Popular romance novelist, school he started face lawsuit

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The former headmaster of a private Christian school founded by novelist Nicholas Sparks can continue to sue the school, the author and the foundation Sparks created to support the school, a federal judge said.

U.S. District Judge James Dever III ruled last month that a jury should decide whether the author of "Message in a Bottle" and "The Notebook" defamed Saul Hillel Benjamin and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Sparks was described as telling parents, a job recruiter and others that the former Epiphany School of Global Studies headmaster suffered from mental health problems, the judge said. Benjamin was in the position for less than five months and said he was forced out.

"Sparks' statements are directly related to Epiphany's decision to allegedly terminate Benjamin's employment," Dever wrote in his ruling. "The cited testimony constitutes direct evidence of disability discrimination by a decision-maker on the basis of Benjamin's perceived mental impairment."

Attorneys from both sides have proposed settlement discussions for next month and a potential trial starting in March.

Dever also said a jury should decide whether Benjamin resigned as headmaster of the New Bern school or was pressured into quitting. Jurors also should decide whether the school and the Nicholas Sparks Foundation had sufficient grounds to fire Benjamin if he hadn't resigned. The school said Benjamin misrepresented his qualifications before being hired.

If Benjamin resigned from his school position, he would forfeit any severance pay. If he was violating one of a number of fireable offenses, he would have had 30 days to correct the offending behavior. But if he was fired without cause, he would be paid the remainder of his four-year contract plus an extra year.

Benjamin's contracts with both the school and Sparks' foundation totaled $256,000 a year plus bonus and benefits.

The judge ruled Benjamin hadn't showed evidence to back up claims in his four-year-old lawsuit accusing Sparks and other school leaders of forcing him out when he tried to recruit black students and faculty and supported a bullied group of gay students. Benjamin also accused Sparks and other school leaders of making religiously dismissive remarks, but the judge found Benjamin didn't produce direct evidence his Jewish background played a role in his lost employment.

"I am pleased that the Court has now dismissed the vast majority of the claims against me, my Foundation and the School," Sparks said in a statement through his public relations firm. "Very importantly, the Court has dismissed any claims of discrimination or harassment against me. I am confident that any further decisions on the remaining claims will be made in our favor as well."

Benjamin headed the college-prep K-12 school in Sparks' hometown of 30,000 people about 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Raleigh between July and November 2013. His hiring came after professorial jobs in Morocco, Germany and Lebanon and working as a senior adviser in President Bill Clinton's Education Department, according to his resume.