IW school leader sues another

Published 11:16 pm Friday, April 2, 2010

ISLE OF WIGHT—Dr. Michael McPherson, superintendent of the Isle of Wight County Schools division, has filed a $1.35 million defamation lawsuit against school board member Herbert DeGroft.

In a 12-page civil complaint filed in Richmond City Circuit Court, McPherson alleges that DeGroft made false and defamatory statements about him on several occasions beginning in February 2009.

The superintendent is seeking $1 million in compensatory damages and $350,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.

“I think I have lived up to my duties as a school board member as required by the law and as set forth in the school board’s manual for school board members,” DeGroft, who represents the Hardy District, said Thursday. “I will nevertheless continue to execute those responsibilities during this period time just as I have in the past. I am honored to continue to represent the citizens in Isle of Wight.”

DeGroft declined to go into details about the lawsuit because it is a pending legal matter, but on a personal note he added “It’s regrettable that (McPherson) has chosen to do this.”

McPherson could not be reached for comment Thursday. The superintendent has retained Thomas Albro, an attorney with the Charlottesville-based law firm of Tremblay & Smith LLP, as lead counsel.

In the lawsuit, McPherson claims DeGroft made false and defamatory statements about him on seven occasions:

in a memo to school board chairman David Goodrich on Feb. 13, 2009;

in a letter on July 16, 2009 to Patricia Wright, the state superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education;

at a town hall meeting with the Isle of Wight County Citizens Association on August 24, 2009;

in correspondence during August and September 2009 to the Davis Law Group, a firm that was handling an issue involving a student at Carrsville Elementary School, Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw and Carrsville Elementary School Principal Jacqueline Carr;

in a letter to Dr. Mark Emblidge, former president of the Virginia State Board of Education, and former Gov. Tim Kaine, on Sept. 16, 2009;

in two letters that were published in the Smithfield Times on Dec. 16, 2009 and Jan. 20, 2010.

Bill Nexsen, an attorney with the Norfolk-based law firm Stackhouse Nexsen & Turrietta PLLC, is defending DeGroft.

“They haven’t gotten along for probably years,” Nexsen said Thursday of DeGroft and McPherson. “They don’t see eye-to-eye. Mr. DeGroft does not agree with a number of the things that Mr. McPherson is attempting to do, but I don’t think Mr. DeGroft defamed him.”

According to Richmond City Circuit Court records, McPherson filed the civil complaint against DeGroft on Feb. 12. A clerk at the circuit court office said Thursday that the complaint was served to DeGroft on Feb. 17, but added that he may not have been home at the time and the complaint was posted on his door.

Both Albro and Nexsen said Thursday that they believe the case will eventually be transferred to Suffolk City Circuit Court. Albro said Richmond was chosen as the original venue because some of the alleged false and defamatory statements were published in the city.