School district’s legal fight with ex-board member ends
A yearslong legal dispute between Lexington-Richland 5 school district and former school board member Kim Murphy that was set to go to trial next month came to an end last week, according to court filings.
Both sides agreed on April 29 to drop the case using a South Carolina courts rule that strikes the dispute from the court docket, but allows either side to reinstate the case at any time within a year. That means a jury won’t have to decide whether Murphy owes the school district $10 million, and that both sides can tentatively put to bed a lengthy, costly and contentious string of court battles.
Murphy and her attorney, Paul Porter, declined to comment on the agreement. The State reached out to LexingtonRichland 5’s attorney on Monday morning.
In early 2019, Murphy and the district entered mediation in an attempt to resolve the suit, but were ultimately unable to agree on an outcome. In April 2019, the Lexington-Richland 5 school board voted unanimously to settle the 7-year-old legal battle.
If Murphy accepted the offer, the school district said it would drop legal claims against her alleging she cost taxpayers millions for delaying a construction project. She would have had to agree to not file any legal action against Lexington-Richland 5 without following certain procedures — among them, getting permission from the court and notifying the district of her intent to file. If Murphy accepted the settlement but did not follow the rules, the court could have ordered her to pay $2 million, plus interest and fees.
Lexington-Richland 5 had to “hold Ms. Murphy accountable for the consequences of her abusive appeals and lawsuits in pursuit of her personal interests,” the school district’s attorney, John Reagle, said at the time, accord
ing to a news release.
Porter called board members and their offer “out of touch,” adding “they have more pride than sense.” Murphy declined to settle on those terms.
In January, a judge denied both sides’ motions to have the case decided in their favor as a matter of law, according to Porter. The court instead set a trial for June 8 to decide the matter, Porter said in a January email to The State.
The legal dispute, one of several between Murphy and the district during the last decade, stems from an appeal she filed in circuit court in 2013 after the school board voted to remove her from office. She was ousted by fellow board members who determined that while she was elected to one of the board’s Richland County seats, she actually lived in Lexington County.
The district filed a response to her appeal that said the board acted appropriately. The district also filed a counterclaim that said delays caused by Murphy’s public opposition had increased the cost of the Chapin High School expansion by more than $10 million. The counterclaim asked the court to order Murphy to pay back the money.
Murphy lost the court battle over her removal from the board, but the $10 million question lingered.
The school district argued that Murphy cost taxpayers millions of dollars over the years, starting with her public campaign against the building plans that called for filling 727 feet of a creek and a piece of wetlands near Chapin High School. Murphy said the project would hurt the environment, and she sought to challenge the district’s permits for the construction.
“I’m concerned about our ecosystem and water quality, but I’m also concerned about the practice of constructing sports fields in a wetlands area when there are sites on the Chapin High School parcel that are more suitable and much less costly to develop,” Murphy told The State in 2011.
The district said it followed the proper protocols and received approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for the project. On July 13, 2010, Murphy filed a claim against DHEC over the permits.
A month later, she filed to run for a Richland County seat on the school board. In November 2010, she was elected to the board. Later that year, a nonprofit was formed to sue Murphy for delaying the project and breaching her duties as a board member. She was later ousted.
Lexington-Richland 5 has said it determined that Murphy owed more than $10 million because of increased design and construction costs, plus attorney’s fees. In legal filings, the district argued that Murphy tried to delay the Chapin High project to appease her political allies. She says she has always fought for the good of the students and families in the district — not for personal gain.