Farmington school district asks judge to dismiss wrongful termination lawsuit

Steve Garrison The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A lawsuit brought against the Farmington Municipal School District by former Piedra Vista High School theater manager Patrick Cheney has been moved to federal court.

The school district and its employees motioned for the lawsuit's removal to federal court earlier this month, arguing that a federal judge would be better suited to rule on claims involving constitutional violations.

The defendants further requested in a motion filed on April 20 that the lawsuit be dismissed, arguing that Cheney failed to establish proper claims against the district and its public employees.

Cheney, 48, claims in his lawsuit, filed March 3, that the Farmington Municipal School District and several administrative officials, including former superintendent Janel Ryan and Piedra Vista Principal Dave Golden, fired him without due cause in the spring of 2014 and then manufactured evidence that led to his arrest for embezzlement.

Cheney was charged June 19 with felony embezzlement after being accused of stealing funds from the Turano-Chrisman Performing Arts Center. Those charges were dismissed in October after the San Juan County District Attorney's Office determined that it likely could not succeed in the case.

Cheney claims the charges were trumped up by district officials, who had informed him in April that they would not be renewing his contract as theater manager.

He claims in the lawsuit that the district's decision not to renew his contract was partly based on anonymous rumors that Cheney used drugs and partied with students.

Cheney claims malicious prosecution, false arrest, wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress, among other things, and seeks unspecified damages and reinstatement to his teaching position, the complaint states.

Albuquerque attorney Jason Burnette is representing the defendants in the lawsuit.

In the motion to dismiss, Burnette claims the school district, as a government entity, cannot be sued for the offenses alleged by Cheney under the concept of "sovereign immunity."

Sovereign immunity is a concept of law that contends that a governmental entity cannot be sued. It is derived from the English common law notion, "The king can do no wrong." Most states and the federal government have statutes permitting the assertion of tort claims against the government and its representatives.

Burnette could not be reached for comment.

Cheney's attorney is Christian Hatfield of the Farmington-based law firm Tucker, Burns, Yoder & Hatfield.

He acknowledged in a response filed Tuesday that the emotional distress claim was not likely to succeed, but denied that the school district is protected by sovereign immunity.

Hatfield said Thursday that he is confident the lawsuit will survive the motion, but the judge has yet to rule on it.

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