil case implicating the New Hanover County board of education and several past employees was filed in 2019, though it has since been settled.

It was revealed during the criminal trial that the school district investigated Kelly for sexual misconduct in 2006 but did not alert law enforcement. That triggered the lawsuit against the school board, former superintendents Rick Holliday and Tim Markley and other unnamed employees. 

The lawsuit alleged the board was culpable in failing to prevent Kelly’s actions for more than a decade. 

The civil case did not go to trial; after years of trying to dismiss the case, New Hanover County Schools agreed to a $5.75 million settlement in June, though did not apologize nor admit wrongdoing. 

The district also agreed expand training for students, staff, and administrators on sexual abuse and recognizing and reporting such abuse. There will also be a public report of its efforts to improve the school’s policies and practices regarding Title IX compliance and sexual abuse prevention.

The State Bureau of Investigation’s inquiry into NHCS wrongdoing also wrapped up this year. The investigation was launched at the request of District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon shortly after Kelly’s conviction. Three years in, the SBI turned over its investigative findings to the office of Attorney General Josh Stein. In August, Stein announced NHCS would not face any charges.

“While some of the evidence found in our investigation suggests that some New Hanover County Schools employees may have violated the law at the time, the statute of limitations passed before these allegations were reported to the district attorney and before we received the investigation for potential misdemeanor charges,” Stein said in a release.

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