Pontious-Peel loses battles in Effingham and Madison County

Steve Gonzalez Jan. 31, 2007, 9:05am

Gary Peel

Less than a week after a jury shot down her $4 million suit against the Effingham Community Unit School District 40, Deborah A. Pontious-Peel lost another legal battle in Madison County.

A defamation lawsuit filed last year by Pontious-Peel against The Record newspaper was dismissed Wednesday by Madison County Circuit Judge Daniel Stack.

The wife of attorney Gary Peel accused the paper of publishing inaccuracies in three articles that mentioned her lawsuit against the Effingham school district -- her former employer.

In August 2002, she filed a 20-count suit against the school board, administrators and staff claiming "intentional infliction of emotional distress." She claimed she was suspended with pay in April 2002 without due process.

Gary Peel, who faces federal criminal charges arising out of his dispute with his ex-wife, represented his current wife in the Effingham lawsuit.

In his federal indictment Peel is accused of, among other things, attempting to blackmail his ex-wife. In the Effingham lawsuit, it was Peel who made allegations of blackmail.

According to an Effingham Daily News report, Peel "accused administrators and attorneys of trying to blackmail Pontious at a May 2, 2002, meeting, in which Pontious was reportedly told they would reveal the nature of her extramarital relationship with Peel if she did not resign."

The jury evidently was unmoved. Last Thursday, following a three-week long trial -- the longest civil trial on record in Effingham County, according to an attorney representing the school board -- Pontious' protracted Effingham legal battle ended in defeat.

School board attorney Christopher Koester of Taylor Law Office in Effingham said that before the case went to jury, Judge Ron Spears granted a motion for a directed verdict dismissing high school principal Mike McCollum and former superintendent Don Roberts from the case.

Allegations against four other administrators and staff members were dismissed Dec. 22 when Spears granted a motion for summary judgment in their favor.

Only one count against the school district remained for the jury to decide --intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It took jurors four hours to end the school district's four-and-a-half year long legal headache.

After the Effingham matter was resolved Koester told the Effingham Daily News, "Effingham County is fairly conservative, and if you file a lawsuit here, it better have a lot of merit. That's not to say if the facts call for it, a plaintiff couldn't win, but for things like emotional distress? I just don't think an Effingham County jury would buy that."

In her suit against the Record based on its reporting of the Effingham litigation, Pontious-Peel claimed each of the alleged false statements in the challenged articles "imputes that Plaintiff is unable to perform or lacks integrity in performing her employment duties," and/or "imputes that Plaintiff lacks ability or otherwise prejudices the Plaintiff in her profession."

Pontious-Peel alleged the published statements, among other things, impaired her earning capacity and impeded her ability to secure gainful employment in her chosen profession.

Pontious-Peel represented herself in the suit against the Record.

The paper asked Stack to dismiss the case claiming Pontious-Peel's complaint had fundamental flaws.

"The content of the articles and Pontious' complaint (are) incapable of supporting any defamation or false light claim," according to the Record's motion to dismiss the suit.

Stack agreed and dismissed Pontious' suit.

The dismissal of Pontious' suit leaves the Pontious-Peel household with one lawsuit remaining against the Record.

In a lawsuit he filed in January 2006, Gary Peel alleges The Record invaded his privacy by reporting "private facts" he disclosed in his bankruptcy case. That matter is stayed while his criminal case is pending.

Ann Knef contributed to this report.

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