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A.J. v. Butler Illinois School District 53

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

March 26, 2018

A.J. and R.J., minor children, by Rahul Julka, their father and next friend, RAHUL JULKA, and KOMAL JULKA, Plaintiffs,
v.
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

         Rahul 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 Julkas' complaint.

         Background

         The following facts are taken from the allegations of the Julkas' complaint, which the Court takes as true for purposes of this motion.

         Each 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.

         Komal 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.

         Vandana 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 Wennstrom, arrived.

         The 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 administrator.

         On 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).

         The 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.

         During 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.

         The 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.

         The 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.[1] The state court dismissed the case as moot. See D.E. 72, Def.'s Ex. N, at 6 (Aug. 21, 2017 court transcript).

         The 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.

         In 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.

         Discussion

         Each of 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.

         I. Official capacity claims

         First, 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.

         II. Color of law

         Second, 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.

         As to 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. 2009).

         In 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.

         Here, 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 ...


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