Breaking: Wrongful termination lawsuit of ex-Southold cop dismissed

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Feb. 6.

A long-running wrongful termination civil lawsuit against Southold Town brought by a former Southold Town police officer has been dismissed.

After nearly eight years of legal wrangling and finally landing in the Suffolk County Supreme Court in the fall, Judge James Quinn determined Monday that Garrett Lake and his legal counsel “failed to meet his burden of proof” that the former Southold police officer was fired in bad faith due to political pressure.

The ruling further stated Mr. Lake’s termination was “not based on an illegal or improper reason,” according to court documents.

“His claims were baseless, we asserted that from the beginning and the judge ultimately agreed with us,” said former Southold Town supervisor Scott Russell in a phone interview after the decision was released. “We hated to do it — laying someone off is one of the worst tasks of being an elected official — but the [Southold Town] Board believed we had no choice.”

Eric Bressler, Mr. Lake’s attorney, said in a phone interview Tuesday that he is disappointed with the judge’s decision and plans on filing a notice of appeal. 

Mr. Lake was hired to serve as a Southold Town probationary officer in November 2014 after working for the Southampton Town Police Department. On May 19, 2016, four days before his 18-month probationary period was due to end, he was terminated at a special meeting of the Southold Town Board.

A month later, Mr. Lake and Mr. Bressler sued the Town of Southold for wrongful termination and demanded the town annul its resolution to fire him, reinstate him in his position as a probationary officer, and issue back pay.

In 2017, the Suffolk County Supreme Court denied Mr. Lake’s motion for reinstatement, but he and Mr. Bressler moved the suit forward in 2020, when the Appellate Division overturned that previous ruling and ordered the town to turn over videos sought by the petitioner. 

In November 2023, several Southold Town officials took the witness stand during the non-jury trial, including Mr. Russell, Police Chief Martin Flatley, current Town Board members Jill Doherty and Louisa Evans, and Christopher Talbot, who served one term on the board from 2010 to 2013. Mr. Lake also testified.

Several videos of Mr. Lake’s traffic stops were shown in the courtroom, including two high-profile driving while intoxicated arrests he made, one of Steven Romeo following a fatal 2015 limousine crash in Cutchogue, and the other of Jamesport Fire Department assistant chief David McKillop in February 2016.

Mr. Lake claimed he was terminated for these two specific arrests and alleged in court papers that those incidents infuriated local Republican Party officials, who he claimed exercised undue political influence over the Southold Police Department and Town Board.

After reviewing both videos, the court concluded it “could not find any evidence of interference with the investigations or arrests, and furthermore, in both instances Officer Lake was directed by his superior officer to conduct the field sobriety examinations and was supported in the arrests of these two incidents,” the document stated. 

“This is contrary to Lake’s arguments,” Judge Quinn continued in the decision document. 

In Mr. Talbot’s testimony, he discussed an exchange he had with John Helf Sr., a member of the Southold Fire Department in the fall of 2015, after the fatal limo crash, but prior to Mr. Lake’s termination. 

He said he ran into Mr. Helf at a Southold Republican caucus and asked him how he felt Mr. Lake was doing in his position. He said Mr. Helf replied, “f— him” and referred to Mr. Lake as a “f—ing a—hole.”

The court determined this single statement made by Mr. Helf was “unconvincing that Lake’s termination was politically motivated.” 

The case revolved around a series of traffic stops conducted by Mr. Lake during his tenure as a probationary officer. The Southold Police Department and the Town Board received multiple complaints about Mr. Lake and were aware of several issues, witnesses testified, including routine stops for minor traffic infractions that escalated into full-blown searches of vehicles and accusations of police harassment.

Judge Quinn found the board members’ testimonies about hearing complaints from their Southold constituents both “credible and convincing.” 

Additionally, he said the issue is not if the court believes he is “an excellent police officer” for having the most DWI arrests or issuing the most traffic tickets, but if his termination was for “an illegal or impermissible reason.”

“In a small community where board members have been serving many years and are integrated in these local towns, an oral complaint by a neighbor is just as credible as one reduced to writing,” Judge Quinn said in the decision document. “The Town Board certainly has the right to have peace officers in their community, which they believe will fulfill the needs of their community, and not necessarily a peace officer with the highest arrests or the most number of tickets issued.” 

The court found “more than adequate evidence” that the Town Board — with the advice of Chief Flatley, their own observations of arrests and number of complaints in mind — made their own determination to terminate Mr. Lake’s employment. 

“It’s time to move on,” Mr. Russell said. “I wish him well.”