A group of folks from North Carolina, who have been lobbying the General Assembly for a few years now to lease privately-owned school buildings (which may, um, *coincidentally* have solar panels on them) to local governments, is now finding themselves in some legal hot water regarding some similar projects south of the border:
Horry County Schools’ former executive director of facilities, Mark Wolfe, is suing the district and several others over their actions leading up to Wolfe’s placement on administrative leave in August 2018.
Wolfe filed the suit Tuesday with a claim of defamation against all the defendants: the school district, Superintendent Dr. Rick Maxey, Chief Officer for Support Services Daryl Brown, FirstFloor Energy Positive, FirstFloor contractor Metcon and Metcon CEO Aaron Thomas.
“As a direct and proximate result of the aforesaid defamation, [Wolfe’s] personal and professional reputation has been damaged, he incurred expenses to contest the proposed discharge, he has suffered physical and emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation and he has also suffered the loss of earnings,” the suit says.
Wolfe alleged tortious interference with a contractual relationship against Metcon, Thomas and FirstFloor, alleging they “intentionally procured the breach of plaintiff’s contract,” and that “their actions caused the proposed removal of plaintiff in 2018 and has consequentially causes plaintiff’s job to be selected as part of a reduction in force.”
And he claimed a civil conspiracy against Maxey, Thomas and Brown.
“Defendants Dr. Maxey, Brown, and Thomas met, schemed, planned, and conspired with one another and with others to end plaintiff’s employment with the district and prevent plaintiff from succeeding in his chosen career as executive director of facilities for the district,” the complaint says.
The impetus for the suit dates back to the district’s efforts to procure security features for Horry County’s five new energy-positive schools built by FirstFloor and Metcon. The building program is currently subject to a state law enforcement division investigation. The suit doesn’t say what the security features were.
“FirstFloor, Thomas, and Metcon, also through the actions of Ryan Parker, Metcon’s project manager, sought full control over these projects, for financial gain and to [Wolfe’s] detriment when they perceived him as a barrier to their efforts to control these multi-million dollar public procurement processes,” the suit says.
Wolfe argued in his lawsuit that his placement on administrative leave was due in part to his opposition to releasing “retainage” funds to Metcon in July of 2018 because “work was not sufficiently completed to warrant such sums.”
The suit doesn’t specify what the sums are, or which of the five new energy-positive schools are being referenced, but during the time in question, Socastee Middle School was the only new school that hadn’t opened.
The complaint says that Wolfe and district staff working for him pressed Metcon for weeks for information about pricing on the security features.
On June 5 and June 7 of 2018, Wolfe emailed Brown to tell him about delays in getting information from Metcon, according to the suit, which said on June 7, Maxey also emailed Brown asking if Metcon had provided a response.
Later on June 7, Wolfe informed Brown that the district hadn’t received information from Metcon and that the district’s project manager had contacted a local vendor to try and get a price for comparison, according to the complaint.
On June 11, the suit says, the district’s project manager contacted Metcon project manager Ryan Parker to ask for details about the vendor the company had selected for the school security features, and told Parker that a second price quote was forthcoming for a vendor not affiliated with Metcon.
On June 21, the district project manager sent to Parker copies of the proposals from the vendor not affiliated with Metcon, the complaint says, adding that on the same day, Wolfe forwarded the proposals to Maxey and Brown with the explanation that the project manager had contacted a local vendor because Metcon and Parker failed to act.
Wolfe told them the work could still be done before students came back, if Metcon issued a change order in a timely manner, the suit says, and Metcon issued a change order later on June 21.
Wolfe said in the complaint that during the week of July 16, approvals “were given” for the security work to be performed by the non-Metcon affiliated local vendor, and the security vendor purchase orders were issued to Metcon on July 18.
The lawsuit says that Brown and Thomas met for lunch on July 27, and “contrived the plan to end [Wolfe’s] employment with the district because [Wolfe] was perceived as a barrier to Metcon’s monopoly and utter control over the five new school projects.”
On July 31, the court filings say the school district made the false accusations that Wolfe had failed to comply with the requirements set forth in the South Carolina Code of Conduct for Public Officials and Employees.
“Around this time, Thomas and Brown met on multiple occasions on a one-on-one basis for nefarious purposes,” the suit says.
Also in late July, the lawsuit says “Metcon requested release of a large amount of retainage money,” but that “[Wolfe], and other district staff, were against the release of funds to Metcon because work was not sufficiently completed.”
The suit claims that “Metcon and Thomas perceived [Wolfe] as the barrier to them getting the large retainage money they sought before work was sufficiently completed to warrant payment of such large sums.”
On August 11, the suit says, a district staffer ran into Donald Godwin, who owns Southern Asphalt, at the Conway airport. The company did work on the new schools building project as a subcontractor under FirstFloor.
Godwin told the staffer that he’d heard Wolfe was about to lose his job, and the staffer told Wolfe about the incident two days later, the lawsuit states.
The complaint said the airport encounter occurred less than three days after Wolfe’s meeting with the district about the allegations that led to his placement on administrative leave, and before Wolfe was placed on administrative leave on August 14.
The suit says that while Wolfe was on administrative leave, Brown authorized Metcon to receive the retainage funds.
Eventually, the school board voted to reinstate Wolfe instead of following Maxey’s recommendation of termination.
Wolfe also blamed Metcon, Thomas and FirstFloor for his proposed removal as part of the districts’ reduction in force to ease the blow of COVID-19.
“Mr. Wolfe’s employment with Horry County Schools as director of facilities ended on June 30, 2020, as the result of a reorganization and reduction in force,” said district spokesperson Lisa Bourcier in an email. “The district has no intention of reinstating that position for the foreseeable future.”
Wolfe is challenging the reduction in force decision. Bourcier declined to comment on the litigation.
“As a direct and proximate result of the wrongful civil conspiracy referred to herein, [Wolfe] has been ostracized and blacklisted in his field and profession, suffered an unwarranted administrative leave, suffered a proposed removal, threats to his livelihood, diminished feeling of self-worth, has suffered loss of sleep, loss of companionship, and severe mental anguish as a result of the same,” the suit said. […]