For 7 1/2 years, several parents of former students at Agora Cyber Charter School lived under the cloud of a defamation suit that would not go away.
The school's founder, Dorothy June Brown, had sued the parents after they asked questions about operations of the taxpayer-funded school. She said they had made statements implying that she was "corrupt, incompetent, and possibly criminal."
The suit quietly ended 13 days ago when Montgomery County's prothonotary, in a housekeeping move, closed the case because there had been no activity for more than two years.
That was a relief for the parents, who had watched the case drag on even after federal authorities charged Brown with defrauding Agora and three other charters she founded of $6.7 million.
A judge had placed the case on hold, pending the outcome of the criminal trial. Yet it remained on the court docket after Brown's first trial ended in a hung jury. And it lingered after a retrial was canceled last November when a federal judge found Brown, 78, incompetent because she has dementia.
"I told my family it was finally, legally over," said Gladys Stefany of Milford, Pike County.
"There was always a cloud there - whether conscious or not. There was a weight," Stefany said.
"Seven and a half years, we struggled to preserve our First Amendment rights," Angelique Smith said. She said legal bills from the suit caused her and her husband, Ira, to fall behind on their mortgage and lose their home in Parkesburg, Chester County. "This whole thing was meant to intimidate us, harass us, and silence us."
It all began back in 2008, when Stefany started to attend board meetings of Agora, where her daughter Jessica was enrolled.
As a cyber charter, Agora admits students from across the state who receive online instruction in their homes.
Brown, who had founded three charter schools in Philadelphia, created Agora in 2005 with Brien N. Gardiner, the founder of Philadelphia Academy Charter School in the Northeast.
Stefany, a former teacher, was happy with Agora's curriculum. But based on what she and other parents saw at board meetings and information they gathered, they had questions about the school's finances.
The parents wanted to know about Agora's relationship with Cynwyd Group L.L.C., a management firm Brown and Gardiner had set up in 2005.
Agora was renting its office in Devon from Cynwyd and paying the firm a management fee.
State records showed that Brown owned Cynwyd. She had bought out Gardiner's share and cut ties with him in May 2008 when he was forced out at Philadelphia Academy and became the subject of a federal criminal investigation there. Gardiner committed suicide in May 2009, shortly before fraud charges were announced at Philadelphia Academy.
As parents tried to gather records and sort out the business relationships at Agora, they circulated emails expressing their concerns. They also complained to the state Education Department when the school did not provide information they requested.
In the suit filed in January 2009, Brown and Cynwyd Group charged that the parents had made statements that defamed and libeled Brown.
The complaint also alleged that the parents' group had tried to interfere with Cynwyd's contractual relationship with Agora "by spreading untruths about Dr. Brown and by implying that she had improperly used public funds."
Brown and Cynwyd sought more than $150,000 in damages from the six parents for libel, slander, and civil conspiracy.
The parents denied the allegations and said they had merely sought information about the taxpayer-funded school their children attended.
The parents - and several legal experts - said the case had all the marks of a suit aimed at quashing public debate or stopping criticism of officials known as a "strategic lawsuit against public participation" (SLAPP).
Brown's lawyers have denied that it was a SLAPP suit and said parents had defamed the veteran educator, who had no choice but to sue to defend her reputation.
The parents scrambled to find lawyers, but said they found that most wanted $30,000 retainer fees up front.
Stefany, who was sued individually and as president of the Agora Parent Organization, said an attorney at Montgomery McCracken represented her at no charge.
Smith and her husband were active in the parents group, and both were sued. She said they used $5,000 intended for mortgage payments to pay their lawyer, lost their house, and moved in with relatives for a time.
"Our credit was in shambles," Smith said.
Christa Held, a mother of three who lives outside Allentown, said she was fortunate that her family's umbrella policy through her homeowners' insurance covered her legal bills.
"I was naive about what was happening when the papers were first served," said Held, whose oldest daughter, 16, still is enrolled at Agora. "I had just volunteered to take some notes at a parents' meeting. It was our first year at Agora."
She added: "When someone with power and money and authority sues you for more money than you make in a year, it's pretty intimidating. But I also was keenly aware that I had done nothing wrong and had no intent to cave to the pressure to settle or admit to something I knew I hadn't done."
Agora, now based in King of Prussia, still operates, but Brown severed all ties with it in the fall of 2009 to settle other civil suits.
In 2012, federal grand jurors indicted Brown and charged her with defrauding Agora and her other charters of $6.7 million.
When one of the parents' lawyers tried to depose Brown for the defamation case in 2013, her attorneys asked that the defamation case be put on hold until the criminal case was over.
The judge agreed, and told Brown's lawyers they had 10 days after the conclusion of the criminal case to notify the court whether they wished to proceed with the defamation action.
Brown's fraud trial ended in a hung jury in January 2014, and a retrial was canceled in November 2015 when Brown was found incompetent because of her dementia.
While the conclusion of the criminal case cleared the way for the defamation case to proceed, her lawyers did not take any steps to revive it.
The Smiths' lawyer, Matthew B. Weisberg, said attorneys for the parents had tried to reach Clifford Haines, Brown's lead attorney, to end the suit. "All communications were ignored," Weisberg said.
Haines said he did not recall whether the defense attorneys tried to reach him "one way or another."
Noting there had been no activity for two years, the Montgomery County prothonotary in April warned that the case would be closed unless the court was notified of plans to proceed by June 5.
Nothing was filed, and the case was terminated.
"It languished because of the criminal charges instituted against Ms. Brown," Haines said Friday. "It died on the vine as a result of her unfortunate medical condition."
For the parents, the stress from the lawsuit is over at last.
"Would I do it again?" Stefany mused. "Yes, because it was the right thing to do."
Smith said she has gone from being relieved the case is over to being angry.
"These people put us through hell," Smith said. "My daughter was 8 when this started. She's going to be 16 in March."
Weisberg said he plans to file a countersuit on the Smiths' behalf alleging that Brown engaged in wrongful use of civil procedure.
"It's not the end," Weisberg said. "It's the beginning."