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Price v. Board of Education of City of Chicago

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

May 8, 2013

WILLIETTE PRICE, on behalf of herself and all persons similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants. CHERYL SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant. BARBARA FERKEL and ADRIENNE GREEN-KATIEN, individually and on behalf of all similarly situated persons, Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

EDMOND E. CHANG, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Williette Price, Cheryl Smith, Barbara Ferkel, and Adrienne Green-Katien filed three separate lawsuits on behalf of themselves and a proposed class of similarly situated Chicago Public School teachers against the Chicago Board of Education alleging, among other things, violations of due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Price v. Board of Education, et al., No. 11 C 4463; Smith v. Board of Education, No. 11 C 4974; Ferkel v. Board of Education, et al., No. 11 C 9322. Plaintiffs are tenured Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers who were laid off and "honorably dismissed" in the summer of 2010 as part of the Board's response to a fiscal crisis. Plaintiffs allege that, as tenured teachers, they had a constitutionally protected property interest in continued employment, and that the Board deprived them of this property interest in violation of the Due Process Clause by summarily dismissing them without individualized determinations of their qualifications, certifications, experience, and performance ratings. See, e.g., Ferkel R. 5, Ferkel 1st Am. Compl.[1] The Board now moves to dismiss the due process claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Price R. 63, Price Mot. Dismiss; Smith R. 13, Smith Mot. Dismiss; Ferkel R. 19, Ferkel Mot. Dismiss. Because the Board's arguments are basically the same in all three cases, this opinion will address all three motions, and the same opinion will be entered in each of the three cases. For the reasons explained below, the Board's motions are granted.

I. Background

In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the Court must accept as true the complaints' factual allegations and draw reasonable inferences in Plaintiffs' favor. Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 2079 (2011). Plaintiffs Williette Price, Cheryl Smith, Barbara Ferkel, and Adrienne Green-Katien were tenured Chicago Public School teachers. Price R. 62, Price 1st Am. Compl. §§ 13-14; Smith R. 1, Smith Compl. § 11; Ferkel 1st Am. Compl. § 2. On June 15, 2010, in response to a mounting fiscal crisis, the Board passed a resolution authorizing the "honorable termination" of tenured teachers. See Smith Compl. § 17. Soon after, Plaintiffs were informed that they would be laid off and honorably dismissed. Id. § 18; Ferkel 1st Am. Compl. § 41; Price 1st Am. Compl. § 9. Plaintiffs, along with over 1, 200 other tenured CPS teachers, were laid off without first being given notice of existing vacancies within the CPS system or an opportunity to show that they were qualified to fill those vacancies. See Price 1st Am. Compl. § 15. Plaintiffs sued the Board, alleging that the Board's failure to provide proper pre-layoff procedures-namely, an individualized hearing on each teacher's qualifications for existing vacancies-constituted a violation of their right to due process, because, as tenured CPS teachers, they had a property interest in continued employment. See id. at 5-6; Smith Compl. at 9-10; Ferkel 1st Am. Compl. at 12-13. The Board now moves to dismiss.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint generally need only include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This short and plain statement must "give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quotation marks and citation omitted). The Seventh Circuit has explained that this rule "reflects a liberal notice pleading regime, which is intended to focus litigation on the merits of a claim' rather than on technicalities that might keep plaintiffs out of court." Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 580 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002)).

"A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted." Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009). "[W]hen ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss, a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56); McGowan v. Hulick, 612 F.3d 636, 638 (7th Cir. 2010) (courts accept factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor). "[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). These allegations "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The allegations that are entitled to the assumption of truth are those that are factual, rather than mere legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

III. Analysis

The Board advances two independent reasons in support of its motions to dismiss. First, the Board contends that the claims are barred by claim preclusion. Second, even if claim preclusion does not sink the case, the Board says that dismissal of the due-process claims is warranted because Plaintiffs have failed to identify a constitutionally protected property interest, and thus have failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Price R. 64, Price Defs.' Br. at 1; Smith R. 13, Smith Def.'s Br. at 1; Ferkel R. 19, Ferkel Defs.' Br. at 2. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Claim Preclusion

The Board argues that Plaintiffs' due-process claims are barred by claim preclusion because Plaintiffs are asserting essentially the same claims that their union, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), unsuccessfully pursued in Chicago Teachers Union v. Board of Education, No. 10 C 4852. The doctrine of claim preclusion requires a party to join in a single lawsuit all legal and remedial theories that concern the same nucleus of operative facts. See Ross v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 211, 486 F.3d 279, 283 (7th Cir. 2007). The doctrine "protects [litigants] from the expense and vexation attending multiple lawsuits, conserves judicial resources, and fosters reliance on judicial action by minimizing the possibility of inconsistent decisions." Montana v. United States, 440 U.S. 147, 153-54 (1979). A party asserting claim preclusion in a later action must establish (1) identity of the claim; (2) identity of the parties, which includes those in "privity" with the original parties; and (3) a final judgment on the merits. Ross, 486 F.3d at 283. Although claim preclusion is an affirmative defense that need not be anticipated by the complaint, claim preclusion may provide grounds for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) where a plaintiff has pled herself out of court by establishing in the complaint facts that prove the defense. Novickas v. Proviso Twp. High Sch., 2010 WL 3515793, at *2 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 31, 2010) (citing Muhammad v. Oliver, 547 F.3d 874, 878 (7th Cir. 2008)).

To evaluate the claim-preclusion argument, a comparison is needed between the CTU case and this case, so a brief overview of the CTU proceedings is warranted.

1. CTU Case

Beginning in June 2010, the Board laid off nearly 1, 300 of its teachers to close a massive budget deficit for the 2011 fiscal year. Price Defs.' Br. at 2. In August 2010, the Chicago Teachers Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of its members in response to the economic layoffs, asserting a variety of federal and state claims against the Board, seeking injunctive relief, reinstatement, and a boilerplate catch-all request for "any other such relief as may be required." 10 C 4852, R. 1 § 73(c). The CTU asserted, among other things, that the Board had deprived tenured teachers of their Fourteenth Amendment right to due process by not affording them an opportunity to be retained to fill existing vacancies within the CPS system before they were laid off. Id. §§ 4, 50, 69, 71. Specifically, the CTU alleged that section 34-18(31) of the Illinois School Code gave tenured teachers a right to individualized determinations as to whether they were qualified to be ...


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