Parties in lawsuit against state education officials push back on motions for judgment

CHARLESTON — Both parties in a federal lawsuit brought by lobbyist Jason Webb against former and current state Department of Education officials presented arguments Wednesday against motions calling for summary judgment.

Attorneys for Webb, a lobbyist who once represented college preparation testing company ACT, and former state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine and current Deputy Superintendent of Schools Jan Barth filed dueling responses in opposition to each other’s motions for summary judgment.

Webb filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia on June 12, 2019, alleging Paine and Barth tried to influence ACT to end its relationship with Webb after the lobbyist took to social media to criticize the school officials for their handling of a request for proposal for test options for West Virginia’s public schools.

In his court filing, Webb accused Paine and Webb of interfering with his constitutional rights to free speech, his contractual relationship with ACT and civil conspiracy against him.

“In his pending motion for partial summary judgment on liability, Mr. Webb marshaled significant evidence…demonstrating that Defendants Steve Paine and Jan Barth retaliated against Mr. Webb for his constitutionally protected speech and lobbying by directly interfering with and ultimately shattering Webb’s business relationship with his client, ACT Inc.,” wrote J. Zak Ritchie, attorney for Webb.

In their motion for summary judgment, attorneys for Paine and Barth argue that Webb has no standing to bring a lawsuit involving ACT since the company is not a party to the case and severed its relationship with Webb after he filed the lawsuit.

“Article III imposes no bar on Webb’s ability to explain why or how Paine and Barth retaliated against him and interfered with his business relationship in violation of his rights simply because those bad acts also may have injured a nonparty,” Ritchie wrote.

Ritchie argued claims by Paine and Barth that they did not explicitly call for ACT to tell Webb to not tweet criticisms of the department or directly call for ACT to sever its relationship with Webb are irrelevant considering they did threaten future state contracts with ACT and both Paine and Barth told ACT to control Webb.

“Webb disagrees with defendants’ one-sided interpretation of the evidence,” Ritchie wrote. “Paine in his own words told ACT ‘on at least two occasions…to hold Webb in check.’ And worse, Paine called the CEO of ACT and ‘threat[ened]’ the company’s ability to obtain future public contracts in West Virginia over Webb. Adopting Defendants’ view of the causation evidence would invite reversible error on a silver platter.”

Jan Fox, attorney for Paine and Barth, presented her own arguments against Webb’s motion for partial summary judgment in the case. Fox said ACT did not reprimand Webb one time for his tweets.

“ACT did not take any kind of disciplinary action against plaintiff Jason Webb, did not issue a letter of reprimand to (Webb), did not verbally admonish (Webb), and did not alter (Webb’s) compensation as a result of (Webb’s) actions or performance,” Fox wrote. “ACT did terminate its contractual relationship with Webb, but it did so (in part) in consideration of Plaintiff’s filing this very suit.

“(Webb) may be disappointed, angry, even annoyed — but (Webb’s) bruised ego or hurt feelings do not establish the three claims he has actually pled against these Defendants in his complaint,” Fox said. “It is undisputed and, indeed, unquestionable, that (Webb’s) conduct did not cause Plaintiff’s alleged damages. Accordingly…(Paine and Barth) are entitled to the summary dismissal of this case, with prejudice.”

Fox accused Webb of presenting mostly hearsay evidence in his complaint against Paine and Barth and exaggerating events for dramatic effect.

“Perhaps a tacit acknowledgment of the lack of properly-supported factual evidence outside his own self-serving testimony to establish his claims (as outlined above), (Webb) chooses to present his arguments largely through rhetoric that may be termed ‘dramatic license.’ Respectfully, such license has no place in legal pleadings.”

Paine resigned as state superintendent of schools earlier this year, while Barth remains an official with the Department of Education.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)


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