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Dallas v. Shelby County Board of Education

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Jackson

August 19, 2019

PAMELA DALLAS
v.
SHELBY COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION

          Session June 20, 2019

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Shelby County No. CH-16-1736-3 JoeDae L. Jenkins, Chancellor

         Dismissed teacher filed an action against the school board under the Teacher Tenure Act, or alternatively, under the Continuing Contract Law. The board of education filed a motion for summary judgment as to both claims, which the trial court ultimately granted. We conclude that the trial court did not err in granting summary judgment under the Teacher Tenure Act because the plaintiff teacher was not tenured at the time of her dismissal. However, we reverse the grant of summary judgment on the plaintiff teacher's claim under the Continuing Contract Law.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed in Part; Reversed in Part

          Richard L. Colbert and C. Joseph Hubbard, Nashville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Pamela Dallas.

          Stephanie Denzel, Memphis, Tennessee, for the appellee, Shelby County Board of Education. [1]

          J. Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin and Kenny Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          J. STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE

         Background

         Plaintiff/Appellant Pamela Dallas was employed by the Shelby County Schools from the mid-1990's until 2007. At the time of her voluntary resignation, she was a tenured teacher in good standing. Ms. Dallas thereafter taught for one year in the McNairy County School District.

         Next, Ms. Dallas taught with the Shelby County Schools for a portion of both the 2008-2009 school year and the 2009-2010 school years. Ms. Dallas thereafter taught with the Shelby County Schools for the entirety of the 2010-2011 school year; however, Ms. Dallas's contract was not renewed after an unsatisfactory performance evaluation. Although Ms. Dallas attempted to contest the nonrenewal, it was upheld. Ms. Dallas admits that she was not tenured during the 2008-2009, 2009-2010, or 2010-2011 school years.

         Ms. Dallas then sought employment with the Memphis City Schools, where she taught for a portion of the 2011-2012 school year. Although she worked for the Memphis City Schools for the entire 2012-2013 school year, Ms. Dallas changed to a different school on multiple occasions, eventually landing at Willow Oaks Elementary School ("Willow Oaks"). Ms. Dallas continued teaching at Willow Oaks, where she remained for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015 school years. During this time frame, however, the administration of Willow Oaks transferred from the Memphis City Schools to the Shelby County Schools.[2] As such, while Ms. Dallas was employed by the Memphis City Schools for the 2012-2013 school year, she was a Shelby County Schools employee for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years. In April 2015, Ms. Dallas received oral notice that her position at Willow Oaks was to be eliminated. On or around May 18, 2015, Ms. Dallas filed a grievance to contest the fact that she had been "excessed." Specifically, Ms. Dallas requested to stay at Willow Oaks or to be assigned to another school. The grievance was initially denied on May 21, 2015, but Ms. Dallas appealed. On or about June 16, 2015, Ms. Dallas's grievance was again denied, noting that Ms. Dallas was the lowest evaluated teacher for her grade at Willow Oaks.[3]

         Meanwhile, on June 12, 2015, Shelby County Schools sent a letter by registered mail notifying Ms. Dallas that her contract was not renewed. Although the letter was attempted to be delivered on June 15, 2015, at Ms. Dallas's proper address, the letter went unclaimed. Another letter was sent to Ms. Dallas concerning the termination of her contract on August 25, 2015. Ms. Dallas was not reemployed by the Shelby County Schools following the 2014-2015 school year, but did attain another position with a different school system.

         On November 10, 2016, Ms. Dallas filed an action against the Shelby County Board of Education ("the Board of Education" or "the Board") in Shelby County Chancery Court to contest her dismissal. Ms. Dallas thereafter filed an amended complaint on February 14, 2017. Therein, Ms. Dallas asserted that she obtained tenure at the end of the 2013-2014 school year and was dismissed without charges in violation of the Teacher Tenure Act. In the alternative, Ms. Dallas asserted that the notice of nonrenewal violated the Continuing Contract Law. Eventually, the Board of Education filed a motion for summary judgment on the basis that, inter alia, Ms. Dallas was not a tenured teacher entitled to relief under that Act. In support, the Board's statement of undisputed material facts noted that it was undisputed that in September 2014, the Board of Education voted to grant tenure to a number of eligible teachers, but Ms. Dallas was not named on a list of teachers granted tenure. Moreover, Ms. Dallas did not dispute that she never received any written notification that she had been granted tenure while teaching at Willow Oaks. Ms. Dallas asserted, however, that by the time her employment was terminated, she "already had tenure during the 2014-2015 school year since she completed her second probationary year following the 2013-2014 school year and was reemployed for the following year." The Board also argued that Ms. Dallas was not entitled to rely on the Continuing Contract Law or, in the alternative, that it was not violated. The trial court granted the Board of Education's motion, dismissing Ms. Dallas's claims under both the Teacher Tenure Act and the Continuing Contract Law. Ms. Dallas thereafter appealed.

         Issues Presented

         Each party raises a number of lengthy issues. In the interest of brevity, we summarize the issues as follows:

1. Whether the trial court correctly granted summary judgment as to Ms. Dallas's claim under the Teacher Tenure Act by concluding that Ms. Dallas was not a tenured teacher at the time of her dismissal.
2. In the alternative, whether the trial court erred in concluding that Ms. Dallas cannot prevail on her claim under Continuing Contract Law with regard to the notice of nonrenewal sent to Ms. Dallas at the conclusion of the 2014-2015 school year.

         Standard of Review

         This case was decided on a motion for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate where: (1) there is no genuine issue with regard to the material facts relevant to the claim or defense contained in the motion; and (2) the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on the undisputed facts. Tenn. R. Civ. P. 56.04. In cases where the moving party does not bear the burden of proof at trial, the movant may obtain summary judgment if it: (1) affirmatively negates an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim; or (2) demonstrates that the nonmoving party's evidence at the summary judgment stage is insufficient to establish an essential element of the nonmoving party's claim. Rye v. Women's Care Ctr. of Memphis, MPLLC, 477 S.W.3d 235, 264 (Tenn. 2015), cert. denied, 136 S.Ct. 2452, 195 L.Ed.2d 265 (Tenn. 2016).

         On appeal, this Court reviews a trial court's grant of summary judgment de novo with no presumption of correctness. Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 250 (citing Bain v. Wells, 936 S.W.2d 618, 622 (Tenn. 1997)). In reviewing the trial court's decision, we must view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and resolve all factual inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Luther v. Compton, 5 S.W.3d 635, 639 (Tenn. 1999); Muhlheim v. Knox Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 2 S.W.3d 927, 929 (Tenn. 1999). If the undisputed facts support only one conclusion, then the court's summary judgment will be upheld because the moving party was entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See White v. Lawrence, 975 S.W.2d 525, 529 (Tenn. 1998); McCall v. Wilder, 913 S.W.2d 150, 153 (Tenn. 1995). When a moving party has filed a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must respond by pointing to specific evidence that shows summary judgment is inappropriate. Rye, 477 S.W.3d at 264-65.

         To the extent that this case requires that we construe statutes, our review is also de novo. Freeman v. Marco Transp. Co., 27 S.W.3d 909, 911-12 (Tenn. 2000) ("Issues of statutory construction are questions of law and shall be reviewed de novo without a presumption of correctness."). In construing statutes, we keep the following guidance in mind:

Our resolution of this issue is guided by the familiar rules of statutory construction. Our role is to determine legislative intent and to effectuate legislative purpose. The text of the statute is of primary importance, and the words must be given their natural and ordinary meaning in the context in which they appear and in light of the statute's general purpose. When the language of the statute is clear and unambiguous, courts look no farther to ascertain its meaning. When necessary to resolve a statutory ambiguity or conflict, courts may consider matters beyond the statutory text, including public policy, historical facts relevant to the enactment of the statute, the background and purpose of the statute, and the entire statutory scheme. However, these non-codified external sources "cannot provide a basis for departing from clear codified statutory provisions."

Mills v. Fulmarque, Inc., 360 S.W.3d 362, 368 (Tenn. 2012) (citations omitted).

         Discussion

         I.

         Ms. Dallas's primary claim in this case is that she could not be terminated without compliance with the notice and hearing provisions of the Teacher Tenure Act. See Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-511(a) (stating that no teacher may be dismissed except on the basis of "incompetence, inefficiency, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct, and insubordination"); Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-5-512(a) (stating that tenured teachers who are provided with notice of charges are entitled to demand a full hearing). Of course, in order to prevail on her Teacher Tenure Act claim, Ms. Dallas must show that she was, in fact, a tenured teacher at the time of her dismissal. Here, there is no dispute that Ms. Dallas left the Shelby County Schools in 2007 as a tenured teacher. As such, she asserts that she was entitled to, and completed, a shortened probationary period by the time of the end of the 2013-2014 school year. When she was reemployed the following school year, Ms. Dallas contends that she was effectively tenured.

         The Board of Education disagrees, arguing that Ms. Dallas was neither entitled to nor did she complete any shortened probationary period by the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Moreover, the Board of Education insists that regardless of the passage of time, Ms. Dallas could not attain tenure without the recommendation of the director of schools and the election of the Board of Education, neither of which has been shown in this case.

         The Teacher Tenure Act contained the following qualifications necessary to attain tenure at the time Ms. Dallas asserts that she acquired that status:

Any teacher who meets all of the following requirements is eligible for "tenure":
(1) Has a degree from an approved four-year college or any career and technical teacher who has the equivalent amount of training established and licensed by the state board of education;
(2) Holds a valid teacher license, issued by the state board of education, based on training covering the subjects or grades taught;
(3) Has completed a probationary period of five (5) school years or not less than forty-five (45) months within the last seven-year period, the last two (2) years being employed in a regular teaching ...

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