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In the latest twist in the power struggle at the San Diego Education Association, the union’s former executive director, Craig Leedham, is suing his former employers for wrongful dismissal and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Leedham, along with former SDEA President Camille Zombro, is widely credited with pushing the teachers union towards a more hard-line, isolationist philosophy. Both Leedham and Zombro were recently removed from power, revealing a rift over the future direction of the union in the midst of a financial crisis at the San Diego Unified School District.

Leedham was abruptly placed on administrative leave in March and Zombro was voted out of office two weeks later.

He claims in his lawsuit that his employment was suddenly suspended on March 5, when union President Bill Freeman claimed Leedham had “physically threatened staff members,” the lawsuit states.

Leedham’s attorney, Josh Gruenberg, said the union’s actions directly violate Leedham’s employment contract.

Gruenberg said Leedham was employed to be a tough advocate for the members of his union. That involved an aggressive style, and doubtless involved Leedham cussing and fiercely making his point known, he said.

“I don’t have to show that what the union did was illegal. Instead, they have to prove he was dismissed for just cause under a very, very high standard,” Gruenberg said. “Shouting and cussing is not going to meet that standard.”

“The office had a longstanding common practice of using profanity long before he got there,” he added.

Leedham’s lawsuit states that he received an excellent evaluation in 2011, and had never been written up for poor performance.

It says he has suffered significantly since losing his job. He continues to suffer emotional distress, humiliation, loss of reputation and mental and physical pain and anguish, the lawsuit states.

Gruenberg said that’s taken a toll on his client. Leedham has so far had no luck getting employment elsewhere, Gruenberg said. Guenberg also said the union’s attorneys have stalled his attempts to settle the matter out of court.

Last week, Zombro issued an open letter criticizing Freeman’s leadership and outlining a schism within the union. Zombro claimed Freeman had purged her and Leedham from the union.

You can catch up with our coverage of the union with this reader’s guide.

A call to Freeman for comment was not returned Monday.

Will Carless is an investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego currently focused on local education. You can reach him at will.carless@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5670.

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Will Carless

Will Carless was formerly the head of investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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