Jury backs Nicholas Sparks in lawsuit by former school head

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A federal jury sided Wednesday with novelist Nicholas Sparks and the private Christian school he founded in his North Carolina hometown, dismissing claims by the school’s former headmaster that he was unjustly fired and then slandered by the author.

Jurors spent about three hours before deciding that the author of “Message in a Bottle” and “The Notebook,” the novelist’s foundation and Epiphany School of Global Studies owed nothing to Saul Hillel Benjamin. Benjamin sued in 2014, contending he was fired without cause, then defamed when Sparks told a job recruiter, school trustees and others that Benjamin suffered from mental illness.

“The verdict speaks volumes, and completely rejects the campaign waged by Mr. Benjamin and his lawyers in an attempt to discredit Epiphany and me,” Sparks said in a statement from his publicist.

Benjamin’s lawyers argued that 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 dual contracts with the school and Sparks’ foundation were worth more than $256,000 a year, evidence showed.

Jurors decided 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, Sparks’ attorneys said, Benjamin lied that the school’s finances were slightly above water when they were deeply in the red. Sparks also testified the educator had taken to calling people who disagreed with him bigots and racists behind their backs.

Sparks said his belief in Benjamin plummeted when the writer learned about an unofficial LGBT student club that was meeting with some teachers but which Benjamin told him didn’t exist. Sparks bristled during hours of testimony and after the verdict in reaction to what he said were efforts by Benjamin’s lawyers to take some emailed comments out of context to portray him as anti-gay.

“As my testimony made clear, I have always been personally supportive of gay rights, gay marriage, and gay adoption. Further, Epiphany is and remains a place where students and faculty of any race, belief, religion, background, or orientation should feel welcome,” Sparks said in a statement.

Sparks has published nearly two dozen novels, almost half of which 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.

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.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio .

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