Judge Caps Johnson Damage Judgment At $434,318

Dr. Mary Ellen JohnsonENTERPRISE FILE PHOTO - Dr. Mary Ellen Johnson

A Barnstable Superior Court judge has ruled that former Sandwich school superintendent Mary Ellen Johnson is entitled to $434,318 in damages from the school committee—and that is it.

This amount is far shy of the nearly $3 million that Dr. Johnson sought in a late December filing.

In a “Final Memorandum of Damages and Order for Judgment” signed and filed December 31, Judge Christopher J. Muse writes, “the court notes that this damage award is based on the two years of overall compensation Dr. Johnson was denied because of Sandwich’s breach of the [contract] extension agreement.      

“All other claims and counterclaims have been dismissed,” Judge Muse writes. “She is entitled to the benefit of that bargain, and no more.”

In his order, the judge observes that Dr. Johnson also is seeking reimbursement of attorneys’ fees and costs connected to the case—costs that she has estimated at $165,000.

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“Massachusetts follows the so-called ‘American Rule’ where, with few exceptions, the parties are responsible for their own legal costs,” Judge Muse writes. “Thus, the court cannot, and does not award attorneys’ fees and costs as requested by Dr. Johnson.”

Last month, attorneys for the Town of Sandwich and Dr. Johnson put forward proposed damage judgments in the case.

Judge Muse based his final judgment on the town’s submission, although he said he found a couple of errors that, when corrected, increased the damage award by $16,443.

“Accordingly, it is hereby ordered that Dr. Johnson shall receive a total of $434,317.82 in damages, and ordinary costs of filing fee and service of process,” the judge writes.

In a motion filed December 30 with the court, Dr. Johnson, who fired her attorney and now is representing herself, sought a total of $2,924,860, plus 12 percent interest, a rate that she said would be calculated based on the pay-out date.
The former superintendent’s proposed judgment included reimbursement for attorneys’ fees as well as requests for triple damages.

Dr. Johnson could not be reached for comment yesterday.

In a recent interview, however, she said that she believed the judge would be receptive to reopening the settlement discussion. She further indicated a willingness to appeal Judge Muse’s final decision to get what she believes she is due.
But in an observation at the conclusion of the order, Judge Muse suggests that Dr. Johnson may want to take a different approach.

“Dr. Johnson was clearly financially injured, and emotionally pained by the actions taken by several members of the Sandwich School Committee, many of which may be fairly categorized as mean-spirited and callous,” he writes.

“However, this court cannot award anything except money, which has limited therapeutic benefit, and which begs the question asked by a famous litigant several decades ago, ‘Where do I go to get my reputation back?’

“The court encourages her to obtain the assistance of independent counsel, to explain the constraints and limitations placed on the court in its award determination, and to review her appellate option,” Judge Muse writes. “She may be advised that the start of a new year may be a good time to put a lot of stressful memories behind her.”

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