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Nov 07 2013

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Johnson Lawsuit Settled Before Nov. 5 Trial Date

A settlement was reached shortly before the trial of Dr. Kellie Johnson v. Scott County School Board and four members of the board school was slated to begin in U.S. Federal Court in Big Stone Gap.

United States District Judge James P. Jones signed the final order in the case on Oct. 28 in which he ruled in favor of Johnson on two of the three complaints cited in the case.

The undisclosed amount of the settlement agreed upon by the parties was paid by the school board’s insurance carrier. Johnson originally sued the board and three former members of the board, Lowell Campbell, Beth Blair and Dennis Templeton, along with current board chair, James Kay Jessee, for a cumulative total of $800,000.

Statement from Scott County School Board on settlement in Kellie Johnson v. Scott County School Board, et al

“The claims filed against the Scott County School Board by former assistant superintendent  Kellie Johnson have been satisfactorily resolved. The decision to settle these claims was made by the School Board’s insurer, which had the right to do so under the School Board’s liability insurance policy. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, the School Board expressly denied any fault, liability or responsibility for those claims, and we believe that had the case proceeded to trial, the School Board would have been exonerated from any wrongdoing. We will now put the matter to rest and move forward.”

W. Bradford Stallard, Penn, Stuart & Eskridge, Attorney for Scott County School Board

In the suit filed in May 2012, Johnson asserted that the school board had created a hostile work environment that allowed her to be sexually harassed by the former division superintendent, Greg Baker. In addition to the sexual harassment, she also stated the board had unlawfully retaliated against her by demoting her and reducing her salary and had violated her constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

Judge Jones agreed with part of a summary motion filed by the school board’s attorney W. Bradford Stallard of the Abingdon firm of Penn, Stuart and Eskridge. Stallard asked that all counts be denied in his motion but the judge only agreed to drop the third part of the case, which focused on the individual board members themselves.

In September 2010, Baker was hired by the Scott County School Board in a 5-1 vote with former board member Kathy McClelland voting against his hiring. On Nov. 1, 2010, Johnson, who had been serving as principal at Weber City Elementary School, was hired as the school system’s Director of Personnel and Instruction and re-assigned to the Central Office.

That same day, Baker began a superintendent apprenticeship under former Division Superintendent Jim Scott because Baker didn’t have the necessary credentials at the time to receive a superintendent’s license.

The following month, according to Jones’ written opinion – based on depositions in the case – Baker began to send Johnson text messages, asking her to help him find a woman and how lonely he was. They eventually escalated to a plea to help him find someone just like Johnson.

In January 2011, Baker officially became the division superintendent and reorganized the Central Office structure. Johnson was renamed as one of two assistant superintendents alongside John Ferguson.

According to the depositions, Baker continued to make inappropriate comments to Johnson in person and by text message. According to Johnson’s deposition, Baker’s messages said that “he loved her” and had told his father “he had found the perfect woman.”

Johnson also said in her deposition that, although other school employees were “breaking down his door, dying to sleep with him,” he wanted kept making sexually inappropriate remarks to her.

He also sent a text telling her that he had slept all night with a scarf she had left behind in his car.

Johnson asked Baker three times to transfer her out of the central office but she wanted to remain in her current position. She eventually reported the harassment to Jessee and McClelland after Baker sent a text message prior to a planned trip to Williamsburg where he was excited to go dancing, drinking and have sex – three things he was “great” at.

Following a two-week leave at the request of the school board, Johnson was re-assigned to a new office at Weber City Elementary School that didn’t have, according to her deposition, any heat, air conditioning or a telephone. She also had to let into the office every day by the custodian because there weren’t a key available for her to use.

Johnson was notified later by letter that her salary had been reduced to $67,565 effective with the 2011-12 contract year and her new title was Director of Instruction and Teacher Performance

In June 2011, the School Board formally demoted Johnson to principal of Fort Blackmore Primary School for the following contract year.

“The record contains evidence that Baker’s conduct was frequent, humiliating and deleterious to Johnson’s work performance,” Jones wrote in his opinion. “Moreover, the conduct was perpetrated by the most senior executive official in the school system.

“Baker sent Johnson a series of lewd text messages containing explicit sexual language and a nearly explicit sexual proposition in anticipation of a trip to Williamsburg. He also previously declared that, while he could easily have sex with other school personnel, it was Johnson that he wanted. These statements, coupled with his frequent amorous advances, led Johnson to request a transfer out of the Central Office on several occasions and finally to notify board members when she felt it had become too difficult to perform her duties. Indeed, at that point, she had begun to avoid working from the Central Office and rebuffed Baker’s requests to meet personally. As such, I find there is a dispute of material fact as to the severity or pervasiveness of Baker’s conduct.”

On the retaliation assertion set forth by Johnson, Jones ruled that Johnson had produced evidence to show an almost immediate change in her employment status.

“The day after she complained of Baker’s conduct to several board members, Baker reassigned her to a new position in a new location,” Jones wrote in his order and opinion. “The board acquiesced in this assignment and, in turn, notified her of a significant reduction in pay only two weeks later. While her reassignment for the following school year did not occur for several months, the salary reduction and her relocation were both sustained upon final action by the board. This evidence is sufficient for the plaintiff to carry her initial burden of establishing a prima facie case.”

On the equal protection claim in the suit, Jones stated that there wasn’t enough evidence to support the notion.

“There is simply no evidence in the record to support a finding that any of the individual board members voted to hire Baker with the intent or purpose of discriminating against Johnson or other female employees,” Jones wrote. “As such, summary judgment is appropriate on this claim.”

The trial was originally scheduled to begin Nov. 5 in U.S. Federal Court in Big Stone Gap. Johnson was represented by Gerald L. Gray of Clintwood and Edward G. Stout, Curcio & Stout of Bristol.

Scott County Division Superintendent John Ferguson noted that the amount of the settlement was paid entirely by the system’s insurance company.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.virginiastar.net/2013/11/johnson-lawsuit-settled-before-nov-5-trial-date/