Murphy v. Richland Lexington School District 5 Board of Trustees, 2018-UP-403

CourtCourt of Appeals of South Carolina
Writing for the CourtPER CURIAM:
Docket Number2018-UP-403
PartiesKim Murphy, Appellant, v. Richland Lexington School District 5 Board of Trustees, Bobby Merle Bowers, and Robert Gantt, Defendants, Of whom Bobby Merle Bowers and Robert Gantt are the Respondents. Appellate Case No. 2016-001198
Decision Date31 October 2018


Submitted April 2, 2018

Appeal From Richland County Doyet A. Early, III, Circuit Court Judge

J Lewis Cromer, of Cromer Babb Porter & Hicks, LLC, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Michael H. Montgomery, of Montgomery Willard, LLC, of Columbia, for Respondent Robert Gantt.

Patrick John Frawley, of Davis Frawley, LLC, of Lexington, for Respondent Bobby Merle Bowers.


Kim Murphy appeals the circuit court's order granting summary judgment to Bobby Merle Bowers on Murphy's civil conspiracy cause of action and to Robert Gantt on Murphy's civil conspiracy and defamation causes of action. We affirm.[1]


Murphy and her husband built their home in 2001 in Chapin. As a result, Murphy began paying taxes and registered to vote in Richland County. Murphy ran against Gantt for a position on the Board of Trustees (the School Board) of School District Five of Lexington & Richland Counties (the School District) as a Richland County resident in 2004.[2] During the campaign, Stewart Mungo informed Gantt he did not believe Murphy lived in Richland County. However, Gantt did not investigate this information. Murphy lost the election to Gantt. Gantt was reelected in 2008.

In 2010, Murphy challenged the School Board's proposed expansion of Chapin High School, which required filling in a portion of a stream, asserting that filling in the stream would negatively impact the ecosystem. See Murphy v. S.C Dep't of Health & Envtl. Control, 396 S.C. 633, 723 S.E.2d 191 (2012).[3] That same year, Murphy was elected to the School Board for a four-year term. A nonprofit group was formed and filed suit against Murphy for abuse of process as a result of Murphy's lawsuit.[4] See Stroud v. Murphy, Op. No. 2013-MO-017 (S.C. Sup. Ct. filed June 12, 2013). Due to the lawsuit and other issues of contention, there was tension among Murphy and some of the other School Board trustees, including Gantt. Murphy had also previously been involved with another suit with the School Board about taping proceedings. Gantt was reelected in 2012. Gantt served as chair of the School Board from 2008 until 2013.

On September 17, 2012, Murphy emailed the Office of Research and Statistics (the Office)[5] requesting a copy of a map of the School District and the Lexington County boundary. She wanted to look at the split of the precincts. Around September or October of 2012, the Office was responsible for assisting the county voter registration offices to make sure voters were assigned to the correct district. Bowers worked as Director of the Office, and one of the divisions he oversaw was geodetic mapping. He later became Director of Mapping and county officials would contact his office for assistance with maps in their county. A computer program flagged Murphy's address along with some others as being in the incorrect district. At that time, William Roberts worked for the Office as the State Political Cartographer and was responsible for assisting the county voter registration offices with ensuring voters were assigned to the correct district. Roberts talked to Lexington County staff about the issue because the Office did not have a working relationship with Richland County. In October of 2012, Bowers apprised Gantt by phone he had been informed Murphy did not live in Richland County and actually lived in Lexington County. After Bowers and Gantt spoke via phone, Gantt made an unscheduled visit to the Office and Roberts showed him the maps. Bowers was not present during the visit.

Gantt contacted the School District's legal counsel, Ken Childs, and a meeting was scheduled at the Office. Childs, Gantt, Bowers, Roberts, Beth Watson-another School Board trustee-and other attorneys at Childs's law firm attended the meeting. The School District learned it needed to make a formal request for Bowers to investigate, and it submitted a formal request in December of 2012. Bowers responded via letter that pursuant to the request, the Office used three sources to determine the county location of Murphy's address: (1) the United States Census Bureau; (2) precinct maps on file with the Office; and (3) research and field work. Bowers stated all three sources showed Murphy is a resident of Lexington County and thus not qualified to hold her position as a resident of Richland County. Instead, Bowers indicated Murphy was eligible for a seat as a Lexington County resident. The meeting, formal request, and Bowers's findings were revealed at the executive session of the January 2013 School Board meeting. After the executive session was closed, at the public meeting, Gantt made a statement regarding Bowers's findings. Gantt stated that if Bowers's findings were correct, he assumed Murphy would resign because she would not be qualified to represent Richland County. However, Murphy did not resign.

On January 28, 2013, Gantt made a public statement about Murphy's residency. After a consultation with the School District's attorneys, an evidentiary hearing was scheduled in front of a retired circuit court judge to allow both sides to present their positions. Murphy did not attend or participate in the hearing on the advice of her counsel.[6] At the hearing in front of Judge G. Thomas Cooper Jr., the School District called Bowers to testify. Following the hearing, Judge Cooper recommended Murphy be removed from the School Board because he found clear and convincing evidence her residence was located in Lexington County. The School Board held a hearing on March 19, 2013, at which Murphy was removed from her School Board position.

On July 28, 2014, Murphy filed a complaint for civil conspiracy against Gantt and Bowers and for defamation against Gantt.[7], [8] She alleged the defamation injured her "reputation, diminished likelihood of re-election, humiliation, embarrassment, pain and suffering, and other losses." She stated she was entitled to punitive damages from Gantt for the defamation. Further, she asserted the civil conspiracy had caused her "special damages including pain, suffering, and emotional distress directly tied to [her] being blacklisted from [the School] Board, ostracized for her outspoken criticisms that were valid, the loss of her position on [the School] Board, and other intangibles including loss of reputations linked to her ability to run for and be elected to [the School] Board." She also requested the cost of attorney's fees for the civil conspiracy cause of action. Additionally, she contended she was entitled to punitive damages for the civil conspiracy.

Bowers filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim as well as for summary judgment. Gantt filed a motion for summary judgment on both causes of action against him. Murphy filed a memorandum in opposition to the motions for summary judgment. In her memorandum, Murphy asserted she testified she suffered numerous damages as a result of Gantt and Bowers's actions, including (1) seeking aid of a psychiatrist due to stress, which she could not afford; (2) suffering severe and reoccurring muscle spasms; (3) seeking aid from physical therapists; (4) losing the salary[9] she would have been paid for her School Board service for the 2013-2014 school year; and (5) losing the ability to be elected in Richland or Lexington County due to the harm to her reputation. Following the hearing, [10] the circuit court granted Gantt's and Bowers's motions for summary judgment. Murphy filed a motion for reconsideration, which the circuit court denied. This appeal followed.[11], [12]


"The purpose of summary judgment is to expedite the disposition of cases" not requiring "the services of a fact finder." George v. Fabri, 345 S.C. 440, 452 548 S.E.2d 868, 874 (2001). When reviewing the grant of a summary judgment motion, this court applies the same standard that governs the trial court under Rule 56(c), SCRCP; summary judgment is proper when there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fleming v. Rose, 350 S.C. 488, 493, 567 S.E.2d 857, 860 (2002). In determining whether a genuine issue of fact exists, the evidence and all reasonable inferences drawn from it must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Sauner v. Pub. Serv. Auth. of S.C., 354 S.C. 397, 404, 581 S.E.2d 161, 165 (2003).

"A court considering summary judgment neither makes factual determinations nor considers the merits of competing testimony; however, summary judgment is completely appropriate when a properly supported motion sets forth facts that remain undisputed or are contested in a deficient manner." David v. McLeod Reg'l Med. Ctr. 367 S.C. 242, 250, 626 S.E.2d 1, 5 (2006). "At the summary judgment stage of litigation, the court does not weigh conflicting evidence with respect to a disputed material fact." Huffman v. Sunshine Recycling, LLC, 417 S.C. 514, 523, 790 S.E.2d 401, 406 (Ct. App. 2016) (quoting S.C. Prop. & Cas. Guar. Ass'n v. Yensen, 345 S.C. 512, 518, 548 S.E.2d 880, 883 (Ct. App. 2001)), cert. granted, SC Sup. Ct. Order dated Sept. 29, 2017. In Hancock v. Mid-South Management Co., 381 S.C. 326, 330-31, 673 S.E.2d 801, 803 (2009), our supreme court clarified that the level of evidence required to defeat a motion for summary judgment is dependent upon the non-moving party's...

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