Teacher’s former husband sued for defamation
By Jeff Simms
The former superintendent of the Beacon City School District and the former Beacon Teachers Association president have filed a joint lawsuit against the teacher’s ex-husband for public defamation.
The civil suit marks the latest chapter in a highly contentious 12-month period for the Beacon district, which saw the resignation of Superintendent Barbara Walkley and BTA head Kimberly Pilla, who is a physical education teacher.
The suit, filed Feb. 19 in U.S. District Court, paints Robert Atwell, Pilla’s ex-husband and a math teacher as the architect of a scheme to release a series of private emails that Walkley and Pilla say defamed them. Atwell and Pilla were divorced in June 2015 after five years of marriage.
The filing alleges that Atwell violated the federal Stored Communication Act by accessing several of Pilla’s password-protected email accounts. He then allegedly used the emails to “maliciously” accuse Walkley and Pilla of “corruption and improprieties, inflaming an entire community against them,” the filing states.
The suit further alleges that some of the emails were “doctored,” and that the “foreseeable public response to these falsehoods” caused Walkley and Pilla to resign their positions, leaving their personal and professional reputations “in tatters.”
The suit does not seek a specific dollar amount in damages. That would be left up to a jury if the case goes to trial, said attorney Stephen Bergstein, who is representing Walkley and Pilla.
Walkley, who had served as an interim assistant superintendent twice previously in the Beacon system, was hired permanently as superintendent in February 2015. The Beacon Board of Education announced her resignation at a meeting on Jan. 21.
Walkley was paid $181,050 as superintendent, according to her contract, which was to have run until June 2018. In addition to a $45,000 buyout, Walkley was paid for her remaining sick and vacation time, receiving a total of just under $63,000.
Pilla was elected president of the Beacon Teachers Association in 2008 and resigned in August 2015. She earned about $4,500 annually in the position.
The controversy surrounding Walkley and Pilla has been well-documented. A Beacon parent, Melissa Rutkoske, filed a petition in December with the state Department of Education, calling for the dismissal of Walkley and school district attorney Michael Lambert. Rutkoske’s petition quoted a number of emails between Pilla, Walkley and other district officials, and alleged that the relationship between Walkley and Pilla had resulted in “unethical, inappropriate and illegal conduct.”
In an email Thursday afternoon, Rutkoske said that the emails she cited in her petition were obtained in numerous ways — some were sent anonymously to all members of the Beacon City Council, some were obtained via the FOIL law and others were “out in the public,” she wrote.
The 15-page suit filed against Atwell provides an alternate perspective into the events of the past two years.
According to the filing, Atwell “procured” entry into Pilla’s email accounts sometime between July 2014 and late spring 2015. He did so “willfully and intentionally” in order to determine her whereabouts and to potentially find information to “publically humiliate” Walkley and Pilla. The suit further alleges that Atwell “spread false and malicious rumors” that Walkley and Pilla were involved romantically and that Walkley had “abused her authority in granting Pilla inappropriate and improper privileges.”
The suit describes the Jan. 11, 2016, Beacon school board meeting as the “final act” that led to Walkley resigning 10 days later. Without a quorum of its nine members, the meeting was canceled. However, nearly 400 community members arrived for the meeting with a “mob mentality,” the suit alleges, and organized an impromptu meeting “not authorized by the Board of Education or the Beacon School District.”
A number of speakers that evening called on Walkley, who was not present, to resign.
The next step, Bergstein said Wednesday, is for Atwell to file a response to the suit. After that, the parties will meet with a judge to set a schedule for discovery — the exchange of documents and depositions related to the case. One of three things can happen, he said: the parties could settle out of court, a judge could dismiss the case if he or she believes it lacks merit, or the case could go to trial.