BRADENTON -- A judge will decide within 10 days on whether to dismiss a lawsuit against the Manatee County School Board filed by former employee Robert Gagnon and his wife, Melissa, after hearing arguments from lawyers in the case Monday.
The defamation case arises from Gagnon's dismissal from the school district during the fallout of the Roderick Frazier child abuse case. The Gagnons filed the defamation case against the school board and individually against Rick Mills, superintendent at the time; Troy Pumphrey, the district investigator at the time; former school board member Julie Aranibar; and school board Karen Carpenter.
Carpenter is the only individual listed in the suit who is still associated with the district.
Fred Moore, a lawyer representing the school district, argued that all the public comments alleged by the Gagnons fell well within the "orbit," or scope, of the school board members' duties. He asked Judge John Lakin to dismiss the case without prejudice.
"What's going on in the schools is necessary for the public to know," Moore said. "In this case, every allegation made relates to Mr. Gagnon's employment. That falls squarely within the orbit of all these players."
Moore argued that the statements made by those involved in the lawsuits are privileged. Once that is accepted, the rest of the complaints in the lawsuit -- including a loss of consortium complaint -- don't have a leg to stand on. Moore said the lawsuit should be stopped at this juncture and dismissed.
John Romano, a lawyer representing the Gagnons, said the statements were specific and with an attempt to defame. He referenced emails between the defendants which he said went above and beyond their public function.
"They are going well beyond what is their duty and their responsibility," he said. "It is a verbal tarring and feathering of someone." Romano said that the judge should allow the lawsuit to proceed to the next stage, when more information would come out in the discovery phase.
"That has to be ferreted out through discovery," he said.
After hearing from both sides, Lakin told lawyers they would have a written decision in 10 days
Gagnon was acquitted in criminal court on charges brought forth related to the Frazier case. Gagnon was also cleared by an administrative judge, who said the district failed to show enough evidence that Gagnon had violated any law, rule or board policy.
The board has since reimbursed Gagnon for back pay and legal fees, but he has not been brought back to any position within the district. Melissa Gagnon is an assistant principal at Braden River High School.
Aranibar lost her seat on the school board in November 2014 and was replaced by Mary Cantrell. Mills left his contract as superintendent and retired early. Mills was replaced by Diana Greene, who formerly served as the deputy superintendent of instruction.
Pumphrey was placed on administrative leave from the district in January, after allegations came out that he lied on his resume when applying to work in the district. His one-year contract with the district was not renewed and he is no longer employed by the district.
Pumphrey has his own lawsuit filed against the board and individually against board member Dave Miner.
In his suit, Pumphrey claims he was denied for a promotion for a job he was qualified; that he has been discriminated against because he is black; and that his reputation has been irreparably damaged.
The district has also filed to dismiss that lawsuit, which was moved to federal court.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.