FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2016, file photo, novelist Nicholas Sparks attends a special screening in Los Angeles. The trial is getting underway, Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in a lawsuit that accuses Sparks of defaming the former headmaster of a private Christian school he founded in North Carolina. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP, File)

Jury weighing ex-school head's lawsuit against writer Sparks

August 21, 2019 - 1:26 pm

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal jury began deliberations Wednesday over whether the former head of a private Christian school that novelist Nicholas Sparks founded in his North Carolina hometown was browbeaten into resigning, then slandered by the author when he described the educator as suffering from mental illness.

The 10 jurors must decide unanimously whether Saul Hillel Benjamin is due damages from the author of "Message in a Bottle" and "The Notebook," his foundation or Epiphany School of Global Studies.

The former school headmaster was pushed out of the job he held for less than five months in 2013 because some parents at the school in New Bern, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) east of Raleigh, were unhappy about his new focus on diversity and gay students, Benjamin's lawyers said.

Pressure from some vocal parents, coupled with the demands of Sparks' entertainment career, led the writer and the school to breech Benjamin's dual contracts with the school and Sparks' foundation, attorney Lawrence Pearson said. Those contracts were worth more than $256,000 a year, Benjamin's contract showed.

"He had unhappy customers. He wanted to make a change and he wanted to do it fast," Pearson told jurors Wednesday in describing Spark's actions. Then, "in order to justify that Mr. Benjamin had, poof, disappeared, he described him as suffering mental disability."

Sparks has published nearly two dozen novels, almost half have been turned into films. He and his wife founded Epiphany School, which opened in 2006 and now enrolls about 500 students between kindergarten and 12th grade.

A key decision for jurors was whether Benjamin resigned his job days before Sparks and the school's other trustees would discuss firing the educator for causes that included lying about his work experience and job performance. For example, attorneys said, Benjamin lied that the school's finances were slightly above water when they were deeply in the red. They also said the educator had taken to calling people who disagreed with him bigots and racists behind their backs.

"He was unprofessional and a liar," said Rick Pinto, the school's attorney.

Sparks testified that Benjamin accepted $150,000 to resign instead of risk being fired. Evidence showed Benjamin handwrote an initial resignation letter and later added a resignation email to Sparks and other trustees. Benjamin countered that his resignation was involuntary and that it violated his contracts.

Other evidence includes Sparks emailing fellow trustees seemingly to solicit grievances from faculty members that would provide the board with proof that Benjamin was unfit. Sparks wanted to avoid a big payout, explaining that if Benjamin was "fired without cause, it will cost the school $664,000, plus the remainder of this year's salary," the author wrote in an email.

Jurors also could consider punitive and compensatory damages if they determined Benjamin was pushed out in violation of federal disability-protection laws because school trustees thought he suffered from a mental illness. Sparks could be forced to pay damages if jurors decide he slandered Benjamin by telling people he believed the educator suffered from Alzheimer's or bipolar disease.

Sparks testified for more than eight hours over the past week and told the whole truth about what happened, said the writer's attorney, Jay Silver.

"This trial was not about what was done to Saul Benjamin, but what was done by Saul Benjamin," Silver said.


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