The Richland County School District offered Jeffery Kennedy $5,000 to settle his defamation claim against it, according to Kennedy’s attorney.
A jury determined in October that it was worth a little more, awarding him $550,000, including $350,000 in punitive damages. On Feb. 24, a judge denied the defense motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
One of Kennedy’s attorneys, T. Jeff Goodwyn of Columbia, said Kennedy worked as a night security guard for the school district and had been recommended for promotion prior to the incident that ultimately led to his lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Kennedy was accused of stealing $1,000 from the athletic director’s office despite in-house and sheriff’s department investigations that failed to lead to charges against anyone.
According to Kennedy, on the night in question, the athletic director left the money – gate collections from a soccer tournament – in cash drawers sitting on top of his chair and pushed underneath his desk. Normally, the funds would have been placed in a safe, but the AD was sick that evening, documents said, so he left it unsecured so someone else could pick it up in the morning were he not able to be at work.
The AD did make it to the office, however, and reported the cash drawers missing.
Goodwyn said that Kennedy’s supervisors believed he was responsible for the theft – despite the lack of evidence – partly because he had a set of keys to the AD’s office.
“They didn’t do a thorough investigation, but they saw the video feed and saw that he had access to the area,” Goodwyn said. “In their minds, they convinced themselves he did it and punished him.”
Kennedy was assigned to a desk job, and according to Goodwyn, the security director sent what was supposed to be a confidential email to supervisors advising that Kennedy was under no circumstances to be given building keys.
The problem, Goodwyn said, is that the email – which clearly indicated supervisors’ suspicions and assertions that Kennedy was untrustworthy – was printed out and left in places where it could be seen by the department’s “rank and file.”
Kennedy said that once word of the accusation made it back to his church, he was no longer allowed to be part of Sunday collection or mentor young boys. He testified to hearing students referring to him as the one who stole the money.
A jury determined that two of Kennedy’s supervisors acted with actual malice, awarding him $100,000 in actual damages against each defendant, plus $200,000 in punitive damages against the department head and $150,000 in punitive damages against another supervisor.
The South Carolina Tort Claims Act, which would have capped the damages at $300,000 and precluded punitive damages, did not apply since the supervisors were deemed to be acting outside their scope of employment.
Case name: Jeffery Kennedy v. Richland County School District Two, Eric Barnes and Chuck Earles
Case number: 2013-CP-40-01460
Attorneys for plaintiff: T. Jeff Goodwyn Jr. and Rachel Peavy of Columbia
Attorneys for defendant: Thomas Barlow and Kathryn Mahoney of Childs & Halligan, Columbia