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Green v. Trinity International University

December 19, 2003

MICHAEL P. GREEN, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
TRINITY INTERNATIONAL UNIVERSITY, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, BARRY BEITZEL, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS PROVOST OF THE UNIVERSITY, AND HAROLD NETLAND, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS DEAN OF THE UNIVERSITY, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Lake County. No. 02-L-162 Honorable Terrence J. Brady, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman

UNPUBLISHED

Plaintiff, Michael P. Green, Ph.D., filed suit against defendants, Trinity International University (the University), Barry Beitzel, Ph.D., and Harold Netland, Ph.D., alleging breach of contract, invasion of privacy, and defamation stemming from the termination of his employment with the University. Defendants moved to dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint pursuant to sections 2--615 and 2--619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2--615, 2--619 (West 2002)). The trial court dismissed the first amended complaint in its entirety, with prejudice. Plaintiff appeals, arguing that (1) the trial court improperly considered factual defenses when evaluating the sufficiency of his allegations, and (2) he sufficiently pleaded the elements of breach of contract, invasion of privacy, and defamation. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand.

The first amended complaint alleges that plaintiff first became employed as an associate professor with the University, a divinity school, in March 1995. In addition to his duties as an associate professor, he also held the position of "Director of Supervised Ministries." During the course of his employment, plaintiff entered into successive one-year written contracts with the University. The last contract between plaintiff and the University was dated March 5, 2001, and covered a 12-month period beginning July 1, 2001. On April 10, 2001, plaintiff entered into a contract with the University for the summer session, which ran from July 30, 2001, through August 17, 2001.

Plaintiff further alleges that, in 2000, he was under consideration for tenure. A committee (Committee) comprising members of the faculty senate was appointed to evaluate his tenure application. According to plaintiff, on November 8, 2000, he met with Beitzel, who was the University provost, and Netland, the academic dean of the divinity school. At that meeting, Beitzel and Netland informed plaintiff for the first time that some students had criticized how he conducted his classes. Then, on January 17, 2001, the faculty senate instructed the Committee to investigate the criticisms by questioning randomly selected students about plaintiff's classroom decorum. Plaintiff alleges that he was to have no input with respect to any part of this process, which was not part of the tenure process set forth in the faculty handbook (Handbook). Plaintiff's tenure review process was then extended to "not later than autumn 2001."

Plaintiff further alleges that his agreement to extend the tenure review process was contingent upon an agreement with University administration that, if he were denied tenure, the University would provide him with a one-year employment contract for the 2002-2003 school year. Plaintiff alleges that all members of the administration "were in accord" with him on this issue.

Subsequently, the Committee sought plaintiff's permission to interview students. The Committee informed plaintiff that the tenure review process would end if he withheld his permission. Plaintiff refused to give his permission and, on April 19, 2001, he was informed by letter that the faculty senate had denied his application for tenure. On April 24, 2001, plaintiff received a memorandum from Beitzel informing him that his employment contract would not be renewed for the 2002-2003 school year.

In count I of the first amended complaint, plaintiff claims that the University breached its contract with him by suspending him from the duties outlined in the 2001-2002 written contract, canceling his 2001 summer class, failing to notify him in a timely manner of the intention not to renew his contract for 2002-2003, and failing to follow the guidelines set forth in the Handbook.

In count II, plaintiff alleges invasion of privacy in the form of publicity placing him in a false light. This claim is based on statements contained in three memoranda authored by Netland, which were distributed to University faculty, staff, and students in August 2001. The statements said that plaintiff "has been relieved of his responsibilities as Director of Supervised Ministries, including classroom instruction and advisee group." Plaintiff alleges that, by failing to explain the circumstances behind the termination, defendants communicated the false impression that plaintiff had committed acts of moral turpitude. Plaintiff relies on sections of the faculty constitution which state that, except in cases of moral turpitude, notice that an employment contract will not be renewed is to be given by March 1 of the terminal year. Plaintiff further claims that it was University practice to ask for prayers for individuals involved in personnel changes. According to plaintiff, the omission of such a request from the announcement of his termination also communicated that he had committed acts of moral turpitude. Plaintiff further alleges that the University's acts and communications were performed maliciously for the purposes of placing him in disrepute among his peers.

Count III of the first amended complaint alleges defamation per se, based on statements made by Beitzel in a letter dated November 30, 2001, to Dr. Martin D. Snyder, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Beitzel wrote the letter in response to a letter from Snyder expressing concern about how the University handled plaintiff's tenure application. Snyder had become involved in the situation at plaintiff's request. Beitzel copied several other individuals on the letter, including Gregory Waybright, University president; W. Charles Thor, Jr., chair of the University's board of regents; Netland; Daniel O. Aleshire, executive director of the Association of Theological Schools; and Mary Breslin, associate director of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Plaintiff was also copied on the letter.

Plaintiff sets forth 10 statements that he alleges were false and injured his professional reputation as a teacher and clergyman. To summarize, the statements indicated that several students reported concerns that plaintiff was "rude, abrasive, and even acerbic" in class, devoted a large amount of class time to noncourse considerations, and was unprofessionally candid with students about matters not directly related to class materials. Beitzel added that, "if true," some of the statements plaintiff made were "shocking, extremely bothersome, and there is one that I believe borders on prejudice." Beitzel's letter also indicated that some students had tried to discuss these issues with plaintiff directly, but they did not feel that plaintiff was responsive to them. In addition, Beitzel stated that University administrators had discussed these concerns with plaintiff on multiple occasions between 1998 and 2000. Beitzel said that on one such occasion one of the University deans told plaintiff that if the University had to deal with this type of concern once more, plaintiff was "out of here." Plaintiff alleges that the University, through Beitzel, made these statements with the intent to injure his reputation or with reckless disregard of the consequences that might result from them.

In a combined motion to dismiss, defendants argued, pursuant to section 2--615 of the Code, that plaintiff failed to state a cause of action under any of his theories. Further, pursuant to section 2--619 of the Code, defendants asserted that count III should be dismissed because a qualified privilege applied to the allegedly defamatory statements. The trial court agreed with defendants, dismissing all counts of the first amended complaint with prejudice. Plaintiff filed a timely notice of appeal from the trial court's order.

ANALYSIS

A motion pursuant to section 2--615 attacks the legal sufficiency of a complaint. Provenzale v. Forister, 318 Ill. App. 3d 869, 878 (2001). Such a motion admits as true all well-pleaded facts, but not conclusions of law or factual conclusions that are unsupported by allegations of specific facts. Provenzale, 318 Ill. App. 3d at 878. When deciding a section 2--615 motion, the court must determine whether the allegations of the complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, are sufficient to state a cause of action upon which relief may be granted. Abbasi v. Paraskevoulakos, 187 Ill. 2d 386, 391 (1999). A cause of action will not be dismissed on the pleadings unless it clearly appears that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief under any set of facts. Abbasi, 187 Ill. 2d at 391.

A motion to dismiss pursuant to section 2--619(a)(9), on the other hand, raises an "affirmative matter avoiding the legal effect of or defeating the claim" (735 ILCS 5/2--619(a)(9) (West 2002)). Such a motion "is properly used to raise affirmative matters that negate the claim, not to challenge the essential allegations of the plaintiff's cause of action." Provenzale, 318 Ill. App. 3d at 878. We review de novo the dismissal of a complaint pursuant to either section 2--615 or section 2--619. Krilich v. American National Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago, 334 Ill. App. 3d 563, 571 (2002).

BREACH OF CONTRACT

The elements of a cause of action for breach of contract include: (1) an offer and acceptance, (2) consideration, (3) definite and certain contractual terms, (4) the plaintiff's performance of his contractual obligations, (5) the defendant's breach of the contract, and (6) damages resulting from the breach. Barille v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 289 Ill. App. 3d 171, 175 (1997). Plaintiff asserts that the University breached the 2001-2002 written employment contract, the Handbook that was incorporated into the written contract, and an agreement to employ plaintiff for the 2002-2003 school year. We will address each of these alleged contracts in turn.

2001-2002 WRITTEN CONTRACT

Plaintiff alleges that the University breached the 2001-2002 contract by suspending him from his academic and administrative duties. In its motion to dismiss, the University counters that plaintiff cannot state a cause of action for breach of this contract because the University paid plaintiff the full amount of his compensation and benefits. The University relies on statements Beitzel made in his letter of November 30, 2001, which is attached as an exhibit to the complaint. In ruling on the motion to dismiss, it appears that the trial court relied on the alleged payment of the contract amount as the basis for its ruling that plaintiff failed to state a cause of action as to the 2001-2002 contract. The court stated as follows:

"In this particular case there was a buyout *** by the University of Green's one year contract for the academic year, '01/02, and for the summer employment year--corresponded to the summer employment year.
The--Green contends that there are other benefits that should have accrued to him. For example, the opportunity or right, if you will, to continue teaching, that sort of thing.
I do not find that as part of the contract. All benefits have been conferred by the contract. If anything, Green owed the obligation back to the University to perform at his end. He could claim he was prevented to perform, but even if he does, there are no damages of any nature because he has essentially had the buyout provisions extended, the University states that it has paid or ...

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