An appeals panel has denied a motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against Hartland Consolidated Schools more than seven year ago by a former administrator.

Tracey Sahouri sued the district in 2012, alleging it violated the Whistleblower Protection Act when it removed her as principal from Creekside Elementary School. Sahouri claims her removal as principal and re-assignment to a teaching position was in retaliation for reporting “irregularities” in how the district administered state-mandated student achievement tests. The district contends Sahouri’s re-assignment was based on the conclusions of a state report that determined teachers at Creekside improperly gained access to material from the tests. Discussions over a possible settlement in the case have repeatedly failed and a trial that had been scheduled in Genesee County Circuit Court for September was again adjourned after the school district asked the Michigan Court of Appeals to rule on their motion to dismiss the lawsuit and impose sanctions on Sahouri for her “failure to timely provide discovery of audio recordings” and her “destruction of text messages.”

The recordings in question involve conversations Sahouri reportedly recorded on her cell phone, but only came to light in 2017. The Michigan Court of Appeals heard oral arguments last month and in a decision released last week determined that while withholding the existence of the audio recordings by Sahouri and her attorney, Tom Pabst, was not proper, it did not merit dismissing the case. The judges then remanded the case back to circuit court for a determination of what sanctions, if any, should be levied against the plaintiffs. As to the text messages, the court agreed with Sahouri that their deletion was not intentional and came about “as a result of the routine, good-faith operation of an electronic information system.” They also denied a request by the district for a forensic audit of Sahouri’s recording devices, saying they were “essentially requesting a fishing expedition.” They also noted such a request would again delay the trial, and that, “the trial court reached a reasonable outcome in deciding that further postponement was not warranted.”

Following the opinion, Pabst told WHMI that he is looking forward to trying the case to jury verdict, which he believes “will well exceed $500,000.” Pabst say that one of the “big stories being missed here” is how much the district has had to pay its defense attorneys, which he estimates to be in excess of $750,000. “Why would a school district pay $750,000+ to defend a case it could have settled for $500,000? Don't the taxpayers deserve an explanation?”

When asked for comment, Hartland Superintendent Chuck Hughes said the appeals court found Sahouri “committed egregious misconduct by hiding key evidence in this case for more than five years” and “instructed the trial court to consider sanctioning Ms. Sahouri for her conduct. Possible sanctions include dismissing the case. The District does not financially reward bad behavior. We will continue to act in the District’s and taxpayers’ best interests as this matter proceeds.”

No new court dates have been set. (JK)