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Labor & Employment – Faith-centered school prevails over ex-headmaster

Labor & Employment – Faith-centered school prevails over ex-headmaster

The former headmaster of a faith-based school founded by a bestselling novelist, whose employment and defamation claims were rejected by the trial court and jury, failed to show the court committed error by refusing to allow certain testimony, imposing a time limit on the trial, in its evidentiary rulings or in charging the jury.


Saul Hillel Benjamin, the former headmaster of the Epiphany School of Global Studies, sued Epiphany School, its founder Nicholas Sparks, the Nicholas Sparks Foundation and Epiphany School Board of Trustees members Missy Blackerby, Tracy Lorentzen, and Ken Gray. Benjamin alleged various acts of unlawful discrimination and retaliation, breach of contract and tortious injuries.

The district court dismissed some of Benjamin’s claims and granted defendants’ motions for summary judgment on others. At trial, the jury returned a verdict for defendants on Benjamin’s remaining claims.

Deposition testimony

Benjamin first challenges the district court’s decision to exclude the deposition testimony of one of his witnesses, his ex-wife Dueck. The district court concluded that Benjamin failed to comply with Rule 26(a), that the failure was neither substantially justified nor harmless and thus that exclusion was proper.

Benjamin argues that “the plain language of [Rule] 26 clearly limits parties’ requirement to designate deposition testimony to witnesses who the party expects to present by deposition.” Benjamin cites no support for his claim that Rule 26’s designation requirement only applies once a party subjectively forms the expectation to present deposition testimony, and this court is aware of none.

But in any event, by the plain language of the rule, the dictated timelines give way to a district court’s order establishing dates for disclosures. Here, the district court plainly required the disclosure in question to be made by July 1, 2019. Benjamin failed to abide by that deadline. Further, this court finds no abuse of discretion in the court’s determination that the untimely disclosure was not harmless or justified.

Time limit

The court next turns to Benjamin’s challenge to the imposition of a 14-hour time limit for each side’s presentation of its case at trial. That Benjamin chose not to “craft his case” in such a way that allowed him to remain within the time limits while calling all his witnesses does not demonstrate that the district court abused its discretion. Moreover, the district court’s denial of Benjamin’s request for more time in order to ensure that both parties were bound by the same rules does not constitute an abuse of discretion.

Evidentiary ruling

During discovery, defendants learned that Benjamin had misrepresented his credentials and employment history to Epiphany School during the recruitment process. The district court allowed the evidence, concluding that it was relevant and that it did not need to be excluded pursuant to Federal Rule of Evidence 403. Maximizing the probative value of the disputed evidence and minimizing its prejudicial effect, as the court is required to do, the district court’s decision to admit the evidence was not unreasonable.

Verdict form

Finally, the court considers Benjamin’s challenge to the district court’s verdict form and jury instructions regarding his breach of contract claims against Epiphany School and the Sparks Foundation, as well as his challenge to the verdict form related to his defamation per se claim against Sparks. Considering the jury charge as a whole, the court concludes that the trial court adequately informed the jury of the relevant issues and legal principles, and that its verdict form and instructions did not prejudice Benjamin.

Remaining arguments

Benjamin argues that the after-acquired evidence defense should not have been available as a complete defense to breach of contract. But the jury found no breach of contract, so it never reached the issue of related defenses. The court need not determine the breadth of a defense that was never considered at trial.

Benjamin also appeals the district court’s orders dismissing some claims and parties and granting summary judgment to defendants on other claims. Benjamin’s appeal of these orders stems from what he alleges to be unlawful discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Title VII. Under both causes of action, Benjamin must demonstrate some adverse employment action. Here, there was no adverse action because the jury determined that Benjamin resigned voluntarily.


Benjamin v. Sparks (Lawyers Weekly No. 001-015-21, 36 pp.) (James A. Wynn Jr., J.) Appeal No. 19-2041. Jan. 19, 2021. From E.D.N.C. (James C. Dever III, J.) Lawrence M. Pearson for Appellant. Richard Leonard Pinto and Hayden J. Silver III for Appellees.


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