Attorney seeks to block claims in Progressive Christian suit

mstucka@macon.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Defendants in the fight over Macon’s Progressive Christian Academy want to block school founder Betty Tolbert’s allegations from being heard.

Among their arguments: Tolbert can’t claim that she was wrongfully fired from the job when she voted to fire herself.

The legal filings Dec. 27 say Tolbert’s own actions undermine substantial parts of her lawsuit, which claim control and possession of the private school were illegally wrested from her and her charity, B. Johnson Ministries Inc.

Tolbert filed the lawsuit in October 2012, claiming that E.T. Strickland, of Florida, and some of his companies were supposed to be helping her sell the school when, in fact, they took over the property. Tolbert contended the whole effort was fraudulent and smacked of racketeering.

The manager Strickland put in charge, a convicted felon known both as Christina Perera and Christina Hawkins, remains a fugitive from Florida probation officers. Problems with Progressive Christian Academy led to a new state law that requires better background checks for school employees.

The school continues to operate under a new name.

In the new filings, Strickland and his companies are asking a judge to throw out all claims from Tolbert, as well as any claims involving her alleged wrongful termination.

“The record unassailably demonstrates that Plaintiffs’ financial woes started long ago and are not attributable to the actions of these Defendants,” wrote Strickland’s lawyer, David N. Nelson, of Macon.

The filings contend that Tolbert can’t make claims in the Bibb County Superior Court case because she hadn’t told a federal bankruptcy court about the school mortgage held by a Strickland company, Sunrise Enterprises Inc. of Palm Beach County. With that maneuver, “she therefore successfully shed $400,000 in obligations to Sunrise Enterprises and, having avoided those obligations, now unbelievably seeks to recover in this action significant monies from it” and other defendants, Nelson wrote.

Tolbert claimed in her lawsuit that Strickland bought the school’s mortgage without telling her and then foreclosed on it, effectively taking over a school valued at $2.5 million for a fraction of that amount.

Separately, Strickland attacks Tolbert’s claims that she was “pushed out” as Progressive Christian Academy’s headmaster. Citing depositions, Nelson wrote that the board of B. Johnson Ministries thought it was still operating the school when it voted to fire Tolbert. Tolbert herself voted in favor of her own termination, and the motion was seconded by her daughter, the filing claims.

No trial date has been set in the case, and the latest filings indicate that more evidence is expected to be collected.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.

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