Gallatin County ordered to pay more than $125,000 to wrongfully fired deputy

By Whitney Bermes, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, March 21, 2017

A District Court judge has ordered that Gallatin County pay more than $125,000 for lost wages and benefits to a deputy wrongfully fired by the sheriff in 2014.

In a judgment issued Friday, District Judge Brenda Gilbert of Park and Sweet Grass counties said that Gallatin County must award David Johnston $125,786 for lost wages and benefits from his July 23, 2014, firing through December of last year.

And the county was also ordered to pay about $3,450 for costs incurred as part of the case.

In addition, Johnston will receive interest payments as well as a $247 per diem payment that he will receive until he is reinstated in the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office or when the case is settled otherwise.

Johnston has yet to be reinstated.

Johnston sued the county following his firing. The case went to trial for three days in December 2015 before Gilbert, who later ruled in favor of Johnston and ordered that he be reinstated as a deputy and receive damages.

In the more than a year since Gilbert ruled in favor of Johnston, attorneys have battled over how much money Johnston was due.

Johnston’s attorney Todd Shea argued for more than $125,000 for back pay and benefits. But Gallatin County’s attorney Calvin Stacey argued that Johnston was only entitled to about $38,520 before taxes.

Since Johnston’s firing, he has received unemployment benefits and has been employed. By allowing Johnston to be reinstated and receive backpay from when he was fired, all while having earned money in that time frame, would be an “obvious windfall” for the deputy, Stacey argued.

Gilbert issued her final judgment Friday, agreeing with Shea’s proposed judgement.
Johnston was fired in 2014 after sheriff’s office administrators say he refused to turn over a tape recorder when Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin ordered him to immediately return it.

On that tape recorder was an interaction Johnston had with Deputy Kelly Munter, his ex-girlfriend. He claimed she became angry with him and berated him while the two responded to a call at Monforton School in July 2014.

Munter later filed a complaint against Johnston that led to Johnston being placed on administrative leave.

Two days after Johnston was put on leave, Gootkin’s office asked Johnston to turn over his tape recorder. Johnston said he wanted to seek advice from an attorney first and make a copy prior to turning it over.

That same day, accompanied by an attorney, Johnston returned the recorder to the sheriff’s office after making a copy of the audio. Later that month, following a disciplinary hearing, Johnston was fired.

During the trial, Gootkin testified that the recorder was county property and needed to be returned as soon as possible but that Johnston refused to comply with Gootkin’s order.

Shea, on the other hand, argued that Johnston’s firing was “cooked up” by the sheriff’s office command staff to get rid of Johnston, a 10-year department veteran who had prior bad incidents with Munter following their breakup.