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Satkar Hospitality Inc., Sharad K. Dani, and Harish Dani v. Cook County Board of Review

May 20, 2011

SATKAR HOSPITALITY INC., SHARAD K. DANI, AND HARISH DANI, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
COOK COUNTY BOARD OF REVIEW, LARRY ROGERS, JR., JOSEPH BERRIOS, BRENDAN F. HOULIHAN, SCOTT M. GUETZOW, JOHN P. SULLIVAN, THOMAS A. JACONETTY, FOX TELEVISION STATIONS, INC., FOX CHICAGO NEWS, NEWS CORP., ILLINOIS REVIEW, FRAN EATON, DENNIS G. LACOMB, DANE PLACKO, MARSHA BARTEL, CAROL FOWLER, PATRICK MULLEN, AND FOX TELEVISION HOLDINGS, INC., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Matthew F. Kennelly, District Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Satkar Hospitality, Inc. and its two principals have sued the Cook County Board of Review, three individuals who were the commissioners of the Board at the relevant time, the chief deputy commissioner, and two first assistant commissioners (collectively, the Board defendants); the Illinois Review and several affiliates (collectively, the Illinois Review defendants); and the local Fox Television station and several affiliates (collectively, the Fox defendants). The Board of Review considers appeals of real estate valuations made by the Cook County Assessor for property tax purposes. Plaintiffs claim that the Board defendants revoked their property tax reduction without providing due process and in violation of other constitutional prohibitions and that the Illinois Review and Fox defendants defamed plaintiffs and placed them in a false light.

All of the defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' first amended complaint. In this decision, the Court considers the Board defendants' and Illinois Review defendants' motions to dismiss. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the Board defendants' motion in part and denies it in part. The Court denies the Illinois Review defendants' motion.

Background

Satkar owns a hotel in Schaumburg. Plaintiffs allege that Satkar appealed its 2007 tax assessment and that the Board lowered the assessment in a way that represented a $40,000 annual tax savings. In 2009, the news media ran reports that Paul Froehlich, a member of the Illinois General Assembly, was "engineering successful Board of Review appeals for his constituents in return for large campaign contributions." Am. Compl. ¶ 27. Plaintiffs allege that the reports accused them of bribing Froehlich in return for his agreement to arrange a successful appeal. Id. ¶ 28. This, plaintiffs allege, was a false accusation. Id. ¶ 35.

Plaintiffs allege that in response to the media reports, "and for the appearance of clean hands," the Board required them to appear in June 2009 "ostensibly . . . to discuss the assessment appeal." Id. ¶ 39. But rather than posing questions about the valuation of the hotel, plaintiffs allege, the Board defendants "asked repeated questions about the relationship between Plaintiffs and Rep. Froehlich." Id. Following the hearing, plaintiffs contend, "the Board arbitrarily rescinded the reduction in property taxes that it itself granted close to one year prior . . . , stating simply, 'we can do anything we want.'" Id. ¶ 46. The chief deputy commissioner allegedly attributed the reduction directly to "the relationship between the people involved," i.e., plaintiffs and Froelich. Id. ¶ 47.

Plaintiffs allege that they were "arbitrarily selected" due to the fact that they had made contributions to Froehlich's campaigns, "merely for their association with Rep. Froehlich" and contrary to their First Amendment right to contribute to political candidates without fear of retaliation. Id. ¶¶ 48-50. Plaintiffs allege that similarly situated property owners who had not contributed to Froehlich were not treated as plaintiffs were. Id. ¶ 51. They also allege that the revised assessment that the Board issued following the June 2009 hearing "did not accurately reflect the property's actual value . . . ." Id. ¶ 52.

Plaintiffs allege that they have appealed the revised assessment to the Illinois Property Tax Appeal Board (PTAB) but that the "PTAB will not render any decision for an unconscionably long time, if ever" because the Board has "red-flagged" the appeal. Id. ¶ 53. They contend that there is a good chance that the appeal will take as long as seven or eight years to resolve and that in the meantime they are deprived of the use of the amounts they have been forced to pay in higher taxes. Id. ¶¶ 66-67.

Plaintiffs also allege that the Board erroneously denied their appeal of a later assessment. Id. ¶ 54. According to plaintiffs, Larry Rogers, one of the commissioners of the Board, "explained to counsel for Plaintiffs that the denial was as a result of Plaintiffs' relationship with Rep. Froehlich, and not due to the merits of Plaintiffs' appeal and that under no circumstances would the Board grant a reduction of the Plaintiffs' property taxes." Id. ¶ 56. Plaintiffs allege that this, too, was in retaliation for their association with Froehlich, contrary to the way the Board treated other similarly situated property owners, and not based on the merits of the assessment. Id. ¶ 57-58. Plaintiffs allege that the Board's actions denied them due process because they did not have a real opportunity for a hearing on the merits. Id. ¶ 59.

Plaintiffs allege that under Illinois law, a property owner may appeal to the PTAB or to state circuit court (but not both) and that the PTAB lacks authority to review issues of due process and equal protection. Id. ¶ 61. They allege that the Board's commissioners "are powerful members of the Cook County Democratic Party and exert political influence over the State judiciary." Id. ¶ 68. As a result, plaintiffs allege, they "cannot expect justice in this matter in Circuit Court because there are inherent conflicts of interests between many members of the State judiciary and at least two of the Defendants," including (former) commissioner Berrios, who is identified as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, which, plaintiffs allege, "slates all [D]emocratic judicial candidates" in the county, as well as former vice chair of slating for the party.

Id. ¶¶ 69-70. Plaintiffs contend that "[t]here is a great likelihood that in state court, Plaintiffs would be before a judge who owes his position, in some way, to the political party currently chaired by . . . Berrios." Id. ¶ 73. They also allege that (former) commissioner Rogers, "was President of the Cook County Bar Association, which rates and effectively recommends candidates for judicial office." Id. ¶ 75. As a result of these factors, plaintiffs contend, "[t]here is no plain, adequate, and complete state remedy in this matter." Id. ¶ 76.

Plaintiffs assert claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Board of Review and the individual Board defendants for violation of the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment (Counts 1 and 2) and the First Amendment (Count 3). Plaintiffs assert state law defamation claims against the Illinois Review defendants. Defendants have moved to dismiss these claims on various grounds.

Discussion

On a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts the facts stated in the complaint as true and draws reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chicago Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009).

I. The Board defendants' motion

The Board defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiffs' first amended complaint on the basis of absolute immunity, qualified immunity, and the Rooker-Feldman doctrine. The Board defendants also contend that plaintiffs fail to state a claim for violation of their equal protection, due process, and First Amendment rights. Finally, the Board defendants ask this Court to dismiss all claims against the Board on the ground that plaintiffs fail to state claims against any individual Board defendants. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

A. Absolute and qualified immunity

A recent Seventh Circuit decision requires the dismissal of the claims against the members of the Board -- Berrios, Rogers, and Houlihan -- on the basis of absolute immunity. In Heyde v. Pittenger, 633 F.3d 512 (7th Cir. 2011), the Seventh Circuit considered claims against the members of the Tazewell County Board of Review, which performs the same function in that county as the Cook County Board of Review. The plaintiff in Heyde alleged that the board set his property assessment at a disproportionately high level, in violation of his equal protection rights and in retaliation for his earlier exercise of his right to challenge assessments. See id. at 514. The court held that the defendants were entitled to absolute quasi-judicial immunity from suit under section 1983 because the claims arose from their performance of an adjudicative function. Id. at 517-19.

The same immunity applies to Guetzow, Sullivan, and Jaconetty, who are deputy and assistant commissioners. The factual predicate for plaintiffs' claims against them is less than crystal clear. Plaintiffs lump them in with the other Board defendants without distinguishing who did what -- except for their reference to Guetzow's alleged statement that the Board had acted as it did because of "the relationship between the people involved." Am. Compl. ΒΆ 47. What is clear, however, is that plaintiffs have sued the non-Board member defendants because of their ...


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