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Meer v. Graham

October 5, 2007

MICHAEL MEER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BRUCE GRAHAM, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Elaine E. Bucklo United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Dr. Michael Meer ("Meer"), a former clinic chief at the University of Illinois College of Dentistry, alleges that he was summarily suspended from his position without the appropriate procedure, and was thereafter discharged in retaliation for his suit. Defendants Bruce Graham ("Graham"), Sylvia Manning ("Manning"), Michael Tanner ("Tanner"), Gene Sbalchiero ("Sbalchiero"), and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (the "Board") have moved to dismiss Meer's amended complaint (the "complaint"). I grant the motion in part and deny it in part.

I.

In resolving defendants' motion, I must accept all well-pled facts in Meer's complaint as true. Thompson v. Illinois Dep't of Prof'l Regulation, 300 F.3d 750, 753 (7th Cir. 2002). I must view the allegations in the light most favorable to Meer. Gomez v. Illinois State Bd. of Educ., 811 F.2d 1030, 1039 (7th Cir. 1987). Dismissal of a claim is proper if Meer has not, at minimum, made enough factual allegations to raise his right to relief above a "speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, --- U.S. ----, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964 (2007) (citations omitted); see also Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT & T Mobility LLC, -- F.3d --, 2007 WL 2406859, at *4 (7th Cir. 2007) (explaining that while Bell Atlantic did not change the federal pleading standard to a fact-pleading regime, "[A]t some point the factual detail in a complaint may be so sketchy that the complaint does not provide the type of notice of the claim to which the defendant is entitled"). In addition to the allegations contained in Meer's complaint, I may consider the complaint's attachments. See FED. R. CIV. P. 10(c); Help at Home, Inc. v. Med. Capital, LLC, 260 F.3d 748, 752 (7th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted). I may also consider documents defendants attach to their motion to dismiss that are referenced in Meer's complaint and are central to his claims. Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp., 987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993).

The well-pled facts as alleged in Meer's complaint are as follows: Meer was the Clinic Chief and Director of the Postgraduate Program in Oral Maxillofacial Surgery at the University of Illinois at Chicago ("UIC") College of Dentistry ("College of Dentistry"). (Comp. ¶ 4.) The Board governs the campuses in the University of Illinois system including the College of Dentistry. (Id. at ¶ 5.) Graham was the dean of the College of Dentistry, and Sbalchiero the acting head of the Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery who replaced Meer as postgraduate program director and who signed the letter telling Meer his contract would not be renewed. (Id. at ¶¶ 6, 9.) Manning was the chancellor of UIC and Tanner the provost. (Id. at ¶¶ 7-8.)

Until September of 2006, Meer had an unblemished professional record at the College of Dentistry. (Id. at ¶ 13.) On September 14, 2006, Graham sent Meer a letter informing him that until further notice he was temporarily removed from "all duties, responsibilities, and authorities" related to his position as clinic chief and director. (Id. at ¶ 14.) A few days later Meer's counsel informed Graham that his actions violated UIC and "Graduate Medical Education" policies in part because the Chancellor did not participate in the decision. (Id. at ¶¶ 17-21.) UIC's council responded with a letter stating that its action was taken "with the cognizance of the Chancellor" and that "no proceedings for sanction have been initiated." (Id. at ¶ 22.)

Meer sent an additional letter restating his position and requesting a description of the allegations against him since he did not know anything about why he had been suspended. (Id. at ¶¶ 23-27.) Graham then sent a letter directly to Meer setting out some allegations against Meer, including that Meer had overseen and taken no action when another doctor had purportedly insulted residents, improperly placed residents on probationary status, improperly pressured residents to participate in an elective rotation, and violated the UIC policy on residents' working hours. (Id. at Ex. E.) The letter also referenced an on-going investigation into certain billing issues. (Id.) Graham also stated in the letter that he needed to continue to look into these matters, and advised Meer that "[s]hould [he] desire to address these allegations, please do so in writing. . . within the next fourteen days." (Id.) UIC several times denied Meer's request to speak to Manning directly. (Id. at ¶¶ 34-37.) On May 2, 2007, defendants terminated Meer.*fn1 (Id. at ¶ 40.) Meer alleges this violated the university policies requiring notice for such decisions. (Id. at ¶¶ 41-42.)

Meer has brought claims (1) for mandamus seeking to reinstate him pending a formal review process (Count I); (2) for a petition for declaratory judgment that Meer has a right to immediate reinstatement pending formal review (Count II); (3) for injunctive relief mandating immediate reinstatement pending formal review (Count III); (4) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2007), alleging that his removal violated his right to procedural and substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment (Counts IV and V); (5) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that his removal violated his right to equal protection (Count VI); (6) for retaliatory discharge (Count VII); (7) for mandamus that in the alternative the court order UIC to provide Meer with a "terminal contract" (Count VIII); (8) another claim in the alternative for a declaratory judgment that Meer has a right to a "terminal contract" (Count IX); (9) for injunctive relief ordering defendants to immediately provide Meer with a "terminal contract" (Count X); and (10) § 1983 substantive and procedural due process claims and a § 1983 equal protection claim labeled "(Termination of Contract)(In the Alternative)" (Counts XI, XII and XIII). Meer originally brought suit in the Circuit Court of Cook County, but defendants removed the matter to this court. After defendants filed a motion to dismiss the original complaint, Meer filed the present amended complaint. Defendants have moved to dismiss the present complaint.

II.

Count IV of Meer's complaint is a § 1983 claim for violation of his right to procedural due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Meer contends that his removal impinged upon both property and liberty interests in his position at the College of Dentistry. In order to show that defendants violated his right to due process, Meer must show that (1) he had a constitutionally-protected property or liberty interest; (2) he suffered a loss of that interest amounting to a deprivation; and (3) the deprivation occurred without due process of law. Kiddy-Brown v. Blagojevich, 408 F.3d 346, 360 (7th Cir. 2005) (citing Polenz v. Parrott, 883 F.2d 551, 555 (7th Cir. 1989)) (discussing deprivations of property interests); Omosegbon v. Wells, 335 F.3d 668, 674 (7th Cir. 2003) (discussing deprivations of both property and liberty interests). Defendants contend Meer has not shown that he had either a property or liberty interest in his positions. I conclude that Meer has stated a claim for deprivation of a property interest, but not a liberty interest.

A. Property Interest

Meer's complaint alleges that he had a property interest in his position as clinic chief and director, his compensation and benefits stemming from those positions and the performance of surgeries, the enhancement of his reputation, the way that his current positions and non-removal affected his future professional opportunities, and in ensuring defendants do not defame him in relation to his removal. Federal courts look to state law in determining whether an employee has a property interest in continued employment. Luellen v. City of Chicago, 350 F.3d 604, 613 (7th Cir. 2003) (citing Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 538 (1985)). Under Illinois law, Meer has a property interest in a particular job only if he has "a legitimate expectation of continued employment based on a legitimate claim of entitlement." Moss v. Martin, 473 F.3d 694, 700 (7th Cir. 2007) (citations omitted). Under Illinois law, to show a legitimate expectation of continued employment Meer must point to "a specific ordinance, state law, contract or understanding limiting the ability of the state or state entity to discharge him." Id. (quotation omitted).

Defendants argue that Meer has not sufficiently alleged that he had a property interest in his employment because he has not sufficiently alleged any source of entitlement to continued employment. Meer responds that he has not alleged that he had a property interest in "simply keeping his job" but rather that his "interests lie in having a proper investigation and hearing before the sanctions of removal may be levied against a person in his position." This view of his own claim would seem to doom it. The Seventh Circuit has repeated several times that for an ordinance, state law, contract or understanding to give rise to a constitutionally-protected property interest, it "must go beyond mere procedural guarantees to provide some substantive criteria limiting the State's discretion." Ledford v. Sullivan, 105 F.3d 354, 357 (7th Cir. 1997) (quoting Cain v. Larson, 879 F.2d 1424, 1426 (7th Cir. 1989)). The Seventh Circuit explained in Cain that "[i]f a statute or regulation merely delimits what procedures must be followed before an employee is fired, then it does not contain the requisite substantive predicate." 879 F.2d at 1426 (citing Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 347 (1976); Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 578 (1972); Memphis Light, Gas & Water Div. v. Craft, 436 U.S. 1, 11 (1977)). If all that Meer is alleging is that he has a right to investigation and hearing, this does not meet the requirements for a "substantive predicate" under Cain.

The provisions of the "university statutes" (the university bylaws, which are not part of the Illinois state statutes) that Meer's complaint points to, however, allow him to sufficiently allege a property interest in his position as ...


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