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Johnson v. Yurick

August 27, 2001


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Irenas, District Judge


Presently before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment of Plaintiff Keith E. Johnson's federal and state claims relating to his termination as First Assistant Prosecutor of Gloucester County. This Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1343, 1367. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' motion is granted as to the federal claims and the state free speech claim, with the remaining state claims dismissed without prejudice for lack of federal jurisdiction.


Plaintiff Keith E. Johnson ("Plaintiff" or "Johnson") began his employment with Defendant Gloucester County Prosecutor's Office in February 1981. From June 1986 to January 1997, he served as Chief of the Trial Section. From August 1996 to January 1997, he was also Acting First Assistant Prosecutor. When Defendant Andrew N. Yurick, II, ("Yurick") was sworn in as Gloucester County Prosecutor on January 31, 1997, he named Plaintiff as his First Assistant Prosecutor.

As First Assistant Prosecutor, Plaintiff was the chief operations officer and chief of staff in the Prosecutor's office -- the "number two person" -- with wide-ranging supervisory, administrative, budgetary, and prosecutorial responsibilities. He served as Yurick's deputy and liaison, reporting to him and effectuating his decisions. As Plaintiff himself noted, there was a perception that he and Yurick were "joined at the hip."

Prior to his swearing in, Yurick spoke with Plaintiff about his plans to adopt a stricter plea-bargaining policy, which he felt had been too lenient under his predecessor. According to Yurick, Plaintiff agreed with Yurick's assessment. They decided to centralize the plea bargaining process under the Chief of Trials, a position filled, at Plaintiff's suggestion, by Keith Warburton ("Warburton").

After the new policy was implemented, the backlog of cases in the county rose, as fewer cases pled out and fewer cases were remanded to municipal court. In meetings of the Delay Reduction Committee and in public statements, Judge Joseph F. Lisa, the Criminal Assignment Judge, was very critical of the new policy, arguing that the Prosecutor's Office was not offering appropriate plea bargains and that, as a result, the number of cases per judge was too high and delays in the trial calendar were increasing. Yurick defended his policy in the press and in meetings of the Delay Reduction Committee. In addition, according to Plaintiff, Yurick did not hold Judge Lisa in high regard and had allegedly commented that Judge Lisa was dictatorial and often issued rulings he knew were wrong. As a result, relations between Judge Lisa and Yurick's office deteriorated.

Plaintiff claims that, between June and November 1997, he and Yurick spoke about the possibility of decentralizing and liberalizing the plea bargaining policy. Plaintiff also claims that, in a November 1997 conversation in which he conveyed to Yurick the scope of the backlog, Yurick allegedly told him to "clean this mess up" and "deal with it." Yurick denies having given Plaintiff this directive.

Plaintiff concedes that he disagreed with the strict plea bargaining policy adopted by Yurick. As he stated in his deposition testimony, Plaintiff felt that Yurick violated public policy by clogging up the criminal justice system with cases and allowing significant delays in the trial calendar which hampered the Prosecutor's Office. He further testified that he felt certain plea bargains offered by Chief of Trials Warburton violated established law. He also stated that he felt that the judiciary had a very significant supervisory role to play in the administration of justice, but that it was Yurick's policy to disregard the courts' policy regarding the speedy disposition of cases.

In late December 1997, Plaintiff, in a conversation with Judge Lisa, indicated that he had ideas about alleviating the backlog of cases that he would like to share with the judge. When the two met in January 1998, Plaintiff's intent was to convey to the judge that he did not think the backlog was in the best interests of the citizens of Gloucester County. He did not dispute Judge Lisa's impressions that Yurick's policy was backfiring and that morale in the Prosecutor's Office was suffering. He and Judge Lisa discussed a number of ideas for addressing the backlog.

Prior to the meeting, Plaintiff did not inform Yurick that he would be seeing Judge Lisa. Plaintiff claims that the first he told Yurick of the meeting was within a week after it happened. Yurick recalls that Plaintiff told him of the meeting in Februrary or early March.

During the meeting with Yurick, Plaintiff summarized his meeting with Judge Lisa and asked for Yurick's blessing in proceeding with the plan he and Judge Lisa had discussed. Yurick was furious. According to Plaintiff, Yurick told him that he had "screwed up my plans" -- which Plaintiff took to mean Yurick's effort to obtain a third criminal judge in Gloucester County. Plaintiff also claims that Yurick told him that he had betrayed his trust. When Plaintiff responded that he was just following Yurick's orders, Yurick allegedly told Plaintiff that "the only interests you are interested in protecting is yourself, not mine and this office." Yurick then forbade Plaintiff from having further conversations with Judge Lisa.

According to Yurick, the episode regarding Judge Lisa occurred against a background of policy disagreements between Yurick and Plaintiff and conflicts between Plaintiff and other members of the Prosecutor's Office. Plaintiff had engaged Yurick in numerous "long, heated" discussions about a variety of policy issues, and had not supported, and at times opposed, Yurick in labor negotiations, personnel decisions, and other policy initiatives.

Yurick was also aware of growing conflict between Plaintiff and Warburton. At a September 1997 meeting, Plaintiff became "extremely heated" and "angry" in a discussion with Yurick and Warburton over the plea bargaining policy and Plaintiff's insistence that Warburton be removed as Chief of Trials. When Yurick asked the two men to stay to discuss the issue, Plaintiff admits he "blew [his] stack," yelling and screaming. Warburton later told Yurick that he and Plaintiff had ceased speaking to one another other than when absolutely necessary. Yurick was also aware that Plaintiff bullied Mary K. White, who was then Chief of the Grand Jury Section and who reported directly to Plaintiff. As a result, at the time of the Judge Lisa episode, Yurick maintains that his relations with Plaintiff had already begun to sour.

On March 6, 1998, Yurick evaluated Plaintiff. Yurick gave Plaintiff negative marks regarding his dispute with Warburton, his handling of certain drug cases, and for his "secret meeting" with Judge Lisa about "policies adopted or promulgated by the GCPO." In a March 12, 1998, memo, Yurick notified Plaintiff that the chiefs of the trial section and of the grand jury section would now report directly to Yurick and not to Plaintiff.

While some members of the Prosecutor's Office noted that relations between Yurick and Plaintiff were strained prior to the Judge Lisa meeting, all those deposed agreed that their relationship deteriorated after Plaintiff disclosed the meeting to Yurick. As Yurick testified, he had lost confidence in Plaintiff, and Plaintiff's meeting with Judge Lisa demonstrated to him that Plaintiff "was willing to go behind [his] back to accomplish something that he thought was important." Moreover, he stated that he did not think Plaintiff was an honorable man in light of his ...

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