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Johnson v. Lincoln Christian College

OPINION FILED DECEMBER 16, 1986.

GREGORY JOHNSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

LINCOLN CHRISTIAN COLLEGE ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Logan County; the Hon. Robert L. Thornton, Judge, presiding.

PRESIDING JUSTICE SPITZ DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Gregory Johnson filed suit against Lincoln Christian College (LCC) and Kent Paris, and both defendants filed motions to dismiss his complaint. These motions were allowed. Johnson appeals from the dismissal of his complaint.

• 1 When considering a motion to dismiss, a court is obligated to accept as true all well-pleaded facts and all reasonable inferences which could be drawn from those facts. (Horwath v. Parker (1979), 72 Ill. App.3d 128, 134, 390 N.E.2d 72, 77.) Pursuant to section 2-612(b) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 110, par. 2-612(b)), "[n]o pleading is bad in substance which contains such information as reasonably informs the opposite party of the nature of the claim or defense which he or she is called upon to meet." Pursuant to section 2-603(c) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 110, par. 2-603(c)), "[p]leadings shall be liberally construed with a view to doing substantial justice between the parties." Furthermore, as this court stated in Champaign National Bank v. Illinois Power Co. (1984), 125 Ill. App.3d 424, 428-29, 465 N.E.2d 1016, 1019, "[i]f the facts alleged and any reasonable inferences capable of being drawn from those facts demonstrate a possibility of recovery, the pleading is not subject to dismissal." Consequently, our focus on review is whether any of the counts of Johnson's complaint "demonstrate a possibility of recovery," and, for the purpose of this appeal, we deem the following well-pleaded facts to be correct.

Johnson was a student at Lincoln Christian College from September 1976 to March 1981. He was enrolled in a five-year program to prepare him for a career teaching sacred music. Johnson has completed all of his course requirements and fully paid his tuition for each year; however, LCC has repeatedly refused to grant Johnson his diploma. LCC based its denial on a charge that Johnson might be homosexual.

The charge of homosexuality arose when, during Johnson's last semester at LCC, another student, Linda Heppner, told LCC's dean of students, Thomas Ewald, that Johnson might be homosexual. Solely in response to that student's accusation and without further investigation, LCC through Heppner, told Johnson that he would graduate only if he sought counseling from Kent Paris. Relying upon LCC's assurances that he would graduate if he sought counseling, and afraid that he would not graduate unless he complied with LCC's demand, Johnson repeatedly traveled between Lincoln and Champaign, where Paris' office was located, and attended private counseling sessions.

Throughout these counseling sessions, Johnson believed that anything he said, and any of Paris' resulting conclusions, would be held in confidence. Because he believed that the conversations were confidential, Johnson was willing to, and did, reveal many personal facts, some of which he had never told anyone else. He would not have given that information to Paris if he had suspected that Paris would discuss the information or his resulting conclusions with anyone else. Johnson never consented to the disclosure of any information about these counseling sessions, and Paris never in any way contradicted Johnson's faith in the confidentiality of their discussions; however, Paris reported to Ewald in March of 1981 that plaintiff had not changed and was not progressing.

As a result of that conversation, Ewald informed plaintiff that LCC would hold a hearing in less than 24 hours at which Johnson would be required to defend himself against the rumor that he was homosexual. Ewald told Johnson that he would be dismissed from LCC because of his alleged homosexuality and that the reason for his dismissal would be stamped across his transcript. From that meeting, Johnson understood that he would be dismissed regardless of what happened at the hearing. Afraid that the accusation of homosexuality being imprinted on his transcript would destroy his career goal, Johnson withdrew from LCC. LCC held the threatened hearing in Johnson's absence. In addition, Ewald called Johnson's mother and told her that LCC was dismissing Johnson because he was homosexual. To this day, LCC refuses to grant plaintiff a diploma.

On November 29, 1984, Johnson filed a seven-count complaint against LCC and Paris in the circuit court of Champaign County. LCC filed a motion to transfer venue from Champaign County to Logan County, and Paris filed an affidavit in support of LCC's motion to transfer venue. On February 7, 1985, LCC's motion was allowed, and on May 7, 1985, an order to transfer venue to Logan County was filed in the circuit court of Champaign County.

Johnson's suit against Paris and LCC is based on several theories. With respect to LCC, plaintiff alleges: (1) LCC breached its college-student contract with plaintiff by arbitrarily and in bad faith denying him his diploma (count I); (2) LCC tortiously interfered with plaintiff's contract with Paris (count II); (3) LCC misused the confidential information that Paris divulged thereby violating the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 91 1/2, par. 801 et seq.) (count III); and (4) LCC invaded plaintiff's privacy by publicly accusing him of homosexuality (count IV). With respect to Paris, plaintiff alleges: (1) Paris breached a contract with Johnson and violated the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 91 1/2, par. 801 et seq.) by disclosing information about his counseling sessions with plaintiff (count V); (2) Paris' disclosure of the confidential information tortiously interfered with plaintiff's college-student contract with LCC (count VI); and (3) Paris invaded plaintiff's privacy by disclosing confidential information (count VII).

Defendants filed seven separate motions to dismiss Johnson's complaint. Johnson filed a consolidated memorandum in opposition to defendants' motions to dismiss his complaint. On August 20, 1985, a hearing was conducted regarding the various motions to dismiss. On April 9, 1986 (nearly 8 months after the hearing), the circuit court issued a one-sentence ruling, stating that "[a]ll motions of the co-defendants heretofore heard in open Court and considered by the Court are allowed."

In count I of his complaint, Johnson alleged that (1) the terms of a college-student contract are implied by law; (2) the law implies in every college-student contract a duty that the college not arbitrarily, capriciously, or in bad faith prevent a student from graduating; (3) he fulfilled all of LCC's academic requirements and fully paid his tuition to LCC; and (4) by refusing to issue him a diploma, LCC breached its implied contract with Johnson and has acted arbitrarily, capriciously, and in bad faith by refusing to do so. Johnson also alleged that LCC told him he would be allowed to graduate if he sought professional help from Paris.

• 2 LCC argues that dismissal of count I was proper because count I failed to allege the terms of the contract between Johnson and LCC. LCC cites Steinberg v. Chicago Medical School (1977), 69 Ill.2d 320, 371 N.E.2d 634, DeMarco v. University of Health Sciences/The Chicago Medical School (1976), 40 Ill. App.3d 474, 352 N.E.2d 356, Abrams v. Illinois College of Podiatric Medicine (1979), 77 Ill. App.3d 471, 395 N.E.2d 1061, and Wilson v. Illinois Benedictine College (1983), 112 Ill. App.3d 932, 937, 445 N.E.2d 901, 906, all cases which involve contracts between a school and a student, and notes that in each of these cases, the student presented catalogues, bulletins, or other such material distributed by the school to establish the elements of the contract between the student and the school. Based on these cases, LCC argues that Johnson is obligated to provide some type of document to establish the elements of the contract between him and LCC. LCC's argument based on these cases is without merit. These cases simply stand for the proposition that documents distributed by a school are a part of the contract between the student and the school. It does not necessarily follow, nor do any of the cases cited by LCC require, that a student must present such documents to establish the terms of an implied contract between the school and the student.

LCC also cites McErlean v. Union National Bank (1980), 90 Ill. App.3d 1141, 414 N.E.2d 128, for the proposition that the allegations contained in count I of Johnson's complaint are "conclusory statements [which] are insufficient to adequately plead breach of contract absent supporting facts concerning the material terms of the contract." McErlean is a commercial case involving a partially oral and partially written contract to loan money in the future. There, the court stated that "[n]o allegations are expressly pleaded, nor can any be implied, in the instant complaint as to the material terms [of the contract] * * * particularly, interest, duration and terms of repayment. In light of these significant omissions, we find no error in the dismissal of the amended complaint * * *." 90 Ill. App.3d 1141, 1147, 414 N.E.2d 128, 133.

We believe that there is a valid distinction between a "commercial case" and a case involving an implied contract between a college and a student. In a commercial case such as McErlean, the material terms of an alleged contract are generally complex and unique to a particular set of circumstances and cannot be implied. On the other hand, the traditional implied contract between a college and a student is much more standard and less complex than that which usually exists in a commercial setting.

The elements of a traditional contract are present in the implied contract between a college and a student attending that college and are readily discernible. The student's tender of an application constitutes an offer to apply to the college. By "accepting" an applicant to be a student at the college, the college accepts the applicant's offer. Thereafter, the student pays tuition (which obviously constitutes sufficient consideration), attends classes, completes course work, and takes tests. The school provides the student with facilities and instruction, and upon satisfactory completion of the school's academic requirements (which constitutes performance), the school becomes obligated to issue the student a diploma. As this court stated in Tanner v. Board of Trustees of University of Illinois (1977), 48 Ill. App.3d 680, 682-83, 363 N.E.2d 208, 209-10, a college "may not act maliciously or in bad faith by arbitrarily and capriciously refusing to award a degree to a student who fulfills its degree requirements."

• 3 LCC is well aware of what its own academic requirements are, and we fail to see how LCC can be surprised or prejudiced by the fact that Johnson does not allege these requirements with more specificity. Johnson alleged that he has met all of the academic requirements imposed by LCC in order to obtain a diploma, and if this allegation is not true, LCC should be easily able to present evidence to disprove Johnson's allegation in this regard. LCC was reasonably informed of the nature of the claim which it was called upon to meet, and pursuant to section 2-612(b) of the Code of Civil Procedure (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 110, par. 2-612(b)), this count could not properly be dismissed. Consequently, we conclude that count I of Johnson's complaint states a valid cause of action for breach of an implied contract between Johnson and LCC, and the trial court erred in dismissing count I of the complaint.

In count V of his complaint, Johnson alleged that Paris violated sections 2, 3, and 5 of the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Confidentiality Act (Confidentiality Act) (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 91 1/2, pars. 802, 803, 805) and also breached an implied-by-law contract by divulging confidential information disclosed to him by Johnson during private counseling sessions to LCC without Johnson's consent.

Section 3(a) of the Confidentiality Act provides that "[a]ll records and communications shall be confidential and shall not be disclosed except as provided in this Act." (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 91 1/2, par. 803(a).) Section 5 of the Confidentiality Act provides that if a "recipient * * * is 18 years or older," records and "communications" may only be disclosed with his written consent. (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1985, ch. 91 1/2, pars. 805(a)(3), (b).) The following definitions, which are contained in section 2 of the Confidentiality Act, are also pertinent to our analysis of count V of Johnson's complaint:

"(1) `Confidential communication' or `communication' means any communication made by a recipient or other person to a therapist or to or in the presence of other persons during or in connection with providing mental health or developmental disability services to a recipient.

(3) `Mental health or developmental disabilities services' or `services' includes but is not limited to examination, diagnosis, evaluation, treatment, training, ...


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