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Hamerski v. Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative

United States District Court, S.D. Illinois

September 7, 2017

RUTH HAMERSKI Plaintiff,
v.
BELLEVILLE AREA SPECIAL SERVICES COOPERATIVE, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          David R. Herndon United States District Judge

         I. Introduction

         Now before the Court is defendant, Belleville Area Special Services Cooperative (hereinafter “BASSC”), motion to dismiss plaintiff's first amended complaint (Doc. 15) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiff Ruth Hamerski (hereinafter “Hamerski”), opposes the motion on grounds that she has pled sufficient facts to meet the standard for Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal (Docs. 25 & 26). For the reasons explained below, the Court DENIES defendant's motion to dismiss (Doc. 23).

         II. Background

         Plaintiff began her employment with defendant BASSC on July 1, 2007, as an administrator for instructional programs. (Doc. 15, ¶ 5). At that time, she had twenty-six years of experience as a teacher and special education department chair at Mt. Vernon High School. (Doc. 15, ¶ 5). BASSC is a federally funded educational cooperative that implements and enforces the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (hereinafter “IDEA”). (Doc. 15, ¶ 4). It provides special education services to children between elementary and high school levels that have qualified disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (hereinafter “ADA”), and whom are entitled to special education under the IDEA. (Doc. 15, ¶ 5).

         In 2008, plaintiff was assigned to be the interim principal of Pathways school. (Doc. 15, ¶ 7). Plaintiff soon found Pathways was “both legally and ethically in violation” of the ADA and IDEA. (Doc. 15, ¶ 7). The children were allegedly “routinely being arrested by the police at the staff members' behest as a means of control, ” with a resulting criminal charge of “disturbing the peace….” (Doc. 15, ¶ 7). As a result of a hostile environment between the staff and students, plaintiff created “written policies restricting the use of arrests, isolation, seclusion and restraint.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 7).

         Plaintiff alleges that one paraprofessional, Melissa Stines, had to be removed by plaintiff from the high school and elementary school due to “her inability to control her own behavior with students.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 8). Plaintiff allegedly had to have Ms. Stines escorted off the campus after she went on a “tirade with young students present” and refused to leave the building. (Doc. 15, ¶ 8). Ms. Stines then allegedly “physically threatened Plaintiff, and… upon resigning from BASSC, promised that Plaintiff ‘will hear from me again.'” (Doc. 15, ¶ 8).

         Ms. Stines was and continues to be married to Matt Stines, who at the time was “being groomed to become a superintendent at Grant Illini” school. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). This would entitle Mr. Stines to membership on the BASSC executive board, which consisted of the superintendents from the twenty-three member schools. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). Plaintiff alleges that Mr. Stines “complained repeatedly in derogatory terms” to her supervisor, BASSC executive director Jeff Daugherty. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). In 2009, Mr. Stines formed a committee to study and oversee the Pathways School. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). He also allegedly sought to keep plaintiff from membership, despite her job description including oversight of the School's programs. (Doc. 15, ¶ 9). Mr. Stines became the chair of the executive committee in 2011. (Doc. 15, ¶ 10).

         In 2013, plaintiff announced that she intended to retire in 2017 or 2018. (Doc. 15, ¶ 10). Plaintiff alleges that she was entitled to receive a 6% pay increase over her final four years at Pathways School, but that Mr. Stines only offered her a 3% raise. (Doc. 15, ¶ 10). According to plaintiff, this offering was “approximately one-half the dollar amount that was given to the last retiring administrator, and the [same as] current retiring teachers.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 10). On October 16, 2013, however, plaintiff and defendant entered into a four year written contract that stated she could only be discharged “for just cause.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 11). If dismissal were to occur, plaintiff would be entitled to written notice of the charges, notice of hearing, a full hearing to confront and cross-examine witnesses and evidence, and representation by legal counsel. (Doc. 15, ¶ 11).

         Between 2007 and January 2015, plaintiff states that she received “'excellent' in virtually every category” of her annual performance appraisals conducted by executive director Daugherty. (Doc. 15, ¶ 12). In 2015, however, plaintiff states that she would have “latent, unresolved issues in the mind of Matt Stines, and his wife, Melissa Stines.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 13). Mr. Stines, in his capacity as chair and president of the executive board, allegedly hired his counsel of record to investigate plaintiff. (Doc. 15, ¶ 14). Plaintiff was subsequently informed on March 13, 2015, by executive director Daugherty that she was being criticized by three subordinates regarding the implementation of the above referenced written policies. (Doc. 15, ¶ 15). Plaintiff states her policies were compliant with the IDEA and were actually adopted and approved by the BASSC executive board, as well as the Pathways committee on which Mr. Stines was the chairman. (Doc. 15, ¶ 15). Thus, plaintiff alleges she was being criticized “by the very people that approved” the policies. (Doc. 15, ¶ 15).

         In that same March 13, 2015, discussion, plaintiff was informed that both she and Mr. Daugherty were to appear at the law office of Barney Mundorf on Monday, March 16, 2015, regarding the investigation ordered by Mr. Stines. (Doc. 15, ¶ 16). Mr. Daugherty and plaintiff were allegedly instructed not to talk to each other over the weekend. (Doc. 15, ¶ 16). Plaintiff states that when she appeared, she was not allowed to explain the accusations being made by Mr. Mundorf. (Doc.15, ¶ 17). The accusations allegedly included the following: (1) “being negligent in her duties regarding training of teachers”; (2) “lying about eight (8) claimed work days in July, 2014”; (3) “her IDEA instructions on restraint and arrest of children from calendar year 2008 at Pathways”; and, (4) “whether she told a subordinate administrator to keep illegal, confiscated drugs in his desk.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 17). These allegations, according to Mr. Mundorf, were coming from the same three subordinate employees who had criticized plaintiff, and whom were allegedly sought out by Mr. Stines. (Doc. 15, ¶ 18). Plaintiff states those subordinates are only three of fifty-four over which she had direct supervision, and three of eighty-three over which she had indirect supervision. (Doc. 15, ¶ 18).

         On March 18, 2015, Jeff Daugherty and plaintiff were then summoned to a full executive board meeting, at which neither were allegedly allowed to talk. (Doc. 15, ¶ 19). Instead, Mr. Stines and Mr. Mundorf presented the findings of their investigation to the other superintendents. (Doc. 15, ¶ 19). The full board then allegedly went into a closed session, but took no action or votes regarding Mr. Daugherty or plaintiff's employment. (Doc. 15, ¶ 19). Following the meeting, Mr. Stines and Mr. Mundorf allegedly took Mr. Daugherty and plaintiff individually into a conference room. (Doc. 15, ¶ 20). First, Mr. Stines and Mr. Mundorf spoke to Mr. Daugherty, at which point plaintiff claims a “tactic [was] employed… [to] accus[e] him of improper conduct, [which] removed him from advocating for Plaintiff.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 20). His employment was not threatened. (Doc. 15, ¶ 20).

         Second, plaintiff was informed that the “'most serious act of misconduct alleged against her was her enforcement of the BASSC policy regarding IDEA student arrests and restraints from calendar year 2008.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 21). Thus, plaintiff believes she was being criticized for advocating for IDEA students. (Doc. 15, ¶ 21). The conversation ended with plaintiff being informed that she had the two following options: (1) “retire on June 30, 2015, at her current pay level”; or, (2) “be demoted and reassigned as a teacher with substantially less pay.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 21). The following day, March 19, 2015, plaintiff received a written letter memorializing the two options and giving her four days to make a decision. (Doc. 15, ¶ 22). Plaintiff claims that at no time was she given the opportunity to present her side of the accusations, have a hearing to confront and cross-examine her accusers, or present her own evidence and be represented by counsel. (Doc. 15, ¶ 23).

         III. Motion to Dismiss

         A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Gen. Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police Chicago Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009). The Supreme Court explained in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007), that to withstand Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal, a complaint “does not need detailed factual allegations, ” but must contain “enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” 550 U.S. at 570.

         Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), retooled federal pleading standards, but notice pleading remains all that is required in a complaint. “A plaintiff still must provide only ‘enough detail to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests and, through his allegations, show that it is plausible, rather than merely speculative, that he is entitled to relief.'” Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1083 (7th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). In making this assessment, the district court accepts as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and draws all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See Rujawitz v. Martin, 561 F.3d 685, 688 (7th Cir. 2009); St. John's United Church of Christ v. City of Chi., 502 F.3d 616, 625 (7th Cir. 2007).

         The above standard applies to civil rights and municipal liability cases, as “a federal court may not apply a heightened pleading standard more stringent than the usual Rule 8(a) pleading requirements.” See Estate of Sims ex rel. Sims v. Cnty of Bureau, 506 F.3d 509, 514 (7th Cir. 2007) (citing Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence and Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 165 (1993)). In particular, the Seventh Circuit has acknowledged that “district courts continue to struggle with… exactly what a plaintiff bringing a municipal liability suit must plead to survive a motion to dismiss….” See McCormick v. City of Chicago, 230 F.3d 319, 324 (7th Cir. 2000). For this reason, it clarified in McCormick that notice pleading is all that is required, as “plaintiff need not ‘allege all, or any of the facts logically entailed by the claim… A plaintiff does not have to plead evidence…. [A] complaint does not fail to state a claim merely because it does not set forth a complete and convincing picture of the alleged wrongdoing.'” Id. at 325 (quoting Payton v. Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, 184 F.3d 623, 626-27 (7th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted)).

         IV. Analysis

         Plaintiff believes her two employment options were “calculated to force [her] to quit- a constructive discharge.” (Doc. 15, ¶ 24). That is, she does not believe anyone “in their right mind would” accept a demotion from an administrative to a teaching position, thereby significantly reducing her salary in the years from which her retirement pay would be calculated. (Doc. 15, ¶ 24). As a result, she brings her five count first amended complaint. The counts allege as follows: (1) a violation of plaintiff's property interest in employment by virtue of her written contract under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution; (2) a violation of plaintiff's due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution for not affording a “name-clearing” hearing; (3) a violation of plaintiff's liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution for accusing her of “illegal acts, incompetence, and unfitness in her profession”; (4) a violation of Titles I and II of the ADA for retaliating against plaintiff after she advocated for the students protected under that statute and the IDEA; and, (5) a breach of plaintiff's employment contract. (Doc. 15, ¶ 25). Each count will be analyzed in turn.

         a. Count I: Violation of Fourteenth Amendment ...


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