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Leetaru v. Board of Trustees of University of Illinois

Supreme Court of Illinois

April 16, 2015

KALEV LEETARU, Appellant,
v.
THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS et al., Appellees.

Rehearing denied May 26, 2015

Appeal from the Appellate Court for the Fourth District; heard in that court on appeal from the Circuit Court of Champaign County, the Hon. Michael Q. Jones, Judge, presiding.

James A. Martinkus, of Erwin, Martinkus & Cole, Ltd., of Champaign, for appellant.

William J. Brinkmann and Kenneth D. Reifsteck, of Thomas, Mamer & Haughey, LLP, of Champaign, for appellees.

JUSTICE KARMEIER delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Garman and Justices Thomas and Kilbride concurred in the judgment and opinion.

OPINION

KARMEIER, JUSTICE

¶ 1 Kalev Leetaru, a graduate student at and former employee of the University of Illinois, brought this action in the circuit court of Champaign County to enjoin the Board of Trustees (Board) of the University of Illinois (University) and Howard Guenther, one of its associate vice chancellors, from taking further action in connection with an investigation they are pursuing against him, in his status as a student, regarding allegations that he engaged in misconduct which violated the University's "Policy and Procedures on Academic Integrity in Research and Publication." Leetaru seeks to halt the proceedings on the grounds that in conducting their investigation, defendants have failed to comply with the University's rules and regulations governing discipline of students and that defendants' actions thereby exceeded their lawful authority, are arbitrary, and have resulted in a gross injustice and deprived him of due process.

¶ 2 Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to section 2-619(a)(1) of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619(a)(1) (West 2012)), claiming that exclusive jurisdiction over this matter lay in the Court of Claims. The circuit court agreed and dismissed Leetaru's cause of action for lack of jurisdiction. The appellate court affirmed. 2014 IL App (4th) 130465. We granted Leetaru's petition for leave to appeal. Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. July 1, 2013). For the reasons that follow, we now reverse and remand to the circuit court for further proceedings.

¶ 3 BACKGROUND

¶ 4 Where, as here, a cause of action is challenged through a motion to dismiss under section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure, all well-pleaded facts in the complaint must be accepted as true and all reasonable inferences that may arise from those facts must be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. Bjork v. O'Meara, 2013 IL 114044, ¶ 21. According to Leetaru's complaint, he is a doctoral student in the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science and a former employee of the University's Cline Center for Democracy (Cline Center or the Center), where he held the title of Coordinator of Research and Information Technology.

¶ 5 In January of 2011, Leetaru was notified by the director of the Cline Center, Peter Nardulli, that his employment there would cease the following January "for budgetary and performance issues." The following November, approximately six weeks before his job was scheduled to end, Leetaru was placed on administrative leave by the director. The formal basis given for that decision was that Leetaru had failed to disclose the location of data belonging to the Cline Center and had used the Center's data without authorization. The director told Leetaru, however, that the real purpose for his actions was to suspend Leetaru's research program, cause Leetaru's research funding to be rescinded, provide the director and the Center with unrestricted access to Leetaru's research in order to further the director's own research and publication activities, and to keep Leetaru from conducting research which the director considered to be in competition with the work of the Center.

¶ 6 Once Leetaru was placed on administrative leave, a dean at the University barred him from his office and blocked his access to all personal and professional documents and objects he kept there, including personal computers, hard drives, USB drives, multiple CD-ROMs of data and paper folders. Among these items, which were seized and boxed by the University, were numerous documents and data related to Leetaru's graduate studies, including his doctoral research and dissertation materials. Leetaru also lost access to certain supercomputing sites around the country.

¶ 7 On December 6, 2011, Leetaru received written notice of the charges which were the predicate for his having been placed on leave from his job. While those charges were pending, but after the January termination date for Leetaru's employment with the Cline Center had passed, the Center's director wrote to University Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Howard Guenther to express his continuing concerns regarding Leetaru's actions as a Center employee, specifically, "misappropriation of data from a long term project that has been directed, funded and operated" by the Center.

¶ 8 Shortly thereafter, on February 8, 2012, Guenther sent notice to Leetaru in Leetaru's status as a graduate student, that his office had received a formal research misconduct complaint alleging that Leetaru was responsible for the unauthorized removal of a substantial number of articles from a University-affiliated repository and had failed and refused to disclose the location of the missing information or return the relevant files despite being asked to do so repeatedly. Although the written notice did not identify the source of the complaint, Guenther advised Leetaru that the complaint had been made by the Cline Center's director.

¶ 9 The University has promulgated and published policies, rules and regulations governing the investigation and discipline of graduate students. These are set out in the "University of Illinois Policy and Procedures on Academic Integrity in Research and Publication" (Policy and Procedures) and the bylaws of the "Graduate College Handbook" (Bylaws), which is "the administrative home of students admitted to graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign." Both documents were appended to Leetaru's complaint and incorporated therein.

¶ 10 The Bylaws, along with the state statutes establishing the University, define such matters as how the Graduate College is organized and how it conducts its affairs. With respect to academic integrity, the Bylaws specify that "[a]ll charges of academic integrity infractions with respect to organized research activities against students in the Graduate College will be dealt with as prescribed in the [Policy and Procedures], " subject to certain exceptions. The Policy and Procedures, in turn, "incorporate[ ] federal regulations and guidelines of the U.S. Public Health Service" and "prescribe[ ] procedures for impartial fact-finding and fair adjudication of allegations of academic and Research Misconduct."

¶ 11 The process mandated by the Policy and Procedures contains three stages, "Assessment, " "Inquiry" and "Investigation." In stage one, assessment, a "Unit Executive Officer" (UEO) and a "Research Integrity Officer" (RIO) are required to make an initial assessment as to whether the complaint against a student falls within the definition of "Research Misconduct" as set forth in the Policy and Procedures, whether the complaint is credible and whether it is sufficiently specific to enable potential evidence supporting the complaint to be identified. The Policy and Procedures provide that "[t]he [a]ssessment period should be brief, preferably concluded within 15 calendar days."

¶ 12 Unless it is determined that a complaint clearly falls outside the scope of the Policy and Procedures, the complaint and assessment findings must be brought to the attention of the relevant dean. Within 15 days of having a complaint brought to his or her attention, the dean is required to decide whether sufficient evidence exists to warrant moving to the next stage, inquiry. If the dean decides that an inquiry should be conducted, the dean must then appoint an inquiry team comprised of two qualified, unbiased individuals with no potential or actual conflicts of interest in the matter. When feasible, these are to be tenured faculty members, one for the unit in which the conduct in question occurred and the second from elsewhere in the University. The dean may also appoint a third faculty member or academic professional to the team. In addition, the Bylaws of the Graduate College call for the Graduate College's dean to appoint to the inquiry team a qualified, unbiased graduate student who has no conflict of interest.

¶ 13 The RIO, after consultation with the dean and the UEO, is required to prepare a charge for the inquiry team which (1) sets forth the time for completion of the inquiry; (2) describes the allegations against the student; (3) explains that the purpose of the inquiry is to make an initial review of the evidence and determine whether an investigation is warranted; (4) sets forth the two criteria which must be met in order to warrant an investigation, namely, that (a) there is a reasonable basis to conclude that the complaint falls within the definition of research misconduct and is "within the jurisdictional criteria" of the Policy and Procedures and (b) that it may have substance; and (5) informs the inquiry team members that they are responsible for preparing or directing the preparation of a written report of the inquiry.

¶ 14 Before the inquiry begins, the RIO is required to make a good faith effort to notify the student, in writing, that the inquiry is being undertaken. Once the inquiry team has been selected, the RIO must send the student a letter setting forth the allegations, including a copy of the Policy and Procedures. The letter must advise the student of various rights he or she has and admonish the student that failure to provide research records on request may be considered evidence that research misconduct occurred. Sequestration provisions also take effect. The RIO, in consultation with counsel for the University, is required to "undertake reasonable and practical steps to secure all research records and other evidence needed to conduct a [r]esearch [m]isconduct proceeding, to inventory those materials, and to sequester them in a secure manner." However, "[w]henever practicable, the [student] may request and shall upon request be given copies of, or reasonable supervised access to, sequestered research records."

¶ 15 According to the Policy and Procedures, the inquiry process should normally involve interviews of the person who filed the complaint, the student against whom the complaint was lodged, and the key witnesses; examination of relevant research records and materials; consultation with experts in the field; and such other steps as may be appropriate. After evaluating the evidence and then consulting with the RIO, the inquiry team then makes a recommendation as to whether the matter should proceed to stage three, investigation. The team must tender its report to the relevant vice chancellor for research (VCR), with a copy to the RIO, within 60 days after the student received written notice of the inquiry. The RIO, in turn, is required to deliver a copy of the report to the dean, the student, and other appropriate parties. Time extensions may be granted, but they must be tendered to the chancellor in writing, and the request for more time must set forth the length of the extension requested and the reason for the request.

¶ 16 Within 10 calendar days of receiving the inquiry team's report and any written responsive comments from the student, the VCR "shall determine whether to order an [i]nvestigation, close the case, or take other appropriate action ." If the VCR decides to order an investigation, the third and final stage in the process, the student must be notified in writing of the allegations to be investigated. The notice must be provided to the student within 30 calendar days after the VCR determines that an investigation is warranted, but before the investigation actually commences. The RIO must also furnish the student with a letter containing a written charge and a list of the student's rights during the investigation process.

¶ 17 Within 15 calendar days of notifying the student of the investigation, the VCR, in consultation with the RIO, is required to appoint a three-person investigation panel, "each of whom shall be a tenured faculty member or an academic professional." No one who served on the inquiry panel can also serve on the investigation panel, and the student is given the opportunity to object to a panel member on the ground that the person fails to meet the qualifications for panelist set forth in the Policy and Procedures, including that the person is biased or lacks sufficient training and experience to understand and judge the allegations against the student. After receiving its charge from the VCR, the panel undertakes its investigation and, within 90 days after its first meeting, presents a written report to the RIO. The RIO, in turn, submits the report to the VCR, and the VCR transmits the report to the chancellor of the University with any recommendations "for sanctions and/or corrective actions." The chancellor makes the final decision regarding disposition of the case. The chancellor "is the final adjudicator of all allegations of [r]esearch [m]isconduct subject only to an appeal to the President [of the University] on procedural grounds."

¶ 18 As previously noted, Leetaru was notified that a complaint had been lodged against him in a letter written by Guenther and dated February 8, 2012. Guenther's letter advised Leetaru that the complaint against him would be handled in accordance with the Policy and Procedures as summarized above. A link to an internet site containing that document was included in the notice. Leetaru was given until February 20, 2012, to respond.

¶ 19 Guenther wrote to Leetaru again on February 17, 2012. This second letter notified Leetaru that sequestration guidelines contained in the aforementioned Policy and Procedures had been activated. It further advised Leetaru that his access to computer files and directories, specifically, the I-CHASS project at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University and the National Institute for Computational Sciences and the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, was being suspended.

¶ 20 On February 20, 2012, Leetaru, through counsel, responded to the research misconduct complaint lodged against him by the Cline Center's director earlier that month. The response, addressed to Guenther, protested that, notwithstanding the terms of the Policy and Procedures, Leetaru had been denied access to any paper or electronic data that might aid in his defense, that all the paper files from Leetaru's office had been placed in the custody of the very person who had initiated the charge, and that no inventory of the paper documents had been made. The response requested confirmation that all data, paper and electronic, had been sequestered under Guenther's control as the Policy and Procedures required. The response also asked that the charges be dismissed and that Leetaru's property be returned to him.

¶ 21 On February 24, 2012, the Center's director provided Guenther with a more detailed written description of the basis for the research misconduct complaint he had filed. In that document, the director stated repeatedly that Leetaru was positioning his GlobalNet project to be a direct competitor to the Cline Center's SPEED project and that Leetaru's GlobalNet data products were in direct competition with the Cline Center's SPEED project for grants and other purposes. During the pendency of the proceedings, this document was not furnished to Leetaru, nor was he given an opportunity to respond to the claims made in the document.

¶ 22 Sometime that same day, February 24, Guenther, in his capacity as RIO, met with the UEO and a person from the Graduate College named Kopera, and the three of them concluded that, in their view, the charges fell within the definition of research misconduct, were credible and were sufficiently specific to enable potential evidence of research misconduct to be identified. No further action was taken at that time, however, and the matter remained in the assessment stage.

¶ 23 Approximately two months later, on April 26, 2012, an associate director of the Center wrote Guenther and others regarding Leetaru. The letter stated that "at this point, we only have a listing of file names, and I am assuming that we need to have firmer evidence than this in order to assess the University's next steps in dealing with [Leetaru]." It also included a detailed listing of the issues which the University had with Leetaru. According to the pleadings, these issues centered on Leetaru's employment with the Cline Center and had nothing to do with his status as a graduate student.

¶ 24 While the assessment was still underway, the chancellor of the University approved the appointment of Barbara Wilson, a vice provost for academic affairs, to serve as a substitute for the dean with respect to the proceedings against Leetaru. Wilson met with Guenther, the UEO and Kopera on April 27, 2012, and discussed the allegations against Leetaru. Four days later, on May 1, 2012, Wilson issued a determination that the matter should proceed to the next stage, inquiry.

¶ 25 Leetaru did not learn of Wilson's decision until September 14, 2012, when Guenther notified him by email that an inquiry would be initiated. Guenther's email set forth the specific matters that would be investigated. These included allegations that Leetaru had done the following:

(1)misappropriated news archives, web crawler data, scripts, digitized images and other computer files from projects that had been directed, funded, and operated by the Cline Center and misled Center personnel about the existence of that material;
(2)copied a significant number of news archives and computer files for which the Center was responsible without the Center's knowledge or approval to an Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) associated with the National Institute for Computational Sciences at the University of Tennessee Knoxville/Oak Ridge National Laboratory;
(3)copied a significant number of news archives and computer files for which the Center was responsible without the Center's knowledge or approval to various other locations;
(4)implemented the Center's main web crawler operation on the EnterpriseWorks' server without the Center's knowledge or approval and then subsequently stored the processed data on the I-CHASS server;
(5)ignored formal requests to disclose the location of the missing news archives and computer files, and failed to return these materials when requested to do so;
(6)falsely reported his credentials in his online resume, presentations, proposals and correspondence;
(7)utilized the Center's news archives, web crawler data, scripts, digitized images and other computer files in the development of GlobalNet, which was then used to compete with the Center's projects in grant applications;
(8)utilized the Center's news archives and computer files in at least one scholarly publication without attribution or approval; and
(9)provided false and misleading statements to University officials in response to the initial allegations.

¶ 26 After outlining the allegations, Guenther's email advised Leetaru of the individuals who would be undertaking the inquiry, a group which included Guenther. The notice explained that Leetaru could submit a written objection if he believed that any of those individuals had some potential or actual unresolved personal, professional, or financial conflicts of interest with any party or witness; was biased; or lacked appropriate qualifications to evaluate the matters at issue. The notice explained the process which would be followed, admonished Leetaru of his obligation to fully cooperate in the proceedings, and advised him of his responsibility to provide evidence, information and materials, and to maintain confidentiality. It also informed him that he was entitled to consult with appropriate University committees and private legal counsel; to submit a written response to the charges and have his comments provided to the investigative team to accompany its report; and to be notified of the outcome of the investigation and get a copy of the investigative report.

¶ 27 Leetaru, through his attorney, responded to the notice by challenging the University's authority to undertake the inquiry, demanding that the inquiry be stopped, objecting to the composition of the investigatory team, requesting that a graduate student be added to the team in accordance with the Bylaws, and asserting that the investigation was retaliatory in nature. Leetaru's response also included his own written remarks in answer to each of the nine charges outlined in the inquiry notice.

¶ 28 Following Leetaru's response and objections, a graduate student was added to the inquiry team, then later replaced with a different graduate student after Leetaru complained that the first student had a conflict. Leetaru was then given additional time to challenge the composition of the inquiry team. Before that deadline expired, the inquiry team proceeded with its work. Without requesting or conducting an interview with Leetaru, the team subsequently prepared and submitted its inquiry report.

¶ 29 The report, written by Guenther on behalf of the inquiry team, was dated November 12, 2012. It found that there was a reasonable basis for concluding that the allegations against Leetaru met the definition of research misconduct under the University's Policy and Procedures; that allegations 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8 and 9 might have substance and warranted a full investigation; and that allegation 4 should be examined further. The report also recommended that the University pursue an allegation that Leetaru had provided false and misleading statements in response to the initial complaint and as part of the research misconduct complaint process.

¶ 30 Leetaru responded directly to Guenther. In a lengthy email, Leetaru detailed the numerous ways in which he believed those associated with the investigation had failed to comply with the applicable procedures. Leetaru wrote that "it is difficult to understand any portion of this process, which has now stretched on for more than a year, to comport with any understanding of 'due process' or 'good faith.' " In Leetaru's estimation, the process had "now become so corrupted that there is simply no process left and there is no choice but to dismiss the accusations against [him] in their entirety and to permit [the University's ethics officer] to conduct a formal investigation of misconduct by University personnel in their handling of this matter."

¶ 31 Leetaru's attorney responded separately to the University counsel's office. In his letter, Leetaru's attorney expressed his view that the University had substantially violated Leetaru's rights under its own policies and had "not pursued this matter with due process." The attorney's letter further advised counsel for the University that he would seek a temporary restraining order in the event the University decided to initiate a full and formal investigation as recommended by the inquiry team.

¶ 32 On January 3, 2013, Guenther, acting in his capacity as RIO, wrote to Leetaru to advise him that the matter would proceed to the third stage, investigation. The specific allegations that were to be investigated tracked those identified by the inquiry, specifically, the items labelled by the inquiry team as 1-6, 8 and 9.

ΒΆ 33 The following month, Leetaru's attorney initiated this litigation by filing a complaint in the circuit court of Champaign County for preliminary and permanent injunctive relief. The complaint named as defendants Guenther and the University's Board of Trustees. The lawsuit did not concern Leetaru's status as an employee or challenge the University's decision terminating his employment. Rather, it pertained solely to Leetaru's status as a graduate ...


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