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Jury awards $200K to student defamed by professor

A University of Maryland Eastern Shore professor must pay $200,000 to a former student who said the professor publicly and falsely accused him of stealing money from a fraternity bank account.

A jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore this week found the professor, Ramona Brockett, had defamed Jordan A. Brown in a series of three emails, and awarded him $50,000 in compensatory damages and $150,000 in punitive damages.

Brown, who is now in law school, alleged that the professor “initiated and developed an unusual personal relationship with Brown, emailing, text messaging and calling him on multiple occasions” while he was an officer of UMES’ chapter of Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity International, or PAD, and she was serving as its faculty advisor.

Brown opened two bank accounts in the name of “Phi Alpha Delta UMES” during the spring semester of 2008. The following fall, Brown said, Brockett asked him for a personal loan of $1,000, which he gave because he did not want to upset her. He said he declined, however, to give her a second loan in January 2009.

“Brown decided that he was not going to succumb to his professor’s pressure for money and opted not to give Brockett the additional funds she requested,” the complaint said. “Despite knowing that Brown was having surgery, Brockett insisted that Brown go immediately to a local Western Union office and wire her the money so that she could make her car payment.”

After he refused to provide the money, the amended complaint said, Brockett “repeatedly harassed Brown via email, text messages, telephone calls and voice mails during January and February of 2009.”

Brown ultimately decided to resign from the fraternity in February 2009. A year later, he alleged, Brockett sent the school’s director of student activities and 14 other people an email, the subject of which was “misappropriation of funds by fiduciary officer.”

In the email, she said she found it “odd” that “he was not forthcoming with the documents he was entrusted with as the fiduciary officer,” and noted that Byron Rupp, the director of pre-law operations at the fraternity, was “interested in severe sanctions,” including “informing law schools around the country of the misappropriation of the funds.”

Brockett allegedly sent two additional emails a month later. In the first, which was sent to the chairman of the criminal justice department and five other people, she said Brown did not hand over “any of the paperwork that was a part of the UMES Chapter of PAD upon his departure as its president,” and further alleged that PAD’s bank account reflected only money received since Brown’s successor took over the presidency.

The chairman conducted interviews with PAD board members and determined that there were no missing funds, and Brown said the chairman notified Brockett of his determination.

Nevertheless, according to Brown’s complaint, Brockett sent the third email, to Rupp and 11 other people, advising them of the chairman’s investigation and conclusion, and writing that she disagreed with the finding of no misconduct.

Brown said that, upon being notified of Brockett’s allegations, he provided documentation to the school proving that the professor’s allegations were “patently false, including copies of the bank deposit slip showing that the alleged misappropriated funds were, in fact, deposited into the … bank account of the UMES Chapter of PAD [and] that Brown had, in fact, handed over to his successor … all documentation for both … bank accounts.”

Brown said the emails caused him “fear and distress regarding his future opportunities for admission to law school and in obtaining future employment.”

His attorney, Peter F. Axelrad of Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan P.A. in Annapolis, said Thursday Brown is currently a third-year law student at Rutgers School of Law.

Axelrad said Brown was specifically concerned with how the allegations would look to the character committee that will assess his fitness to practice law.

“Defamation can be a dagger, and that was what happened here,” Axelrad said. “He faced a lot of pressure in bringing the lawsuit in the first case, because if he had lost it would have been worse. He now has the confidence to go forward in his career.”

Axelrad said he has advised Brown to disclose to the character committee the fact that he was “falsely accused” of fiscal misconduct and to attach a copy of the order of judgment signed by Senior Judge J. Frederick Motz, who oversaw the case.

Trial began on March 18 and ended with the jury’s verdict on March 26.

Marie H. Billie, director of human resources and inside counsel at UMES, confirmed Thursday that Brockett was employed by UMES until March 22, 2013. She said it is the school’s policy “never to disclose our employees reasons for leaving.”

Brockett represented herself in the case. She did not respond to an email requesting comment.

According her LinkedIn professional profile, Brockett is currently the CEO and director of the SeaBrock Institute in New York.

Click here to see a copy of the order of judgment.

Click here to see the amended complaint.

JORDAN BROWN V. RAMONA BROCKETT

Court:

U.S. District Court, Baltimore.

Case No:

1:11-cv-00240.

Judge:

J. Frederick Motz

Outcome:

Jury verdict for plaintiff; $50,000 compensatory, $150,000 punitive damages

Dates:

Events: Three emails allegedly sent in February and March 2010

Suit filed: Jan. 28, 2011. Amended complaint filed August 18, 2011

Trial: March 18-26, 2013

Verdict: March 26, 2013

Plaintiff’s Attorneys:

Peter F. Axelrad and N. Tucker Meneely, Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan P.A. in Annapolis.

Defense Attorney:

Ramona Brockett pro se

Counts:

Defamation, malicious defamation, false light.