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Dunlap v. Alcuin Montessori School

July 21, 1998

MARIANNE DUNLAP, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE/CROSS-APPELLANT,
v.
ALCUIN MONTESSORI SCHOOL, AN ILLINOIS NOT-FOR-PROFIT CORPORATION, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT/CROSS-APPELLEE, AND PENNY FAHEY, MARY CRAY, MICHAEL COMISKEY, CYNTHIA BERNARDI, PETER THOMPSON, PATRICK O'BRIEN, THOMAS EWERT, MARK WOZNIAK AND THEA CHRISTOU, DEFENDANTS/CROSS-APPELLEES.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Tully

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Cheryl Ingram, judge Presiding.

Plaintiff, Marianne Dunlap, brought a suit against defendant, Alcuin Montessori School (School), for breach of an employment contract, defamation and promissory estoppel. Plaintiff also brought an action for defamation against the individual members of the School's Board of Trustees (Board), alleging that a letter from the Board to the students' parents defamed plaintiff. The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the Board on the defamation claims. Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her promissory estoppel claim against the School. At the close of evidence in the jury trial, the trial court granted the School's motion for directed verdict on the defamation claim. The jury found in favor of plaintiff on the breach of contract count, awarding her $150,000. The trial court entered judgment on the verdict, and denied the School's post-trial motion to set aside or reduce the damages award. The School appeals, contending that the jury abused its discretion in awarding $150,000 in damages. Plaintiff cross-appeals the summary judgment in favor of the Board and directed verdict in favor of the School rendered on the defamation counts. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 301 (155 Ill. 2d R. 301). For the following reasons, we affirm as modified.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Before trial, the trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of the Board on the defamation claims and plaintiff voluntarily dismissed her promissory estoppel claim against the School. At trial, the evidence showed the following. Plaintiff was the School's Educational Director, pursuant to a written contract. The contract provided in pertinent part:

"1) TERM: The employment of EMPLOYEE shall commence on July 1, 1990, for a term of twelve months through June 30, 1991, and shall continue thereafter from year to year unless this Agreement is terminated by either party in accordance with paragraph 7 hereof.

7) TERMINATION: This agreement may be terminated by either party for cause at any time and by either party without cause upon 90 days' notice."

The Board was comprised of parents of children who were enrolled at the School. The Board formed a committee to review the School's organizational structure, which presented its findings on September 27, 1993. The committee recommended the creation of a new position of President, to whom the Educational Director would report. On October 14, 1993, the Board notified plaintiff of an October 26, 1993 meeting at which she could share her "questions, comments, reservations, [and] suggestions regarding the proposed organizational changes." Plaintiff objected to the proposed changes at the meeting because they would require her to report to a non-Montessori trained administrator. The committee then decided not to proceed with the proposed restructuring plan. After the October 26 meeting, a faculty member asked plaintiff for a copy of the proposed organizational changes so that she could comment on them at an upcoming faculty retreat. Plaintiff then placed copies of the proposed changes in all the faculty members' mail boxes. On October 28, 1993, Penny Fahey, a Board member, learned that plaintiff had distributed the copies and accused her of insubordination. When the Board met on November 1, 1993, Fahey raised the issue of plaintiff's future employment with the School. At that meeting, the members discussed their personal conflicts with plaintiff. During a November 8, 1993 continuation of the November 1 meeting, the Board authorized Michael Comiskey to draft a letter to plaintiff informing her of her termination.

On November 12, 1993, Board member Michael Comiskey met with plaintiff and gave her the option of resigning or being terminated. Plaintiff testified at trial that she refused to resign because she loved her work and did it very well. Plaintiff believed that resigning would have been dishonest because it would have incorrectly implied that she did not want to work at the School. According to plaintiff, Comiskey terminated her employment at the meeting. Comiskey gave her a list of causes upon which the Board relied. The list stated that plaintiff: (1) was unwilling to support the Board's policies; (2) failed to perform her job responsibilities; (3) failed to support a new school program; (4) undermined the School's restructuring of administrative staff job responsibilities; (5) had problems in communicating with the students' parents; and (6) was insubordinate because she distributed a restructuring plan draft against the Board's instructions. Plaintiff had not seen the list before, but had talked with one Board member several weeks earlier about one of the issues on the list. She did not believe that any of the failures on the list were true.

On November 22, 1993, plaintiff received a letter from the Board which stated in pertinent part:

"I am writing to notify you that the Alcuin Board of Trustees has decided to terminate your employment as Educational Director, for cause, effective November 29, 1993. Even though we have no obligation to do so, the Board has decided that Alcuin will pay you through February 28, 1994, as if you were still employed as Educational Director through that date." On November 22, 1993, the Board also sent a letter to the students' parents. In pertinent part, the letter stated that: "We appreciate the contributions that Marianne has made to Alcuin over the years. The curriculum, the excellent faculty and the national recognition of our program are due in large part to her efforts. However, a combination and accumulation of events over time has caused virtually a total breakdown of trust and confidence between [plaintiff] and the Board. This has led the Board to conclude that [plaintiff] is not satisfactorily performing her duties or carrying out the policies of the Board."

The School's faculty sent a letter to the parents on November 22, 1993, which stated that "[w]e were shocked to find out that on Friday, November 12, the Board of Trustees gave [plaintiff] the choice of resigning or being terminated as Educational Director at Alcuin. The faculty is unanimously and vehemently opposed to this decision."

Plaintiff presented evidence that her annual salary was $38,213 in 1993. In addition, she received an annuity of $2,500 to use for benefits.

At the close of evidence, the trial court granted the School's motion for directed verdict on the defamation claim. In its ruling on the motion, the trial court found that regarding the ...


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