Staff attorney sends ‘fate sealing’ memorandum before parting ways with school district

Mercedes Pinckney-Reese says she began as the district’s in-house general counsel in July of last year.
Published: Dec. 1, 2022 at 3:15 PM EST|Updated: Dec. 1, 2022 at 5:42 PM EST
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County School District has “parted ways” with its staff attorney, but not before she sent a four-page email to board members and the superintendent exposing a number of serious concerns and accusing the new general counsel of off-loading cases to her private employer.

In the email dated Nov. 24 and obtained exclusively by Live 5 News, Mercedes Pinckney-Reese says she began as the district’s in-house general counsel in July of last year. According to Pinckney-Reese, on July 25, 2022 Superintendent Don Kennedy ordered Alice Paylor to conduct a peer review of the Office of General Counsel. Paylor is an experienced lawyer and a shareholder at the law firm Saxton & Stump. She worked as outside general counsel for the Charleston County School District from 1982-2012 and has also worked in the same capacity in Dorchester District Two.

“You further stated that this was a peer review, similar to those conducted by the Council of Great City Schools at the school districts across the country, not an investigation... and was not punitive in nature,” Pinckney-Reese wrote to Kennedy.

On Oct. 14, the district sent out an official press release announcing that Paylor and retired U.S. District Court Judge Margaret Seymour had been appointed to the position of interim co-general counsel. The district says they are not technically district employees.

“Since the announcement of their appointments, chaos and confusion have erupted regarding legal matters for the district. CCSD staff do not know who to communicate with for concern, and they receive conflicting legal opinions,” Pinckney-Reese wrote. “Paylor has engaged in bullying tactics and hostile and disrespectful behavior towards others and me. On Nov. 2, 2022, I included you on communication acknowledging such negativity from Paylor and am still awaiting your feedback.”

In her email, Reese accused Paylor of assuming a tone of making decisions on behalf of the district. She also says Paylor contacted the district’s insurance carrier to “have control of the utilized counsel to ensure the cases went to her employer, Saxton & Stump”.

In addition to accusing Paylor of using her position in the Charleston County School District to funnel jobs to Paylor’s law firm, Pinckney-Reese says Paylor’s firm would cost the district significantly more money.

“Paylor listed her hourly rate as $450, $550 for Seymour, and a range of $195-$325 for other attorneys at Saxton that will handle district matters,” Pinckney-Reese writes. “In August 2021, I created a legal pricing structure guide to be utilized for outside counsel... the highest range on that chart is $245 per hour.”

Using outside lawyers is extremely common for school districts. The vast majority of districts in South Carolina do not have in-house general counsel since most of the legal work gets exported to outside law firms.

Pinckney-Reese ends her email by implying it would be the last one she would be sending from her school district account.

“I know that by sending this memorandum, I am likely sealing my fate with you and the district, but I became an attorney to speak up for wrongdoing, and I owe a professional and ethical duty to the district,” Pinckney-Reese wrote.

The district confirmed its parting with Pinckney-Reese in a statement and rejected the accusations made in her parting email.

“Charleston County School District and Ms. Pinckney-Reese parted ways on Nov. 29, 2022. It is the District’s position that the statements and legal opinions expressed in the letter from Ms. Pinckney-Reese to Superintendent Don Kennedy are unfounded and inaccurate and wish not to comment further on this personnel matter,” the statement reads. “The District selected Ms. Paylor and Judge Seymour to be Interim Co-General Counsel because of their impeccable reputation in the legal community and their years of experience in education and other areas of the law that concern school districts. Alongside district staff, they will help continue to carry out the mission of educating CCSD students.”

Newly sworn in school board chair Pam McKinney says “the superintendent has informed me of this decision.”

In Berkeley County, the school board voted to remove its in-house legal counsel Tiffany Richardson shortly after a new school board took power.