A former Charlotte school teacher who claimed he was coerced into resigning in 2006 after complaints emerged that he had inappropriately touched students was awarded $1.2 million.
A U.S. District Court jury ruled in February that the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education violated teacher Jeffrey Leardini’s federal due process rights when Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools employee relations specialist Kay Cunningham elicited his involuntary resignation.
The jury awarded compensatory damages worth $1,121,560 from the school board and compensatory damages worth $52,156 from Cunningham. Defense attorneys filed a motion for a new trial in March, arguing that Judge Graham C. Mullen erred in his instructions to the jury, including telling jurors that Leardini’s acquittal on criminal charges of sexual battery and assault may have some bearing on the issue of damages.
Leardini resigned his position as a middle school teacher after Cunningham called him into a meeting and told him several students had alleged that he touched them inappropriately. According to Leardini, Cunningham told him that CMS had a policy that prohibited touching students. He admitted that he had touched students in hopes of creating a rapport but denied touching them inappropriately. Cunningham then told him that because he had admitted to touching students it was likely that he would be dismissed if a law enforcement investigation was launched, but he could avoid an investigation and a blight on his record if he resigned.
After he signed the resignation document and left the meeting, Leardini consulted with a fellow teacher and asked to rescind his resignation. Cunningham denied his request. A law enforcement investigation, trial and acquittal on misdemeanor charges followed.
The incident occurred a few months after another CMS teacher, Jamie Grubbs, had been accused of sexual abuse, and the school system was under fire in the media for its handling of that case.
Philip Roth of Marshall, Roth & Gregory in Asheville and S. Luke Largess at Tin, Fulton Walker & Owen in Charlotte, represent Leardini. Roth said the award indicates that the jury realized Leardini’s resignation and the public investigation wrecked his hopes of pursuing a teaching career. The plaintiff’s economics expert testified that Leardini was due damages of about $500,000, Roth said.
“Clearly the jury felt that Leardini was emotionally harmed by what he was subjected to, because his case arose in the context of Grubbs,” he said. “The moment his picture hit the newspaper with the same allegations, and it’s on the Internet – you can’t get rid of what’s on the Internet for years and years.”
Since the investigation, Leardini has relocated to San Diego, where he works in retail for a pet supply company. His employment record indicates that his CMS job ended as a termination.
Mason G. Alexander and Margaret M. Kinston of Fisher & Phillips in Charlotte represent the defense. Alexander did not respond to a call for comment in the case. In their motion for a new trial, the defense attorneys argue that CMS and Cunningham are not responsible for the criminal investigation that followed Leardini’s resignation. The motion states that it was a parent of one of the accusing girls who informed law enforcement about the allegations against Leardini. But even if CMS did report the allegations to police, they argue, the school district isn’t responsible for the results of the subsequent criminal investigation. That the jury was allowed to associate the investigation with CMS wrongly affected their decision about the damage award, the defense argues.
Also at issue is whether Cunningham was following accepted custom on behalf of CMS when she elicited and accepted Leardini’s resignation then refused to allow him to rescind it.
Official CMS policy would have required an investigation and personnel hearings regarding the charges against Leardini. His attorneys argued that in the wake of the Grubbs affair, CMS allowed employee relations officers to act outside of the official policy.
The defense argues that CMS did not authorize employees on Cunningham’s level to negotiate or rescind resignations, only to accept them. This goes to the heart of the plaintiff’s municipal liability claim: Was Cunningham acting in accordance with the custom and practice endorsed by CMS?
Roth said that might be an issue for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to consider.
“Municipal liability … is one of the most complex areas of the law that I’ve ever seen. It is a labyrinth of conflicting law,” he said.
Also in the motion for a new trial, defense attorneys challenge the judge’s decision to deny them a chance to present an affirmative defense. The defense argues that had the jury accepted their evidence in an affirmative defense, Leardini would have been barred from recovering damages under federal law.
During Leardini’s conference with Cunningham, she told him that if he went through the personnel hearing process he would lose his job. The defense had hoped to present evidence, including the testimony of the former students who accused Leardini, to support Cunningham’s assertion.
“Had it been that outcome, there still would have been a constitutional violation,” Roth said. “He still would have won his lawsuit but it would have been meaningless because it wouldn’t have addressed the fact that his career was ruined.”
Besides, Roth said, the testimony at trial of Janet Hamilton, a high-ranking CMS employee relations official, scuttled that claim. “She said ‘I have no idea whether Mr. Leardini would have been terminated’ so that sort of put that issue to rest,” Roth said.
The defense contends that the judge was too harsh in his ruling and should have let the jury see the evidence regarding whether Leardini would have been terminated based on evidence that he violated the CMS policy.
Type of action: Civil rights violation
Injuries alleged: Failure to provide a fair hearing on charges of inappropriate conduct
Case name: Jeffrey T. Leardini v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and Kay Cunningham
Case number: 3:09-cv-00264-GCM
Court: U.S. District Court, Western District of North Carolina, Charlotte Division
Tried before: jury
Name of judge: Graham C. Mullen
Verdict or settlement: verdict
Date of verdict: Feb. 24, 2012
Amount: $1.2 million
Attorneys for plaintiff: Phillip J. Roth of Marshall, Roth & Gregory (Asheville), S. Luke Largess of Tin Fulton Walker & Owen (Charlotte)
Attorneys for defendant: Mason G. Alexander and Margaret M. Kinston of Fisher & Phillips (Charlotte)
Were liability and damages contested? Yes
Was opposing party represented by the legal counsel? Yes
Has the plaintiff been successful in collecting the judgment? No-