Session Date February 25, 2015
Direct Appeal from the Chancery Court for Shelby County No. CH-06-2420 Walter L. Evans, Judge
Mark Antonio Allen, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellant, Rogelynn Sue Emory.
Sally Foster Barron and Jeff Weintraub, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shelby County Board of Education.
Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., and Arnold B. Goldin, J., joined.
BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE
I. Background and Procedural History
Rogelynn Emory began working as a teacher for the Memphis City Schools Board of Education ("Board") in 1977. From 1977 to 2005, Ms. Emory worked on a regular basis at several different high schools in the Memphis area. During the 2004-2005 school year, when the events underlying this appeal began, Ms. Emory was a tenured teacher assigned to Central High School. Greg McCullough was the school's principal that year. During the course of the year, Mr. McCullough observed that Ms. Emory did not appear to have control of the students in her classroom and demonstrated low levels of teaching. Based on his observations, Mr. McCullough recommended that the Board terminate Ms. Emory after the end of the school year.
As a result of Mr. McCullough's recommendation, Superintendent Carol Johnson initiated Ms. Emory's termination pursuant to the procedures set forth in the Tennessee Teacher Tenure Act ("Tenure Act"). Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 49-5-501 to -515 (2009). In a written memorandum, Ms. Johnson laid out the factual background supporting her recommendation that the Board terminate Ms. Emory's employment based on the statutory grounds of "inefficiency." See id. § 49-5-511(a)(2) ("The causes for which a teacher may be dismissed or suspended are: incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct and insubordination . . . ."). In a letter dated September 30, 2005, Ms. Johnson notified Ms. Emory of the charges against her and that she had been suspended without pay effective June 27, 2005, pending the outcome of the matter.
In a letter dated October 18, 2005, Ms. Emory responded and requested an evidentiary hearing before the Board. The Board acknowledged its receipt of Ms. Emory's request in a letter dated November 11, 2005. Though Section 49-5-512(a)(2) of the Tenure Act requires school boards receiving such a demand to conduct a hearing within thirty days, the Board did not hold a hearing on the charges against Ms. Emory until November 2006. The reason for the delay is not clear from the record.
The Board's hearing on the charges against Ms. Emory was finally held on November 1, 2, and 8, 2006. Over the course of the three-day hearing, the Board presented ample evidence in support of its charge that Ms. Emory had not been an efficient teacher throughout her career. Teachers and school administrators who worked with Ms. Emory over the course of her career recounted numerous incidents that demonstrated her poor classroom management skills and strained relationships with students. Ms. Emory also presented witnesses and testified in her own defense. Ms. Emory did not indicate that she took issue with the timing of the hearing or that her defense was prejudiced by the lengthy delay. After the close of proof, the Board voted unanimously to sustain Ms. Emory's dismissal and to adopt the findings as set forth in the notice of charges. The Board formally notified Ms. Emory that her employment had been terminated in a letter dated November 13, 2006. Ms. Emory timely filed a petition for writ of certiorari in the Shelby County Chancery Court seeking judicial review of the Board's decision.
In her appeal to the chancery court, Ms. Emory sought a reversal of the Board's decision, alleging that it was arbitrary and capricious. Among other things, Ms. Emory alleged that her dismissal was an act of retaliation for her initiation of unrelated litigation. Additionally, Ms. Emory asserted that she was not afforded a hearing in a timely manner as required by the Tenure Act. Ms. Emory argued that because the Board failed to comply with the Tenure Act, its action was void, and she was entitled to reinstatement.
Other than a notice of appearance filed by the Board's attorney in October 2008, it appears from the record that no action was taken in response to Ms. Emory's chancery court petition prior to 2011. On April 19, 2011, Ms. Emory filed a motion seeking a default judgment for the Board's failure to answer the petition. On April 26, 2011, the Board filed an answer and a cross-motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to prosecute. The trial court denied both of the parties' respective motions on December 16, 2011.
After filing of the transcript and exhibits from the Board's November 2006 hearing, the trial court heard arguments from both parties on June 19, 2013. At the hearing, Ms. Emory argued that the Tenure Act requires strict compliance and that the Board therefore lost its jurisdiction to terminate her employment for any reason when it failed to conduct a timely hearing as required by the Act. Following expiration of the thirty-day period, Ms. Emory argued, the Board was required to re-issue notice of the charges against her and start the process over in order to terminate her employment. Ms. Emory contended that she was entitled to reinstatement and to an award of her full salary dating back to the date of her suspension. In response, the Board argued that balancing the schedules of the various parties required to attend a termination hearing rendered the Tenure Act's thirty-day hearing requirement impractical. Speaking in reference to the requirement, the Board's attorney stated: "The Legislature set it up to have it within 30 days and it can't be done. It's never been done, to my knowledge. And it's not going to be done tomorrow." Accordingly, the Board argued that Ms. ...