United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Burgess sued the Board of Education of Ottawa Township High
School District 140 in state court, alleging violations of
Illinois law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 arising from his
termination as a teacher. Doc. 3 at 4-11. The Board removed
the suit, id. at 1-3, and has moved for summary
judgment, Doc. 9. The motion is granted.
following facts are set forth as favorably to Burgess, the
non-movant, as the record and Local Rule 56.1 permit. See
Hanners v. Trent, 674 F.3d 683, 691 (7th Cir. 2012). On
summary judgment, the court must assume the truth of those
facts, but does not vouch for them. See Arroyo v. Volvo
Grp. N. Am., 805 F.3d 278, 281 (7th Cir. 2015).
Board employed Burgess as a teacher. Doc. 15 at ¶ 3. On
January 9, 2015, the Board passed a resolution authorizing a
notice of charges seeking his dismissal. Id. at
¶ 4. The notice alleged that Burgess's treatment of
other staff members had been inappropriate and that he had
been dishonest when questioned about his conduct.
Id. at ¶ 5. At Burgess's request, a hearing
was held before a mutually selected hearing officer, and the
hearing officer recommended that he be retained. Id.
at ¶¶ 6-8. Nonetheless, in September 2015, the
Board adopted a resolution authorizing a final order
affirming his dismissal. Id. at ¶ 9.
October 2015, Burgess filed suit against the Board in state
court seeking administrative review of his termination
(“Burgess I”). Id. at
¶¶ 10-11; Doc. 10 at 90-140. In October 2016, the
state court affirmed the dismissal, and in January 2017, the
court denied Burgess's motion to reconsider. Doc. 15 at
¶¶ 12-14. Burgess has appealed those orders.
Id. at ¶ 14.
October 2016, Burgess filed a second suit in state court
against the Board, alleging that it “defamed him and
placed him in a false light” based upon statements it
made regarding his termination (“Burgess
II”). Id. at ¶¶ 15-16.
Specifically, Burgess alleged that the Board “orally
and/or in writing defamed and/or falsely accused [him] of
‘gross misconduct' in various insurance and
personnel forms and filings.” Doc. 10 at 425 ¶ 13.
Burgess further alleged that the Board's defamatory
statements were made “to injure [him], deny him
employment, cover-up for his unlawful termination, deny [him]
unemployment benefits, [and] ruin his reputation.” Doc.
15 at ¶ 18; Doc. 10 at 425 ¶ 15. In December 2016,
the state court entered a final and appealable order
dismissing the suit with prejudice pursuant to 735 ILCS
5/2-619(a) and denying Burgess leave to file an amended
complaint. Doc. 15 at ¶¶ 19-20; Doc. 10 at 433-441.
Burgess did not appeal or move to reconsider that order. Doc.
15 at ¶ 21.
January 2017, shortly after the state court dismissed
Burgess II, Burgess filed the present suit. Doc. 3
at 3-11. Count I, for breach of contract, alleges that the
Board's termination of him violated Illinois teacher
tenure law because he was not dismissed for
“cause.” Id. at 5-6. Count II, for state
law retaliatory discharge, alleges that the actual reason the
Board terminated him was retaliation for his public criticism
of the school district's Superintendent; specifically,
Burgess alleges that “[t]he decision to bring charges
against [him] seeking his discharge, and the decision to
ignore the hearing officer's recommendation that the
discharge be overturned[, ] were both in retaliation for, and
motivated by, the [Board's] illegitimate animus directed
at [him] due to his having engaged in the protected
activities of criticizing [the Superintendent] and calling
for a vote of ‘no confidence.'” Id.
at 9; see id. at 6-9. Count III, brought under 42
U.S.C. § 1983, alleges that the Board violated the First
Amendment by terminating Burgess in retaliation for his
protected speech. Id. at 9-10.
Board moves for summary judgment on several grounds. The only
ground that need be addressed is the Board's submission
that res judicata (also called claim preclusion) arising from
the final judgment in Burgess II bars Burgess from
pursuing this federal suit.
judicata “provides for the finality of rulings by
barring the relitigation of claims or defenses that had been
or could have been brought in a prior case.” Smith
Trust & Sav. Bank v. Young, 727 N.E.2d 1042, 1045
(Ill.App. 2000); see also Hicks v. Midwest Transit,
Inc., 479 F.3d 468, 471 (7th Cir. 2007); Wilson v.
Edward Hosp., 981 N.E.2d 971, 975 (Ill. 2012). Because
the judgment in Burgess II was issued by an Illinois
state court, its preclusive effect is governed by Illinois
law. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v.
Epstein, 516 U.S. 367, 373 (1996); Burke v.
Johnston, 452 F.3d 665, 669 (7th Cir. 2006). In
Illinois, res judicata applies if: “(1) there was a
final judgment on the merits rendered by a court of competent
jurisdiction, (2) there is an identity of cause of action,
and (3) there is an identity of parties or their
privies.” River Park, Inc. v. City of Highland
Park, 703 N.E.2d 883, 889 (Ill. 1998); see also
Empress Casino Joliet Corp. v. Johnston, 763 F.3d 723,
727-28 (7th Cir. 2014). In addition, the party against whom
res judicata is invoked must have had a “full and
fair” opportunity in the prior suit to litigate the
claims brought in the later suit. Hicks, 479 F.3d at
471; see also Janus v. Am. Fed'n of State, Cnty.
& Mun. Emps., Council 31, 851 F.3d 746, 748
(7th Cir. 2017) (holding that the plaintiff had a full and
fair opportunity to litigate his federal claim in state court
where he “could have included his claim” in the
state proceedings but failed to do so).
first requirement, a final judgment on the merits, is
satisfied. The state court dismissed Burgess II with
prejudice pursuant to 735 ILCS 5/2-619(a), reasoning that
Burgess's claims were “barred as a matter of law by
the Tort Immunity Act and absolute privilege” and by
the statute of limitations. Doc. 10 at 435-438. The court
denied his request to file an amended pleading, id.
at 440-441, and Burgess did not appeal. Under Illinois law,
such a dismissal is an adjudication on the merits for
purposes of res judicata. See Rein v. David A. Noyes
& Co., 665 N.E.2d 1199, 1204-05 (Ill. 1996)
(“[U]nless [an] order of dismissal or a statute of this
State otherwise specifies, an involuntary dismissal of an
action, other than a dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, for
improper venue, or for failure to join an indispensable
party, operates as an adjudication upon the merits”)
(quoting Illinois Supreme Court Rule 273); see also
DeLuna v. Treister, 708 N.E.2d 340, 344-45 (Ill. 1999);
Sledge v. Bellwood Sch. Dist. 88, 2010 WL 1579920,
at *5 (N.D. Ill. Apr. 20, 2010), aff'd,
487 Fed.Appx. 313 (7th Cir. 2012). Burgess agrees that
“the judgment in [Burgess II] is final.”
Doc. 16 at 8.
second requirement, the identity of the cause of action, is
also satisfied. This requirement is governed by the
“transactional test, ” which provides that
“separate claims will be considered the same cause of
action for purposes of res judicata if they arise
from a single group of operative facts, regardless of whether
they assert different theories of relief.” River
Park, 703 N.E.2d at 893; see also Huon v. Johnson
& Bell, Ltd., 757 F.3d 556, 558-59 (7th Cir. 2014);
Cooney v. Rossiter, 986 N.E.2d 618, 622 (Ill. 2012)
(“Illinois does not require the same evidence or an
identical theory of relief.”). What constitutes a
“single group of operative facts” is determined
pragmatically, “giving weight to such considerations as
whether the facts are related in time, space, origin, or
motivation, whether they form a convenient trial unit, and
whether their treatment as a unit conforms to the
parties' expectations or business understanding or
usage.” River Park, 703 N.E.2d at 893
(internal quotation marks omitted); see also Huon,
757 F.3d at 558; Altair Corp. v. Grand Premier Trust and
Inv., Inc., 742 N.E.2d 351, 355 (Ill.App. 2000).
noted, Burgess in Burgess II alleged that the Board
defamed him by accusing him of “gross misconduct”
in “various insurance and personnel forms and
filings.” Doc. 10 at 425 ¶ 13. The Board's
statements, Burgess claimed, were made to “injure
[him], deny him employment, cover-up for his unlawful
termination, deny [him] unemployment benefits, [and] ruin his
reputation.” Doc. 15 at ¶ 18; see Doc. 10
at 425 ¶ 15. In the present case, Burgess's breach
of contract, retaliatory discharge, and First Amendment
claims rest on the same premise-that the Board's stated
reasons for terminating him (that he mistreated other
employees and then lied about it) were false, and that the
real reason was retaliation for his public criticism of the
Superintendent. Thus, the gist of Burgess II and
this suit centers on a single question, which can be answered
by drawing upon a single set of operative facts: Were the
Board's expressed reasons for terminating Burgess
genuine, or were they a pretext or subterfuge to cover up a
retaliatory termination? This easily satisfies the identity
of the cause of action requirement. See Parungao v.
Comty. Health Sys., Inc., 858 F.3d 452, 458 (7th Cir.
2017) (holding that an identity of the cause of action
existed between (1) a state court defamation suit alleging
that the defendant hospital's staff made false statements
about the plaintiff to other hospitals from which he sought
employment and (2) a federal suit alleging that hospital
staff initiated a sham peer review process and declined to
inform other hospitals that the plaintiff was an employee in
good standing, reasoning that “[w]hile his theory of
recovery is different here than in [the state court case],
both suits arise out of statements made around the time he
resigned that made it ...