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Hojnacki v. Klein-Acosta

March 28, 2002


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 00 C 1356--Matthew F. Kennelly, Judge.

Before Posner, Ripple and Diane P. Wood, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ripple, Circuit Judge


Dr. Irene Hojnacki, a discharged employee of Addus Healthcare, Inc., ("Addus") brought this action against Addus, its chief financial officer and Illinois Department of Corrections officials, alleging due proc ess violations and claiming the right to a name-clearing hearing. The district court held that the due process claim must fail because Dr. Hojnacki was not an employee of the Illinois Department of Corrections. For the reasons set forth in the following opinion, we affirm the judgment of the district court.


A. Facts

Dr. Hojnacki was employed by Addus Healthcare, a private company under contract with the Illinois Department of Corrections ("DOC") to supply health care services to inmates at DOC prisons. She worked as medical director at the Dwight Correctional Center for Women ("Dwight"). In March 1995, Doretta O'Brien, the Administrator of Dwight's Healthcare Unit ("HCU"), filed an Incident Report with the warden of the facility, Donna Klein-Acosta. According to the report, Administrator O'Brien had reviewed an inmate's medical chart and discovered that she had been given a soft drink, 7-Up. Administrator O'Brien asked a nurse how the inmate came to have the soft drink, and the nurse responded that Dr. Hojnacki had given the soft drink to the inmate and had asked the nurse to give it to the inmate.*fn1 The report states that Dr. Hojnacki had been informed that 7-Up could not be given to inmates and that their diets must come from the DOC. The report further indicates that Dr. Hojnacki stated, apparently upon being informed of this rule, that she would "bring [the soft drink] her self." R.1, Ex.B-1. The report also indicates that "[s]he was advised against it." Id.

After receiving the Incident Report, Warden Klein-Acosta sent a letter to Mark Heaney, the Chief Financial Officer of Addus, relating that Dr. Hojnacki had knowingly violated prison policies by delivering the 7-Up to a prisoner and recommending that "appropriate disciplinary action be taken that would disallow her entrance into the Dwight Correctional Center/KMSU." R.1, Ex.C. Addus then discharged Dr. Hojnacki because she was no longer allowed access to Dwight and because "no other similar positions exist[ed] with the Company." R.1, Ex.A.

When Dr. Hojnacki learned that she had been discharged, she requested a hearing from the warden, but the warden refused. Dr. Hojnacki also claims that the defendants made it known to employees of the prison and to medical professionals in Joliet, Illinois, that she brought contraband into the prison and gave it to a prisoner, a violation of Illinois law. Dr. Hojnacki denies the allegations against her and further asserts that they have become widely known in Dwight, Joliet and Chicago and that, as a result, she has not been able to find comparable employment.

B. District Court Proceedings

Dr. Hojnacki filed a six-count complaint against Warden Klein-Acosta, Administrator O'Brien, Addus Healthcare and Mr. Heaney. She alleged that all of the defendants had violated her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment by defaming her in connection with her discharge and thereby preventing her from finding comparable employment. She sought a name-clearing hearing. Dr. Hojnacki also asserted claims for sex discrimination under Title VII against all of the defendants and age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act against Addus and Mr. Heaney. The remaining counts set forth various state-law causes of action.

The defendants filed motions to dismiss, asserting that, in order to prevail on her due process claim for a name-clearing hearing, Dr. Hojnacki had to demonstrate that she was a state employee, a showing that the defendants maintained she could not make. In response to the motions to dismiss, Dr. Hojnacki accepted the defendants' assertions that she would have to show that she was a DOC employee to prevail. She stated in her Answer: "We take as Bible Addus' and Heaney's assertion: In order to sustain a claim for Constitutional Tort - Liberty Interest - Name Clearing, plaintiff must demonstrate that 1) she was a public employee . . . ." R.10 at 2. The Answer explains further: "If [the defendants] are correct in their contention that the plaintiff was not a public employee, then this case should be dismissed." Id. at 7. Dr. Hojnacki maintained, however, that her employment status could only be determined after discovery. She observed that "[t]he discovery involved in establishing the issue of employment is but a small part of the overall discovery. It would indeed be unfortunate for all of the parties with great amounts of time and expenditures, as well as the time of the court, if it were pre-ordained that the plaintiff was not a public employee." Id. at 8. Dr. Hojnacki therefore suggested that "[a] limitation of discovery to only the issue of employment should promptly ascertain sufficient information to dispose of the issue." Id.

The district court denied the motions to dismiss but adopted the parties' view that only a state employee could state a claim against a state agency for defaming her in connection with her discharge and thereby preventing the employee from finding comparable employment. The court also adopted Dr. Hojnacki's proposal and ordered that discovery initially be limited to the issue of whether Dr. Hojnacki was an employee of the DOC. After discovery, the defendants filed motions for summary judgment on that sole issue.

The district court held that Dr. Hojnacki was not a state employee and entered summary judgment for the defendants on the due process claim. The court also entered summary judgment for the individual defendants on the age and sex discrimination claims, a determination that Dr. Hojnacki does not appeal. Dr. Hojnacki moved for a voluntary non-suit on the age and sex discrimination claims that remained against Addus. The court granted the motion and dismissed those claims with prejudice.*fn2 It also dismissed the remaining state-law claims. The only ...

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