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Breuder v. Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 501

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

March 3, 2017

ROBERT L. BREUDER, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT NO. 501, DUPAGE COUNTY, ILLINOIS, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Andrea R. Wood United States District Judge

         This case concerns the unceremonious termination of Robert Breuder from his position as President of the College of DuPage. After his termination, Breuder sued the Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 501 (“Board”) and individual Board members Kathy Hamilton, Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano, and Charles Bernstein (“Individual Defendants, ” and together with the Board, “Defendants”), pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”), for violating his rights under the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution as well as for various state law violations. In particular, Breuder claims that, in suspending and terminating him without a proper hearing, the Defendants deprived him of his property interests in violation of his Due Process rights (Count I). He also claims that, in making defamatory and stigmatizing remarks about him, the Defendants deprived him of a liberty interest in violation of his Due Process rights (Count II). In addition, Breuder also brings a variety of state law claims against the Defendants. Specifically, he claims that the Board breached his employment contract (Count IV) and that the Individual Defendants tortuously interfered with his contract (Count V) and defamed him (Count VI). Finally, Breuder asserts a claim for conspiracy against the Individual Defendants (Count III), apparently under both federal and state law.

         In response, the Board and the Individual Defendants have moved to dismiss the claims against them pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). With respect to the Board's motion (Dkt. No. 35)-which addresses Counts I, II, and IV as asserted against it-the Court denies the motion in toto. With respect to the Individual Defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. No. 38)-which addresses Counts I, II, III, V, and VI asserted against them-the Court grants the motion in part and denies it in part.

         BACKGROUND

         The following facts are drawn from Breuder's Complaint and accepted as true for purposes of the instant motions. See, e.g., Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443-44 (7th Cir. 2009).

         From January 1, 2009 until his termination on October 20, 2015, Breuder served as President of the College of DuPage, located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. (Compl. ¶ 11, Dkt. No. 1.) Breuder's initial employment contract was for the term from January 1, 2009 to June 30, 2012. (Id. ¶ 12.) That contract was extended at various times by approval from the Board and, on March 7, 2014, it was extended to June 30, 2019. (Id.) Then, in or around late 2014, the Board and Breuder began negotiating an earlier termination date for Breuder's contract. Ultimately, on January 28, 2015, the Board voted on and approved a Fourth Addendum to Breuder's employment contract that provided for early termination of Breuder's contract in exchange for certain retirement benefits. (Id. ¶¶ 25-27.) According to this Fourth Addendum, Breuder would continue as President until March 30, 2016, after which he would retire and receive a lump sum payment. (Id. ¶ 28.)

         Also during this time period, Board member Hamilton was engaging in a campaign against Breuder, falsely claiming that he engaged in unprofessional and unethical conduct. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34.) Hamilton made claims about Breuder to multiple media outlets after she was elected to the Board in April 2013, which she repeated at a Board meeting on January 22, 2015. (Id. ¶¶ 40- 46.) Hamilton then endorsed a new slate of candidates for the Board: Mazzochi, Napolitano, and Bernstein. (Id. ¶ 52.) On April 2, 2015, Mazzochi, Napolitano, and Bernstein were elected to the Board. As soon as they were elected, they released a joint statement that they were given “a clear mandate to clean up the College of DuPage . . . to finally stop the waste, fraud and abuse . . . .” (Id. ¶ 54.)

         On April 28, 2015, the Individual Defendants sent Breuder a letter directing him to organize a special meeting of the Board to take place on April 30, 2015. (Id. ¶ 58.) At that meeting, the Board, through its Resolution No. 15-430-2, voted to place Breuder on administrative leave and appointed Dr. Joseph Collins to serve as acting interim President. (Id. ¶ 60.) At no time prior to Resolution No. 15-430-2 was Breuder afforded any opportunity to respond to the allegations underlying Resolution No. 15-430-2. (Id. ¶ 67.)

         On August 27, 2015, the Board sent Breuder a file of documents and a letter stating that the Board's attorneys were free to meet with him during the following week. (Id. ¶ 91.) Breuder sent a letter in response requesting the reason for the meeting and informing the Board that he was on medical leave and thus unavailable the following week. (Id. ¶ 92.) On September 11, 2015, the Board voted to declare Breuder's employment contract void ab initio. Then, on September 24, 2015, the Board sent Breuder a letter purporting to give him notice of the charges upon which the Board would decide whether to terminate him. (Id. ¶ 94.) Over the course of the following month, Breuder and the Board exchanged a number of letters to finalize the procedure for the termination hearing. During that correspondence, the Board made clear that Breuder would not be allowed to attend the termination hearing but could respond through a written submission. (Id. ¶ 98.) Breuder objected to this procedure, stating that the Board's offer to consider his written response was not meaningful. (Id. ¶ 99.) Shortly thereafter, on October 20, 2015, the Board voted to terminate Breuder's employment. (Id. ¶ 101.) At no point prior to his termination was Breuder afforded a hearing to respond to the allegations underlying his termination. (Id. ¶ 103.)

         DISCUSSION

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires that a complaint contain a short plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, this short plain statement must overcome two hurdles. First, the complaint's factual allegations must be enough to give the defendant fair notice of the claim and the grounds upon which it rests. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Second, the complaint must contain sufficient allegations based on more than speculation to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Id. This pleading standard does not necessarily require a complaint to contain “detailed factual allegations.” Id. (citing Sanjuan v. Am. Bd. of Psychiatry and Neurology, Inc., 40 F.3d 247, 251 (7th Cir. 1994)). Rather, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when 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, 678 (2009).

         As noted above, Breuder asserts claims against the Board and the Individual Defendants pursuant to Section 1983 for depriving him of his property interests in violation of his Due Process rights (Count I) and for violating his Due Process liberty interests (Count II). Breuder also brings state law claims for breach of contract, against the Board (Count IV); for tortious interference with contract, against the Individual Defendants (Count V); and for defamation, against the Individual Defendants (Count VI). Finally, Breuder brings a claim for conspiracy, under both federal and state law, against the Individual Defendants (Count III). The Court considers each in turn.

         I. Due Process Violation - Property Interest

         Breuder claims that the Defendants violated his Due Process rights in suspending and terminating him without a proper hearing. In response, the Defendants first argue that this claim fails because Breuder has no property interest in which to ground his Due Process challenge. Specifically, the Defendants contend that Breuder's employment contract was void and thus Breuder was an at-will employee owed no process prior to his termination. The Defendants offer three arguments for the invalidity of the employment contract: first, the employment contract was beyond the ratifying Board's power as it extended beyond the Board's term; second, the employment contract's termination provisions contradict the Public Community College Act's (“PCCA”) provisions on the Board's quorum and voting rules; and third, the employment contract violated the Open Meetings Act. The Defendants then argue that even if Breuder had a property interest to ground his Due Process claim, he was given sufficient process.[1] Finally, the Individual Defendants argue that, insofar as there was any violation, they cannot be held liable for such violation because of qualified immunity. All of these arguments fail.

         A. Validity of Breuder's Employment Contract

          1. Employment Contract's Duration Extends Beyond Board's Term

         At the time of his termination on October 20, 2015, Breuder was serving as President pursuant to the Fourth Addendum to his employment contract, which was approved by the Board on January 28, 2015. As alleged in the Complaint, the new Board was elected on April 2, 2015. Thus, according to the Defendants' argument, as Breuder's employment contract extended beyond April 2, 2015, it was void ab initio under Illinois law. In support of their position, the Defendants cite the case of Millikin v. Edgar Cnty., 32 N.E. 493 (1892), and its progeny, for the proposition that a governmental board whose members serve limited terms may not enter into a contract purporting to cover a term beyond that for which the board sits. See also Trombetta v. Bd. of Educ., Proviso Twp. High Sch. Dist. No. 209, 2003 WL 1193337, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 13, 2003) (finding that, under Millikin, a four-year employment contract for building management of a high school was void ab initio as the contract extended beyond the school board's term); Grassini v. DuPage Twp., 665 N.E.2d 860, 864 (Ill.App.Ct. 1996) (holding that four-year employment contract for township administrator was void ab initio as contract went beyond township board's term); Cannizzo v. Berwyn Twp. 708 Cmty. Mental Health Bd., 741 N.E.2d 1067, 1071 (Ill.App.Ct. 2000) (holding that executive director's employment contract was void ab initio as it went beyond township supervisor's term).

         But the Defendants' argument ignores the PCCA's statutory grant of authority to community college boards. The PCCA states that community college boards are granted the power “[t]o establish tenure policies for the employment of teachers and administrative personnel, and the cause for removal, ” as well as “[t]o employ such personnel as may be needed, to establish policies governing their employment and dismissal, and to fix the amount of their compensation.” 110 ILCS 805/3-32, 805/3-42. As the Seventh Circuit has explained, these provisions were intended “to give the board authority to establish its own policies with respect to tenure” and therefore allow community college boards to make contracts that go beyond their terms. Hostrop v. Bd. of Jr. Coll. Dist. No. 515, Cook & Will Ctys. & State of Ill., 523 F.2d 569, 575 (7th Cir. 1975) (holding that former community college president's contract was not void ab initio, despite the fact that his contract extended beyond board term).

         The Defendants claim that Hostrop is no longer applicable because the Seventh Circuit there specifically highlighted that the PCCA did not affix a specific tenure policy into the statute but instead gave community college boards authority to design such policies. The Defendants further observe that five years after Hostrop was decided, the Illinois General Assembly amended the PCCA to include specific tenure policies for “faculty, ” which expressly excludes administrators. 110 ILCS 805/3B-1, 3B-2 (1980). Through these amendments, the Defendants argue, the Illinois General Assembly stripped ...


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