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Carstens-Wickham v. Sedycias

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Fifth District

August 2, 2016

BELINDA CARSTENS-WICKHAM, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
JOAO SEDYCIAS and ALDEMARO ROMERO, Defendants-Appellees.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County, No. 14-L-545; the Hon. A.A. Matoesian, Judge, presiding.

          Leslie G. Offergeld and John D. Wendler, both of Walker & Williams, P.C., of Belleville, for appellant.

          Greg Roosevelt, of Roosevelt Law Office, of Edwardsville, for appellee Joao Sedycias.

          Ian P. Cooper, of Tueth, Keeney, Cooper, Mohan & Jackstadt, P.C., of St. Louis, Missouri, for appellee Aldemaro Romero.

          JUSTICE STEWART delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Schwarm and Justice Goldenhersh concurred in the judgment and opinion.

          OPINION

          STEWART JUSTICE

         ¶ 1 The plaintiff, Belinda Carstens-Wickham, a tenured professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE or University), brought this action in the circuit court of Madison County, seeking damages for alleged libel, slander, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The defendants, Joao Sedycias, a former department chair at SIUE, and Aldemaro Romero, a former dean at SIUE, moved to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint pursuant to section 2-619 of the Code of Civil Procedure (735 ILCS 5/2-619 (West 2014)). The defendants claimed that they were State employees immune from suit in court pursuant to the State Lawsuit Immunity Act (745 ILCS 5/1 (West 2014)) and argued that the Illinois Court of Claims had exclusive jurisdiction over the plaintiff's tort claims. The circuit court agreed and dismissed the plaintiff's complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The plaintiff appeals. For the reasons that follow, we reverse and remand for further proceedings.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 In her second amended complaint, the plaintiff alleged the following. She is a tenured professor in the foreign languages and literature department at SIUE, which is within the college of arts and sciences. At the time of the alleged incidents, Sedycias was chair of the foreign languages and literature department, and Romero was dean of the college of arts and sciences. The department chair is elected by a faculty vote. In early 2014, the plaintiff and Sedycias were on the ballot for the department chair position. Romero, as dean, removed the plaintiff from the ballot and supported Sedycias.

         ¶ 4 The plaintiff alleged that the defendants conspired to libel and slander her and to intentionally inflict emotional distress on her by communicating/publishing false allegations of sexual misconduct in a manner that was outside their employment duties to ruin her reputation and mentally harm her. She alleged that, knowing she would be elected chair, they conspired to remove her from the ballot based on false allegations.

         ¶ 5 The plaintiff protested her removal from the ballot to the provost, who found in her favor. The defendants appealed the provost's decision, preparing and sending a letter dated February 21, 2014, and signed by Sedycias to the president of the Southern Illinois University System. The plaintiff alleged that the letter was libelous and contained false allegations, including false allegations of sexual misconduct. The letter, which was incorporated by reference into the complaint, provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

"In his memo of 10 January 2014, Dean Romero provides the following reasons for removing Dr. Carstens-Wickham from the list of possible candidates (emphasis [Sedycias's]):
* * *
[']*** [I]t has been reported to me by multiple sources that Dr. Carstens-Wickham has *** shown a number of character flaws unbecoming of a member of the SIUE community. I have received multiple reports from multiple sources that she had a child from one of her undergraduate students and has had sexual relationships in her office on the SIUE campus with a former SIUE faculty member. I have witnesses who can testify about these and many other incidents that include, but are not limited to, harassment, intimidation, and providing misleading information to the faculty.' " (Emphases in original.)

         ¶ 6 The plaintiff alleged that SIUE policy mandates that material filed in the appeal process, including the letter, be kept confidential. In early 2014, she learned that Sedycias had been contacting all of the department chairs and other officials within the college of arts and sciences and giving them a copy of the letter. She alleged that, acting outside the scope of their employment, outside the appeal process, and outside SIUE rules and guidelines, the defendants distributed the letter and false information contained therein to all department chairs and other officials within the college of arts and sciences and orally distributed the false information to persons throughout SIUE. She alleged that, by distributing the letter and false information, they acted intentionally and maliciously to try to ruin her reputation and damage her mentally.

         ¶ 7 In counts I and III, the plaintiff alleged libel and slander claims. She alleged that the statements contained in the letter (1) were false, (2) were libel per se if written and slander per se if spoken, and (3) on their face provided a basis to cause her extreme emotional distress. She alleged that, by knowingly making false allegations ...


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