Class volunteers get sued by a fellow parent. Why CMS says the district can’t help.

Class volunteers get sued by a fellow parent. Why CMS says the district can’t help.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools volunteers must clear an annual background check and sign in with their driver’s license each time they report to a school. (Credit: Ann Doss Helms | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Leesa Clardy was about to go to her children's elementary school in February when her mail carrier delivered a COD package.

She paid the carrier $3.50, opened the package – and learned a fellow Eastover Elementary parent was suing Clardy in her role as a classroom volunteer.

"I was just blindsided," Clardy recalls.

And there was another shock to come: Even though Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools taps more than 37,000 volunteers a year for everything from reading buddies to chaperones for out-of-state field trips, there's no policy on the books to provide a legal defense when they're sued. General Counsel George Battle III says that means he can't represent them without action from the school board.

"As sympathetic as I am to their plight, there's no authority," Battle said..

Clardy is one of two parents being sued by Tigress McDaniel, who is acting as her own lawyer in a complaint that also names CMS, the school board and employees at two elementary schools. In suits filed in state and federal court, McDaniel contends that her 8-year-old son has suffered damages because schools mishandled his food allergies and medical problems.

Clardy and her husband, Jim, weren't the only ones shocked that parents were sued. Battle and Allison Schafer, policy director and legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association, say that in decades of legal practice they had never encountered a lawsuit against school volunteers.

CMS, which has more than 19,000 employees and a student population of about 150,000, gets sued several times a year. But those suits have always named the district, board members and/or employees. Schafer and Battle say attorneys tend to seek damages from school districts with big budgets and liability coverage, rather than individuals.

Because of all that, Battle says, CMS has not created a policy providing for legal defense of volunteers. School board policy does provide for defense of employees and school board members sued in the line of business.

School board member Margaret Marshall, elected in November to represent the district that includes Eastover, said the board has not yet taken any action regarding defense of volunteers but could do so.

Battle and other CMS leaders say they're thinking about asking state lawmakers to pass a law giving volunteers immunity from lawsuits when they're doing public school business. It's unclear how many other districts could find themselves in a similar fix. Battle says he has yet to find another North Carolina district with a policy providing legal protection for volunteers.

CMS, which requires volunteers to register and clear annual background checks, has just over 37,400 volunteers registered this year.

"CMS should cover the volunteers," said Jim Clardy. "Without volunteers, the schools would grind to a halt."

A history of suing

As for the suit that has forced the question, "it's bizarre in a lot of respects," Battle says. "That's the most diplomatic way to say it."

McDaniel has filed more than 50 lawsuits in Mecklenburg, Guilford and other North Carolina counties, against public bodies, lawyers, landlords and others she has done business with. Court records show she has been the subject of a "gatekeeper order" – a restriction that requires court approval to file lawsuits in order to prevent abuse of the process – which has been registered in numerous counties.

In 2006 McDaniel was convicted of identity fraud and obtaining property under false pretenses based on incidents at two Concord stores.

She has run unsuccessfully for public office in Greensboro using the nickname "Queen Get 'Er Done." Now McDaniel is seeking office in Mecklenburg County. She's among seven Democrats running for the three at-large county commissioner seats in the May primary.

McDaniel did not return calls from the Observer seeking comment on the suit against CMS.

Her campaign page addresses the question that "they say you sue people all the time. What's up with that?" Her answer is that she completed one year of law school and is an entrepreneur who has filed suits against clients who owe her money.

"Also, keep in mind that when you are the good guy consistently and publicly stand up for the little guy lawyers generally don't want to represent you," the site says. "Racism, gender discrimination and judicial and attorney corruption affects me too."

The CMS complaint

According to the Jan. 24 suit in Mecklenburg County Superior Court, which seeks at least $175,000 in compensatory and punitive damages, McDaniel's son was assigned to Winterfield Elementary when he started kindergarten in 2015, but transferred to Idlewild Elementary for medical reasons.

The lawsuit says Idlewild administrators failed to handle her son's acid reflux, esophagitis and food allergies properly. She contacted police to report that the school was abusing her son, McDaniel's suit says, but police concluded there was insufficient evidence to file criminal charges.

Meanwhile McDaniel's son was moved to Orr Elementary, then transferred to Eastover for the last week of the 2016-17 school year. He returned in August 2017. The suit says her son came home with M&Ms in October and told McDaniel that Susan Holloway, the mother of one of her son's friends, gave them to him. The suit says McDaniel demanded an investigation and the school told her that a teacher had given her child the M&Ms.

Holloway, who was named in the initial complaint filed in January, wouldn't comment.

Clardy says her son was in the same class as McDaniel's son but she did not know the child. She says she encountered McDaniel in October when Clardy came to the class to get students to sign a card for a sick teacher. McDaniel asked Clardy's name, and Clardy says she thought no more about it until she received legal papers adding her to the lawsuit. That motion, filed Feb. 6, says only that Clardy was a classroom parent "at all times material hereto."

Leesa and Jim Clardy contacted Eastover's principal, two school board members and Battle.

In what the Clardys and Battle agree was a friendly but frustrating exchange, Battle informed them he couldn't represent Leesa Clardy or Holloway without a school board policy authorizing him to represent non-employees.

"If I were in Mr. and Mrs. Clardy's shoes, I'd be upset and disappointed too," Battle said. "It's a shame we have to spend tax dollars defending a frivolous suit. It's a shame folks who give of their time, who give of their ability, would have that in the back of their mind."

More legal tangles

CMS has filed a motion to dismiss the Superior Court lawsuit. Leesa Clardy, who decided not to hire a lawyer, filed her own motion asking that she be dismissed.

Shortly after the classroom party that led to the suit against Eastover faculty and volunteers, Holloway retained lawyer Lane Williamson. He emailed McDaniel telling her to direct any further communication through him and saying that he will "pursue sanctions against you for filing a frivolous lawsuit" if she pursues "false and defamatory allegations" against Holloway.

On March 15 McDaniel filed a similar complaint against CMS, the staff and the volunteers in federal court, adding Williamson as a defendant. She cites his email as "a deplorable act of legal abuse and attorney misconduct."

The federal complaint also alleges that both parent volunteers not only provided the candy to her son but "even persuaded Son to consume M&Ms against his own asserted concerns of milk being an ingredient."

On March 16 McDaniel filed a motion in federal court seeking to have Judge Robert Conrad Jr., who has ruled against her in other cases, recused from the CMS lawsuit. The motion says a clerk told her Conrad is assigned to her federal suit.

In the meantime, Leesa Clardy continues her work heading Eastover's volunteer tutoring and mentoring program. And she says she won't withdraw from her plan to accompany her daughter's fifth-grade class on a trip to Washington, D.C.

"Without volunteers," she says, "we couldn't take this trip."

Researcher Maria David and reporter Michael Gordon contributed.