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Washington v. Board of Education of City of Chicago

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

January 24, 2018

Cassandra Washington on her own behalf, and on behalf of Local School Council for Stephen F. Gale Community Academy, Plaintiff,
v.
Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          MANISH S. SHAH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff, Cassandra Washington, and defendant, Board of Education of the City of Chicago, executed a settlement agreement and release of claims arising out of her employment. Washington brings this lawsuit seeking a declaration that the agreement is unenforceable under federal and state law; a declaration that she is entitled to leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act; a declaration that federal law preempts the Illinois statute on which defendant based her termination; a state-law writ of certiorari; and damages for defendant's fraudulent inducement and fraudulent concealment. Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         I. Legal Standards

         A Rule 12(b)(1) motion challenges jurisdiction in federal court; on such a motion, the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing the elements necessary for jurisdiction. Scanlan v. Eisenberg, 669 F.3d 838, 841-42 (7th Cir. 2012). With a 12(b)(1) motion, a court may look beyond the complaint's allegations and consider any evidence that has been submitted on the issue of jurisdiction. Ezekiel v. Michel, 66 F.3d 894, 897 (7th Cir. 1995). By contrast, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion “tests whether the complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted.” Richards v. Mitcheff, 696 F.3d 635, 637 (7th Cir. 2012). The complaint must contain factual allegations that plausibly suggest a right to relief. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 677-78 (2009). A court may consider allegations in the complaint and documents attached to the complaint.[1] Williamson v. Curran, 714 F.3d 432, 436 (7th Cir. 2013). When analyzing a motion under Rule 12(b)(1) or Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts all well-pleaded factual allegations as true and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Scanlan, 669 F.3d at 841. The court need not accept legal conclusions or conclusory allegations, however. Virnich v. Vorwald, 664 F.3d 206, 212 (7th Cir. 2011). The board invoked Rule 12(b)(1), but its motion does not substantively dispute this court's power to hear the dispute. Its motion is, essentially, a Rule 12(b)(6) motion arguing that Washington has not stated a claim for relief.

         II. Background

         Washington is a certified and licensed school administrator and teacher in the State of Illinois; she is African-American, and she is over forty-years old. [21] ¶¶ 7-8, 16. She began working for Chicago Public Schools in 1992. Id. ¶ 15. Since that time, she has worked as a teacher, assistant principal, and contract principal. Id. In February 2014, Washington signed a contract to serve as the principal at Stephen F. Gale Community Academy. Id. ¶ 17. As a result of those contract negotiations, Washington says that a special and confidential relationship developed between her and Chicago Board of Education's law department. Id. ¶ 55. Under the principal contract, the board was obligated to pay Washington an annual salary and certain benefits from July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2018. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. Washington says that the principal contract could only be terminated after a full due process hearing or after a knowing and voluntary agreement of all of the parties, including the Local School Council for Gale. Id. ¶ 19.

         Yet, the board had an unwritten policy through which it “systematically targeted experienced African-American female contract principals who were more than forty years of age for unjustified removal and dismissal from employment before the terms of their contracts expired” in order to replace those contract principals with “politically connected, younger and cheaper candidates who were unlikely to exercise their first amendment rights.” Id. ¶ 25. In furtherance of this policy, the board would threaten to terminate these principals under 105 ILCS 5/34-8.3 and threaten to make disparaging remarks about the principals' professionalism. Id. During the 2015 to 2016 school year, the board used this unwritten policy to target Washington.[2] Id. ¶ 26. Specifically, Washington says that CPS pressured her supervisor, Philip Salemi, to remove her from her position as the principal at Gale. Id. ¶ 28. On May 10, 2016, Salemi issued Washington a Corrective Action Plan, the terms of which Washington viewed as unreasonable and unrealistic. Id. ¶ 29. Washington says the CAP was not based on facts and that the Human Resources Department did not approve it, as is required by CPS policy. Id. ¶ 30.

         In July 2016, an attorney in the board's law department, James Ciesil, contacted Washington through her union and demanded that she resign immediately from her position as principal at Gale or else, face involuntary termination. Id. ¶ 34. The board also issued a public warning resolution against Washington, falsely accusing her of exhibiting conduct that is unbecoming of a principal. Id. ¶ 35. Shortly thereafter, the board drafted the “Settlement Agreement and General Release” and presented it to Washington for her signature. Id. ¶ 38; see also Id. at 23-27. Washington believes that the board did so because it wanted to manipulate her into agreeing to leave her position, and also, because it wanted to retaliate against her for exercising her first amendment rights at a rally.[3] Id. ¶ 37.

         On August 20, 2016, Washington signed the settlement agreement. Id. ¶ 3; see also Id. at 27. The settlement agreement's recitals provide: (1) Washington is employed as principal at Gale; (2) Washington and the Chicago Board of Education are parties to the 2014 employment contract; (3) the board seeks to end the 2014 contract before its end date; (4) Washington did not successfully complete her CAP, she has been removed from her principal position at Gale, and she has been reassigned to a “Central Office position”; (5) Washington denies that she should have received the CAP or that she did not successfully complete the CAP; and (6) the board and Washington seek to resolve “any and all issues between them.” Id. at 23.

         The section titled “Board's Consideration to Washington” outlines the following: the board will not conduct a contested § 8.3 hearing, which could lead to the forced removal of Washington from her principal position with no consideration. Id. The board will not place Washington in a negative light during any § 8.3 principal removal proceedings. Id. Washington will work in an administrative position with no break in service from August 9, 2016 through December 9, 2016, and she will continue to receive the same pay and benefits that she received as the principal of Gale. Id. at 24. On December 12, 2016, the board will place Washington into an approved unpaid leave position through June 30, 2017. Id. During this time period, Washington will be entitled to use any and all of her accrued sick days, personal days, and the like; additionally, the board will continue to make pension contributions for Washington, and she will be entitled to receive her same benefits. Id. The board agrees to remove the CAP and any related documents from Washington's personnel file. Id. The board also agrees to not contest any unemployment compensation claim that Washington may file after June 30, 2017. Id. The board agrees that Washington will be eligible for rehire in any position for which she qualifies after June 30, 2017. Id. Finally, the board will allow Washington to send a letter to the Gale community, which has been agreed to by the parties. Id.

         The section titled “Washington's Consideration” provides that Washington consents to: (1) release all claims or causes of action which she has or may have against the board arising out of or in connection with her employment and her separation from employment with the board, [4] (2) her removal as principal of Gale under 105 ILCS 5/34-8.3, which results in the termination of her principal contract on October 31, 2016, and (3) submitting her written retirement from the board with an effective date of June 30, 2017, which will be final and binding, and which may not be rescinded. Id. at 24-25.

         The agreement expressly states that Washington was afforded the opportunity to receive the advice and assistance of counsel of her choice; that she had the opportunity to discuss the terms of the agreement with counsel of her choice; and that the board has not interfered with that opportunity in any way. Id. at 25. Relatedly, the agreement makes clear that Washington's release of claims includes any claims she has against the board under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. [21] at 25. To that end, the agreement states that the board tendered the agreement to Washington's representative on August 10, 2016, and afforded her representative twenty-one calendar days to consider signing the agreement. Id. The agreement also provided that Washington may revoke the agreement up to seven days after she executed it, if she hand-delivered a letter to the board's counsel; but if Washington did not revoke by 5:00 p.m. on the seventh day, the agreement provided that it would go into effect at 5:01 p.m. on that seventh day. Id. at 25-26.

         Notwithstanding these express terms contained in the settlement agreement, Washington alleges that her agreement was invalid, and she says that she would not have signed the agreement if she had known that: (1) the board's hearing procedures did not allow for cross-examination of witnesses; (2) the board intended to hold actual hearings[5]; or (3) the board did not intend to comply with its salary and benefit obligations to her under the principal contract.[6] Id. ¶ 40.

         III. Analysis

         A. Jurisdiction

         District courts have original jurisdiction over all civil actions arising under the “Constitution, laws, or treaties” of the United States. 28 U.S.C. § 1331. The complaint states that this court has subject-matter jurisdiction over this case because Washington “raises federal claims” under the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et. seq., the Family and Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et. seq., the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as well as the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution. [21] ¶ 1. The board does not challenge this jurisdictional statement, but I have an independent duty to determine whether jurisdiction is lacking. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3); Yasuda Fire & Marine Ins. Co. of Europe, Ltd v. Continental Cas. Co., 37 F.3d 345, 347 (7th Cir. 1994). Neither the Declaratory Judgment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, nor the Supremacy Clause may serve as an independent basis for federal jurisdiction. TIG Ins. Co. v. Reliable Research Co., 334 F.3d 630, 634 (7th Cir. 2003); New West, L.P. v. City of Joliet, 491 F.3d 717, 719 (7th Cir. 2007). Although the complaint cites § 1983 and the First and Fourteenth Amendments, no claim asserted in the pleading arises under § 1983. Nevertheless, the complaint seeks a declaration of Washington's rights under other federal statutes (which provide for private rights of action), namely the ADEA and the FMLA, and so I conclude that there is subject-matter jurisdiction over this dispute.

         B. Validity and Enforceability

         The outcome of this motion to dismiss depends in large part on determining whether the settlement agreement is valid and enforceable. A settlement agreement is a contract, and it is governed by principles of state contract law. Cannon v. Burge, 752 F.3d 1079, 1088 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Cushing v. Greyhound Lines, Inc., 2013 IL App (1st) 103197, ¶ 354). A release within a settlement agreement is also governed by contract law. Farm Credit Bank of St. Louis v. Whitlock, 144 Ill.2d 440, 447 (1991). When an agreement is clear and explicit, a court must enforce it as written; “[b]oth the meaning of the instrument, and the intention of the parties must be gathered from the face of the document without the assistance of parol evidence or any other extrinsic aids.” Rakowski v. Lucente, 104 Ill.2d 317, 323 (1984). A contract that may be understood in more than one way is not clear or explicit. Whitlock, 144 Ill.2d at 444.

         Washington does not assert that the settlement agreement is unclear or that it is open to more than one interpretation (my own reading confirms that there is no ambiguity); instead, she advances several theories as to why the settlement agreement may not be enforced. An unambiguous agreement may be avoided if it was obtained through fraud, duress, illegality, or mistake. Simmons v. Blauw, 263 Ill.App.3d 829, 832 ...


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