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Price v. Northern Illinois University

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

December 14, 2017

CYNTHIA M. PRICE, Plaintiff,
NORTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY, GINA KENYON, in her official and individual capacity, and BARBARA WILLERT, in her official and individual capacity, Defendants.



         For the reasons stated below, defendants' motion to dismiss is granted as to all claims for damages and back pay against NIU. All official capacity claims against Kenyon and Willert are dismissed. Price may proceed against NIU on her claim for reinstatement and against Kenyon and Willert on her claims for compensatory damages. The case will be called for status hearing on January 16, 2018. The parties shall discuss in advance of that hearing the potential for early resolution, the scope of needed discovery, and a date for Rule 26(a) disclosures. See Statement.


         I. Background[1]

         On October 17, 2016, Cynthia M. Price filed this civil rights suit for damages and injunctive relief against Northern Illinois University (NIU) and two of its employees, Gina Kenyon and Barbara Willert in their individual and official capacities, alleging race discrimination which resulted in her constructive termination from her employment at NIU. In her amended complaint, Price labels her claims as § 1983 claims, although she appears to rely on substantive rights granted by 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Dkt. 22.) Defendants have moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction based on sovereign immunity and for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. (Dkt. 34.)[2]

         Price is an African-American woman who was employed by NIU from March 2004 to May 29, 2014, first as a Building Service Worker and later as a Food Service Supervisor. In March 2014, Price reported an incident of hostile work environment regarding a non-African-American employee.[3] (Id. ¶ 11.) Kenyon and Willert subsequently reprimanded, suspended, and demoted Price, made false allegations of stealing, and required her to report when she was going on breaks when no one else was required to do so, all with intent to retaliate against her for making the hostile work environment report and to harass her because of her race. Price, despite performing satisfactorily, could not continue working in that environment and was constructively terminated on May 24, 2014. She also alleges a pattern and practice by NIU of discrimination against African-Americans.

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(1) provides that a case will be dismissed if the court lacks the authority to hear and decide the dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). If subject matter jurisdiction is not evident from the face of the complaint, the court analyzes the motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) as any other motion to dismiss by assuming the allegations of the complaint are true. United Phosphorous, Ltd. v. Angus Chem. Co., 322 F.3d 942, 946 (7th Cir. 2003) (en banc), overruled on other grounds by Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium Inc., 683 F.3d 845 (7th Cir. 2012).

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion challenges a complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted. To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must provide the defendant with fair notice of a claim's basis and must also establish that the requested relief is plausible on its face. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (holding that a plaintiff's obligation to provide the “grounds” of her “entitle[ment] to relief” requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do; also, factual allegations must be enough to raise a right of relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true).

         III. Analysis

         A. Jurisdiction - Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         Under the Eleventh Amendment, states, state agencies, and state officials generally “may claim immunity from suit in federal court.” Kroll v. Bd. of Tr. of the Univ. of Ill., 934 F.2d 904, 907 (7th Cir. 1991).[4] The Seventh Circuit has previously determined that NIU is an arm of the State of Illinois and consequently receives the protection of the Eleventh Amendment. Osteen v. Henley, 13 F.3d 221, 223-24 (7th Cir. 1993); see also Winters v. Iowa State Univ., No. 91-2717, 1992 WL 101625, at *2 (7th Cir. May 13, 1992) (holding that Eleventh Amendment immunity extends to state universities for claims under § 1981). Therefore, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claims for damages brought against NIU as well as against Kenyon and Willert in their official capacities.

         Price does seek injunctive relief, however, in the form of reinstatement. Claims for injunctive relief are not barred by the Amendment. Osteen, 13 F.3d at 223, citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 169 n.18, 205 S.Ct. 3099, 87 L.Ed.2d 114 (1985). Any such claim, however, could only be asserted against NIU because Willert and Kenyon could not provide this relief outside their official capacities. See Woulfe v. Cty. of Cook Dept. of Adult Probation, No. 95 C 7435, 1997 WL 136265, *4 (N.D. Ill. March 20, 1997), citing Lenea v. Lane, 882 F.2d 1171, 1178 (7th Cir. 1989) (also holding award of back pay from the state is barred by Eleventh Amendment).

         As such, all claims against NIU for back pay and damages must be dismissed with prejudice. All official capacity claims against Kenyon and Willert must be dismissed with prejudice. NIU is subject to Price's claim for reinstatement. Kenyon and Willert are ...

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