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Bill v. Board of Education of Cicero School District 99

June 28, 2004

[5] MARIE BILL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
THE BOARD OF EDUCATION OF CICERO SCHOOL DISTRICT 99, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



[6] Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County. No. 01 L 014869. Honorable Paddy H. McNamara, Judge Presiding.

[7] The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Gordon

[8]  Defendant, the Board of Education of Cicero School District 99 (District 99 or district), appeals the trial court's order granting plaintiff, Marie Bill's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that District 99 failed to give Bill statutory notice that she would not be rehired for the 2000-01 school year. As a result of the judgment, Bill was awarded damages equal to what would have been her salary for the contested school year, prejudgment interest, costs and attorney fees. District 99 contends that Bill's action was barred by the doctrine of laches or, in the alternative, that she received sufficient notice she would not be rehired. The district further contends that Bill was not entitled to attorney fees under the Attorney's Fees in Wage Actions Act (705 ILCS 225/0.01 et seq. West 2002). Because we find there are issues of fact yet to be determined, we reverse and remand for trial.

[9]  BACKGROUND

[10]   On November 4, 1998, after the school year had begun, plaintiff, Marie Bill, was hired as a full-time probationary*fn1 English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teacher by District 99 for the remainder of the 1998-99 school year. Bill's employment contract for the 1998-99 school year was dated February 11, 1998, and provided "[t]his contract is null and void in June of 1999." The following school year (1999-2000), Bill was again hired to fill an ESL position after the school year began. She began teaching on October 18, 1999, and her employment contract, dated November 4, 1999, again stated, "[t]his contract is null and void in June of 2000." At the end of the 1999-2000 school year, Bill had not received an assignment for the 2000-01 school year.

[11]   Bill stated during her deposition that because she had not yet received a job assignment for the 2000-01 school year in July or August of 2000, she began looking for a teaching job. She retrieved her teacher's certificate from District 99 and on August 8, 2000, she sent a letter to Cindy Mosca, the ESL coordinator for District 99. The letter expressed an interest in obtaining an ESL teaching position in District 99 for the approaching school year. Subsequently, on August 31, 2000, Bill faxed a letter to Dr. Edward Aksamit, assistant superintendent for District 99, expressing her interest in working for the district and informing him that she had received no response to her August 8 letter to Mosca. Bill reportedly also interviewed for a teaching job at Downers Grove North High School during the summer.

[12]   On September 5, 2000, Bill telephoned Tom Smith, a representative for Local No. 571 of the Illinois Federation of Teachers (the union). Bill told Smith about the letter she faxed to Aksamit and stated that she never received notice of her termination the year before. Smith advised Bill that the district was required, under section 24-11 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/24-11 (West 2002)), to provide her with written notice 45 days prior to the end of the 1999-2000 school year, advising her whether she would be reemployed for the 2000-01 year. Because she had not received such notice, the Code provided Bill with the right to a teaching position in District 99 for the 2000-01 school year. Bill testified in her deposition that she was surprised to get this information, as she was unaware of her rights under the School Code. That same month, Bill telephoned Aksamit and informed him that she never received any notice regarding whether she would be rehired for the 2000-01 school year. She stated that, thereafter, she relied on Smith to contact the district on her behalf.

[13]   In the fall of 2000, Smith spoke with Dr. Anthony Scariano, superintendent of District 99, and Aksamit, who told Smith that the terms of Bill's 1999-2000 contract, which provided that the contract would be null and void as of June 2000, sufficiently notified Bill that she would not be employed as a teacher in District 99 in the 2000-01 school year. Although Smith argued to Scariano that the contract's "null and void" language did not satisfy the School Code's notification requirement and requested that Bill be given a teaching position immediately, Scariano refused.

[14]   On March 14, 2001, Smith wrote a letter to Scariano stating the union's position and urging the district to reemploy Bill. The district refused in writing in April. The union's attorney then sent a legal opinion to the district on August 17, 2001, and the district's attorney responded with its legal opinion on November 6, 2001. The opinions addressed the issue of notice under section 24-11 of the School Code (105 ILCS 5/24-11 (West 2002)).

[15]   On November 16, 2001, Bill filed a complaint against the district. Count I alleged that District 99 failed to provide her with the required statutory notice under section 24-11 of the School Code regarding whether she would be employed for the 2000-01 school year. She argued that as a result of this failure, the district was required to reemploy her. She therefore requested her salary as if she had been reemployed for the 2000-01 term and argued she should be reemployed for the remainder of the 2001-02 term. Under this count, Bill further requested recovery for the costs of the litigation and reasonable attorney fees pursuant to the Attorneys Fees in Wage Actions Act (705 ILCS 225/0.01 et seq. (West 2002)). In count II, Bill requested reenrollment in the district's health insurance program.

[16]   In response, District 99 filed a motion to dismiss count I of Bill's complaint for failure to state a cause of action (735 ILCS 5/ 2-615 (West 2002)). The district argued that Bill's complaint was barred by the doctrine of laches because it was filed almost 19 months after she was allegedly notified of her rights by her union representative. It further argued that Bill received proper notification she would not be reemployed for the 2000-01 school year due to the terms of her one-year employment contract. The trial court granted the motion only as to any claims beyond the 2000-01 school year, including reinstatement. The court denied the motion in all other respects, including a rejection of the laches doctrine. District 99 thereafter filed a motion for partial summary judgment as to the attorney fees requested pursuant to the Attorneys Fees in Wage Actions Act in count I of Bill's complaint. The district asserted that a proper written demand for such fees was not made pursuant to the Act. This motion was also denied.

[17]   Bill subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment as to the undismissed allegations in count I of her complaint, arguing that she was denied statutory notice under section 24-11 as a matter of law. She argued that Aksamit's deposition contradicted the district's contention that the "null and void" language in Bill's contract provided her with sufficient notice that she would not be reemployed for the 2000-01 school year. In this regard, Aksamit testified at his deposition that the section 24-11 letters, notifying teachers whether they would be retained for the following school term, were generally sent to all probationary teachers. He stated that to his knowledge, all of the other probationary ESL teachers, aside from Bill, received written notice not later than 45 days before the end of the 1999-2000 school year whether they would be rehired for the next school year. He stated that although only teachers who were hired after the school year began received contracts with the "null and void" language, such teachers normally would still receive notice before the end of the school year that they were going to be rehired where their performance had been acceptable. Moreover, teachers whose performance was not acceptable, would get "an evaluation that says they did not meet the standards and they're not going to be rehired." Aksamit stated that Bill did not receive any notice whatsoever. In addition, Aksamit specifically testified to the following:

[18]   "Q: When Ms. Bill signed the contract in October of '99 for the '99-2000 school year *** would she have known if she was going to be re-employed or not re-employed *** at that time?

[19]   A: At that time?

[20]   Q: Yes.

[21]   A: No.

[22]   Q: Okay. Nor did you, correct?

[23]   A; Correct.

[24]   Q: *** [A]t the end of the '99-2000 school year, there would have been a Board meeting which took up questions of which teachers would or would not be re-employed?

[25]   A: It's in March.

[26]   Q: Okay. In March. Okay. And would that have been - the March meeting, the March 2000 meeting, would that have been the meeting that the issue of Ms. Bill would have been brought up whether or not she would be re-employed or not?

[27]   A: Yes.

[28]   Q: And do you attend the Board meetings?

[29]   A: Yes.

[30]   Q: Do you recall specifically that the issue of Miss ...


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