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NC Court of Appeals: Charter school operator can’t sue former superintendent for libel

The North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled earlier this week that charter school operator Baker Mitchell Jr. cannot sue former Brunswick County superintendent Edward Pruden for libel.

Mitchell is a founder of Charter Day School in Leland and his company Roger Bacon Academies receives millions in public dollars to run four charter schools in the Wilmington area. He sued Pruden in 2015 for more than $100,000 in damages over statements he made to third parties about charter schools.

Pruden has openly questioned the amount in public funding that went to schools run by Mitchell. The Brunswick County school board fired him in late 2014 without publicly disclosing why, seven months before his contract was set to expire.

The Court of Appeals opinion characterizes some of Mitchell’s accusations against Pruden in the libel lawsuit as follows:

Defendant, acting outside of the scope of his employment as Superintendent, falsely stated to third parties that the public charter schools were “dismantling” North Carolina’s public education system and that they have “morphed into an entrepreneurial opportunity.” On 4 December 2013, a video entitled “Dr. Pruden Superintendent of the Year Video” was published on YouTube. In that video, defendant falsely stated that BCS was superior to the “competition” because BCS “does not operate schools for a profit.” Plaintiffs alleged that defendant’s reference to “competition” was “clearly a reference” to the public charter schools for children of Brunswick County.

The second amended complaint further alleged as follows: In 2013, RBA submitted an application to the Office of Charter Schools for a new public charter school named “South Brunswick Charter School” (“SBCS”). Defendant began an “obsessive public campaign to derail approval” of the new school, “viciously defaming the character and reputation” of Mitchell.

Pruden sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, which a lower court did not do. The three-judge Court of Appeals panel unanimously concluded that the lower court erred in that decision.

Judge Douglas McCullough wrote, with Judges Donna Stroud and Valerie Johnson Zachary concurring, that Mitchell’s allegations are “legally insufficient to overcome [Pruden’s] public official immunity.”

[Pruden’s] actions were consistent with the duties and authority of a superintendent and constituted permissible opinions regarding his concerns for the approval of a new charter school.

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