Court upholds firing of Tunkhannock principal after two DUI pleas

By Mark Guydish - [email protected]
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TUNKHANNOCK — For a former Tunkhannock Area elementary school principal, Commonwealth Court has ruled that, in the case of drunk-driving pleas, its two strikes and you’re out.

The three-judge panel found “no merit” in any of the arguments put forth by Joseph Moffitt, who had appealed a ruling by the state Secretary of Education upholding the district’s decision to fire him. That firing came after Moffitt had pleaded guilty to a second charge of Driving Under the Influence in four years.

At the time of both arrests, Moffitt served the dual role of principal at Evans Falls and Mill City elementary schools. The first arrest occurred in April, 2010. Moffitt pleaded guilty the following year and was accepted into Wyoming County’s Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program, allowing him to avoid a criminal record for the offense.

The second arrest came in April 2014, and Moffitt’s 2015 guilty plea resulted in 90 days of house arrest, five years probation and loss of his driver’s license for a year. In February 2016, the acting superintendent held a pre-disciplinary hearing, and a month letter Moffitt was notified the district had recommended his dismissal. He was suspended without pay.

Multiple people testified against him in person or by deposition at evidentiary hearings in 2016, and the board voted to dismiss him in September that year. He appealed his dismissal with the state Secretary of Education in December, and the appeal was denied in May, 2017.

According to the ruling by Commonwealth Court, “the secretary had found that the school district had established grounds for termination by a preponderance of the evidence.”

The state school code limits termination of a contract for “immorality; incompetency …; intemperance; cruelty; persistent negligence in the performance of duties … persistent and willful violation of or failure to comply with school law …”

Moffitt was charged with immorality, and in upholding his dismissal the secretary of education cited “the unrebutted testimony provided by eight witnesses, all of whose testimony he found credible, and each of whom supported the conclusion that Moffitt’s two DUI offenses offended the morals of the community and set a bad example to the youth whose ideals he was supposed to foster and elevate.”

The court reviewed the secretary’s ruling and rejected Moffitt’s contention that there was insufficient evidence for his dismissal on grounds of immorality, noting that Moffitt had admitted to the DUI charges, that past testimony “clearly” demonstrated his behavior was deemed immoral by the community, and that case law established multiple DUIs demonstrate “a pattern of conduct that is not only damaging to (the teacher) but also puts the public in serious danger.”

The court also dismissed Moffitt’s contention that his firing was in retaliation to an unrelated civil rights lawsuit he had filed against the district, and that the district did not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act by firing him while he was in treatment for alcoholism.

“Accordingly,” Senior Judge James Gardner Colins wrote, “the decision of the secretary denying Moffitt’s appeal from his dismissal for immorality under the School Code is affirmed.”

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Moffitt had 2 DUI cases in 4 years

By Mark Guydish

[email protected]

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish