Home News Local News Former Riverhead teacher’s federal lawsuit against district is dismissed

Former Riverhead teacher’s federal lawsuit against district is dismissed

Former Phillips Avenue Elementary School teacher Joe Johnson as he left Suffolk County Criminal Court with criminal defense attorney John Ciarrelli following his arraignment in May 2012.
File photo: Emil Breitenbach Jr.

A $20 million federal lawsuit brought by a former Phillips Avenue Elementary School teacher charging the Riverhead Central School District with race discrimination and other unlawful practices has been dismissed by the court.

In a 25-page decision entered Sept. 11, U.S. District Court Judge LaShann DeArcy Hall granted the district’s motion for summary judgment against Joe Johnson, a former fourth-grade teacher at Phillips, and dismissed his lawsuit.

Johnson’s employment was terminated by the school district in 2014, following his arrest on DWI and weapon-possession charges in 2012 and his subsequent guilty plea to a DWI charge in 2013.

Johnson was arrested in Southampton Village in April 2012, accused by village police of driving while intoxicated, driving with a suspended license and possession of a loaded .45 caliber semiautomatic pistol. Prosecutors elected not to pursue the weapons charge after a grand jury indicted Johnson, because they believed they could not establish the search of his car was legal. The gun was found in the glove compartment during a routine, post-arrest inventory search of Johnson’s car, the district attorney’s office said.

The school district brought disciplinary action against Johnson, who was placed on administrative leave following his arrest. The district said Johnson’s alleged illegal possession of a loaded handgun was grounds for dismissal, arguing that his possession of a loaded handgun without a permit made him unfit as a positive role model for children.

Further, the district said Johnson in 2005 knowingly swore a false affidavit stating that he had no past criminal convictions. The affidavit in question was submitted with an administrative internship application Johnson made to the district in 2005. His fingerprint screening at the time turned up 1996 convictions in Kansas on five counts of giving a worthless check and one count of criminal trespass, according to court documents.

A hearing officer ruled in favor of the district and on appeal, a state court judge upheld the hearing officer’s decision.

Johnson brought the federal action in December 2014, accusing the district of treating him differently than white school administrators who had DWI convictions but continued their employment with the district. He argued that the district’s termination of his employment taking into account a weapons charge that was dropped by prosecutors was racially discriminatory.

The federal district court found that the other employees that Johnson alleged were treated differently were involved in conduct that related to the consumption of alcohol or driving under the influence — none was found to have been “driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs while in the possession of a loaded firearm for which he or she did not have a license,” the court said.

The court threw out Johnson’s claims that the district retaliated against him for filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as claims that the district violated his due process and equal protection rights. It also tossed several claims made under color of state law charging district officials with negligence, defamation and fraudulent misrepresentation.

Johnson was represented in the action by Riverhead attorney Harriet Gilliam.

Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.