SMITHFIELD – Johnston County Board of Education member Ronald Johnson has filed a federal lawsuit. The 111-page complaint was filed June 26 in US District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The lawsuit names multiple people and organizations including the Town of Smithfield, Smithfield Town Manager Michael Scott, Human Resources Director Tim Kerigan, Police Lt. Terry West, former Police Chief Keith Powell, Town Councilman Marlon Lee, the Johnston County Board of Education, former school board chairman Todd Sutton, former vice chairman Terri Sessoms, current school board members Kevin Donovan, Terry Tippett, Michael Wooten, Kay Carroll, and chairperson Lyn Andrews. Also named in the complaint is Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle, District Attorney investigator Richard Hoffman, Special Prosecutor Benjamin Zellinger; Angie McLeod, former school board attorney Jimmy Lawrence, David Marshburn, and the Estate of Joseph Preston.
According to the lawsuit, Mr. Johnson says he was hired by the Town of Smithfield in June 2005 as a police officer and became a detective in 2012. He had excellent performance ratings.
During his employment, and with permission from his supervisors and the Town, he ran in 2016 and was elected to the Johnston County School Board. While a school board member, he alleges he determined then school board attorney Jimmy Lawrence was engaged in the sexual harassment of a school board employee. Eventually, Lawrence resigned but blamed Johnson for the loss of his position and began retaliation, the lawsuit contends.
In June 2022, David Marshburn, a political candidate for Sheriff in Johnston County, and Joseph Preston began publishing information on social media, making accusations about and threats towards Johnson that he should resign his position with the Town and school board. The posts included allegations Johnson had engaged in misconduct and violated the law.
The lawsuit contents some of the information posted by Marshburn and Preston could only have come from members of the school board, or its employees, or from the Town and its employees.
After the June 2022 social media posts, the Town launched an investigation into the allegations of misconduct including the improper use of town resources for political purposes. The complaint alleges Johnson was told the investigation was politically motivated and in retaliation for reporting the sexual harassment of the school board employee by the then school board attorney.
Johnson developed anxiety and depression and eventually sought Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the lawsuit alleges. He was denied FMLA and was illegally discriminated against because of his sex and disability, and his opposition to the harassment of the school board employee.
The complaint further contends Mr. Johnson was censured by the Board of Education, based on an incomplete and biased investigation, by school board attorneys, and were adopted in violation of the school board’s own processes and procedures. Regardless, the school board referred the censures to the Johnston County District Attorney for prosecution.
The suit claims “…the focus of the investigation changed several times, and after conspiring with the School Board and its attorneys, Marshburn, Lawrence, McLeod and Preston, all of whom sought his termination from the City and his resignation from the School Board, and after sharing confidential personnel information and personal health information about the Plaintiff with the School Board and the individual defendants, the City terminated him.”
Since his firing, Johnson claims he has been subjected to unconstitutional searches and seizures of his person and property by the District Attorney, who is pursing charges at the request of the school board.
Mr. Johnson is being represented by attorneys with the New South Law Firm in Carrboro and Charlotte, NC.
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