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Lawsuit against Northumberland school board moved to federal court

by Audrey Thomasson

HEATHSVILLE—School employee Michael Ransome’s $7.4 million lawsuit against the Northumberland County School Board was moved from Northumberland County Circuit Court to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District on December 28, at the request of the defendants.

Jim H. Guynn Jr., attorney for defendants Dana O’Bier and Gayle Sterrett, filed a demurrer with the federal court the following day asking for dismissal of the suit on behalf of his clients, stating that Ransome’s complaints have no basis in law and should be dismissed.

Ransome’s lawsuit was filed November 9 and stemmed from his removal June 29 as principal of the middle school to a position in the central office. While his salary remained the same at some $79,000, his lawsuit claims that O’Bier and Sterrett, along with middle school parent Steve Berman, conspired together to remove him in violation of his contract.

Guynn wrote that Ransome failed to support many of his claims, including breach of contract since he is an “at-will employee,” meaning he could be terminated without cause. Also, Guynn noted that personal employment interests are not actionable and that the claim of “tortious interference” is barred since there is no support for breach of contract.

“The complaint fails to allege a mutual agreement required to form a conspiracy…and fails to sufficiently allege special damages resulting from defendants’ alleged conspiracy,” Guynn wrote.

Additionally, he points out that Ransome failed to sufficiently prove that an adverse employment action was taken against him and that he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

“There is no cause of action for violation of school board policy,” Guynn added. “Claims against the school board…are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity.”

Freedom of Information

Ransome acquired school board emails and correspondence in August through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The Rappahannock Record made the same request prior to the Christmas break, with the exception of items in Ransome’s personnel file which are protected by law.

While Ransome’s lawsuit claims violation of his personnel file by O’Bier and Sterrett, he offers no supporting proof in the documentation. If there was a conspiracy, it was not evident in the materials supplied by the clerk of the school board.

Also, the materials offer little to support allegations that he was “targeted, harassed and repeatedly defamed” by O’Bier and Sterrett and that they were “motivated by hatred, spite, ill-will and a desire to injure” him.

Ransome’s lawsuit substantiates those allegations, in part, with the complaints made about his community lectures on “white privilege.”

In text messages, O’Bier and a redacted source agree “…he has a right to do this but not as a representative of the school” which is inferred by the use of his principal title in the promotional material. In another series of text messages between O’Bier and a redacted source, O’Bier says her phone is blowing up with messages that Ransome is referring to her as a “racist.”

As evidence of his success as a principal, Ransome includes in his lawsuit a favorable recommendation from his former employer, the Westmoreland school district, and several performance reports penned by former superintendent Dr. Rebecca Gates. Additionally, Gates supplied him with her personal hand-written notes covering conversations with the defendants.

Both O’Bier and Sterrett denied the accuracy of Gates’s interpretation of events and conversations. O’Bier said she documented all her conversations with Gates.

“I took notes during my meetings with her…and recordings of open board meetings,” O’Bier said.

Ransome has 21 days to respond to the defendants’ motion to dismiss. The court will then rule on the motion.

HomeNewsLawsuit against Northumberland school board moved to federal court

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