The Pine Bluff School District Board of Directors agreed Wednesday evening to a settlement totaling more than $150,000 to satisfy all claims made by former superintendent Jerry O. Payne in his lawsuit against the district.
Payne filed the suit on Oct. 15, 2012, against his former employer in Jefferson County Circuit Court alleging breach of contract and violation of his procedural due process rights.
“We have settled this matter,” was the succinct statement made by district legal counsel Luther Sutter as the school board returned to an open meeting setting after a nearly eight-hour closed mediation session. “I would ask that the board make a motion to settle.”
The board complied and voted unanimously with all members present to accept the terms of the settlement with Payne.
Terms and conditions
The settlement specifically agrees to compensate Payne a total of $125,000 minus any withholding related to taxes; to compensate Payne’s attorney, Keith Billingsley, a total of $25,000; and to compensate the mediator, ADR Inc., a total of $3,600.
The agreement stipulates that the PBSD send payment to Payne and his attorney within 10 days of Wednesday.
In return for the payments, Payne agreed to release the PBSD and its employees from any future legal claims related to anything that occurred prior to or on the date of the settlement agreement.
No admission of liability
“It is understood and agreed that this is an amicable settlement of disputed claims and that neither this agreement nor the furnishing of consideration provided for in this agreement shall be deemed or construed at any time or for any purpose as an admission of liability by any of the released parties,” the settlement agreement states in relation to the district’s agreement to a monetary settlement with Payne.
Agreement revocation period
Payne has seven days from Wednesday to revoke his acceptance of the agreement in writing delivered by certified mail to Sutter’s office.
The settlement does not become effective until the end of this seven-day revocation period.
If Payne decides to revoke the settlement, all of its terms become void.
Rick Ramsay of ADR Inc. served as mediator between the parties.
“I want to make sure that everyone understands I am not a judge in this mediation,” Ramsay said in his introduction. “I am a third party, a neutral party. I am here to guide you to a resolution of this matter.”
Sutter added some thoughts.
“This mediation will conclude only when Mr. Ramsay says it will conclude,” Sutter said. “It is important to understand that this is a court-ordered proceeding.”
While the mediation itself was closed to the public, Ramsay moved back and forth between the room where the school board directors and Sutter were sequestered and the room where Payne and Billingsley were located.
“I have served as a mediator for a couple of years and, in order to be successful at it, I draw upon my 30 years as an attorney,” Ramsay said in a conversation after the mediation had concluded. “The parties are frequently surprised when they realize that I know as much about their case as they do. That is how I prepare for my role as mediator. I research the case extensively.”
Ramsay said that in mediations between parties in general, he is able to use his legal knowledge and understanding of a case to point out flaws in arguments that facilitate case settlement.
“Parties in general can develop a tunnel vision when it comes to their side of a case and when I can offer a third set of eyes, it can get them to realize that there is a flaw where it went overlooked before,” Ramsay said.
In his suit, Payne said that he acted in accordance with the terms and conditions of the contractual agreement as superintendent beginning July 1, 2011, until “the District Board of Directors took the improper and unlawful actions as set forth herein in violation of the specific contractual agreement between the parties.
“Almost immediately, the District, acting through various members of its duly elected Board of Directors, began an intentional process to frustrate Plaintiff’s [Payne’s] ability to act as Superintendent of the District in accordance with the contractual agreement between the parties and as authorized and mandated by the laws of the State of Arkansas,” Payne said in his suit.
Payne was terminated without cause Feb. 29, 2012, effective June 30, 2012, via a letter from then-board president Herman Horace.
The board held a special called meeting Feb. 28 in which they went into executive session and, after reconvening in public session, said that no action was taken with regard to any employment contracts.
At the board’s May 15, 2012, regular monthly meeting, Sutter was asked to prepare a letter to Payne outlining the board’s reasons for why he should be terminated for cause, which was delivered to him May 18.
A public hearing was held in the school district board room May 29 in which the board of directors voted unanimously to fire Payne for cause effective immediately.