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Judge dismisses Sawyers' lawsuit seeking access to old school board emails

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Prince William County School Board Chairman Ryan Sawyers’ legal effort to access old school board emails took a hit in court Tuesday morning when a judge dismissed his lawsuit against Superintendent Steven Walts.

During a hearing in Prince William Circuit Court Nov. 21, Judge Steven S. Smith ruled in favor of Walts’ motion to dismiss Sawyers’ legal challenge, formally called a “writ of mandamus,” on the grounds that Sawyers lacked standing to demand access to the emails.

Sawyers’ lawsuit asked the court to mandate that Walts grant Sawyers’ request for access to all school board emails, to the extent they are available, sent and received by current and former school board members.

Sawyers filed the legal challenge back in May saying he needed access to the records to better understand past school board actions as they pertain to decisions about building new schools. Sawyers has said he’s particularly interested in overcrowding on the eastern side of the county and wants to better understand why some areas of the county received more resources for new school construction than others.

Walts’ attorney, R. Craig Wood, of the elite national law firm McGuireWoods LLP, argued that state and federal privacy laws as well as Virginia case law prevented Walts from granting Sawyers access to the email archives without action to do so by the entire school board.

Wood argued that the school board is a “body corporate,” under Virginia law, and that no individual school board member has the power under to direct a superintendent to act on any issue.

“The chairman can’t make demands on the superintendent that supersede the power of the board as a whole,” Wood said.

Sawyer’s attorney, Stephen Cochran, countered that Wood was “tossing a lot of smoke and mirrors.” Cochrane, a partner in the McLean firm Roeder, Cochran, Phillips, PLLC, argued that Sawyers is privy to information needed to make school board decisions even if it is protected by privacy rules.

Cochran further said Sawyers has a right, as chairman of the “body corporate,” to access the emails to learn from school board members’ past actions and experiences.

As an example, Cochran posed a hypothetical about a parent complaining about a school board discipline ruling. What if a parent charged their child received a harsher punishment because of his or her race? School board members might need access to past school board emails to understand whether the accusation had merit, he said.

“How is the school board to benefit from past experience if they don’t have access – unfettered access – to these communications?” Cochran argued.

Cochran further argued that the case law cited by Wood dealt with situations not relevant to Sawyers’ request. One particular case, Green vs. Fairfax County School Board, dealt with the question of whether a school board chairman had the power to make policy apart from the approval of the school board as a whole.

“My client is not trying to make policy here,” Cochran argued, but rather to have access to information that belongs to the school board and its individual members. “As a body corporate, any member of the board not only should have access but needs to have access to those records,” he said.

In the end, the Judge Smith sided with Walts and dismissed the case, saying a school board member cannot “go off in a rogue state” and “go on their own to get that information,” referring to the archived emails.

In an interview after the ruling, Walts, who attended the hearing, said he felt “vindicated” by the Smith’s decision.

“I feel that I did my job, and I believe that Judge Smith ruled as he saw the law,” Walts said. “I feel vindicated.”

In a text message, Sawyers said he is waiting to hear from his attorney about the decision but is considering filing an appeal.

“It is the school board’s job to oversee the superintendent and not vice versa,” Sawyers added.

The lawsuit is one of four currently involving Sawyers, who has served as at-large chairman of the Prince William County School Board since 2016.

Sawyers has a similar writ of mandamus pending against school division attorney Mary McGowan for access to emails she has sent and received from other school board members.

Sawyers is also being sued, along with fellow School Board Member Justin Wilk (Potomac), by Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop on allegations they conspired to have him fired in late 2015. Finally, the youth baseball league Sawyers leads, the Bull Run Little League, has a case pending in court against the youth baseball club Bishop formerly led, the Gainesville-Haymarket Baseball League.

Walts said his legal fees for the writ of mandamus dismissed today were covered by the school division’s legal-liability insurance, which is part of a comprehensive insurance policy the school division holds with VML (formerly the Virginia Municipal League).

Sawyers has said he is paying for his own legal fees in connection with the two writs of mandamus and the baseball league lawsuit, but is being covered by the school division legal-liability insurance for his defense in Bishop’s lawsuit, which was initially filed before Sawyers joined the school board.

Walts said the school division’s policy paid for his defense from McGuireWoods, considered one of the top legal firms in the country, because of the possible implications of the case on state and federal privacy laws.

“This is a major decision throughout the state and throughout the country when you consider all the various privacy laws,” Walts said.

Reach Jill Palermo at jpalermo@fauquier.com

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