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On Deaf Ears: Proving a Damaged Reputation as Personal Injury

I. The Injury

Hickory, North Carolina is located in Catawba County. This is one of the most beautiful parts of the Piedmont section of this State. It’s famous for a good variety of reasons, including its friendly community, recreation and sports. Hickory High is also a great place and medium-sized school, with a little over 1,000 students. Of course, there’s the school mascot, which in and of itself deserves recognition. Called Tommy the Tornado, there was a bit of a legal tornado there, once upon a time. Hickory actually became well-known for a case involving personal injury claims to a teacher’s professional reputation.

Many people think that reputation and civil rights actions are primarily a matter of federal law. While in many states this may be the case, north carolina has an extensive history of personal injury attorneys successfully bringing cases for wrongs done to individuals, and by local government authorities. The ultimate decision whether to file a federal or state action is something that needs to be talked over with an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible.

In the Hickory school board case to be examined here, the overriding issues had to do with North Carolina state, and not (in this part of the case at least) federal law.

II. Really, Really Unbiased Hearings... They Said

One of the most telling pieces of evidence assembled by the personal injury attorney was a person-by-person, public interview of Hickory school board members. The record itself was suggestive of potentially misleading or misinformed opinions about what being truly “objective” is. Worse, it raised issues about what could be permanent personal harm to reputation, unless challenged by a qualified personal injury attorney.

Following is the recorded exchange between Eddie’s personal injury attorney and several members of the Board.

Attorney: “I want to be perfectly blunt about it and ask the (b)oard… The extent to which any of you have been personally involved, may have discussed with people who have knowledge and whether any of you have formed any kind of preconceived notions.… And again, I don’t mean fair in the sense of you will try to be fair, but can you honestly say the scales are even now… .”

Notably, at this point in the personal injury attorney’s attempting to set the stage for responses, the board members didn’t wait to hear the PI attorney finish his statement. Instead, the board members jumped in, to respond at that juncture:

Mr. P.: That’s a fair question. I am glad you address that right up front because several months ago the board was aware that some form of hearing was coming down the pike… Now I can speak for myself. But the attorney has asked all members of the board not to discuss any aspect of anything that they may hear.… I can speak for myself to say that for me at this point in time the slate is clear.

Ms. N.: The same thing. In fact, we have not even been given a name whenever we were told hearing was coming up. And I have not been approached by anybody. And if mention was made of it, I just said I know nothing.

Mr. I: The same.

Ms. G: The same. I’ve had people that made statements to me, and I have not responded in anyway.

Mr. W.: Frankly, I feel that I can be in it as objective as anybody on this board. That obviously when a newspaper that is published on a county-wide basis comes out indicates of the teacher’s being brought up for charges come out, I read the article because I’m on the school board and the teacher happens to be in my system. Other than that, there’s been no preliminary information except for this notice we got yesterday afternoon…

 Ms. Y.:  “I had one call, and I said, ‘I have no comments.’ And I have not said one word anywhere. And when I go, I listen and I vote my convictions.”

III.  “Well, maybe some of us talked about it a little… .”

The Supreme Court agreed, however, in looking at the record, that the personal injury attorney had clearly demonstrated that these statements did not comport with reality. The inability to admit to any potential for bias itself was undoubtedly suspicious. The repeated cant of “the same,” even when the admitted degree of prior, pre-hearing knowledge was apparent, between the varied board members, had to have wreaked havoc on the Board’s overall claim to being ‘unbiased.’ This collection of transcribed comments by the school board, before they took their official action, was also compelling for its context with other statements.

The personal injury attorney had followed up the members’ public statements by taking further investigatory statements from other employees. It was discovered that a variety of letters about the teacher’s allegedly inappropriate conduct had been sent throughout the county. Additionally, there was testimony about pre-hearing conversations between administrators, board members, and students…many of which were later are used at the board hearing. Additionally, there was even testimony (at trial) that one of the board members had specifically made a statement months before the board hearing itself, that the charges against the teacher “didn’t look good, that they were concerned,” and even that “other board members” were indicating that they thought the teacher “needed to resign.”  The personal injury attorney asked that one specific board member, then under oath: “If you now deny having that earlier conversation?” The board member, instead of denying, said to the personal injury attorney: “I won’t deny it or confirm it, sir.”

IV.  personal injury to reputation: it can be exhausting.

Part of the important process here by Eddie’s personal injury attorney was to make sure that the usual hearing process was properly followed, was open, and was unbiased as to the result. This process may or may not involve what’s called an exhaustion of administrative remedies. Even though it may be clear or obvious that there is a slight working bias against an employee, for example, it still may be absolutely necessary to pursue at least the beginning attempts of filing the hearings before boards or commissions. This is because courts always encourage a personal injury attorney to have worked through the system outside of judicial review. This allows for a better fact gathering as well. It is also an instance where only the most experienced personal injury or trial attorney may know how the legal ropes tie to administrative process.

Conclusions:   

The administrative ending of the case was also very much its beginning, in terms of legal rights. Just because Eddie had been fired, did not absolutely settle whether or not any of his other rights had been violated…which was quite apart from his right to keeping his job. The NC Supreme Court agreed with the personal injury attorney that these rights were personal and had been violated, even though Eddie had no right to get his job back. None of these rights are likely to existto be protected—without the advocacy of a qualified personal injury attorney.

So, if you, a family member or a loved one have been professionally harmed or professionally hurt in a professional or business setting—or have questions about appeals or claims or need help related to appeals of any lost economic rights, or involving related claims or your legal rights or hearings by a government body, please contact us.  You will speak with a personal injury attorney/lawyer who can best answer your questions.  There is never a fee for this initial consultation.

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