Smithfield Times on McPherson suit

The Smithfield Times, March 2, 2011

McPherson suit settled confidentially
by Scott King 

The $2.4 million lawsuit be- tween Superintendent Dr. Michael McPherson and Board member Herb DeGroft has settled, though details are being kept confidential.

Terms of the "confidential settlement" could not be dis- closed, said DeGroft's attorney William Nexsen of Norfolk.

McPherson filed the lawsuit in April 2010 alleging defamation and seeking $1.3 million in damages.

Last month, McPherson added $1.1 million to his suit, revealing that his retirement came about because the school board didn't renew his contract.

He alleged that statements and actions made by DeGroft caused school board members not to renew his contract, which was set to expire June 30, 2011, according to Suffolk Circuit Court documents.

In December, the School Board went into closed session to evaluate the superintendent's performance. No public vote was ever taken on the subject. Soon after, however, McPherson announced his retirement effective June 30, 2011.

McPherson's yearly salary is $175,199 — higher than any government employee in Isle of Wight County, the city of Suffolk and Prince George and Gloucester counties.

McPherson's attorney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In the suit, McPherson claimed that he "has been caused to suffer actual damages including, but not limited to, impairment of reputation, diminished standing in the community, humiliation, injury and embarrassment, emotional distress, mental anguish, professional and business harm and loss of earning capacity."

According to the suit, on July 16, 2009, DeGroft gave a document alleging 10 Virginia Code violations by McPherson to board members, citizens and Patricia Wright, state superintendent of public instruction for the Virginia Department of Education in Richmond.

One of the alleged code violations cited by DeGroft included failing to have an American flag in every classroom.

Two additional alleged violations were included in the town hall meeting document.

Lastly, the suit claimed that comments made by DeGroft about McPherson were defamatory when concerning a student who was withheld from advancing to fourth grade because of a medical situation.

In his response, DeGroft claimed sovereign immunity — and is thus barred from being sued — because of his position as an elected official.

DeGroft's response also stated that his statements and actions were expressions of opinion and there- fore not defamatory, as a matter of law. The response argued

that DeGroft's statements about McPherson were "to and within the presence of" other school board members and "were privileged statements made in and for the public interest."