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Jerrold Goldberg v. Eleanor Brooks

April 20, 2011

JERROLD GOLDBERG,
PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
ELEANOR BROOKS, KAREN BRADLEY, AND
EVANSTON/SKOKIE SCHOOL DISTRICT 65,
DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF COOK COUNTY No. 08 L 11614 KATHY M. FLANAGAN, HONORABLE JUDGE PRESIDING.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Steele

JUSTICE STEELE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

Presiding Justice Quinn and Justice Murphy concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

Plaintiff Jerrold Goldberg appeals orders of the circuit court of Cook County dismissing his defamation complaint against defendants Eleanor Brooks, Karen Bradley and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 (District 65), and denying him leave to file an amended complaint alleging defamation and tortious interference with contract by the defendants. For the following reasons, we conclude that the circuit court did not err in ruling that the statements by Brooks and Bradley were subject to an absolute privilege and that District 65 enjoyed statutory immunity from Goldberg's claims in the complaint and the proposed amended complaint. Accordingly, we affirm the circuit court.

BACKGROUND

The record on appeal discloses the following facts. On October 20, 2008, Goldberg filed a complaint against the defendants sounding in defamation. The complaint alleges that Goldberg was previously employed by the Allenton Bus Company as a bus driver transporting children for District 65. Brooks was employed by District 65 as a teacher's assistant. As part of her duties, Brooks drove with Goldberg as he discharged his driver duties.

Count I of the complaint also alleges that on October 26, 2007, Brooks told Bradley, the principal of the Dawes school in District 65, that Goldberg drove her against her will to Wilmette/Kenilworth and Winnetka before starting the bus route. Bradley then communicated the statement to Goldberg's employer. Goldberg alleged that the statement was false and damaged his reputation as a dependable employee.

Count II alleged that Bradley, as part of her duties as principal of the Dawes school, oversaw and commented on people serving the school's children. On November 2, 2007, Bradley allegedly told Goldberg's employer that Goldberg had attempted or threatened to run over two children crossing slowly in front of his bus. Bradley also allegedly told Goldberg's employer that Goldberg did not seem to be a suitable person to work with children. Goldberg alleged that these statements were false and damaged his reputation as a dependable employee.

Count III of Goldberg's complaint sought to hold District 65 liable for the allegedly defamatory comments of Brooks and Bradley, based on the theory of respondeat superior.

On January 12, 2009, defendants filed a combined motion to dismiss, pursuant to section 2-619.1 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure (Code) (735 ILCS 5/2-619.1 (West 2008)). On March 3, 2009, defendants filed an amended motion to dismiss, limited to section 2-619(a)(9) of the Code (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(9) (West 2008)). Defendants argued: (1) Brooks' statement to Bradley was protected by a common law privilege; (2) Brooks cannot be liable for Bradley's statement to Goldberg's employer, pursuant to section 2-204 of the Illinois Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (Tort Immunity Act) (745 ILCS 10/2-204 (West 2006)); (3) Brooks' statement is also immunized by section 2-210 of the Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/2-210 (West 2006)); and (4) Brooks' statement is further immunized by section 15 of the Citizen Participation Act (735 ILCS 110/115 (West 2006)). Defendants also argued that Bradley's statement was: (1) constitutionally protected opinion; (2) immunized by section 2-210 of the Tort Immunity Act; (3) immunized by section 15 of the Citizen Participation Act; and (4) made pursuant to a contractual right to request a driver reassignment. Defendants further argued that District 65 is a local public entity immunized under sections 2-107 and 2-109 of the Tort Immunity Act. 745 ILCS 10/2-107, 2-109 (West 2006).

Defendants supported their motion to dismiss with affidavits from Brooks, Bradley, and Roger Allen, District 65's transportation manager. Brooks, in addition to detailing the incident in which Goldberg drove outside Evanston, stated that riding on buses with students is an additional task teacher's assistants can perform for additional pay. Brooks also stated that her responsibilities while on the bus include supervising students and reporting any problems or unusual incidents to Bradley. Brooks further stated that Goldberg told her several days before the incident he served on a jury in a case involving a kidnapped dog, drove his bus to block the defendant's driveway, and called the police to have the dog returned. Brooks stated she reported the conversation to Bradley.

Bradley's affidavit states she received a telephone call from a parent claiming that Goldberg yelled at her son and another student for crossing in front of his bus too slowly. Bradley spoke to the students and then told Goldberg he should register any complaints with her, rather than shout at students. Bradley's affidavit also recounts the conversation she had with Brooks, adding that Brooks advised her that she no longer wanted to ride Goldberg's bus. Bradley further states she contacted Allen to inform him she did not want Goldberg driving her students any more. According to Bradley, Allen said he would request a reassignment and requested she document the matter in writing, which she did in a letter to Allen.

Allen's affidavit states that District 65 has the contractual right to request that Allenton remove any driver deemed unfit or unsuitable for the district's transportation services. Allen states after he received the letter from Bradley, he spoke to the district superintendent. After receiving approval, he contacted Allenton to ...


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