Written by: Whitney Bermes, Bozeman Daily Chronicle
A former Gallatin County sheriff’s deputy, who a judge ordered to be reinstated after being fired in 2014, has settled his civil lawsuits against the county, agreeing to not come back to the department after receiving a settlement.
Gallatin County agreed to pay David Johnston $400,000 to settle his actions against the county.
Johnston sued the county following his firing, asking to be reinstated. Following a three-day trial in 2015, District Judge Brenda Gilbert of Park and Sweet Grass counties reinstated Johnston and ordered the county to pay him more than $125,000 in lost salary and benefits.
The county appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court. In the meantime, Johnston filed additional claims against the county in federal court.
This month, the parties settled all the suits with the county agreeing to pay $400,000. As part of the agreement, Johnston agreed to never seek reinstatement with the sheriff’s office.
Johnston was fired in 2014 after sheriff’s office administrators say he refused to turn over a tape recorder after 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, Lt. Jake Wagner requested that Johnston 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 to Wagner.
That same day, accompanied by an attorney, Johnston returned the recorder to the sheriff’s office after making a copy of the audio for himself.
Later that month, following a disciplinary hearing, Johnston was fired.
During the trial, Gootkin testified that the recorder was county property that needed to be returned as soon as possible. But Johnston refused to comply with Gootkin’s order, the sheriff said.
And it is important for his deputies to follow Gootkin’s orders because the sheriff’s office is entrusted to the public, Gootkin testified.
“We have a huge responsibility to the people we serve. When you violate that trust, whether it be lying or disobeying an order,” Gootkin said, “I can’t allow that to occur.”
Johnston’s attorney, Todd Shea, on the other hand, argued that Johnston’s firing was a “punishment (that) simply didn’t fit this crime” and that Johnston was entitled to get a copy of the recorder’s contents.
The firing was “cooked up” by the sheriff’s office command staff as a way to get rid of Johnston, who had prior bad incidents with Munter following their breakup, Shea said.
Judge Gilbert sided with Johnston, saying Johnston’s firing was contrary to sheriff’s office policies and state law.
Johnston didn’t refuse to comply with the sheriff’s order, but rather made it clear that he wanted legal advice prior to giving the recorder back to the sheriff’s office.
“Johnston’s short delay in compliance with the sheriff’s order, under the circumstances presented to Johnston, do not equate with a refusal to comply with the order,” Gilbert wrote in her ruling.
And Johnston, a 10-year veteran in the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, was fired after a 10-20 minute hearing where no testimony was presented. Additionally, Gilbert noted the order that Johnston was accused of violating was given by Gootkin, who also conducted the disciplinary hearing and who testified that he was “upset, emotional and mad” during both Johnston’s disciplinary hearing and termination meeting.
“The termination hearing that resulted in Johnson’s termination does not pass muster in terms of basic due process rights afforded to any individual facing the potential loss of his or her livelihood,” Gilbert wrote.
Calvin Stacey, a Billings attorney who represented the county during the case, was out of town and unavailable to comment Thursday. Shea declined to comment on the settlement.