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Koehn v. Tobias

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

July 9, 2013

Tobias, et al.


PHILIP G. REINHARD, Magistrate Judge.

Plaintiff Peter Koehn was a school psychologist employed by Harvard School District #50. Plaintiff disagreed with the District's decision to change special education services and placements because, he alleges, the changes were contrary to state and federal law. After alerting school district officials of his concerns, he was disciplined and eventually discharged from his position. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit pro se under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He has since amended his pleading and raises two claims against defendants Lauri Tobias, District #50's superintendent and special education director; Margaret Segerston, principal of the junior high school at which plaintiff was employed; seven members of the District #50 School Board; and Julie Evans, a special education principal consultant employed by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). ISBE was responsible for evaluating District #50's compliance with federal and state laws. Plaintiff alleges that the ISBE's duties included administering the due process system, providing mediation services, conducting compliance investigations, and approving policies and procedures. Evans oversaw a year-long remediation process for District #50's special education program.

Plaintiff brings a First Amendment retaliation claim under Count I. Under Count II, plaintiff claims that he was deprived of a fair hearing under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Both Counts are alleged against all the defendants. Jurisdiction is proper under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Segerston, Tobias, and the board members (District #50 defendants) have answered the amended complaint and asserted affirmative defenses. Evans now separately moves to dismiss the claims against her pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), contending, inter alia, that plaintiff fails to allege Evans's personal involvement in plaintiff's alleged constitutional deprivations.

Dismissal for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) is proper when the allegations in a complaint, however true, could not raise a claim of entitlement to relief. Virnich v. Vorwald, 664 F.3d 206, 212 (7th Cir. 2012). The complaint must contain allegations that state a claim to relief that is facially plausible; that is, the plaintiff must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The court construes all allegations as true and draws all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor. Id. The court construes pro se pleadings liberally. Gomez v. Randle, 680 F.3d 859, 864-65 (7th Cir. 2012).

Evans argues that plaintiff has not sufficiently alleged her personal involvement in the conduct underlying his claims. "For a defendant to be liable under § 1983, he or she must have participated directly in the constitutional violation." Hildebrandt v. Ill. Dep't of Natural Res., 347 F.3d 1014, 1039 (7th Cir. 2003); see also Pepper v. Vill. of Oak Park, 430 F.3d 805, 810 (7th Cir. 2005) (holding that Section 1983 liability requires that the defendant caused or participated in the constitutional violation); Palmer v. Marion Cnty., 327 F.3d 588, 593-94 (7th Cir. 2003) (affirming summary judgment in favor of defendant county sheriff where plaintiff made no showing that the sheriff "was personally involved in the decision making allegedly amounting to violation of [the plaintiff's] constitutional rights.").

Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges the following. On September 10, 2010, [1] Segerston instructed plaintiff to come to her office. She asked plaintiff how special education staff members at the school felt about changes made to special education placements and services. Plaintiff told Segerston that he was concerned that the changes were contrary to numerous state and federal laws and violated the rights of disabled students. Segerston told plaintiff to "stop asking questions, " and repeatedly asked plaintiff to name the staff members discussing these concerns. Plaintiff declined. Segerston then assured plaintiff that she would discuss the matter with Tobias.

On October 10th, plaintiff was informed in writing and orally that Segerston was ordering him to attend a disciplinary hearing regarding his professional performance. Segerston refused to provide plaintiff with her concerns prior to the hearing despite numerous entreaties from plaintiff. No complaints were made regarding plaintiff's professional performance prior to his September 10th meeting with Segerston.

Plaintiff informed Tobias in writing that Segerston repeatedly broke state and federal laws, and that many students would not receive special education services as a result. Tobias responded the same day in writing, acknowledging that plaintiff was leveling "pretty serious accusations." Plaintiff also learned from a fellow special education staff member that Segerston instructed other special education teachers a week before, "do not talk to Peter. Everything goes to Kristi." Kristi Austin was the special education liaison for the school.

Plaintiff wrote Tobias and informed her that Segerston initiated the disciplinary process against him in order to retaliate against plaintiff for calling attention to the allegedly illegal activities. Plaintiff again wrote Tobias and requested that Segerston recuse herself from his disciplinary hearing. Tobias did not respond to plaintiff's request.

Plaintiff wrote Evans informing her of Segerston's allegedly illegal activities and that Segerston was retaliating against him. Plaintiff then forwarded Evans a writing from another District #50 staff member corroborating the allegations made in plaintiff's previous letter. That same day, plaintiff received a letter from Tobias stating that Evans received plaintiff's ISBE complaint against Segerston. The document indicated that Evans was copied on the correspondence.

On October 20th, Tobias ordered plaintiff to take part in the disciplinary hearing. Meanwhile, Segerston and Tobias agreed to a disciplinary plan for plaintiff, though plaintiff claims that the decision to implement the plan was based on factual errors and misrepresentations. On October 28th, Tobias informed plaintiff in writing that she had performed a thorough and complete due diligence investigation of Segerston's actions and concluded that plaintiff's allegations were unfounded. Plaintiff subsequently learned that Tobias told two staff members who plaintiff listed as potential witnesses to "stay out of it. It's a personality conflict between Peter and Margaret."

On November 1st, plaintiff wrote to Tobias and Evans pointing out numerous deficiencies in Tobias's investigation. Plaintiff also referenced his filed complaint with Evans and the ISBE. On November 4th, plaintiff wrote a letter to the District #50 board members informing them that Segerston and Tobias were retaliating against him for informing Evans of the allegedly illegal activities. Evans was copied on the letter. Evans responded to plaintiff, stating that she had not received a complaint from him. Plaintiff's disciplinary hearing took place on November 10th. Plaintiff addressed the District #50 board and described Tobias's and Segerston's allegedly unlawful activities and their attempts to retaliate against him. Plaintiff also opined that Tobias and Segerston should not be able to participate in plaintiff's disciplinary process going forward due to their inability to be impartial. The board voted unanimously to implement the disciplinary plan. From mid-November 2010 through January 2011, Tobias and Segerston failed to respond to plaintiff's questions regarding how he was to adhere to the disciplinary plan.

On November 15th, Evans addressed approximately 15 members of District #50 special education staff. Plaintiff, Segerston and Tobias were also present at the meeting. Evans stated that she knew that Segerston's actions were unlawful but that she decided not to stop the violations. Plaintiff addressed the meeting asking how Tobias, Segerston and Evans could allow the violations to continue. Tobias shouted, "stop it!" She then blocked all discussion of the allegedly unlawful practices.

On January 31, 2011, the board voted to terminate plaintiff's employment with District #50. Plaintiff alleges that this allowed the illegal activities to continue. During the spring of 2011, Tobias submitted an allegedly false report as part of a federal investigation into discharge of plaintiff. In the document, Tobias claimed to have reviewed written sources and witnesses while investigating the events leading up to plaintiff's discipline and eventual ...

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