Fired Riverhead teacher files federal lawsuit, seeks millions

 Joe Johnson (top) leaves court in 2012 with a lawyer. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)
Joe Johnson (top) leaves court in 2012 with a lawyer. (Credit: Tim Gannon, file)

A former Phillips Avenue teacher fired this year after pleading guilty to a drunken driving charge has filed a federal lawsuit against the Riverhead School District, its superintendent, school board and several administrators.

He claims he was fired because he is black.

The suit — the second legal action filed by former teacher Joe Johnson in the past four months — also accuses the district of defaming him in “reports of news media,” unfairly singling him out for punishment, and targeting him because he had accused the district of discrimination after his arrest.

Mr. Johnson is seeking $20 million in damages, in addition to legal fees and other penalties, according to the suit.

Mr. Johnson, a former school basketball coach, was first hired in 2000 and was granted tenure in 2011, the suit reads. He was arrested in April 2012 after Southampton Village police caught him driving drunk and allegedly carrying an illegal, loaded semi-automatic pistol in his car about 3:30 a.m.

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, prosecutors said, because police had discovered the weapon during an improper police search.

Mr. Johnson was fired in August after eight months of disciplinary hearings within the district.

He first filed a lawsuit in county court seeking to be reinstated. The civil rights lawsuit was filed in federal Eastern District Court last Friday.

According to the federal suit, Mr. Johnson claims he was given “glowing” performance reviews by his superiors prior to his arrest.

The suit argues that he was singled out for punishment, while comparing his treatment to that of former assistant superintendent, Joseph Ogeka, who, the lawsuit states, dodged punishment for “multiple DWI convictions” and a “horrific error” that resulted in a student committing suicide while on a school trip in 2000.

According to the suit, no other administrator or teacher has been disciplined because of an off-duty DWI conviction under the tenure of current Superintendent Nancy Carney. Two previous teachers who were convicted of DWIs — whom the lawsuit notes were both white — were allowed to remain in their positions with no punishment, legal papers state.

Neither Mr. Johnsons attorney, Harriet Gilliam of Riverhead, nor the school’s attorney could immediately be reached for comment.

According to the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson filed charges of racial discrimination to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2013, accusing Ms. Carney of lying to the school board about his legal case in an attempt to get him fired.

The federal lawsuit claims Mr. Johnson was reassigned from his home to a portable classroom after filing the charges; according to the suit, Mr. Johnson claims the district created “an environment of isolation and mental torture” by forcing him to remain inside with few assignments, only allowing him to leave to use the construction workers’ bathroom.

In addition, Mr. Johnson claims separately in the suit that a school district attorney accused him of lying in 2006 about a prior conviction for criminal trespass, despite assurances in 2005 from Mr. Ogeka that the conviction would not be held against him.

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