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Poulos v. Lutheran Social Services of Illinois

March 24, 2000

STEVE POULOS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
V.
LUTHERAN SOCIAL SERVICES OF ILLINOIS, INC., AND NANCY GOLDEN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.
STEVE POULOS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
V.
LUTHERAN SOCIAL SERVICES OF ILLINOIS, INC., AND NANCY GOLDEN, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



No. 93-L-11761

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Theis

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Honorable Richard E. Neville, Judge Presiding.

In 1993, plaintiff Steve Poulos brought suit against defendants Nancy Golden and Lutheran Social Services of Illinois, Inc., a nonprofit social service agency, alleging false light and tortious interference with a contractual relation. The matter was subsequently tried before a jury, which returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff in the amount of $219,000. Judgment was entered on that verdict in May 1998.

Both plaintiff and defendants have appealed.

For the following reasons, we affirm in part, reverse in part and remand for a trial on the issue of punitive damages.

BACKGROUND

At trial, Katherine Poulos testified that she and her husband, plaintiff Steve Poulos, became foster parents to two brothers in 1985. Both children, R.F. and J.F., had severe emotional problems. In 1986, Katherine and her husband added another foster child to their family. That child, Daniel, was later adopted by Katherine and her husband in April 1987.

As time passed, Katherine and her husband came to the conclusion that they could not properly care for R.F. and J.F. According to Katherine, both brothers were exhibiting behavioral problems that posed too great a danger to Daniel. In March 1988, R.F. and J.F. were placed with other foster families.

On December 29, 1988, Joanne Deckman, an investigator with the Department of Children and Family Services, informed Katherine that her husband was being investigated in connection with allegations of sexual abuse made against him by R.F., their former foster child. Katherine stated that she and her husband immediately hired an attorney, who advised them that Daniel should be examined by a physician. Daniel was seen by a physician shortly thereafter, as was plaintiff. A few days later, Katherine learned that one of the cultures taken from Daniel indicated the presence of gonorrhea. Katherine had Daniel immediately reexamined. The results of the second examination were in marked contrast to those of the original. Specifically, none of the results of that second examination indicated the presence of gonorrhea. Around that same time, Katherine also learned that gonorrhea had not been detected during the examination of her husband.

Nevertheless, Daniel was temporarily placed in foster care and a petition to declare Daniel a ward of the court was filed on his behalf. That petition was directed against Katherine and her husband and centered around certain allegations of sexual abuse by the latter.

Katherine and her husband met with defendant Nancy Golden in January 1989. Golden was a social worker employed by defendant Lutheran Social Services. She was assigned to monitor the foster care provided to Daniel and to provide counseling and related services to Katherine and her husband. According to Katherine, Golden told them they had to proceed under the assumption that her husband was guilty in order to progress towards regaining custody of Daniel. Katherine also testified that Golden told her, privately, she would never see Daniel again if she did not divorce her husband.

Katherine and her husband met with Golden again in February 1989. Katherine told Golden that her husband was still employed and teaching physical education at Francis W. Parker School. Golden appeared surprised, stating, "[W]ell, if I was [sic] a parent, I wouldn't want Steve around my child." Katherine reminded Golden that Francis Parker had already made its decision, fully informed of the sexual abuse allegation against her husband. According to Katherine, Golden replied, "[W]ell, we'll see about that."

Approximately two weeks later, plaintiff was asked to take a paid leave of absence from Francis Parker, and he did so. Plaintiff was terminated the following July.

On December 26, 1989, after 11 months, the wardship proceedings were dismissed, and Daniel was immediately returned to Katherine and her husband. According to Katherine, Francis Parker did not immediately rehire her husband. Rather, it conditioned such a return upon the removal of his name from a list, maintained by the Department of Children and Family Services, to which he had been added as a result of the allegations of sexual abuse against him. Plaintiff met that condition and, in turn, was offered a one-year contract. However, Katherine stated that her husband refused that offer, after determining the conditions attached to it were unacceptable.

Defendant Nancy Golden testified that, upon being assigned to monitor the foster care of Daniel, she reviewed the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff. Golden learned that R.F. and J.F. had severe emotional problems. She also learned that R.F. had recanted his allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff and that his brother, J.F., denied those allegations in their entirety. Golden was also aware that Daniel had been reexamined and found to be free of gonorrhea. Golden further testified that she knew plaintiff had also tested negative for gonorrhea.

Golden met with plaintiff and his wife on February 17, 1989. During that meeting, she learned that plaintiff was still teaching at Francis Parker. Golden denied she expressed any dissatisfaction with that arrangement. However, Golden later testified that she was "greatly concerned" with the safety of the students at Francis Parker following that meeting.

Golden next testified that, although she knew Joanne Deckman had already informed Francis Parker of the sexual abuse allegations against plaintiff, she decided to call the school herself. When her calls went unreturned, Golden telephoned Harlene Matyas, a parent of a Francis Parker student. According to Golden, she hoped Matyas could provide her with the name of someone in authority at Francis Parker with whom she could speak. Golden told Matyas that she was concerned about the students at Francis Parker because a child belonging to plaintiff, a current teacher, had recently tested positive for gonorrhea.

Golden further testified that Matyas gave her the telephone number of King Harris, then chairman of the board of trustees at Francis Parker.

Golden called Harris. She informed him of the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff. She then told Harris that plaintiff had a child, Daniel, who had recently tested positive for gonorrhea. Golden also explained to Harris that plaintiff disputed the result of that examination, insisting it was a false positive. Golden, however, did not tell Harris that Daniel had been subsequently reexamined and found to be free of gonorrhea. Golden did not inform Harris that plaintiff had also been examined and had also been found free of gonorrhea. Golden did not reveal that R.F., the former foster child who had accused plaintiff of sexual abuse, had severe mental and emotional problems or that he had recanted his allegations. Neither did she reveal that his brother, J.F., denied those allegations in their entirety.

Harlene Matyas followed Golden. Matyas testified that, although unsure of the date, she received a telephone call from Golden in which the latter expressed her concern for the students at Francis Parker. According to Matyas, Golden told her plaintiff had a child who had recently tested positive for gonorrhea. Golden also told her plaintiff was the only possible source of that infectious disease.

Matyas also testified that Golden did not ask her for the name of someone in authority at Francis Parker, and Matyas further denied giving Golden any such name.

King Harris testified that, in February 1989, he received a telephone call from Harlene Matyas. She told him of the sexual abuse allegations against plaintiff. She also told him plaintiff allegedly forced a former foster child to eat his own feces and that his own child recently tested positive for gonorrhea.

That same evening, Harris received a telephone call from Nancy Golden. She also informed him of the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff. Harris made notes of their conversation. With regard to the results of the examination indicating the presence of gonorrhea in Daniel, Harris noted, "Poulos claims false positive. Nancy Golden says definite positive." Harris stated Golden "felt that people who were guilty of such child abuse should not be teaching children."

As a result of his conversations with Matyas and Golden, and a subsequent telephone call from an assistant State's Attorney, Harris called John Cotton, the principal at Francis Parker. Harris learned that Cotton was aware of the sexual abuse allegations against plaintiff but had not yet taken any action. Harris told Cotton that a response was required, and recommended that plaintiff be placed on a paid leave of absence until the matter was resolved. Harris testified that his recommendation was implemented, and plaintiff was placed on a paid leave of absence for the remainder of the school year.

John Cotton testified that, in early January 1989, he received a telephone call from Joanne Deckman. She informed him that the Department of Children and Family Services was investigating plaintiff in connection with allegations of sexual abuse of a foster child. Cotton then met with plaintiff. Following that meeting, Cotton determined that he would take no action against plaintiff so long as the allegations did not become public. Shortly thereafter, Cotton received a letter from Deckman, informing him that, in the opinion of the Department of Children and Family Services, credible evidence existed to support the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff.

In late February, the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff became a matter of public knowledge. Cotton testified that parents began calling him, demanding that plaintiff have no contact with their children. Due to that outcry, Cotton determined that plaintiff should be placed on a paid leave of absence for the remainder of the school year. Cotton gave plaintiff until June to clear himself of the allegations against him. In June, Cotton granted plaintiff an extension until July 1, 1989, the date by which he needed finalized teaching contracts for the upcoming school year at Francis Parker. However, Cotton also told plaintiff that, if he could not clear himself of the allegations by that date, he would be terminated for cause.

Cotton terminated plaintiff as a teacher at Francis Parker on July 18, 1989. Cotton stated that Harris had nothing to do with that decision. However, Cotton conceded that, as principal, he answered to Harris and that Harris would occasionally assist him with decisions.

On December 26, 1989, several months later, the circuit court dismissed the wardship proceedings, ruling that the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff were unfounded. Daniel was immediately returned to plaintiff and his wife.

In February 1990, after learning the allegations of sexual abuse against plaintiff had been dismissed, Cotton informed plaintiff that any return to Francis Parker was conditioned upon the expungement of his name from the list at the Department of Children and Family Services to which he had been added as a result of the allegations of sexual abuse against him. According to Cotton, plaintiff accomplished that by the following June. Cotton testified he then offered to reinstate plaintiff as a teacher at Francis Parker, but only on the condition that he agree to remediation. As Cotton explained, remediation was a process in which a teacher was evaluated during the course of a school year. Cotton denied the circuit court proceedings had anything to do with his insistence that remediation be made a condition to any reinstatement of plaintiff.

After hearing all the evidence and arguments of counsel, the jury returned a verdict in favor of plaintiff, awarding him $219,000 in compensatory damages.

These appeals followed.

DISCUSSION

I.

Defendants initially contend the circuit court erred in denying their motions for a directed verdict and judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

A circuit court properly enters a directed verdict or judgment notwithstanding the verdict when the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the non-movant, so overwhelmingly favors the movant that no contrary verdict could ever stand. Maple v. Gustafson, 151 Ill. 2d 445, 453, 603 N.E.2d 508, 512 (1992). However, where the resolution of factual disputes or the assessment of witness credibility is critical to the outcome of an action, a circuit court may not direct a verdict or grant a judgment notwithstanding the verdict. Maple, 151 Ill. 2d at 454, 603 N.E.2d at 512.

The same standard is applied on appeal. Bialek v. Moraine Valley Community College School District 524, 267 Ill. App. 3d 857, ...


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