One Teacher’s Road to Vindication | NEA Today

12 Jun

By Michael D. Simpson, NEA Office of General Counsel

What is your teaching career worth? In dollars and cents? If a school board illegally took your job away and destroyed your right to practice your profession, how much should they be made to pay?

It’s a hard figure to calculate. But last February, a Charlotte, North Carolina, jury was up to the task. They awarded Jeff Leardini $1,173,716 for the loss of his career, one of the largest verdicts in history on behalf of a teacher.

In some ways, this is a tragic story: yet another episode of a great teacher brought down by baseless allegations of physical contact with students. But this one has an unusually happy ending.

In an interview with NEA Today, Leardini described his ordeal. It began on April 27, 2006, when Leardini, a sixth-grade language arts teacher employed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), was called into his principal’s office. He was met there by Kay Cunningham, a CMS employment relations specialist.

Without disclosing the names of his accusers or the details of their allegations, Cunningham told Leardini that several students claimed that he had “touched” them—not in a sexual way—just “touched” them. And, according to Cunningham, CMS had a “no- touch” policy.

She then used various misleading statements to manipulate him to resign. “I was completely naïve,” recalled Leardini, a member of the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) and NEA. “I thought she was on my side, there to help me. She said that, if I resigned, ‘the matter would be closed,’ and I’d be able to apply for other teaching jobs. The school district would help. If not, I would be terminated, and my name would be ‘Mudd.’” Little did he know.

So he signed the resignation letter. Ten minutes later, he ran into his NCAE building representative who told him to rescind the letter. He immediately went back to Cunningham but was rebuffed. CMS also rejected subsequent efforts to rescind the letter.

The local district attorney charged him with misdemeanor assault. A judge acquitted him of two charges in August 2006, and a jury acquitted him of the other two charges in July 2007.

Despite the not guilty verdicts, Leardini’s teaching career was done: over the next few years he sent out more than 100 applications but was never hired. Even though his fourth-grade students led the state in writing scores four years in a row and no student ever scored below grade level in writing, he could not get another teaching job.

So Leardini filed a federal lawsuit against CMS for violation of his due process rights: Cunningham’s false statements coerced him into “resigning” under duress and without a hearing. He also sued Ms. Cunningham.

The case went to trial last February. Leardini testified about what it was like to be held hostage in his own home for six years for fear of running into students or their parents; what it was like to be recognized by a UPS driver as “that teacher.” After a four-day trial, an eight-person jury ruled in Leardini’s favor and ordered CMS to pay him $1,121,560 for the loss of his career and ordered Cunningham to chip in an additional $52,156. In May, a federal judge denied the school district’s motion to have the verdict thrown out. Leardini’s lawyers recently filed a petition seeking more than $200,000 in attorneys’ fees from CMS.

The case is now on appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, so settlement discussions are likely.

Leardini has landed on his feet. He and his wife moved to San Diego, where he works in the headquarters of a major corporation. “I’m really happy with my job,” Leardini said. “I’m treated with value now, not the way I was treated by CMS.”

via One Teacher’s Road to Vindication | NEA Today.

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