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Cunliffe v. Wright

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

June 20, 2014

JEFFREY WRIGHT, in his individual and official capacities; CHERYL COLSTON, in her individual and official capacities; THOMAS KRIEGER, in his individual and official capacities; RESHORNA M. FITZPATRICK, in her individual and official capacities; RHONDA JONES, in her individual and official capacities; JAMES SULLIVAN, in his individual and official capacities; the BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO; and JANE AND JOHN DOE, Defendants

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Angela Cunliffe, Plaintiff, Pro se, Chicago, IL.

For Jeffrey Wright, in his individual capacity and in his official capacity as Principal of King Collect Preparatory High School, Defendant: Kathleen Marie Gibbons, LEAD ATTORNEY, Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

For Board of Education of the City of Chicago, The, Defendant: Sunil Kumar, LEAD ATTORNEY, Lisa A. Dreishmire, Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Chicago, IL; Susan Margaret O'Keefe, Chicago Board of Education, Chicago, IL.

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JOHN W. DARRAH, United States District Court Judge.

Plaintiff Angela Cunliffe, proceeding pro se, has filed a nineteen-count Second Amended Complaint (" SAC" ) against eleven Defendants, alleging various constitutional, statutory and common law claims, relating to her dismissal as a counselor at a Chicago high school. Cunliffe seeks injunctive relief and monetary damages in the amount of $4,000,000, plus punitive damages. Cunliffe has served only three Defendants: the Board of Education of the City of Chicago; Principal Jeffrey Wright; and Director of the Office of the Inspector General, James Sullivan.[1] Those Defendants have moved to dismiss the SAC under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim and for being time-barred. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion [96] is granted.


The following is taken from the SAC, which is assumed to be true for purposes of a motion to dismiss. See Reger Dev., LLC v. Nat'l City Bank, 592 F.3d 759, 763 (7th Cir. 2010). Cunliffe is an African-American female and a resident of Cook County, Illinois. She was an employee of Defendant, the Board of Education of the City of Chicago (the " Board" ) and, during the times relevant to the SAC, was a school counselor at King College Preparatory High School (" King" ) in Chicago, Illinois. (SAC ¶ ¶ 1, 10.) Defendant Wright, who has been named in his individual and official capacities, was the principal at King during the relevant times. Defendant Sullivan is the Director of the Office of the Inspector General for the Board.

Cunliffe was first hired by the Board as a teacher in 1992, and in 2000, she became a school counselor. In that position, she received " superior" performance ratings and was on the Board's principal eligibility list for several years, including until the end of September 2009. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 23-27.) During the 2008-2009 school year, Cunliffe was assigned responsibility for a program called Students in Temporary Living Situations (" STLS" ) at King. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 29, 30). The STLS program provides benefits and services to homeless students, including free meals and other monetary benefits, and is paid for with public funds. ( Id. ¶ 29). As King's liaison for the STLS program, Cunliffe was responsible for coordinating the educational services to homeless students enrolled or seeking enrollment at King, including identifying students that met categories of homelessness and advising them of their rights. ( Id. ¶ 31.) Cunliffe also was responsible for completing and signing enrollment forms,

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which Wright also was required to sign. ( Id. ¶ 33.)

Rhonda Jones, who has been named as a Defendant but not served, worked as an aide or clerk in the STLS program at King. Jones was responsible for entering information about enrolled homeless students into the Board's computer database system. She also was the official student records custodian for King. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 36-37.) She also was allegedly Wright's girlfriend. ( Id. ¶ 15.)[2]

In June 2009, upon the request by a member of the Board, Cunliffe generated a month-end report from the database. Cunliffe discovered that Jones had impermissibly enrolled her three children as participants in the STLS program at King and that they were improperly receiving benefits. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 38-42.) Cunliffe raised the issue with Wright, who stated that Jones and her children did not fit the STLS's requirements and that he did not know how they got enrolled. Cunliffe then asked Wright to investigate possible fraud and theft in connection with the STLS program. When Cunliffe attempted to follow up with Wright, he did not respond. Cunliffe also reported her suspicion of fraud about Jones to the Board's Office of the Inspector General (the " OIG" ). ( Id. ¶ ¶ 47-50.)

After Cunliffe reported her concerns, Wright became hostile towards her and told her that no one wanted to work with her because of her report to the OIG. Cunliffe was again assigned to act as liaison to the STLS program for the 2009-2010 school year. Wright began to humiliate her and intimidate her by having Jones do jobs that were within Cunliffe's liaison duties. Wright told Cunliffe that she was paranoid, a troublemaker, " that if she were white he [Wright] would not be having these problems." ( Id. ¶ ¶ 17, 18.) Wright further limited Cunliffe's involvement in certain school activities. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 54, 55.)

In December 2009, the Board conducted an audit of King's STLS program. ( Id. ¶ 57.) Cunliffe passed the audit, although there was a suggestion for better fraud controls. Jones failed the audit. ( Id. ¶ ¶ 61, 62, 69). Subsequently after the audit, Wright wrote a falsified reprimand and recommendation to terminate Cunliffe. ( Id. ¶ 20.) In May 2010, Wright reduced Cunliffe's performance rating to an " unsatisfactory." ( Id. ¶ 104.) On August 13, 2010, Cunliffe was notified that her position was terminated based on " redefinition." ( Id. ¶ 118.) Wright also placed Cunliffe on a " Do Not Hire" list. ( Id. ¶ 121.) Cunliffe participated in a due process hearing concerning her dismissal on November 9, 2010. ( Id. ¶ 127.)

On August 10, 2012, Cunliffe filed this lawsuit, naming only the Board and Wright as Defendants and asserting claims under § § 1983, 1985, and 1986 regarding her written reprimand, unsatisfactory rating, and dismissal by the Board. On August 14, 2012, Cunliffe filed an Amended Complaint, in which she added claims under § 1981 and the First Amendment. On November 1, 2012, Cunliffe filed another Amended Complaint that was substantively identical to her First Amended Complaint.

After the Board moved to dismiss Cunliffe's § § 1983, 1985, and 1986 claims, Cunliffe requested leave to amend her claims and filed a Second Amended Complaint (" SAC" ) on July 22, 2013.[3] In the SAC,

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Cunliffe again named the Board and Wright as Defendants and also named the following additional Defendants: Sullivan; Jones; Cheryl Colston, the Board's former Director of Labor and Employee Relations; Tom Krieger, the Board's Talent Office Manager; Reshorna Fitzpatrick, the Board Hearing Officer for one of Cunliffe's grievances; and two unknown individuals identified as Jane and John Doe, Inspector General investigators. The SAC's nineteen counts include: claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments for retaliation and violation of substantive and procedural due process and equal protection; statutory claims under 42 U.S.C. § § 1981, 1983 for race discrimination and harassment; state law claims under the Illinois False Claims Act (" IFCA" ), the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 740 ILCS 174/1, and the Illinois School Code, 105 ILCS 5/34-85; and Illinois common law claims for retaliatory discharge, tortious interference with contractual relations, conspiracy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.


Federal Rule of Procedure 8 requires that the complaint " provide a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, sufficient to provide the defendant with fair notice of the claim and its basis." Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1081 (7th Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). When assessing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept all well-pleaded facts as true, and make all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Id. However, the complaint must allege " enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). Claims are factually plausible if the plaintiff pleads " factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). " [T]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id.

The pleadings of pro se litigants are not held to the same stringent standards as pleadings drafted by formally trained lawyers; instead, they must be liberally construed. See Kyle v. Patterson, 196 F.3d 695, 697 (7th Cir. 1999) (citing Wilson v. Civil Town of Clayton, Ind., 839 F.2d 375, 378 (7th Cir. 1988)). Under this standard, a pro se complaint " may only be dismissed if it is beyond doubt that there is no set of facts under which the plaintiff could obtain relief." Wilson, 839 F.2d at 378. Despite the deferential standard for pro se litigants, the pleadings still must comply with the procedural rules governing them, and the complaint still must be " otherwise understandable." Hudson v. McHugh, 148 F.3d 859, 864 (7th Cir. 1998); see also Anderson v. Hardman, 241 F.3d 544, 545 (7th Cir. 2001).


Sixteen of the counts (Counts I through VII and XI through XIX) are directed against Wright in both his official and individual capacities; fifteen of the counts (Counts II through VII and IX through XIII, XV and XVII through XIX) are directed against Sullivan in both his official and individual capacities; and fifteen of the counts (Counts II through VIII, XI through XV and Counts XVII through XIX) are directed against the Board.

Official Capacity Claims

Cunliffe has named Wright, Sullivan and the other, unserved individual

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Defendants (Colston, Krieger, Fitzpatrick, Jones, Jane and John Doe) in their official capacities as well as their individual capacities. Claims against a government official in his official capacity are treated the same as claims against the governmental unit for which he works. Grieveson v. Anderson, 538 F.3d 763, 771 (7th Cir. 2008) (citing Pourghoraishi v. Flying J, Inc., 449 F.3d 751, 765 (7th Cir. 2006)). Indeed, in her response brief, Cunliffe appears to agree that the claims asserted against the individual defendants in their official capacities should be dismissed. Because the official capacity claims are redundant as those asserted against the Board, all the official capacity claims must be dismissed. See, e.g., Michael M. v. Bd. of Educ. of Evanston Tp. High Sch. No. 202, No. 09 C 797, 2009 WL 2258982, at *2 (N.D. Ill. July 29, 2009) (dismissing claims against individual defendants in their official capacities as redundant when the municipal entity employer was also a named defendant). Consequently, Counts I through VII and XI through XIX against Wright in his official capacity; Counts II through VII and IX through XIII, XV and XVII through XIX against Sullivan in his official capacity; and Counts II through XIII and XV through XIX against the other individual Defendants in their official capacities are dismissed with prejudice.

Rule 4(m)

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(m) requires a plaintiff to serve a defendant within 120 days of the filing of ...

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