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10/19/94 ELISABETH ANDERSON v. RONALD VANDEN DORPEL

October 19, 1994

ELISABETH ANDERSON, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
RONALD VANDEN DORPEL AND NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. Honorable Joseph M. Casciato, Judge Presiding.

Rehearing Denied January 17, 1995. As Modified On Denial of Rehearing January 18, 1995.

Justice Cerda delivered the opinion of the court: Greiman, P.j., and Rizzi, J., Concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cerda

JUSTICE CERDA delivered the opinion of the court:

Plaintiff, Elisabeth Anderson, brought this action seeking damages from defendants, Ronald Vanden Dorpel and Northwestern University, for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and defamation. The trial court granted defendants' section 2-615 (Ill. Rev. Stat. 1991, ch. 110, par. 2-615 (now 735 ILCS 5/2-615 (West 1992))) motion to dismiss count 1, intentional interference with prospective economic advantage, and issued a Supreme Court Rule 304(a) finding of no just reason to delay enforcement or appeal. (134 Ill. 2d R. 304(a).) Subsequently, the trial court granted defendants' section 2-615 motion to dismiss plaintiff's defamation claim. These cases have been consolidated.

On appeal, plaintiff asserts that (1) the trial court erred in allowing an immediate appeal of count 1 pursuant to S. Ct. R. 304(a); (2) she properly pleaded an interference with prospective economic advantage claim; and (3) the trial court erred in dismissing her claim for defamation on the basis of the innocent construction rule.

The main issue in the claim for interference with prospective economic advantage is whether plaintiff pleaded a reasonable expectation of employment.

The recitation of the facts is based on the allegations in plaintiff's complaint and amended complaint, which must be taken as true in a motion to dismiss. Plaintiff was employed for nine years as Northwestern University's Director of Corporate Relations. All her job performance reviews were exemplary. During the 1988-1989 academic school year, plaintiff raised $18.2 million for Northwestern, which was the largest amount the university had ever received from corporations.

In November 1989, plaintiff applied for a position in the fundraising department of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). According to plaintiff, she had not been job-hunting when the YMCA contacted her about the position, which would have increased her pay by about $17,000 per year. Plaintiff was recommended for the position by Robert Nottleman, who was a member of the YMCA Board of Trustees.

On November 20, 1989, and December 6, 1989, plaintiff interviewed with various YMCA board members. Follow-up interviews were scheduled with those board members who were absent. Plaintiff was told that all the initial interviews with the board members went well, and as of December 6, 1989, she was the leading candidate. After plaintiff interviewed with Steven Crown, the Director of the YMCA, on December 6, 1989, she was again assured that the interview went well. Later, she was told that she was recommended or would be recommended for hiring after she completed follow-up interviews with the directors who had been previously unable to meet with her.

On either December 6, 1989, or December 7, 1989, Crown spoke with defendant, Vanden Dorpel, who was plaintiff's supervisor at Northwestern. During that conversation, Vanden Dorpel told Crown that plaintiff "did not follow-up on assignments" and "could not get along with her co-workers." Plaintiff alleged that those remarks were untrue and Vanden Dorpel was aware of their falsity at the time he made them. He was also aware that his remarks violated Northwestern's policy regarding dissemination of information about employees.

The Northwestern University's Staff Handbook (handbook) stated that an employee's personnel file is a confidential record. Both plaintiff and defendant were aware of and bound by the handbook. The handbook provided that Northwestern would verify only an employee's dates of employment, job title, and salary, and only with the employee's written authorization, which was not given by plaintiff. The handbook further stated that no other information concerning an employee would be released and no employment information would be verified by telephone.

On December 7, 1989, the YMCA cancelled the interviews scheduled for December 8, 1989, and December 11, 1989, and did not hire plaintiff for the position.

Less than one month later, Vanden Dorpel asked plaintiff to leave Northwestern. In December 1990, after she had left the university, plaintiff filed a lawsuit claiming that she was not hired by the YMCA because of Vanden Dorpel's comments to Crown during the interview process.

On January 24, 1992, the trial court dismissed count 1 of the amended complaint with prejudice for failure to state a claim for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and issued a R. 304(a) finding. Subsequently, the trial court dismissed the defamation claim on the basis that the statements were not defamatory per se pursuant to the innocent construction rule.

Plaintiff's first assertion is that the trial court's dismissal of count 1 is not final and appealable pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 304(a). That issue is now moot. Since the first appeal was filed, the trial court dismissed the entire case. Thus, we are now considering the appeal in its entirety.

Next, plaintiff asserts that the trial court erred in dismissing her claims for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and defamation. A section 2-615 motion to dismiss attacks only the legal sufficiency of a complaint. ( Urbaitis v. Commonwealth Edison (1991), 143 Ill. 2d 458, 475, 575 N.E.2d 548, 159 Ill. Dec. 50.) In ruling on a section 2-615 motion, all well pleaded facts and all reasonable inferences are accepted as true. ( Fellhauer v. City of Geneva (1991), 142 Ill. 2d 495, 499, 568 N.E.2d 870, 154 Ill. Dec. 649.) A complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it clearly appears that no set of facts could be proved under the pleadings entitling plaintiff to relief. ( Urbaitis, 143 Ill. 2d at 475, 575 N.E.2d 548.) In making that determination, the court must interpret the allegations of the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Kolegas v. Heftel Broadcasting Corporation (1992), 154 Ill. 2d 1, 9, 607 N.E.2d 201, 180 Ill. Dec. 307.

Bearing those principles in mind, we first consider whether the allegations in the complaint are sufficient to support a claim for interference with a prospective economic advantage. To prevail on such a claim, a plaintiff must allege facts to show: (1) her reasonable expectation of entering into a valid business relationship; (2) the defendant's knowledge of the plaintiff's expectancy; (3) purposeful interference by the defendant that prevents the plaintiff's legitimate expectancy from ripening into a valid business relationship; and (4) damages to the plaintiff resulting from such interference. ( Fellhauer, 142 Ill. 2d at 511, 568 N.E.2d 870. ...


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