Patriot High School Principal Michael Bishop’s 4-year-old lawsuit against Ryan Sawyers, former chairman of the Prince William County School Board, and Gainesville businessman Guy Morgan was withdrawn Friday after a judge dismissed all counts relating to Sawyers during a morning hearing.
Attorney Earl “Trey” Mayfield filed a “nonsuit order” March 21 in the legal challenge, in which Bishop at one time sought about $7 million in damages from Morgan, Sawyers and School Board member Justin Wilk (Potomac).
The move came after Prince William County Circuit Court Judge Tracy C. Hudson dismissed “with prejudice” during a 10 a.m. hearing the two remaining counts against Sawyers, effectively removing him from the lawsuit.
Hudson’s ruling came after Mayfield argued that Bishop should be allowed to add new charges of defamation to the case, which was scheduled to go to trial in 17 days on April 8.
Sawyers’ attorney Kathryn A. Grace argued that would be improper because Sawyers would be unfairly “prejudiced” during the trial by new charges of defamation. Grace also noted Virginia’s one-year statute of limitations on defamation. Hudson ruled in Sawyers’ favor, granting Sawyers’ motion for summary judgment to remove him from Bishop’s legal challenge.
Sometime after Hudson’s ruling, Mayfield filed the nonsuit order. The move gives Bishop six months to re-file the lawsuit. But if he does so, he can only bring forward the sole remaining charge: that Morgan allegedly defamed his character through a now-defunct website that contained statements critical of Bishop’s leadership of the Gainesville Haymarket Baseball League. The lawsuit sought $1.35 million in damages on that charge.
Mayfield declined further comment.
Morgan said he felt “vindicated” by the day’s results.
“As I have stated consistently over the last four years, Mr. Bishop's case against me was meritless,” Morgan said in a statement. “By dropping his lawsuit against me so close to the scheduled trial date, Mr. Bishop has effectively admitted that his case never should have been filed in the first place. It's just such a shame that this farce was allowed to go on for so long and at such great expense to taxpayers."
Sawyers did not return a call or text message seeking an interview. Sawyers did, however, post a picture of a downed “bishop” chess piece on his Facebook page without additional comment.
Hudson’s ruling and the nonsuit filing comes about two weeks after Hudson filed an order dismissing Wilk from the case, also “with prejudice.” The term means that neither Wilk nor Sawyers can be sued again by Bishop on the same charges.
Wilk said last week he was relieved to be dismissed from the lawsuit and maintains he never conspired with Sawyers or anyone else to fire Bishop.
“They didn’t find any supporting or corroborating evidence to support the idea that I conspired to fire Dr. Bishop,” Wilk said March 12. “I’ve maintained my innocence all along, and said I was only being targeted for political reasons.”
The motion to dismiss Wilk came a few weeks after he was deposed by Bishop’s lawyers in February.
Wilk, a former Prince William County middle and high school teacher and the father of two young sons, is finishing the final year of his first four-year term on the school board. He is one of five school board members who were endorsed by the local Democratic committee in 2015.
Sawyers was also endorsed by local Democrats but resigned from the post in March 2018.
Wilk said the lawsuit had been “extremely stressful” for him and his family and caused him to question a run for re-election, something he remains undecided about. Morgan said the lawsuit was both costly and concerning.
“It was many years of a guy saying I was responsible for the termination of his employment,” Morgan said. “And him telling everyone about that.”
Suit followed rift between baseball leagues
The original lawsuit, filed in February 2015, stemmed from a rift between two western Prince William County youth baseball leagues in which both Sawyers and Bishop held leadership roles. Sawyers led the now-defunct Bull Run Little League, while Bishop had been president of the Gainesville Haymarket Baseball League. The two leagues merged in 2018, Morgan said.
Morgan filed a lawsuit in 2013 asking a judge to vacate an election held to pick parent leaders of the Gainesville Haymarket Baseball League. The lawsuit sought no damages. It was dismissed about a year later on the grounds that Morgan lacked standing to sue.
Morgan and Sawyers then re-chartered the long-dormant Bull Run Little League, which operated independently of the Gainesville Haymarket Baseball League. There was friction between the two leagues, however, over access to ball fields at Catharpin and Long parks.
Sawyers and Morgan took issue with emails Bishop sent to parents using his school division email account, which they said warned parents against joining the Bull Run Little League. An investigation conducted by the Prince William County Schools risk management department in 2016 resulted in Bishop receiving a letter of reprimand in his file and being placed on a school division “professional improvement plan,” according to court documents.
On June 6, 2016, the school board conducted a poll – taken outside of a regular school board meeting -- to put Bishop’s contract for the 2016-17 school year on hold amid the investigation. The school board voted nine days later, on June 15, 2016, to rescind the poll and reinstate Bishop’s contract. Sawyers recused himself from the poll and the board vote.
Bishop initially filed his lawsuit several months before Sawyers was elected to the school board chairmanship in November 2015. The lawsuit charged defamation of character. Bishop amended his complaint in 2016 to add the conspiracy charges after the school division investigation.
Bishop was named principal of Patriot High School in 2010, one year before the school opened in 2011, and remains at the helm of the Nokesville school.
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org