Thursday, January 14, 2016
NORTHAMPTON — The former head of the automotive program at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School is seeking $750,000 in damages from the city a year after a judge found him not guilty of stealing two cars that had been donated to the school.
The claim dated Jan. 9 was filed on behalf of Jonathan A. Yourga, 47, of Northampton, alleges that Smith School Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson and school trustees acted negligently when placing Yourga on leave in April 2014 as part of a workplace investigation that forced him to resign two months later and face felony larceny charges in court.
Yourga claims he has suffered economic injury, defamation and severe emotional distress.
“Jonathan Yourga was seriously wronged here and he’s seeking redress for the wrongdoing and seeking justice for the way he was egregiously mistreated,” said his attorney, Thomas T. Merrigan of Greenfield.
The city has six months to respond to the wrongful termination claim before any civil action can be filed in court, according to state law. In addition to the $750,000, Yourga’s claim seeks attorney fees and costs.
“If it was up to us, we’d file suit today,” Merrigan said.
Mayor David Narkewicz could not be reached for comment Wednesday and Peterson, who also was served with Yourga’s claim for damages, declined to comment.
“It’s a free country and ... it has to go through the process,” Michael T. Cahillane, chairman of the trustees, said of the claim. “Everybody is entitled to due process.”
Unemployment decision reversed
In a related matter, a review board with the state Department of Unemployment Assistance in November reversed an earlier state agency decision that denied Yourga unemployment benefits largely because he resigned from his job.
The ruling came after Merrigan appealed and states that because Yourga resigned based on the school’s actions against him, the focus of the review shifted to the school’s conduct and not Yourga’s personal reasons for leaving. Yourga could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but has since received back pay for his unemployment claim, according to Merrigan.
“Rather than accept what he knew to be an unwarranted suspension of pay, (Yourga) quit his employment,” the review board’s decision states. “We conclude that (Yourga) acted reasonably in concluding that his employer’s unwarranted discipline, based upon erroneous but serious accusations, made it untenable to continue working for that employer.”
Yourga resigned from his job of 21 years in June 2014 after he was charged with two counts of felony larceny involving the alleged theft of two cars that had supposedly been donated to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in 2006 and 2011.
The charges were brought after school officials began investigating an allegation of misconduct against Yourga lodged by a student alleging favoritism. Northampton police then got involved with examining the alleged car thefts at the request of school officials.
In his claim received by city officials this week, Merrigan described the student complaint as “petty” and “innocuous” and said that the school’s director of security, Kevin Brown, used it “as a ruse to dig up” whatever the school could against Yourga to get him fired.
The investigation led to a reference in Yourga’s personnel file that cited earlier questions about whether a 1985 Pontiac Parisienne that wound up in his possession had been donated to the school in 2006.
A former superintendent found no wrongdoing by Yourga and attributed the matter to a misunderstanding. Yourga’s claim alleges Brown then “manipulated” those circumstances to allege a second larceny by Yourga involving a 1998 Nissan Altima that teacher Shannon Brisbois allegedly donated to the school in 2011.
“When he initiated the suspension, Superintendent Peterson was not impartial,” states Yourga’s claim filed with city and school officials. “His intention was to achieve a termination of Jonathan Yourga’s employment one way or another, either by forced resignation or other termination. It was evident that the Superintendent was using the criminal process so that a conviction would give him grounds to fire Jonathan Yourga.”
In a January 2015 trial in Northampton District Court, Northampton District Court Judge William O’Grady ruled that a prosecutor failed to prove allegations that Yourga misled two people who wanted to donate cars to the school’s automotive program in 2006 and 2011 and that he attempted to sell one car and keep another for personal use.
Yourga said the car owners willingly signed the vehicles over to him and that he did not mislead them. Merrigan had argued that Yourga should be found not guilty on one of the larceny charges — the alleged theft in 2006 — on the grounds that it was brought beyond the six-year statute of limitations, to which the judge agreed.
Asked whether he believes school administrators could have handled Yourga’s case better or differently, Cahillane, the trustees chairman, said he is confident they acted appropriately.
“It’s a matter of rulings and some of the rulings go in your favor, and some don’t,” Cahillane said. “I feel the superintendant and administration followed protocol.”
Merrigan said Yourga has found part-time work in the automotive field since leaving his job and after last year’s trial, but he continues to have difficulty finding full-time work in the teaching profession.
Dan Crowley can be reached at email@example.com.