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Judge dismisses defamation claim against Board of Education; Claim against Mary Moorhead stands

Mary Moorhead participates in a Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development meeting on March 23, 2023 in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Chambers on St. Croix.
Legislature of the Virgin Islands
Mary Moorhead participates in a Senate Committee on Education and Workforce Development meeting on March 23, 2023 in the Frits E. Lawaetz Legislative Chambers on St. Croix.

ST. CROIX — A Superior Court judge has dismissed a defamation claim against the Virgin Islands Board of Education, but the civil lawsuit stands individually against former board chair Mary Moorhead in connection to comments she made on the radio eight years ago.

Superior Court Judge Douglas Brady dismissed with prejudice on May 30 a claim of defamation against the VI Board of Education tied to Moorhead in her official capacity as board chair in 2016.

Brady dismissed seven other claims against the Board of Education in November 2019, ordering that the defamation case would proceed against Moorhead alone, according to Brady’s 24-page memorandum opinion signed by the judge on December 6, 2019.

The plaintiff, Patricia Schrader-Cooke, former VIBE associate executive director and acting executive director, subsequently filed a motion in January 2020 claiming the defamation count presented a claim against Moorhead in both her individual and official capacities. The Board of Education did not oppose allowing the claim to proceed, asserting in its motion to dismiss that there is no material dispute that Moorhead’s alleged defamatory statements were made outside the scope of her employment.

Brady, in his 11-page memorandum opinion and order granting VIBE’s motion to dismiss, indicated that the Court’s order from 2019 dismissing the seven claims against VIBE, and permitting the defamation claim against Moorhead to proceed alone was predicated on a plain reading of the count that presented a defamation claim only against Moorhead individually. He clarified in his May 30 opinion that the Court accepted the defamation count against Moorhead as alleging liability both personally and in her official capacity as chair of the Board of Education.

The Court dismissed the defamation claim against VIBE, noting that no motion was presented seeking disposition of the claim against Moorhead individually.

Moorhead, who is represented in the case by her nephew, attorney Jeffrey Moorhead, plans on filing a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

“I will definitely be asking my attorney to file a motion to dismiss because the charges are bogus,” she said.

Five months after Schrader-Cooke joined VIBE as associate executive director, the board suspended her for seven days by letter dated February 5, 2016 through Mary Moorhead in her capacity as the board’s new chair during her first four-year term on the board. According to a court document, Schrader-Cooke got suspended for her unauthorized approval of a Notification of Personnel Action to reclassify a fellow VIBE employee to classified service from exempt service, failing to inform and obtain prior board approval. The board affirmed the suspension by majority vote at a meeting on February 12, 2016.

Mary Moorhead allegedly defamed and slandered Schrader-Cooke when she spoke on her late nephew Robert Moorhead’s radio talk show, “In Session,” on March 23, 2016. Schrader-Cooke alleges that Mary Moorhead stated that she “engaged in a ‘breach of trust and violation of her authority,’” “approved a request for a change of classification for the Business and Finance director from exempt to classified,” “engaged in ‘unethical actions’ and ‘unethical business actions,’” “improperly cancelling the contract of the regular cleaning company and tried to hire its employee,” and “was ‘using the board as her personal subsidy,’ (such activity would constitute a crime under 14 VIC, Section 895).” Section 895 relates to a crime of conversion of government property.

Brady, in his 2019 opinion, noted that Mary Moorhead has admitted that she made statements as alleged that were broadcast on a radio talk show on March 23, 2016. The Court further noted that whether those statements that allege facts, as opposed to nonactionable opinions, were false, and whether they were defamatory are disputed questions of fact to be resolved at trial. The Court indicated that a jury issue is posed as to whether the statements were made by Mary Moorhead with actual malice, without the need that Schrader-Cooke establish that she suffered special damages resulting from the broadcast communication. As such, the Court denied Mary Moorhead’s motion at the time seeking summary judgment as to the claim for defamation against her individual capacity.

The Court granted the motion for summary judgment submitted by the Board of Education in 2019, dismissing seven counts against VIBE.

The seven claims against the Board of Education and its board members were dismissed against then-board member LaVerne Slack, and sitting board members Judy Gomez, Winona Hendricks, and Arah Lockhart. All claims were also dismissed against Mary Moorhead, except for the defamation claim.

The seven other claims were violation of due process, breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, intentional interference with contractual relations (two counts against individual defendants Mary Moorhead and Gomez), intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligence.

Mary Moorhead, who was reelected to a second term on the Board of Education on November 8, 2016, unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the board in 2020 and 2022. She is running for a seat on the board as an independent candidate in the upcoming general election.

A status conference/calendar call for the defamation claim against Mary Moorhead individually is scheduled for 9 a.m. July 25 via Zoom.

Tom Eader is the Chief Reporter for WTJX. Originally from South Bend, Indiana, Eader received his bachelor's degree in journalism from Ball State University, where he wrote for his college newspaper. He moved to St. Croix in 2003, after landing a job as a reporter for the St. Croix Avis. Eader worked at the Avis for 20 years, as both a reporter and photographer, and served as Bureau Chief from 2013 until their closure at the beginning of 2024. Eader is an award-winning journalist, known for his thorough and detailed reporting on multiple topics important to the Virgin Islands community. Joining the WTJX team in January of 2024, Eader brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the newsroom. Email: | Phone: 340-227-4463