United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
A.J. and R.J., minor children, by Rahul Julka, their father and next friend, RAHUL JULKA, and KOMAL JULKA, Plaintiffs,
BUTLER ILLINOIS SCHOOL DISTRICT 53, THE BOARD OF EDUCATION FOR BUTLER SCHOOL DISTRICT 53, HEIDI WENNSTROM in personal and official capacity, KELLY VOLIVA in personal and official capacity, ALAN HANZLIK in personal and official capacity, ROBBINS SCHWARTZ, LIBBY MASSEY, CAROLINE ROSELLI, VANDANA BADLANI, and RAVI BADLANI, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
MATTHEW F. KENNELLY, District Judge
and Komal Julka's children were students in Butler School
District 53. District administrators concluded that the
Julkas had wrongfully obtained the National Geographic
Bee's questions in advance to give their children an
advantage in the competition. They imposed sanctions and put
letters in the students' files detailing the alleged
misconduct. The Julkas contend that the administrators'
actions violated their federal constitutional rights and
state tort law. The defendants have moved to dismiss the
following facts are taken from the allegations of the
Julkas' complaint, which the Court takes as true for
purposes of this motion.
year, students in District 53 have the opportunity to
participate in national academic competitions. One of these
is the National Geographic Bee, commonly referred to as the
"GeoBee." The Julkas' children, A.J. and R.J.,
wanted to participate in the 2016 GeoBee. At the time, A.J.
was nine years old and R.J. was eleven. The children's
mother, Komal Julka, asked her brother to help them study.
(For ease of reference, the Court will refer to the father as
Rahul, the mother as Komal, and the two together as the
Julkas.) Komal's brother found a link on the GeoBee
website that offered additional test preparation resources
for purchase. Komal provided him with her credit card to
purchase these resources.
told Vandana and Ravi Badlani, two parents whose students
also participated in the GeoBee, that they had obtained
additional study resources. (The Court will refer to the
Badlanis by their first names for ease of reference or to the
Badlanis when referring to both.) On a phone call, the
Badlanis asked Komal to read the questions from the test
preparation resource. Vandana concluded that what Komal had
obtained was not a test preparation resource, but the actual
questions for the upcoming GeoBee competition. What Komal did
not know at the time was that Ravi Badlani recorded
Vandana's end of the call with Komal.
demanded that Komal inform the school district and the GeoBee
that they had the questions for the upcoming competition.
(The District later alleged that the Julkas had obtained the
questions by misrepresenting themselves as homeschoolers to
gain access to the test questions.) On January 15, 2016, the
Julkas decided to withdraw their children from the GeoBee.
Then, on January 19, Komal went to speak with the school
principal, Kelly Voliva, about Vandana's accusation.
Komal was told to wait until the superintendent, Heidi
Julkas allege that Komal told Voliva and Wennstrom the same
facts recited so far: the Julkas believed the materials they
had obtained were study aids, not the questions themselves,
and there had been a misunderstanding. Wennstrom replied that
she had heard a different story from the Badlanis. She then
asked Komal to leave the office for several hours. When Komal
returned, she found that Voliva and Wennstrom had been joined
by Vandana Badlani. Komal alleges that she reiterated her
story to them again, but they disagreed and questioned her.
After the conversation, Wennstrom commenced an investigation.
The Julkas allege that during the investigation, R.J., their
eleven-year-old, was questioned by Voliva and another
February 8, Wennstrom issued a letter to the Julkas that
stated: "The academic dishonesty and cheating which you
and your children engaged put all of the District students
participating in the contest and the District at risk of
being banned from current and future National Geographic Bee
contests." First Am. Compl. ¶ 54. The February 8
letter was added to R.J. and A.J.'s academic files. On
the same day, Wennstrom issued a public statement that
announced the results of the investigation, stating:
"These instances of academic dishonesty by a couple
parents cast a shadow on the District's reputation and
could potentially lead others to question the integrity of
our achievement results." D.E. 67, Def.'s Ex. H
(Wennstrom Feb. 8, 2016 e-mail).
Julkas filed a grievance on February 11. The Julkas allege
that District 53 failed to follow its established Uniform
Grievance Procedure (UGP) in numerous ways during the
grievance proceeding. First, the UGP names two particular
individuals who may serve as complaint managers, but the
District instead selected Alan Hanzlik, who was not
identified in the UGP. Next, the District hired Libby Massey,
an attorney with the Robbins Schwartz law firm, to serve as
an (ostensibly) independent investigator, even though Robbins
Schwartz counts the school district as a client. Third, the
District relied upon Caroline Roselli, another Robbins
Schwartz attorney, as a mediator.
a March 7 meeting held to attempt to resolve the dispute,
Wennstrom informed the Julkas that she had heard a recording
of the January phone call between Komal and Vandana. The
Julkas allege that Wennstrom "decided to believe
Badlani" after hearing the recording of the phone call.
First Am. Compl. ¶ 67. The parties did not reach a
resolution during the March meeting.
Julkas allege that Massey then began to investigate the
allegations against them. They allege she interviewed several
witnesses and reviewed materials the Julkas provided. But
they also contend that Massey did not permit them to be
present during the questioning of witnesses or to review the
other evidence she received.
Julkas allege that the defendants issued a written decision
on April 15 (the April decision). The April decision found
that the February 8 letter inserted into the Julka
children's files improperly stated that they children had
engaged in academic dishonesty. The decision directed the
District to replace the February 8 letter with a more
accurate document that did not state that R.J. and A.J.
engaged in misconduct. The April decision otherwise affirmed
the district's exclusion of R.J. and A.J. from future
academic competitions. The Julkas also allege that the April
decision offered the possibility of removing the sanction
letter from their children's files if they transferred
out of the district. The Julkas later filed a complaint in
state court, seeking administrative review of the
District's resolution of their grievance. Julka v.
Paskalides, 2016 MR 001612 (Ill. Cir. Ct. Dec. 12,
2016). Before the state court could reach a decision on the
Julkas' complaint, the School District removed the letter
from the students' files. The state court dismissed the
case as moot. See D.E. 72, Def.'s Ex. N, at 6
(Aug. 21, 2017 court transcript).
Julkas also allege that, after requesting copies of the
children's records during the pendency of the state court
lawsuit, they learned that new documents had been added to
R.J.'s student file. The Julkas say that the documents
falsely stated that R.J. engaged in academic dishonesty in
2015-before the entire GeoBee course of events. The Julkas
contend that the school district defendants must have added
the 2015 materials to R.J.'s file in May 2016, because
the letter was not in the April 2016 version of the file. The
Julkas allege that the events described in the 2015 materials
are baseless, incomplete, and not credible, as one of the
items included is a letter that contains misspellings and
appears to contain the handwriting of two different people.
April 2017, the Julkas filed the present lawsuit. Three
groups of defendants are named in the Julkas' amended
complaint: the school district defendants (the Butler School
Board, the Butler School District, Wennstrom, Voliva, and
Hanzlik); the law firm defendants (Massey, Roselli, and
Robbins Schwartz); and the Badlanis (Vandana and Ravi
Badlani). The Julkas assert seven claims on behalf of
themselves and their children: violation of the Due Process
Clause (count 1), violation of the Equal Protection Clause
(count 2), retaliation in violation of the First Amendment
(count 3), civil conspiracy (count 4), intentional infliction
of emotional distress (count 5), and spoliation of evidence
(count 6). In count 7, the plaintiffs ask the Court for
injunctive relief to remove any negative materials pertaining
to the GeoBee from R.J. and A.J.'s student files.
the three groups of defendants-the school board defendants,
the law firm defendants, and the Badlanis-has moved to
dismiss the Julkas' complaint for failure to state a
claim. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To defeat a motion to dismiss,
a plaintiff must allege a facially plausible claim, one that
"allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged."
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 667, 678 (2009). The
defendants argue that the Julkas' claims do not meet this
standard. Some of the defendants also present individual
arguments for why dismissal is warranted.
Official capacity claims
the school district defendants have moved to dismiss the
District 53 School Board as a party on the ground that it is
not a suable entity. The Court denies the motion, as Illinois
law plainly permits the plaintiffs to sue a school board.
See Veazey v. Bd. of Educ. of Rich Twp. High Sch. Dist.
227, 2016 IL App (1st) 151795 ¶ 27, 59 N.E.3d 857,
865 ("a board of education has the power under the
School Code to sue and be sued in court proceedings").
See also 105 ILCS 5/10-2. The school district
defendants also urge dismissal of the claims against
Wennstrom, Voliva, and Hanzlik in their official capacities.
The practice of naming an officer in her official capacity
"represent[s] only another way of pleading an action
against an entity of which an officer is an agent."
Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985). The
Julkas, who have also named the District and the School Board
as defendants, concede this point. Pls.' Resp. to School
Dist. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss at 3. The Court agrees that
naming these defendants in their official capacities is
redundant and therefore dismisses the official-capacity
claims against each of them.
Color of law
Massey, Roselli, and Vandana have moved to dismiss counts 1
through 3 as directed against them on the ground that they
are private citizens who did not act under color of state
law. To establish a section 1983 claim against a defendant,
the plaintiff must adequately allege the defendant acted
under color of state law. McNabola v. Chicago Transit
Auth., 10 F.3d 501, 513 (7th Cir. 1993). The Julkas
contend Massey and Roselli, as well as Vandana, acted under
color state law by conspiring with the school district
defendants. "[P]rivate defendants can be subject to a
[section] 1983 action only if they conspired with the state
actors to violate [the plaintiffs'] civil rights."
Johnson v. Dossey, 515 F.3d 778, 782 (7th Cir.
2008). For reasons discussed below, however, the Court
concludes plaintiffs have not adequately alleged such a
conspiracy. The Court therefore dismisses counts 1 through 3
as to Vandana, but not Massey and Roselli, as there is a
separate basis to hold them liable under section 1983.
Massey and Roselli, "[a]nyone whose conduct is
'fairly attributable to the state' can be sued as a
state actor under § 1983." Filarsky v.
Delia, 566 U.S. 377, 383 (2012) (quoting Lugar v.
Edmonson Oil Co, Inc., 457 U.S. 922, 937 (1982)). In
Hefley v. Bruch, 276 Fed.Appx. 506 (7th Cir. 2008),
the Seventh Circuit noted that "lawyers do not act under
color of law merely by representing their clients."
Id. at 507. See also Hutcherson v. Smith,
908 F.2d 243, 245 n.2 (7th Cir. 1990) (same). Rather, to
determine whether an attorney working on behalf of a
municipality acts under color of state law, the Court must
look to the attorney's function in carrying out his or
her responsibilities to the municipality. See Rodriguez
v. Plymouth Ambulance Serv., 577 F.3d 816, 825 (7th Cir.
Rodriguez, the Seventh Circuit noted that the
Supreme Court had "applied this functional approach to
determine whether a particular individual acted under the
color of state law in a variety of contexts, " including
an attorney's conduct as a public defender. Id.
at 825 n.13. The functional analysis considers the
relationship between the state, the private entity, and the
individual. Id. at 826. The setting in which the
interaction occurs is also significant. Id. The
Seventh Circuit concluded in Rodriguez that a
private hospital acted under color of state law when it
treated a prisoner, because the hospital had an "ongoing
relationship" with the prison to provide medical
services "tied to the state's responsibility for
[the prisoner's] overall medical care." Id.
at 831. The Court noted that the prisoner, given his
incarceration, was not free to consider another hospital.
Id. at 826-27.
Massey and Roselli, through their employment, both performed
functions that render it plausible that they acted under
color of state law. The Julkas allege that Massey acted as an
investigator for the District and Roselli acted as a mediator
during the District's grievance procedure. See Polk
County v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 325 (1981) (holding that
an attorney working as a public defender may act under color
of state law while performing administrative and possibly
investigative functions). Both Massey's investigation and
Roselli's mediation supported the school district
defendants' efforts to facilitate the grievance process.
The Julkas were bound to accept these services, as they did
not have the choice to ...