A visiting common pleas judge has dismissed a request that former Medina Schools Superintendent Randy Stepp’s contract be declared void.
The ruling was in a case that tied together a number of suits and motions in Medina County Common Pleas Court in August.
Attorney J.R. Russell had accused the Medina school board of violating open meetings laws when it approved a new contract for Stepp in January 2013. The suit asked that Stepp’s contract be voided and that Stepp be ordered to pay the district back the money received under the contract. The board filed motions supporting Russell’s claim.
In a Jan. 27 ruling, retired Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Pokorny ruled Russell had standing to bring the claim of an open meetings violation against the board, but that he could not ask the court to invalidate Stepp’s contract or require he pay back the money.
“We’re obviously pleased with the court’s ruling in that regard,” said Stepp’s attorney Michael Matasich.
In April 2013, the Medina Board of Education rescinded Stepp’s contract, which included an $83,000 signing bonus, saying it violated open meetings laws when the contract was approved in January 2013.
But Matasich said his client has maintained the argument that an approved contract with an administrator cannot be rescinded because of an open meetings violation on behalf of the board. After the contract was rescinded, Stepp filed a lawsuit against the board charging breach of contract. Matasich said he believes the court also will rule in Stepp’s favor in that claim, which is a part of the current combined case.
“We expect that the court will also find that the board cannot just invalidate a contract,” Matasich said. “They voted to approve his agreement; they can’t just rescind it this way.”
Pokorny ruled Russell was not personally affected by the contract.
“The Open Meetings Act does not confer standing upon Russell to invalidate Stepp’s contract nor to recover a monetary judgment,” Pokorny wrote. “In order for Russell to have standing to invalidate he must show he is aggrieved personally and in a manner different from the public in general.”
Pokorny did not, however, toss out Russell’s claim that an open meetings violation was committed by the school board.
“The court finds that ‘any person’ including Russell has standing to force a public board to comply with Ohio Open Meetings Act, pay a monetary forfeiture, collect reasonable attorney fees and even force a member to be removed from an office for a further violation” he wrote.
In a separate ruling on Jan. 27, Pokorny allowed Stepp’s claim of defamation to proceed.
In his suit filed in county court in 2014, Stepp said the board members were aware of the fringe benefits in his contract that included a payoff of $172,000 in student loans related to his undergraduate, graduate and doctorate degrees. He filed defamation and false light claims and attorneys for the board asked the judge to dismiss the claims.
Pokorny said he could not dismiss the claims at this time.
The case is expected to go to trial later this year. Last year, Pokorny ordered that motions be filed by all parties in the suit by June 1 and set a preliminary trial date for Sept. 28.