Tennessee Supreme Court Holds Teacher Who Quit Cannot Claim Wrongful Discharge Under Tenure Act

January 7, 2021

The Tennessee Supreme Court today dismissed the wrongful termination lawsuit of a Williamson County tenured teacher.  The Court held that the teacher cannot claim wrongful discharge under Tennessee’s Teacher Tenure Act because she quit her job.  The Court also dismissed the teacher’s claim of infliction of emotional distress, holding that the conduct of school administrators was not egregious enough to support a legal claim.

Plaintiff Melanie Lemon was a second-grade teacher at Walnut Grove Elementary School in Williamson County.  Ms. Lemon claimed that, even though she was a well-respected tenured teacher, school officials embarked on a campaign of harassment intended to coerce her into resigning.  She said the harassment included false accusations, unusually low performance evaluations, investigation for alleged child abuse, a three-day suspension, and the placement of cameras and a retired teacher in her classroom to monitor her performance.  Ms. Lemon felt none of these actions were warranted and believed she had no choice but to resign from her teaching position.  She resigned in May 2017.

Ms. Lemon filed a lawsuit against Williamson County Schools claiming wrongful discharge under the Teacher Tenure Act, a Tennessee law that provides special job protections and procedures for tenured teachers.  Ms. Lemon acknowledged she resigned, but argued her resignation should be treated as a “constructive discharge.”

Constructive discharge is a legal doctrine created by courts to prevent employers from getting around certain laws, such as those prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race or sex.  Some employers may try to skirt claims of a discriminatory discharge by allowing work conditions so intolerable that a reasonable person would resign.  If that occurs, even though the employee said, ‘I quit,’ the law recognizes that the employment relationship was actually severed involuntarily by the employer's acts and against the employee's will.  To support the aims of the discrimination laws, an employer-coerced resignation is the practical and legal equivalent of dismissal.

In this case, Ms. Lemon claimed she was forced to resign because she could no longer endure the school officials’ harassment, and she relied on the doctrine of constructive discharge to maintain a claim of wrongful termination under the Teacher Tenure Act.  The trial court held that Ms. Lemon could not use constructive discharge to sue for wrongful termination under the Teacher Tenure Act.  Ms. Lemon then appealed to the Court of Appeals, which reversed the trial court and held that Ms. Lemon could assert such a claim.  The Tennessee Supreme Court then granted Williamson County Schools permission to appeal.

On appeal, the Court explained that the doctrine of constructive discharge is important to achieve the purposes of the discrimination statutes; it facilitates rather than frustrates the aims of those statutes.  The same cannot be said of the Teacher Tenure Act.  The Teacher Tenure Act adopted multi-layered procedures and protections for tenured teachers, far beyond any protections given to regular employees.  These procedures are carefully calibrated to give school administrators leeway to evaluate, investigate, and discipline tenured teachers when needed, all with transparency to give the teacher written reasons for the actions and create a record if the teacher is eventually fired.  Likewise, there are procedures for tenured teachers to follow if they disagree with school administrators’ disciplinary actions.  A teacher who quits and then sues on the basis of constructive discharge, the Court said, leapfrogs over those detailed procedures and frustrates a major aim of the Teacher Tenure Act.

The Court agreed with the trial court that, when she resigned, Ms. Lemon’s status as a tenured teacher ended, and she was no longer entitled to the protections provided by the Tenure Act for tenured teachers who have been improperly dismissed.  It affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of her wrongful termination claim.

The Court also affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of Ms. Lemon’s claims for infliction of emotional distress.  Those claims, the Court explained, can be asserted only if the defendant’s conduct was so extreme and outrageous that it cannot be tolerated by civilized society.  It would be not be feasible “for the law to intervene in every case where some one's feelings are hurt,” the Court said.  It agreed with the trial court that the harassment Ms. Lemon alleged fell in the category of insults, indignities, or petty oppression, and did not rise to the level of the extreme, outrageous, intolerable conduct required for a legal claim of infliction of emotional distress.

To read the unanimous opinion in Melanie Lemon v. Williamson County Schools et al., authored by Justice Holly Kirby, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov.