Former Piedra Vista High School theater manager sues school district over firing

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — Former Piedra Vista High School theater manager Patrick Cheney filed a wrongful termination lawsuit last week against the Farmington Municipal School District alleging that administrative officials generated false embezzlement and drug use allegations to fire him without due cause last summer.

Cheney, 48, further alleges in the complaint that he was offered little to no supervision while employed by the district and school officials were deceitful in professional matters regarding his employment.

District Operations Manager Ted Lasiewicz, PV Assistant Principal Kelly Thur, PV Principal Dave Golden and Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Linda Schilz are named individually as defendants in the lawsuit.

District Interim Superintendent Phil Valdez said he could not comment on the allegations, claiming the situation is a personnel issue.

The district has not filed a formal response to Cheney's allegations, according to court records.

Cheney is seeking unspecified damages for lost wages and emotional distress, as well as immediate reinstatement to his position at the school.

Cheney declined to comment without first consulting with his attorney, Christian Hatfield of the Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield Law Firm.

Hatfield did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

According to the complaint, Cheney was an employee of the high school, serving in dual capacities as both a drama teacher and theater manager, and was initially directly supervised by Lasiewicz.

Lasiewicz abdicated his responsibility, the lawsuit claims, and the responsibility of supervising Cheney rotated among several school officials, resulting in little actual supervision.

Golden was eventually assigned to serve as Cheney's mentor in October 2013, according to the lawsuit, but during the 2013-14 school year, Cheney butted heads with school officials, including Golden, on several occasions.

Cheney claims that on at least four occasions during the 2013-14 school year, he complained about Golden and Thur failing to lock the Turano-Chrisman Performing Arts Center, resulting in students occupying the theater after hours without supervision.

He also disagreed with a recommendation by school officials that one of his students should drop out of school to obtain a GED despite only being a half credit shy of graduating, the complaint states.

In February 2014, Cheney told school officials that he wished to work only as a theater manager. In response, Lasiewicz offered him a $40,000 annual salary to continue to serve as the district's theater manager, according to the complaint, and he resigned in April 2014 as the school's drama teacher.

He claims that during that period, Thur and Gattis discussed with him claims made by anonymous individuals that he used and sold drugs. He denied the allegations and offered to take a drug test, the complaint states.

He said that, eventually, Golden hired someone to replace him as theater manager and declined to renew his contract. On June 9, Schilz told Cheney that the school was looking into allegations of misplaced money.

As previously reported by The Daily Times, Cheney was charged on June 19 with felony embezzlement after being accused of embezzling funds from the performing arts center. However, those charges were dismissed on Oct. 1 after the San Juan County District Attorney's Office determined that it likely could not demonstrate probable cause in the case.

Cheney filed an internal affairs complaint against Farmington police detective Sgt. Brandon Lane and Officer Amy DeMar over the incident.

Farmington police Lt. Casey Malone said Thursday that Lane and DeMar were exonerated after an investigation into the incident was conducted by internal affairs.

He said Cheney initially appealed that decision to the Citizen Police Advisory Committee. However, he withdrew that appeal in a letter sent to Farmington city officials.

"If he doesn't agree with our findings in the investigation, the process exists for him to challenge that," Malone said. "He began the appeal process, but then wrote a letter to the mayor saying he doesn't want that appeal process to continue."

Cheney said in January that he hired former Farmington police detective Frank Dart, who now works as a private investigator, to review the facts surrounding his arrest.

In a report provided to The Daily Times by Cheney in January, Dart determined that Lane ignored evidence that did not support the embezzlement charges. He also determined that Lane questioned Cheney for 20 minutes without first reading him his Miranda rights.

Dart was awarded a $204,000 settlement after a jury determined in August that the Farmington Police Department and former Farmington police Chief Kyle Westall retaliated against him while he served as a detective in the department.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and stgarrison@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.