The long-running case of former East Valley High School gym teacher Michele Taylor concluded recently when the school district agreed to pay $390,000 in legal fees.
The latest development, approved two weeks ago by the East Valley school board, closes the chapter on a five-year ordeal that both sides say took a toll. The settlement covers Taylor’s legal costs in the district’s civil case to fire her for alleged sexual misconduct with students.
According to a letter sent to Taylor’s attorney Jan. 14, a settlement offer between the two parties was to be approved by the school board two days later at a special board meeting. The monetary agreement, as written, covers “all costs and fees and complete resolution of the case.”
Under a state fee-shifting statute, if a defendant prevails in a statutory hearing, legal costs are transferred from the defendant to the plaintiff. In Taylor’s case, her legal costs were shifted to the school district.
In the fall, East Valley officials and Taylor’s attorney through the Washington Education Association, Joseph Evans, agreed to withdraw the case from Yakima County Superior Court and take it to a hearings officer. Evans filed a request with a hearings officer in December asking for $432,000 in legal fees. East Valley Superintendent John Schieche said the district submitted smaller counter-offers before agreeing on $390,000.
Evans, who for almost five years represented the defendant in her civil case, said, “Both Michele Taylor and I are both pleased that it is over. I am glad that she can move on with her life.”
The case against Taylor started in 2009, when she was prosecuted for alleged sexual misconduct with two male high school students, then ages 15 and 16. A jury acquitted her of criminal charges in 2010, but East Valley and the state superintendent’s office accused Taylor of misconduct based on the same allegations.
In the civil case, district officials tried to block her from returning to duty by firing her, while state officials initially attempted to revoke her teaching certificate. However, neither was successful.
A hearing in fall 2010 ruled that East Valley did not have probable cause to terminate. As a result, the school district appealed the case to Yakima County Superior Court and the Division III Court of Appeals in Spokane.
The Spokane court ruled last March that it did not have jurisdiction and that the Legislature never granted it the power to issue a constitutional writ of review as requested by the school district. The appeals court sent the case back to Yakima County Superior Court. Settlement talks began after that decision.
The state superintendent’s office, meanwhile, tried to revoke her license, but Taylor appealed the decision. In 2012, the agency downgraded the revocation to a one-year suspension. According to a state database on educator disciplinary cases, her license was reinstated last August.
Taylor, who Evans said still lives in Yakima, was on paid leave from June 2009 through August 2012. In that time, she was paid $120,000 in salary and benefits. She refunded $7,756 after a settlement with the district over the licensing issue.
She did not ask for her job back when her license was reinstated, Evans said. He also said he does not know whether she looked for other teaching positions after the reinstatement of her license.
Within the East Valley School District, the end is bittersweet. While Schieche, the East Valley superintendent, said he was glad the case was closed and that Taylor’s license was briefly suspended, the battle was costly in many ways. Families, district staff and others endured a lengthy and hard process that pushed the half-decade mark, he said.
Preparing for a “worst-case scenario,” Schieche said the district earmarked some of its general fund in the event it lost the case.
“I’m glad it’s over, but I don’t feel good about the amount of money that was involved in the case,” he said, further adding that day-to-day operations would not be affected by the settlement.
• Rafael Guerrero can be reached at 509-759-7853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.