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School board pays $80K to settle harassment claim

SA school administrator who claimed she was pestered and propositioned by her boss, a former Virginia judge with a record of misconduct, settled her Title VII sexual harassment claim against the Scott County School Board for $80,000 last month.

The settlement was announced just after U.S. District Judge James P. Jones ruled that claims of sexual harassment and retaliation would go to trial in Johnson v. Scott County School Board (VLW 013-3-521).

A lawyer for the school board disclosed the settlement amount after Virginia Lawyers Weekly filed a request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

A school official earlier had declined to provide the settlement amount saying the settlement was being paid by the school board’s insurance carrier.

Former assistant superintendent Kellie Johnson’s lawsuit centered on claims of sexually harassing behavior by former school chief D. Gregory Baker.

Baker is a former Scott County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Judge who resigned in 2003 after it emerged that he had been convicted of soliciting a prostitute before becoming a judge.

The lawsuit revived accounts of Baker’s past indiscretions, added multiple claims of new ones and raised questions about his qualifications for the school superintendent’s job.

Much of the evidence that emerged in discovery was disputed – Johnson and Baker offered conflicting versions of their conversations that took place in person, by phone and by text.

As superintendent, Baker sent unwelcome suggestive text messages to Johnson, his immediate assistant, she claimed. He allegedly told Johnson he loved her and could not live without her, although she was married and had two children.

Baker denied many of the allegations and suggested Johnson was a willing participant in the sexual banter. Johnson denied that she welcomed the overtures from Baker.

While Johnson and Baker disputed each other’s version of many events, one indiscreet message was preserved in phone records.

Planning a trip to Williamsburg, Baker texted Johnson that he wanted to take her “drinking and dancing and f***ing!!!!! 3 things I’m great at.”

“Way inappropriate,” Johnson responded.

Baker claimed the text was a reference to a similar remark Johnson had made on an earlier business trip. Johnson denied any such remark.

Johnson said she repeatedly requested a transfer to an office away from Baker, but was refused. She claimed the school board banished her to a barren office at an elementary school after she reported Baker’s behavior.

Johnson’s salary was cut and she was assigned to a room with no heating, no air conditioning, no phone line and no office supplies, she alleged.

Discovery led to more embarrassing details in the case. Baker acknowledged in a deposition he used a school-issued cellphone to call phone sex services after Johnson complained about his behavior, according to lawyers involved in the case. A deposition exhibit listed 25 calls from Baker’s school-issued cellphone to phone sex businesses.

The settlement is one tenth of the $800,000 demanded in Johnson’s lawsuit. A school board statement said the board believed it would have prevailed if the case had gone to trial. The board said the decision to settle was made by the board’s insurance company.

In July, Johnson demanded reinstatement, back pay, restoration of sick days, $31,000 in fees and costs and $50,000 in compensatory damages, according to records released after VLW’s FOIA request.

The defendants offered $50,000 as they filed their summary judgment motion in October.

Johnson dropped her demand for reinstatement and proposed a $100,000 deal on Oct. 28. The parties settled for $80,000 the next day, emails showed. The two sides agreed that the settlement agreement would not state the settlement amount.

Baker was school superintendent for only four months, resigning in May 2011 for what he described as health problems, according to the Kingsport Times-News.

Things have since improved for Johnson, said Edward G. Stout Jr. of Bristol, one of her attorneys in the case. She now is principal of Weber City Elementary School, and hopes to continue to work for the school system. All but one of the school board members who hired Baker have been replaced on the board, Stout said.

Stout said the timing of the settlement – just as Jones issued his written opinion – was coincidental.

Jones already had signaled from the bench that the case was going to go to trial, Stout said. The parties had exchanged settlement proposals in the summer, he said.

“We got back with them just before Jones’ ruling,” Stout said.

In 2003, Baker accepted a license suspension of two and one-half years for lying on General Assembly questionnaires when he sought the J&DR judgeship in 1997 and 1999.

Baker currently is active and in good standing with the Virginia State Bar. He changed his status from “associate” to “active” on Nov. 12, according to the VSB. Lawyers in associate, or “inactive,” status are not eligible to practice law, do not have to maintain continuing legal education hours, and pay only half of the dues of active bar members.

The school board was represented by W. Bradford Stallard of Abingdon, who declined any comment on the record, even though he provided materials related to the settlement pursuant to a FOIA request.

Besides Stout, Johnson was represented by Gerald L. Gray of Clintwood.

Update: This article was updated on Nov. 21 to correct information about Baker’s current status with the VSB.

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