Jury: City Did Not Defame Public Schools Athletic Director

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Copyright 2013 Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Inc
All Rights Reserved

Telegram & Gazette (Massachusetts)
November 9, 2013 Saturday
LOCAL; Court; Pg. A,3,5
660 words
Jury clears city in former AD's lawsuit;
Pepi claimed school department's actions defamed him

WORCESTER - A Worcester Superior Court jury has cleared the city of any liability for damages alleged by John J. Pepi, a former athletic director for the public schools, in a defamation suit filed four years ago.

Mr. Pepi, who was named athletic director in 2004, alleged in the civil suit that he lost the job in 2007 to Colleen O'Brien, a school department administrator he maintained was less qualified for the job, and that school officials then sought to justify the action by embarking on a campaign to defame him without ever granting him a hearing to clear his name.

He alleged the campaign included an internal investigation into false allegations of possible larceny, fraud and embezzlement on his part in connection with missing office equipment and records and misappropriation of donations, many of which were eventually accounted for.

In June 2007, Mr. Pepi was informed in a letter from Stacey DeBoise Luster, human resources manager for the school department, that he was being placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation, which was eventually suspended. School officials said the investigation was hampered by missing records and was inconclusive.

In September 2007, former Superintendent James Caradonio formally reprimanded Mr. Pepi for insubordination and poor professional judgment for allegedly ordering football uniforms without a purchase order and for denying that he ordered towels and posters with team schedules on them and then threw them out because the schedules had changed.

Mr. Pepi, who denied any wrongdoing and noted that he was never criminally charged, was later reassigned to a lower-paying job as a physical education teacher. He charged that the allegations that had been made against him became known in the school community and elsewhere, damaging his reputation and causing him emotional and physical distress.

He continued to work as a physical education teacher until 2010, when he went out on a worker's compensation claim for what he said was job-related stress.

School officials, who denied the allegations leveled against them in the lawsuit, maintained Mr. Pepi lost the job as athletic director because of a cost-cutting reorganization that resulted in the athletic director's duties being divided up among Ms. O'Brien, who had been acting project director of safe schools and healthy students, and two other employees.

They said the investigation and reprimand were legitimate personnel actions totally unrelated to Mr. Pepi's removal from the athletic director's position.

The jury returned its verdicts in favor of the defendants in the case Friday afternoon, after a trial that lasted nearly three weeks.

After deliberating for about 7½ hours over two days, the jurors found that Mr. Caradonio, Ms. Luster, Ms. O'Brien and Sherrill McKeon, the former manager of student and staff support services for the school system, did not defame Mr. Pepi, violate his constitutional rights or wrongly interfere with his contractual or advantageous relations.

"We're pleased with the result, and we believe it to be warranted based on the facts of the case," said Sean Sweeney, the lawyer for the school district.

"Obviously, he would have wanted a favorable verdict," Mr. Pepi's lawyer, Philip N. Beauregard, said of his client. "But that didn't happen, and Mr. Pepi accepts that."

Mr. Beauregard said he and his client "drew consolation" from Ms. Luster's statement that there was "absolutely no evidence" that Mr. Pepi engaged in larceny, embezzlement or fraud, even though she and Mr.Caradonio "were unwilling to say that that's the equivalent of innocence."

"Well, the American system of justice says that's innocence," Mr. Beauregard said.

"Just because the verdict came back the way it did doesn't mean I'm not going to move on with my life," Mr. Pepi said. "People who really know me know my reputation to be excellent."

Contact Gary V. Murray at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GaryMurrayTG.

November 11, 2013

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