A Rock County judge Friday denied a motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit filed against former Milton School Board member Brian Kvapil by former district administrator Jerry Schuetz.
Kvapil’s lawyer, Thomas Cabush, argued in court documents that the lawsuit should be dismissed because Schuetz’s allegations in the lawsuit don’t meet the standards for defamation. Cabush argued that is because Kvapil’s statements were substantially true, were opinions on matters of public concern and were protected by a privilege.
Judge Derrick Grubb said the purpose of the dismissal hearing was not to determine whether the statements in question were true or false. He also said he had to give the “benefit of the doubt” to Schuetz and not dismiss the lawsuit. Grubb said at this stage in the case, there has been no deposition testimony and the only evidence so far is documentary.
Schuetz’s defamation lawsuit stems from an episode in February 2019 when Kvapil learned of and reacted to stipends totaling $30,500 being paid to Schuetz, then-Superintendent Tim Schigur and an IT staff member without school board approval. The suit claims Kvapil made false statements about Schuetz and either knew the statements were false or made them with a “reckless disregard for their truthfulness.”
The statements listed in the lawsuit include:
- A Feb. 8, 2019, Facebook post in which Kvapil said the district’s procedure to award the stipends was “a gross violation of the public’s trust” and a “possible violation” of district policy and state statutes.
- A Facebook comment the same day: “You should be more outraged at the people who illegally took the money. That’s stealing.”
- A Feb. 10, 2019, Facebook post that called the stipends “unauthorized payments.”
- A statement at a Feb. 11, 2019, board meeting: “We have people that right now it looks—appears—that they do not know how to handle money and actually can steal from the district.”
- A statement augmenting a report by a third-party lawyer hired to investigate the stipends’ legality in which Kvapil said Schuetz “does not have the training or qualifications to effectively do the business manager’s job.”
Schuetz and his attorneys also say he “was constructively discharged from his position with the district” and lost job opportunities because of the stipend investigation and Kvapil’s statements.
The lawsuit seeks damages for the emotional distress Schuetz endured, but Cabush argued his client’s conduct was “not extreme or outrageous” or meant to cause harm.
In the motion to dismiss, Cabush said Schuetz voluntarily left the district.
“The school district took no adverse action against the plaintiff,” according to the motion. “The plaintiff voluntarily resigned his position. The defendant’s statements were a matter of public concern (and) cannot serve as the basis for an intentional interference with contract claim.”
Cabush argued Kvapil “reasonably believed the stipends paid by the administrators to themselves was not in the budget and were not approved by the school board” and that Kvapil’s statements were “intended to inform the public and cannot form the basis for an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.”
While none were resolved in Friday’s hearing to dismiss the lawsuit, a tangle of complicated questions have been raised by the case which the court will have to settle, including whether Kvapil’s statements were true and protected by the First Amendment, what Kvapil’s intent was in making the statements, whether Kvapil was speaking in his official capacity or as a private citizen, whether Schuetz was considered a public figure at the time, whether Kvapil’s statements were of legitimate public interest, and whether they interfered with Schuetz’s contractual relationship with the school district.