Supremes back firing of tenured TN teacher without back pay

News release from the Administrative Office of the Courts

Nashville, Tenn. – In a case involving the dismissal of a tenured teacher, the Tennessee Supreme Court has held that the Court of Appeals’ award to the teacher of partial back pay was not authorized under the Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act (Tenure Act). It also held that the teacher could not appeal the timeliness of her school board hearing because she did not raise that objection to the school board.

Rogelynn Emory taught French and English in several different high schools in Memphis, Tennessee. For several years, school administrators noted that Ms. Emory exhibited unusual behavior, had difficulty managing her students, and displayed a low level of teaching skill. In late 2005, the city school system notified Ms. Emory that she was being charged with “inefficiency,” that is, teaching below the acceptable standard, and would be discharged. Under the Tenure Act, Ms. Emory demanded a hearing before the city school board.

In 2006, the school board held a three-day hearing on the charges against Ms. Emory, in which Ms. Emory was represented by an attorney. Both Ms. Emory and the school board presented testimony from numerous witnesses, Ms. Emory testified on her own behalf, and there were over 20 exhibits spanning a 10-year period in which Ms. Emory taught at several different high schools. The testimony from the school board witnesses showed that Ms. Emory had poor classroom management, lack of teaching skills, and was unwilling or unable to receive constructive criticism and improve. The school board voted to uphold Ms. Emory’s dismissal.

Ms. Emory filed an action in the Shelby County chancery court under the Tenure Act, asking the court to review her dismissal. For the first time, Ms. Emory argued that the school board hearing was held too late; she pointed to a provision in the Tenure Act stating that a school board hearing for a teacher must be held within 30 days after the teacher sends a demand for a hearing, and noted that her school board hearing was held many months beyond the thirty-day limit. Ms. Emory asked the chancery court to set aside her dismissal because the school board hearing was untimely.

The chancery court upheld the school board’s dismissal of Ms. Emory, and Ms. Emory appealed. The Court of Appeals declined to reinstate Ms. Emory because the school board hearing was held too late, but it awarded Ms. Emory partial back pay.

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted permission for both Ms. Emory and the school board to appeal. Both argued that there was nothing in the Tenure Act giving the Court of Appeals the authority to award Ms. Emory partial back pay. Ms. Emory argued that she was entitled to full reinstatement because the school board hearing was held too late, while the school board argued that Ms. Emory was entitled to no relief at all, and that her dismissal should be upheld outright.

On appeal, the Tennessee Supreme Court agreed with both parties that there was no basis in the Tenure Act for the Court of Appeals’ award of partial back pay to Ms. Emory, so it reversed the back pay award.

As to Ms. Emory’s claim that she was entitled to reinstatement because her hearing was held too late, the Supreme Court noted that, during the entire three-day hearing before the school board, neither Ms. Emory nor her attorney objected to the hearing being held after the 30 day limit in the Tenure Act. Had she done so, the Court observed, the school board could have dismissed the charges, started the termination process over again, and held a timely hearing. Instead, Ms. Emory waited until the school board heard three days of evidence and reached a decision to dismiss her before raising the argument to the chancery court that the hearing was held too late.

The Court noted that, on appeal, Ms. Emory did not question the fairness of her school board hearing and could not point to any way in which the result would have been different if the hearing had been held sooner. Rejecting Ms. Emory’s request for reinstatement as a teacher, the Court said, “we would achieve little more than irony by voiding Ms. Emory’s dismissal and remanding this case for the [school] board to start the termination process anew, over 10 years after her employment was terminated and 20 years after the events underlying the termination, solely to vindicate a delay in the hearing that Ms. Emory did not believe warranted even a mention in the [school] board proceedings.” It added that “allowing a party to hide an ace up her sleeve for appeal would undermine fair play and finality of judgment.”  For that reason, the Court affirmed the chancery court’s decision to uphold the termination of Ms. Emory’s employment.

Note: The full opinion is HERE. A Tennessean story on the case, published after the Court of Appeals ruling and with the appeal to the Supreme Court still pending, is HERE.

 

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Former Knoxville News Sentinel capitol bureau chief Tom Humphrey writes about Tennessee politics, government, and legislative news.
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