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Paladino files federal lawsuit against fellow School Board members

Carl Paladino is going on the offensive – a week before a state hearing seeking his removal from the Buffalo Board of Education.

Paladino's attorney on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court against the six members of the School Board who sought his removal.

The lawsuit claims the six are retaliating against Paladino for his comments last December about former President Barack Obama and his wife, and using his alleged disclosure of discussions held in executive session as a pretext for getting him off the board.

The lawsuit comes just before a hearing on Paladino's removal from the board is scheduled to start next Thursday in Albany before state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia.

While the lawsuit seeks monetary damages and a jury trial, it does not ask that the hearing be cancelled.

"It has no bearing on the hearing whatsoever," attorney Dennis C. Vacco, who is representing Paladino, said of the lawsuit. "We're not seeking a stay, we're not seeking postponement."

Vacco, however, didn't want to get into the reasons behind the timing of the lawsuit.

“My client feels very strongly that his constitutional rights, including his right to free speech have been violated by the actions of the majority members of the Board, the Board of Education and the school district as a result of a resolution that was passed seeking to remove my client from elected office," Vacco said. "Certain members of the Board of Education are seeking Carl’s removal in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights."

The lawsuit specifically names Board President Barbara Seals Nevergold, as well as board members Sharon Belton-Cottman, Theresa Harris-Tigg, Hope Jay, Jennifer Mecozzi and Paulette Woods.

The six voted last December to ask the state education commissioner to remove Paladino from the board following his comments about the Obamas.

The board later changed course on the advice of the board's attorney. It is now arguing that Paladino allegedly violated policy when he published information about teacher contract negotiations that was discussed in an executive session. District policy prohibits board members from sharing information discussed in executive session because it can inhibit the district's ability to do business.

That lies at the crux of Paladino's 27-page lawsuit, as well as the defense Vacco is expected to make next week at the state hearing.

The other board members seized on Paladino's comments as an opportunity to remove him from the Board of Education, despite protection under the First Amendment and his right to free speech, the lawsuit alleges. And, the suit continues, when the board realized they couldn't remove Paladino for his speech, they went after him for the alleged disclosures, instead.

“Free speech is the cornerstone to our democracy and the defendants’ actions in this instance are a flagrant violation of my client’s protected rights as a citizen of this nation,” Vacco said.

Board members were just learning about the suit Wednesday night during a monthly work session, which Paladino attended.

"We believe this lawsuit is substantially without merit and intend to vigorously defend ourselves against it," Jay, who is an attorney, told The Buffalo News.

In a statement from the School Board, Nate Kuzma, general counsel for the district, stated: "The Buffalo City School District, Board of Education and six individual board members were served tonight with a federal complaint filed by Park District Board Member Carl Paladino. The District's general counsel will review the complaint to determine next steps."

News Staff Reporter Tiffany Lankes contributed to this report.

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