Fired Washington County principal can proceed with wrongful termination lawsuit

Posted Dec. 21, 2011, at 7:14 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 22, 2011, at 12:58 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal District Court judge ruled Wednesday that a former Washington County elementary school principal can take to trial her claims that her job was wrongfully eliminated in 2008.

Pat Godin of Trescott Township sued the Machias School District’s board of directors after her position as principal at the Fort O’Brien elementary school was eliminated. In the suit, Godin said she was terminated after a contentious school board meeting in April 2008 in which it was alleged during a closed-door executive session that she had physically abused two students on three occasions. One allegation accused Godin of throwing a male student to the ground twice and dragging him around by the wrist. She also was alleged to have shoved a female student.

A School Union 134 investigation of those allegations by consultant Omar Norton resulted in a May 2008 report that confirmed “widespread dissatisfaction” and recommended dismissal. A subsequent investigation by an attorney representing the school district exonerated her of the abuse allegations.

Toward the end of the 2008 academic year, Godin’s contract was renewed and extended through the 2011 school year. Nonetheless, she was notified by letter on June 6, 2008, that her $47,000 principal’s position was being eliminated because of “budgetary constraints and significant subsidy loss.”

Godin claims in her federal lawsuit that the wrongful allegations of physical abuses, not budget concerns, were behind her dismissal and that she was denied due process in addressing those allegations, which constituted a breach of contract. In her ruling Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen found that “a reasonable jury could find that [the school district] acted in bad faith in eliminating [Godin’s] position and therefore breached [Godin’s] contract.”

It will be up to a jury, Torresen ruled, to decide whether Godin’s firing was the result of an “entirely neutral” reduction-in-force decision or was based on her job performance.

“Even if budgetary considerations motivated a layoff, if performance factors play a role in eliminating a position, [Godin] has a right to minimal procedural protections of notice and an opportunity to respond,” Torresen ruled.

The ruling contends that under terms of her contract and under state law, Godin had a “legitimate entitlement” to continued employment. The ruling notes, too, that the school district was well aware that it was facing significant funding cutbacks when it renewed and extended her contract in March 2008. It was only after a contentious April school board meeting attended by 66 community members and during which the abuse allegations were discussed in executive session that the school district eliminated her job.

Torresen said in her ruling that although there was an “undisputed” need to reduce the school district’s budget, “a reasonable inference can be drawn that [the school board] also took into account [Godin’s] performance in deciding which position to eliminate.”

Godin’s attorney, Sandra Hylander Collier of Ellsworth, said Wednesday that she doubts the case will go to trial.

“I expect that, in light of this decision, this might come to a settlement,” she said.

Collier said her client hasn’t been able to find a teaching job since being fired in 2008.

“She has applied for around 70 teaching position since then,” she said. “She has effectively been blackballed.”

Melissa A. Hewey, School Union 134’s Portland-based attorney in the case, said Wednesday evening that talk of settlement “is news to me.”

“I expect this to go to trial,” she said. “The district is not at all concerned about going to trial on this.”

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story said an investigation that exonerated Pat Godin of allegations that she abused two students was performed by her attorney. The investigation was performed by an attorney from the school district’s law firm.

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