The Albemarle County School Board wants a federal judge to limit access to division officials in a long-running defamation lawsuit brought by a former employee against schools Superintendent Matt Haas.
The motion for a protective order seeks to limit the scope of a deposition and is the first significant filing in the case since the summer of 2019, when a federal judge ruled that the case could move forward.
The case was later referred to mediation as the parties discussed whether to settle, according to the court documents. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Tuesday in federal court in Charlottesville.
Ira Socol, a former chief technology and innovation officer with the Albemarle school division, was fired in August 2018 for purchasing furniture in violation of county policies. He has since denied any wrongdoing and sued the School Board and Haas in October 2018 for a denial of due process, breach of contract and defamation.
The School Board has argued in court filings that Socol’s deposition notice is “unnecessarily broad” and “unduly burdensome” for a third party in the case. The claims against the board were dismissed in June 2019.
The board’s attorney in the case, Jennifer Royer, also argued that the materials sought are not germane to the remaining issues in the lawsuit, which is now focused on whether Socol should have had a hearing to clear his name, what Haas told other people about Socol’s conduct, why he made those statements and the effect of those statements, according to court filings.
Jeffrey Adams, an attorney at Wharton, Aldhizer & Weaver who is representing Socol, sent a deposition notice to School Board attorney Ross Holden on April 14. The notice requested personnel records related to Socol’s time with the division, as well as information related to the “identity and activities of all personnel,” including elected board members, who participated in any personnel decision involving Socol.
Additionally, Socol’s team wanted to review a slew of information pieces related to the steering committee that helped to start the new high school center, which opened in August 2018.
To comply with the deposition notice, Holden said in a declaration that several employees would work on those requests full time to review the documents in question, find employees who have left the division and talk to them about what information they may possess.
“And while doing so, ignore their job responsibilities to provide an education to over 14,000 students during this especially fraught and difficult time,” Holden wrote. “Preparing witnesses to testify regarding the information that plaintiff seeks will inflict an enormous burden and disruption to the [School Board’s] educational operations.”
The depositions initially were scheduled for April 29 but Socol’s attorney agreed to delay those. Adams has notified the School Board that he wants to depose Lindsay Snoddy, deputy director of building services, and Deputy Superintendent Debbie Collins, according to court filings.
In a memorandum opposing the motion, Adams said the information sought is relevant to the case n order to help determine whether what Haas allegedly said is true.
Haas allegedly told former Superintendent Pam Moran that Socol “misused [purchasing cards] deliberately and egregiously,” according to the plaintiff’s amended complaint. Moran and Socol co-authored a book, “Timeless Learning,” in 2018 about innovative practices in public schools.
If the statements are true, that’s not defamation, according to state law. Thus, his attorney said the facts sought in the deposition notice would help the parties determine if Haas was correct in the alleged statements.
“Turning to each claim in turn, it is clear how the designation in the Notice is tailored to elicit relevant testimony,” the attorney wrote.
Adams boiled down the request to the personnel record of one employee, the workings of a single committee over less than a single year, and the history of the interpretation and enforcement of the division’s procurement policies over a five-year period.
“The matters identified in the Designation are hardly arcane, either due to the strangeness of the subject matter or the remoteness in time,” he wrote, referring to the deposition notice.
Royer argued that Socol should begin his inquiry by directing discovery requests to Haas, instead of to the School Board, in order to discern the statements Haas made and why he made them. She went on to highlight what Socol could learn by doing that, such as the circumstances under which those alleged statements were made and why Haas believes Socol violated policy.
Adams argued that the materials sought would help determine Haas’ state of mind.
“Dr. Haas’ state of mind is relevant for at least two reasons,” he wrote. “First, because Mr. Socol has alleged facts that suggest that ACPS (and, by implication, Dr. Haas) was seeking a scapegoat in the wake of the evident unhappiness of certain members of the Board with the furniture acquisition. Second, because Mr. Socol has made a claim for punitive damages, which places Dr. Haas’ intent in making the statements squarely at issue.”
Adams also disagreed that fulfilling the deposition notice would be burdensome, noting the resources at the School Board’s disposal, from full-time human resources and finance staff to an annual budget of $193 million for the current fiscal year.
“In short, the Board was under a legal obligation to retain the documents containing the information necessary to prepare a corporate representative,” he wrote. “Likewise, the Board has ample resources, and trained and qualified individuals, in order to prepare a representative to testify. All that the Board lacks is the will to do so. Mr. Socol asks this Court to supply that will in the form of an order denying the Motion.”