A lawsuit brought by former Phillips Avenue Elementary School teacher Joe Johnson seeking reinstatement to his job has been thrown out by a State Supreme Court judge.
Johnson filed a petition in December seeking to set aside a hearing officer’s August 2014 decision that terminated his employment by the Riverhead Central School District. The former fourth-grade teacher claimed the hearing officer’s decision was arbitrary, capricious and irrational.
The hearing officer had ruled in favor of the district, which argued that Johnson could not be a positive role model for students after he was found in possession of a loaded handgun without a permit during his arrest for DWI in April 2012. He was subsequently charged by a Suffolk grand jury in an 11-count indictment, which included two felony weapons charges, and arraigned in Suffolk County Criminal Court on May 18, 2012.
But a criminal weapons possession charge brought against the teacher was subsequently withdrawn by prosecutors due to the circumstances of a search of Johnson’s vehicle after his arrest.
“[T]he district attorney’s office determined it could not sustain the burden of proof necessary to establish the legality of the search,” Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s office said in a November 2013 press release announcing that Johnson pleaded guilty to DWI. He was sentenced in January 2014 to three years’ probation.
Nevertheless, the district used Johnson’s alleged illegal possession of a loaded .45 caliber handgun as grounds for dismissal in disciplinary charges brought against the tenured teacher, arguing that his possession of a loaded handgun without a permit made him unfit as a positive role model for children. Johnson had been placed on administrative reassignment following his arrest.
Johnson argued that with the gun charge withdrawn by the D.A., the hearing officer’s decision was without rational basis. The court disagreed.
Testimony taken at the hearing indicated that Johnson, who claimed he didn’t know the loaded weapon was in his vehicle, actually did know it was there, according to the court’s decision. A police officer who pulled Johnson’s car over said she looked inside his glove compartment with a flashlight and initially there was no gun within it. Moments later, after the officer saw Johnson moving around inside the car and reaching for the glovebox, the gun was in the glove compartment, according to the decision.
“There is no basis for this court to find that the hearing officer’s reliance on Officer McMahon‘s testimony as a basis for his determination as to Charge number 1 alleging illegal gun possession, was arbitrary, without rational basis, or without evidentiary support or unfair,” Judge Joseph Pastoressa wrote in his May 5 ruling dismissing Johnson’s petition.
Johnson’s $20 million federal lawsuit alleging race discrimination by the district remains pending in federal district court.
Johnson did not respond to messages seeking comment.
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