City Attorneys: Wilder-Era Suit “Legally Flawed” 

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Benjamin Johnson's $1 million defamation and wrongful termination lawsuit against the city should be thrown out, the city attorney's office argues in pleadings filed April 26 with Richmond Circuit Court.

Johnson, Richmond's former emergency services director, resigned April 14, 2008. His departure was prompted by a tip to the city auditor who discovered that Johnson was receiving an auto allowance to offset wear and tear on his personal vehicle while he drove a city-owned car. A few days earlier, Style Weekly reported that then-mayor L. Douglas Wilder received a similar deal.

Johnson says in the lawsuit that city administrators treated the monthly car allowances as part of an employee's compensation package. In his lawsuit, Johnson charges that officials in Wilder's administration forced him to resign over the car-allowance discovery and alerted news outlets about the discovery as retribution for refusing to participate in the Sept. 21, 2007, eviction of the School Board from City Hall.

According to his lawsuit, Johnson adamantly opposed Wilder's plan to evict the School Board in a meeting at City Hall in the days leading up to the incident, which many saw as proof that Wilder was abusing his power as mayor, hastening his political descent.

In a pleading filed last week, the city attorney's office asks the judge to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming governmental immunity and charging that Johnson's lawsuit is legally flawed.

“Johnson has an uphill battle under Virginia employment law,” says J. H. Verkerke, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

It will be difficult for Johnson to prove that he was improperly forced to resign, Verkerke says. The city provides as exhibit A in its filing his letter of resignation. In addition, upper-level political appointees such as Johnson are “at will” employees, meaning they can be let go more easily.

There are other legal hurdles too. The length of time between the School Board eviction attempt and Johnson's departure, about seven months, makes it difficult to correlate the two.

Neither Johnson's lawyers nor a city spokeswoman would comment. Both parties are waiting for the judge to rule whether the case can proceed.

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