PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- More than a decade has gone by since an elderly widow in Portsmouth passed away, leaving her riverfront home, its contents, her car, and her stock portfolio to a local police officer who grew close to her in the final two years of her life. But a dispute related to the police officer has boiled on.
Aaron Goodwin was on duty as a Portsmouth police officer in 2010 when he first met Geraldine Webber, who was 92 at the time, according to court records. Goodwin befriended her, and within a few months, she started talking about passing her assets on to him when she died. He helped her find a lawyer to update her estate planning documents.
Webber passed away in December 2012, just shy of her 94th birthday. By that point, Goodwin had helped manage her medical care and finances and been named her power of attorney. But after her death, Webber’s grandson accused Goodwin of inappropriately influencing her late-in-life decisions. When the dispute came to light, it sparked public outrage and ultimately led to the termination of Goodwin’s employment.
Goodwin was fired in June 2015. A probate judge ruled in August 2015 that he could not keep the roughly $2 million inheritance.
Although the decision about the inheritance was never appealed, the police union and city have been slogging through employment-related arbitration and litigation ever since Goodwin was fired — and a decision Wednesday from the New Hampshire Supreme Court dealt Goodwin another loss, kicking the matter back for further proceedings.
In firing Goodwin, the city had cited a task force’s conclusion that Goodwin should have refused Webber’s offer to write him into her estate. But an arbitrator later said the city lacked just cause to terminate Goodwin’s employment at that time, according to court records.
The arbitrator, who faulted Portsmouth police leadership for failing to adequately advise Goodwin on how to handle the situation, told the city in 2018 to give Goodwin two years’ worth of back pay.
The city, however, said the arbitrator erred in calculating how much back pay should be awarded. Goodwin should receive only about two months’ worth of pay, the city argued, since the probate judge’s decision clearly gave the city just cause to fire Goodwin two months after his actual termination.
A trial court ruled against the city and affirmed the arbitration award, but the city appealed in 2021, and the New Hampshire Supreme Court overruled that decision on Wednesday, finding that the arbitrator “misapplied the law.”
The decision vacated the lower court’s ruling and sends the matter back to the arbitrator to rethink how much back pay Goodwin should be awarded.
An attorney for the police union, Peter J. Perroni, did not immediately comment on Wednesday’s decision.
An attorney for the city, Thomas Closson — who had argued in a court filing that the Supreme Court should prevent Goodwin from “reaping a financial windfall to which he is not entitled” — acknowledged in a statement Wednesday that the dispute is now headed back to the arbitrator to iron out the details related to back pay.
“The City is hopeful that the Supreme Court’s decision will lead to a more appropriate, final resolution of this long running dispute,” he said in the statement.
Aside from the details in this particular case, the litigation related to Goodwin’s termination led to a change in the way New Hampshire courts interpret exemptions under the state’s public records law.
Seacoast Newspapers, the parent company of the Portsmouth Herald and Foster’s Daily Democrat, sued for access to the arbitration award records between Portsmouth and Goodwin. That led to a favorable decision from the Supreme Court in 2020, revealing additional details in this case and narrowing the scope of records that can be withheld from public disclosure under the “internal personnel practices” provision of the Right to Know law.