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Sapia v. Board of Education of The City of Chicago

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

March 31, 2018

BENNETT SAPIA, JOEL PASSMORE, and ANNETTE HALL, Plaintiffs,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF CHICAGO, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ANDREA R. WOOD, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs Bennett Sapia, Joel Passmore, and Annette Hall claim they were let go from their tenured teaching positions by Defendant Board of Education of the City of Chicago (“Board”) without receiving the benefit of mandated procedures for terminating tenured teachers. Plaintiffs assert that this denial amounts to a violation of their due process rights and so they have filed the instant lawsuit pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 seeking monetary damages and declaratory relief. Now before the Court are the following motions: the Board's motion for judgment on the pleadings (Dkt. No. 188), the Board's motion to strike and dismiss portions of Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) (Dkt. No. 136), Plaintiffs' motion for leave to issue notice to absent class members (Dkt. No. 122), Plaintiffs' motion to strike certain affirmative defenses (Dkt. No. 141), and Plaintiffs' motion to set aside or modify the Magistrate Judge's May 15, 2017 order (Dkt. No. 160). The Court addresses each of the motions below.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs were working as tenured teachers in the City of Chicago's public school system when they received layoff notices-Passmore in July 2012, and Sapia and Hall in October 2012. Plaintiffs claim that throughout their careers they received consistently good performance evaluations; but then, in June of 2012, they were rated “unsatisfactory” and shortly thereafter they were fired. The parties do not dispute that in deciding which teachers would be let go, the Board looked first to those with unsatisfactory ratings, including tenured teachers, before considering others with less seniority and no tenure. Plaintiffs assert that the Illinois School Code prohibits the removal of tenured teachers except for cause and also mandates specific pre-termination evaluation and decision procedures plus administrative review of any adverse decision. See 105 ILCS 5/24A-5, 5/34-85. Thus, according to Plaintiffs, by firing them and exposing them to the resulting stigma, the Board deprived them of a protected property interest without due process in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

         The initial complaint in this lawsuit was filed on October 10, 2014 and later followed by the First Amended Complaint (“FAC”). The FAC alleged that the Board denied Plaintiffs, and a putative class of other similarly-situated persons, due process of law. The Board moved to dismiss the FAC arguing, among other things, that Plaintiffs' due process claims failed because Plaintiffs did not have protected property interests under either the Illinois School Code or the operative collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) between the Board and Plaintiffs' union. The Board also argued that Plaintiffs' claims for reputational harm failed because Plaintiffs' unsatisfactory ratings were not stigmatizing, were unpublished, and did not bar Plaintiffs from reemployment. While this Court ultimately denied the Board's motion to dismiss the FAC, the scope of the surviving due process claims was significantly narrowed by the Court's ruling. Specifically, the Court held that,

although Plaintiffs do not state a claim for relief with the bare allegation that the Board used performance ratings to determine their eligibility for layoff, they do state a sufficient claim to the extent they allege that the Board's actions against them were not the result of a layoff necessitated by economics or enrollment, but instead were prompted by individual animus towards them.

Sapia v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, No. 14-cv-07946, 2016 WL 5391134, at *3 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 26, 2016). After the ruling, the Board moved to join the Chicago Teachers Union (“CTU”) as an indispensable party to this action. (Dkt. No. 109.) The Court denied that motion because, due to the ruling on the motion to dismiss, Plaintiffs' claims had been limited to the theory that the layoff label was a pretext for terminations actually prompted by individual animus against each of them, the layoff procedures established by the CBA were no longer at issue, and the challenged actions did not substantially impact the CTU membership. (Feb. 20, 2017 Order, Dkt. No. 124.)

         Plaintiffs next sought leave to amend their complaint again to remove the class allegations and to issue notice to absent class members pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(d)(1). (Dkt. No. 122.) The Court granted Plaintiffs leave to file the SAC, which is now the operative complaint, but deferred ruling on the notice issue at that time. (Feb. 21, 2017 Minute Order, Dkt. No. 125.) The SAC asserts the following claims: Count I alleges denial of due process based on Plaintiffs' pre-termination rights; Count II alleges denial of due process based on Plaintiffs' post-termination rights; and Count III claims a due process violation based on injuries to Plaintiffs' reputations.

         The Board answered the SAC but also moved to strike or dismiss portions of it. (Dkt. Nos. 136, 137.) Plaintiffs, in turn, moved to strike certain affirmative defenses raised by the Board. (Dkt. No. 141.) While those motions were pending, the Board also moved for judgment on the pleadings. (Dkt. No. 188.) Additionally, in light of the Board's motion to strike or dismiss portions of the SAC, the Magistrate Judge, who was supervising discovery, suspended briefing on the parties' discovery motions-namely, the Board's motion to quash Plaintiffs' deposition subpoenas (Dkt. No. 146) and Plaintiffs' motion to compel (Dkt. No. 149). (May 15, 2017 Mem. Op. and Order, Dkt. No. 158.) Thus, Plaintiffs filed a motion asking this Court to set aside or modify the Magistrate Judge's order. (Dkt. No. 160.)

         DISCUSSION

         I. The Board's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings

         The Court first considers the Board's motion for judgment on the pleadings, as a ruling in the Board's favor could dispose of the case in its entirety. To survive a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” ADM All. Nutrition, Inc. v. SGA Pharm Lab, Inc., 877 F.3d 742, 746 (7th Cir. 2017) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In reviewing such a motion, the Court draws all reasonable inferences and view all facts in favor of the non-moving party. Id.

         For its motion, the Board argues that Plaintiffs' claims are barred by the doctrine of res judicata as a result of a final decision on the merits and stipulation of dismissal with prejudice entered in 2012 in Chicago Teachers Union v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, No. 10-cv-04852 (N.D. Ill.) (“CTU case”). Under the doctrine of res judicata, a final judgment on the merits of an action precludes the parties or their privies from relitigating issues that were or could have been raised in that action. Barr v. Bd. of Trs. of W. Ill. Univ., 796 F.3d 837, 839 (7th Cir. 2015). Res judicata blocks a second lawsuit if there is (1) an identity of the parties in the two lawsuits; (2) a final judgment on the merits in the first lawsuit; and (3) an identity of the causes of action in the two lawsuits. Id. at 840. The third element is satisfied if the claims comprise the same core of operative facts giving rise to a remedy-in other words, the two lawsuits must be based on the same, or nearly the same, factual allegations. Id.

         Here, Plaintiffs' current lawsuit and the CTU case do not arise from the same core of operative facts. The present suit has been limited to Plaintiffs' claim that they were fired due to individual animus towards them and not, as the Board claimed, due to a “drop in enrollment” in the schools. The events at issue took place in 2011 and 2012. Specifically, Sapia became outspoken about problems in his school and advocated against the school's principal in October 2011. (SAC ¶ 20, Dkt. No. 126.) In February 2012, the principal observed Sapia in the classroom, which led to Sapia receiving an “unsatisfactory” rating in June 2012. Sapia was subsequently fired on October 10, 2012, due to allegedly “low enrollment” in his school. (Id. ¶¶ 21-27.) Likewise, Passmore outspokenly opposed the principal of his school in 2011; he was given an “unsatisfactory” rating in June 2012; and he was fired in July 2012 due to the alleged “drop in enrollment” in his school. (Id. ¶¶ 43, 49, 50.) Finally, Hall got an unsatisfactory rating in June 2012 and was let go in October 2012, also due to a purported “drop in enrollment.” (Id. ¶¶ 63, 66.)

         In contrast, the CTU case dealt with layoffs surrounding a 2010 budget deficit. See Chicago Teachers Union v. Bd. of Educ. of the City of Chicago, No. 10-cv-04852, 2010 WL 3927696, at *1-2 (N.D. Ill. Oct. 4, 2010). On the eve of the 2010-2011 school year, the Board laid off nearly 1, 300 teachers. Id. at *1. The layoffs were implemented through a series of resolutions-the June 15, 2010 resolution authorized the “honorable termination” of tenured teachers and the June 23, 2010 resolution authorized schools to first lay off teachers who were under remediation or whose most recent performance ratings were negative. Id. Although the Board suggested to the media that the layoffs involved teachers with unsatisfactory evaluations, the majority of the laid-off teachers had good ratings. Id. The Board later announced plans to dismiss more teachers. Id. By August 31, 2010, the Board had laid off nearly 1, 300 teachers. Id. at *2. Those teachers received notice of their terminations but were not provided an opportunity to demonstrate their qualifications for retention within the school system. Id. The Board later restored some of the teachers to their positions due to an increase in federal funding. Id.

         On August 2, 2010, the CTU filed a lawsuit against the Board (and other defendants). (See Compl., Dkt. No. 1 of the CTU case.) The complaint was later amended, leaving only due process claims under § 1983. (See Am. Compl., Dkt. No. 75 of the CTU case.) The amended complaint alleged, among other things, that the Board refused to comply with the CBA, which entitled tenured teachers to be laid off in order of seniority, that the Board's layoffs (and planned layoffs) of tenured teachers with unsatisfactory ratings deprived those teachers of property rights in tenured employment without individualized determinations as required by the Illinois School Code, and that the layoffs were pretextual. (See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 1, 3, 6, 53, 60-62.)

         On December 27, 2010, the court in the CTU case ruled on a motion to dismiss the CTU's due process claims arising from layoffs of tenured teachers with unsatisfactory evaluations. (See Dec. 27, 2010 Order, Dkt. No. 91 of the CTU case.) In defending its claim, the CTU specifically referenced the Board's 2010 resolution authorizing schools first to lay off teachers under remediation or with a negative performance rating and argued that the layoffs pursuant to that resolution were disguised “for cause” terminations imposed without the hearings required by Illinois law. (Id.) The defendants argued that the due process claim should be rejected because teachers with negative evaluations were provided with notice and an opportunity to be heard under the CBA. The CTU countered that regardless of the CBA procedures, due process was not satisfied because, at the time of negative evaluations, the teachers did not know that their evaluations would result in termination and thus did not make the efforts they might have made to challenge those evaluations. (Id.)

         The court held that the CBA provided for procedures that satisfied due process in the event of “for cause” terminations and teachers receiving negative performance evaluations. (Id.) The court further held that the “[p]laintiffs effectively contest[ed] [the] [d]efendants' compliance with those procedures, and as such, their [] claim [was] better styled as a state-law contract claim.” (Id.) Therefore, the court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the CTU's claim that the layoffs of tenured teachers with “unsatisfactory” evaluations violated due process. (Id.)[1]

         While previous complaints in the present case might have presented a res judicata issue in light of the CTU case, in ruling on the motion to dismiss the FAC, this Court limited the claims allowed to proceed to those encompassing allegations that Plaintiffs lost their teaching positions in 2012 due to individual animus against them. In contrast, the CTU case did not relate to layoffs in 2012 due to the personal animus towards the three Plaintiffs in the present case. Hence, the CTU case involves a different core of operative facts than the present case and res judicata does not apply. The Board's motion for judgement on the pleadings is accordingly denied.

         II. The Board's Motion to Strike and Dismiss Portions of Plaintiffs' SAC

         The Court next considers the Board's motion to strike and dismiss portions of Plaintiffs' SAC. As with a motion for judgment on the pleadings, to survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. A claim is plausible on its face “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 728 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). In analyzing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court “must construe [the complaint] in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept well-pleaded facts as true, and draw all inferences in the plaintiff's favor.” Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 826 (7th Cir. 2014).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) provides that a district court “may strike from a pleading . . . any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(f). Courts have considerable discretion in striking such matter. See Delta Consulting Grp., Inc. v. R. Randle Const., Inc., 554 F.3d 1133, 1141 (7th Cir. 2009). But motions to strike are generally disfavored as they potentially serve only to delay a case. Heller Fin., Inc. v. Midwhey Powder Co., 883 F.2d 1286, 1294 (7th Cir. 1989). Thus, “the movant must show that ‘the allegations being challenged are so unrelated to plaintiff's claim as to be void of merit and unworthy of any consideration' and that the allegations are unduly prejudicial.” Cumis Ins. Soc., Inc. v. Peters, 983 F.Supp. 787, 798 (N.D. Ill. 1997) (internal quotation marks omitted). However, when motion to strike removes unnecessary clutter from the case, it can help to expedite, not delay the case. Heller Fin., Inc., 883 F.2d at 1294.

         A. Whether Plaintiffs' Reputational Harm Claims are Time-Barred

         The Board argues that Plaintiffs' reputational harm claims based on the Board's 2010 Resolution and 2011 Layoff Policies are time-barred. Although a complaint need not anticipate affirmative defenses such as the running of the statute of limitations, if a plaintiff alleges facts sufficient to establish the defense, the district court may dismiss the complaint on that ground. O'Gorman v. City of Chicago, 777 F.3d 885, 889 (7th Cir. 2015). The limitations period for § 1983 claims is based on state law-in Illinois, it is two years. Id. The date on which the claim accrues (and the limitations period starts) is a matter of federal law, however, and generally occurs when a plaintiff knows the fact and the cause of an injury. Id. The determination of accrual is a two-step process: the court first identifies the injury and then determines when the plaintiff could have sued for that injury. Draper v. Martin, 664 F.3d 1110, 1113 (7th Cir. 2011).

         The Board argues that Plaintiffs' reputational harm claims based on the Board's 2010 and 2011 publications are time-barred because those claims were brought after the two-year statute of limitations had run. The SAC alleges that “Defendant published the 2010 Board Resolution and 2011 Layoff policy making it known to the public that teachers who have been issued an E-3 Notice or Unsatisfactory Rating will be terminated before all other qualified teachers, regardless of seniority, experience, or past ratings.” (SAC ¶ 166, Dkt. No. 126.) The SAC also asks the Court to declare that the Board violated Plaintiffs' due process rights when, “through the publication of the 2010 Board Resolution and 2011 Layoff Policy, [the Board] created a stigma surrounding teachers laid off pursuant to these orders, including plaintiffs whose most recent ratings and evaluations allege poor performance.” (Id. ¶ 167.) The Board points out that the present suit was filed on October 10, 2014-more than two years after the 2010 and 2011 publications-and contends that in evaluating when the statute of limitations began to run, the proper focus should be the time of the discriminatory act, not the point at which the consequences of the act became painful. See ...


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