Attorneys representing Medina Schools board members hope to get half of a lawsuit filed by Superintendent Randy Stepp dropped from what increasingly promises to be a multiyear case.
Deadlines for preliminary motions and other pretrial actions extend to July 30, 2014, according to a schedule filed Monday.
Last week, attorneys representing members of the school board and district Treasurer Jim Hudson filed a judgment motion asking for the dismissal of three defamation allegations.
Stepp’s lawsuit, filed May 17 in U.S. District Court in Akron, charges school board members and Hudson with defamation and breach of contract claims. The board members have responded and filed a countersuit against Stepp.
In their response, board members argued that a five-year contract they approved on Jan. 7, that included an $83,000 signing bonus, is invalid because it was approved in a manner that violated Ohio’s open-government laws.
The board rescinded Stepp’s contract on April 17 and placed Stepp on paid administrative leave, pending the outcome of a special state audit into Stepp’s use of district money held in a “carryover” fund maintained by the Medina County Schools’ Educational Service Center.
In the request for a judgment motion filed earlier this month, attorneys for the school board ask federal District Judge Lesley Wells to dismiss two defamation counts in Stepp’s lawsuit and part of another count, alleging “depravation of liberty.”
The defamation allegations stem from a news release issued by board members Susan Vlcek, Bill Grenfell and Karla Robinson that stated they didn’t know Stepp’s 2009 contract, amended in 2011, provided that the district pay off $172,000 in federal loans Stepp owed for his college degrees. Stepp charged the board members knew about the payments, which he directed to be made from the ESC carryover fund.
In the motion asking that the defamation charges be dropped, board members countered that the information in the news release, whether accurate or not, can’t be considered defamatory against Stepp.
“The March 22, 2013 press release in question does not pertain to plaintiff Stepp and contains nothing derogatory regarding Stepp,” the motion states.
“The public relations release has to do with the board’s level of knowledge and awareness concerning some of the issues, but does not say anything about Stepp,” the motion states. “In this regard it is not “of and concerning” Randy Stepp. For this reason, the public relations release which Stepp complains of cannot constitute defamation, a false light tort. … This is so whether the press release is true or not.”
If the board’s motion is successful, it would leave only the breach of contract complaints pending in federal court and could speed up the proceedings.
“If the motion is granted, all the defamation claims against the board members would be dismissed so it’s really one half of the lawsuit,” said Warren Rossman, an attorney representing school board members. “That’s one of the reasons we filed — that was to hopefully make the whole thing a little bit more streamlined.”
But even if Judge Wells agrees to drop the defamation allegations, there is no end in sight for the lawsuit.
On Monday, the federal magistrate filed a case management plan for the Stepp suit and countersuit — a schedule that sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle.
The schedule sets a May 16, 2014, for expert discovery to be filed by attorneys. Discovery is part of the pretrial portion of a case where attorneys can request documents and depositions from the opposing party, according to the Ohio Supreme Court’s rules on civil procedure.
After attorneys file for discovery, any motion for a summary judgment that asks the judge to dismiss some or all charges must be filed by June 16 and any response to a motion for summary judgment must by filed by July 30, 2014. All of those steps must be completed before a trial can even begin.
If the motion to dismiss the defamation allegations is upheld, the remaining charges made by Stepp allege breach of contract by the board and Hudson, and include two other charges alleging defamation against human resources and legal director Jim Shields.
Shields, through a separate attorney, has filed a motion to have the defamation charges against him dropped.
If the breach of contract claims are all that remains in Stepp’s suit, it also could be impacted by a suit filed in a different court.
In a separate case filed on July 29 in Medina County Common Pleas Court, J.R. Russell, a resident and local attorney, filed a suit asking that the court declare Stepp’s contract “void and unenforceable” because the school board violated the open meetings law.
The suit also asks that any attempt to enforce the contract by “action in any other tribunal” — an apparent reference to Stepp’s federal lawsuit — be declared invalid.
Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or firstname.lastname@example.org.