Fired teacher files suit against Riverhead School District

09/05/2014 11:00 AM |
TIM GANNON FILE PHOTO | Joe Johnson (top) leaves court last year with a lawyer

Joe Johnson (top) leaving court in 2012. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)

A tenured elementary school teacher sentenced to probation after pleading guilty to drunken driving charges is demanding the Riverhead School District reinstate him and claims he was fired last month over a weapons charge that had been dropped, according to a petition filed last Wednesday in Suffolk County Supreme Court.

Joe Johnson, who previously taught fourth grade at Phillips Avenue Elementary School in Riverside, is seeking to have his termination overturned and to be paid for salary he was denied, according to court documents.

On Thursday, Ms. Carney confirmed Mr. Johnson was no longer employed by the district at the start of this school year.

“He’s no longer working for the district and is no longer on the payroll at this time,” she said.

Ms. Carney declined further comment, saying the case is a legal matter and a personnel issue.

Mr. Johnson, who had also been a high school basketball coach prior to his arrest, faced multiple gun charges after Southampton Village police caught him driving drunk and allegedly carrying an illegal loaded semi-automatic pistol in his car at around 3:30 a.m. on April 21, 2012. He had been on leave at his home since his arrest, pending the outcome of the criminal case.

In January, Mr. Johnson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor driving while intoxicated charge and was put on three years probation, which includes alcohol and narcotics conditions. The felony gun charges against him were dropped after it was determined police discovered the weapon during an improper police search.

The school district’s decision to fire Mr. Johnson came after nearly eight months of proceedings against him, including testimony by Ms. Carney, the district’s assistant superintendents, Phillips Avenue Elementary School principal Debra Rogers and the arresting officers.

The hearing officer, attorney Jay Nadelbach, said the testimony made by some of Mr. Johnson’s co-workers and parents were not enough to sway his decision. According to the Aug. 14 hearing decision as part of Mr. Johnson’s lawsuit, he was found to be guilty of driving drunk and possessing a firearm, as well as failing to be a “positive role model” for students.

Mr. Nadelbach had written in his decision that although the charges were never brought in court, a judge never officially stated that the police search was illegal. The charges were instead dropped by prosecutors as part of a plea deal, meaning the officer’s testimony was still fair to use, Mr. Nadelbach wrote.

He agreed with Ms. Carney and Ms. Rogers that the weapons possession charge was a “game-changer” that justified Mr. Johnson’s firing.

Mr. Johnson’s lawsuit claims that it was improper for the hearing officer to use testimony by the police officers who arrested him since their claims were never proven in a court of law.

Mr. Johnson wrote in the petition that when he was arrested, Officer Kimberleigh McMahon and Officer James Moore searched his car, despite him not giving them permission to do so. Since he was never convicted or acquitted on that felony gun charge, Mr. Johnson said it was unfair to use that accusation against him during the disciplinary hearing.

Mr. Nadelbach rejected Mr. Johnson’s explanation that the arresting police officers made up a pretense to search his car, noting that in their report and testimony, the officers said Mr. Johnson seemed agitated by what was in the glove compartment.

“There was frankly no reason or motive for McMahon to have conjured up this entire series of events,” Mr. Nadelbach wrote in his decision. “The only reasonable theory or explanation for this chronology as advanced by the distrust is that [Mr. Johnson], during the few moments he was left along, may have attempted to hide the gun in the glove compartment.”

Mr. Johnson maintains that the illegal firearm — which was registered to an out-of-state woman — was accidentally left in the car by its owner when she borrowed Mr. Johnson’s car before the arrest.

In the legal petition, Mr. Johnson also took issue with Ms. Rodgers’s “bald assertions” that Mr. Johnson’s arrest caused havoc at the school, saying that the district did not provide “one shred of documentary evidence in the form of a memo or minute of a meeting discussing or referencing any meeting she purportedly had with staff to address concerns about my arrest,” according to the legal petition.

He also claims that the district submitted newspaper articles containing “half-truths and innuendo” as evidence of his misconduct.

Mr. Johnson notes that he had a clean disciplinary record with the school before his arrest.

“The penalty of termination in this case is excessive in light of my record with the district, the fact that any misconduct that occurred did not occur on school time or property and did not involve any students and did not result in any harm to anyone,” he wrote in the petition.

In the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson said since he was on academic reassignment to his home while his case moved through the legal system, that constituted a penalty “in and of itself.”

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With Jennifer Gustavson