Almost six years after a brief meeting that ended Jeffrey Leardini's teaching career, a jury ruled Friday that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools violated his rights by coercing his resignation and awarded him more than $1.1 million.
Leardini and his lawyers argued that Kay Cunningham, an employee relations specialist for CMS, misled and intimidated Leardini into resigning on the spot after five students at Community House Middle School accused him of improperly touching them. The resignation, which he tried to rescind within minutes of signing the form, made him look guilty, Leardini testified.
"After six years of having to wake up and deal with this, it was nice to have a jury of my peers appreciate what I've been through," Leardini said afterward. Even if he had lost, he said, it would have been worth it to have the community hear his side of the story.
After a four-day trial in federal court, the eight-person jury ruled that the CMS school board is responsible for the coerced resignation and ordered CMS to pay Leardini $1,121,560. The jury also found Cunningham, who no longer works for CMS, personally negligent and awarded Leardini $52,156 from her.
Jurors did not explain how they arrived at those figures.
Luke Largess, one of Leardini's lawyers, said the district is also responsible for Leardini's legal fees, which could add $150,000 to $200,000. Largess said the verdict will not result in an immediate payment to Leardini; he expects CMS to appeal and negotiations to ensue.
Mason Alexander, who represented CMS and Cunningham, deferred comment to CMS.
"Counsel for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has received the verdict in the Leardini case. They are reviewing the findings to determine next steps," said a statement sent by spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte.
Both Leardini and Largess said they hope the verdict makes CMS more sensitive to how it treats staff who are accused of wrongdoing.
"It's helpful for the school system to appreciate the personal pressure that people are under when they're accused," Largess said. "They should be supported and not just treated as the enemy."
Leardini spent eight years as a CMS teacher, most of it in elementary schools. He received glowing job reviews and had no complaints until he moved to sixth grade at the new Community House school in 2005-06. That fall, two girls told the principal that Leardini made them uncomfortable touching their shoulders.
Leardini testified that he squeezed shoulders, patted arms and touched students' heads as part of his effort to encourage and engage students. After the complaint, he said, he apologized and stopped touching those girls but did not change his teaching style.
He contends that the complaints that spring stemmed from ongoing tension with one of the girls, who transferred out of his class when she was getting low grades.
In April 2006, Leardini was summoned to the school office, where Cunningham told him five more students had made allegations that he improperly touched them. He contended Cunningham deceived him by saying an immediate resignation would avert an investigation and allow him to be paid through the end of the school year, while taking a paid suspension with an investigation would likely lead to his firing.
Lawyers for CMS and Cunningham disputed parts of Leardini's account and said Cunningham had given him valid information.
"What he did was he made a rational decision under the circumstances," Alexander said.
Leardini's resignation was reported as "resignation in lieu of dismissal," which meant he was not eligible to be rehired. However, employee relations director Janet Hamilton testified that because CMS never did a personnel investigation, she could not be certain Leardini would have been dismissed.
CMS did report the allegations, which included student complaints that Leardini had touched girls' thighs and popped their bra straps in class, to the Department of Social Services. Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigated and filed charges against Leardini; he was acquitted of all of them.
Largess told the jury that if CMS had not pressured Leardini into giving up his right to due process, he would have kept his job after being cleared. The case was about "someone being misled into giving up a promising career," he told them.
Leardini has not been able to get a teaching job since, and now works in Petco corporate offices in San Diego.
He said Friday that his defense attorney initially suggested he might have cause to sue CMS and suggested he talk to Largess. The suit was filed in 2009.
Leardini said he never thought about giving up and putting the episode behind him, even when he moved across the country: "My good name is worth it, even if it takes five years to get there."
He said there's one big lesson he'd like CMS to take from this battle: "Put a camera in every classroom." A camera, he said, would have quickly disproven the student allegations.