Social media posts by some Overton County residents has prompted a defamation and invasion of privacy lawsuit.
James Mark Lee has filed a legal complaint in Circuit Court against six Overton County residents on claims that he was the subject of a pattern of intentional, false defamatory statements.
Named as defendants in the case are Tonya Mitchell, Erica Pauline Troupe Harris, Tosha Danielle Dishman, Michael Kinnaird, and Ronnie Rudd and Carol Ann Bilbrey Rudd.
Lee, who has been a tenured teacher in the Overton County school system since May 11, 2000, was employed as a Biology teacher at Livingston Academy when an accusation was made against him earlier this year.
The lawsuit states, “On or about March 2, 2020, Mr. Lee was summoned by Richard Melton, the principal of Livingston Academy, to come to the school office. There he was informed of an allegation of a complaint of inappropriate conduct involving a student in his class. Mr. Lee adamantly denied the false allegations.”
Lee was given a 3-day suspension on March 4, 2020, for “an incident involving inappropriate conduct”, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit states, “On or about March 16, 2020, Mr. Lee received a text message from Richard Melton informing him that ‘as a result of repeated incidents of inappropriate communications with students’, Director Winningham had placed him on suspension without pay for an indefinite period of time. Still, no specific information was provided to Mr. Lee regarding the nature of the alleged inappropriate communications.”
Lee was later placed on a 90-day suspension without pay.
The lawsuit lists in evidence, a social media post by Tonya Mitchell, that was made on her Facebook page in July before the suspension was announced at the July 13 School Board meeting, in which she accused him of sexually harassing her minor child on a “daily basis”.
The Facebook post also accused vice principals at the time in 2017, Lora Jones and Vicki Phillips listed by name, of asking her daughter “if she was dressed inappropriately or provocatively.”
In another post attached in the lawsuit, Mitchell again accuses Lee of sexually harassing her 14 year-old daughter daily and said her daughter’s classmates were “calling her Mark Lee’s whore.”
The lawsuit alleges that Tonya Mitchell also maintained a Twitter account under the pseudonym “#mybabytoo” in which another “false, defamatory message had been published” about Lee.
The lawsuit also notes, “One of the individuals who responded to Ms. Mitchell’s post with an emoticon symbol of approval was Amelia Melton, the wife of Richard Melton.”
The lawsuit asks for a judgment against Mitchell of $300,000 for compensatory damages and for $300,000 for punitive damages.
Tosha Dishman is accused in the lawsuit of publishing and distributing in early March 2020 over the internet “for the world to see” a “knowing false, malicious and defamatory statement about Mark Lee, maligning his character, referring to him publicly as a pervert and falsely accusing him of deviant sexual behavior.
The lawsuit asks for a judgment against Dishman of $300,000 for compensatory damages and for $300,000 for punitive damages.
“When the Defendant Mitchell and Dishman began publishing their defamatory remarks about the Plaintiff on Facebook and Twitter, others joined in their baseless attack on the Plaintiff’s character and reputation,” the lawsuit alleges.
Attached in the lawsuit is a post by Erica Pauline Troupe Harris that refers to Lee as a “sexual predator” and another that refers to him as a “pedophile”.
The lawsuit asks for a judgment against Harris of $300,000 for compensatory damages and for $300,000 for punitive damages.
The lawsuit then alleges, “In July of 2020, one of Ms. Harris’ Facebook friends, Michael Kinnaird, joined in the defamatory attacks of the Plaintiff falsely and publicly accusing the Plaintiff of being ‘a sexual predator who preys on under aged girls.’”
The lawsuit asks for a judgment against Kinnaird of $300,000 for compensatory damages and for $300,000 for punitive damages.
The lawsuit alleges that prior to the July 2020 School Board meeting, Carol Ann Bilbrey Rudd shared a post by her husband, Ronnie Rudd, “in which he falsely defamed the Plaintiff and referring to him as a ‘predator’ and as one who had sexually harassed a school-age girl.”
The lawsuit asks for a judgment against Ronnie Rudd of $300,000 for compensatory damages and for $300,000 for punitive damages.
Included in the lawsuit is a section on meetings Principal Melton had separately with two Livingston Academy students who gave “hearsay” information that led to a meeting between the principal and the Rudds’ daughter, whom the students had indicated Lee had acted inappropriately toward.
The lawsuit alleges the girl made statements in the meeting with Principal Melton that contradicted statements she made in a 2-minute video she posted on Facebook as well as an account of her classroom experience she gave when interviewed by a representative of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
District Attorney Bryant Dunaway released a statement on June 25, 2020, in which his office declined to prosecute Lee.
Because of the video “maligning the personal character and reputation of the Plaintiff,” the lawsuit alleges, a judgment is sought against Carol Ann Bilbrey Rudd in the amount of $10,000 for statutory damages under parental liability.
The video is said to have gone “viral” with more than 7,000 views.
The lawsuit claims, “As a direct and proximate result of these Defendants’ false and defamatory statements about the Plaintiff, the Plaintiff has suffered, and continue to suffer, severe mental anguish and emotional distress with manifestations that impact his daily life and routines, humiliation, embarrassment, fear, and other non-economic damages.”
In Count II, False Light Invasion of Privacy, the lawsuit alleges, “The Defendants, and each of them, knew or should have realized that their actions would be offensive to persons of ordinary sensibilities and that this intrusion into the Plaintiff’s personal life would exceed the bounds of human decency.”
Along with the punitive and compensatory damages, the lawsuit also asks for court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees.
Lee has requested a jury trial.
Larry L. Crain, the Nashville attorney representing Lee, said, “Free speech protects a broad range of expression, but it does not serve as a license to viciously attack and destroy someone’s professional reputation. The use of social media by these defendants was calculated to inflict genuine and lasting emotional harm on Mr. Lee, and destroy his professional career as an educator.”
Lee has been reassigned from Livingston Academy to REACH Academy.