TEA’s legal team helped a tenured Cheatham County teacher with almost 30 years of experience win back three years of compensation and retirement eligibility after she was dismissed from her position at the end of the 2013-14 school year.
Carlisa Elmi dedicated 19 years of her teaching career to Cheatham Co. Schools when she was dismissed on charges of insubordination and inefficiency. A veteran TEA member, Elmi turned to her association for help, and it filed a lawsuit on Elmi’s behalf in the Cheatham County Chancery Court. When that court ruled against Elmi, TEA appealed to the Tennessee Court of Appeals — and prevailed. Elmi won her appeal at the end of last year.
“Even though I had tenure, I was fired,” Elmi said. “No one is immune to being dismissed from their position, which is why I’m grateful for my TEA membership. I had thousands of dollars of legal representation and I didn’t have to pay anything. TEA-NEA covered it all. They stayed with me through the end, supported me and let me know I was being mistreated. The amount of dues I paid would not have come close to the cost of legal representation I had. I am really grateful.”
Elmi had been charged with insubordination based on allegations that she was tardy, failed to enter grades on time, and that she did not follow the principal’s instructions for how to deal with the guardian of an unruly student. The Court of Appeals found that the facts did not support these charges. In addition, the Court of Appeals expressed concerns about whether the conduct in question, if true, even fell within the definition of insubordination, and whether Elmi actually was subjected to requirements that were unreasonable and discriminatory.
“We were debt-free, but when I was fired we had to go into debt,” Elmi said. “Thanks to TEA, the court awarded me three years of back pay. I’ve always been a member of TEA, so my husband and I determined no matter which way it went, I would stay with TEA because they stuck by me.”
Elmi also had been charged with inefficiency based on two years of her evaluation results. However, the only component of her evaluations “below expectations” was the observation component – the component controlled by the principal who wanted her dismissed – and the complete evaluation results for the second year were not yet available when Elmi was charged (TVAAS results were not yet in).
The Court of Appeals found that the reliance on observations only and the incomplete evaluation results for the second year fell short of the proof needed for a dismissal on grounds of “inefficiency.”
“The Court of Appeals conducted an extensive analysis of the facts and the law to be applied to those facts,” said TEA Legal Manager Steve McCloud. “Some of the lengthy discussion by the Court of Appeals is unique to the facts of the case, but a part of it is significant to teachers generally. There are several important takeaways for all tenured teachers.”
From the decision by the Court of Appeals in Elmi’s case, it’s important to point out that charges against a tenured teacher must be specific, and offenses not specifically stated in the charges cannot serve as a basis for dismissal. Also, a teacher’s refusal or continued failure to obey the rules of the principal is “insubordination” only if the rules themselves are reasonable and not discriminatory. The decision also points out that establishing “inefficiency” based on evaluation results requires consideration of entire evaluations, not just “observations” or other isolated components of those evaluations.
“The decision of the Court of Appeals not only was vindication for Carlisa Elmi, it was an important result for tenured teachers in general,” McCloud said. “We encourage all teachers to keep detailed records anytime their performance is called into question, and to contact their UniServ representative when any adverse action is taken.”