United States District Court, S.D. Illinois
JERRY L. EARNEST, Plaintiff,
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF JASPER COUNTY COMMUNITY UNIT SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 1; ANDREW D. JOHNSON, Superintendent; Board of Education Members JON FULTON, President; GORDON MILLSAP, Vice President; HOLLY FARLEY, Secretary; MANDY RIEMAN; MELISSA STANLEY; and ROB STREET, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
PHIL GILBERT DISTRICT JUDGE
matter comes before the Court on the defendants' motion
to dismiss plaintiff Jerry L. Earnest's Complaint
pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for
failure to state a claim (Doc. 11). Earnest has responded to
the motion (Doc. 17), and the defendants have replied to that
response (Doc. 18).
Standard for Dismissal
reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the Court
accepts as true all allegations in the complaint.
Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citing
Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555
(2007)). To avoid dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure
to state a claim, a complaint must contain a “short and
plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is
entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This
requirement is satisfied if the complaint (1) describes the
claim in sufficient detail to give the defendant fair notice
of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests and
(2) plausibly suggests that the plaintiff has a right to
relief above a speculative level. Bell Atl., 550
U.S. at 555; see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678 (2009); EEOC v. Concentra Health Servs., 496
F.3d 773, 776 (7th Cir. 2007). “A claim has facial
plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that
allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Bell Atl.,
550 U.S. at 556). “[I]t is not enough for a complaint
to avoid foreclosing possible bases for relief; it must
actually suggest that the plaintiff has a right to relief . .
. by providing allegations that ‘raise a right to
relief above the speculative level.'” Concentra
Health Servs., 496 F.3d at 777 (quoting Bell
Atl., 550 U.S. at 555).
all factual allegations in the Complaint as true and drawing
all reasonable inferences in Earnest's favored, the
Complaint establishes the following facts for the purposes of
this motion. The Court is careful to limit these facts to
those pled in the Complaint to the exclusion of the
additional un-pled facts asserted in the briefs.
was elected to and began serving his four-year on the Board
of Education of Jasper County Community Unit School District
No. 1 (“Board”) in April 2015. At all times
relevant to this lawsuit, defendant Jon Fulton was president
of the Board, and defendant Andrew D. Johnson was
superintendent of the district.
February 23, 2017, the Board informed Earnest that he would
no longer have access to confidential information provided to
the rest of the Board. The restriction was of indefinite
duration and was to continue until Fulton and Johnson, in
their discretion, decided to end it. Without confidential
information regarding the district's finances and
personnel matters, Earnest was unable to make informed
decisions about important questions before the Board and
consequently was unable to effectively discharge his duties
as a Board member or represent the constituents who elected
him. He was also embarrassed and humiliated and suffered
emotional distress because he was called on to vote on
matters about which he was not fully informed. No. hearing
was held either before or after the restriction on
confidential information was imposed. Earnest was not
formally removed from the Board.
Count I of his Complaint, Earnest alleges that by restricting
him from receiving confidential information without a
hearing, he was deprived of a liberty interest in effectively
serving his constituents. In Count II he seeks a declaration
that stripping him of his ability to perform in his elected
office deprived him of his liberty interest in serving on the
Board. He asserts these deprivations occurred without the
appropriate procedures in violation of the Fourteenth
Amendment Due Process Clause.
defendants ask the Court to dismiss Earnest's Complaint
because he fails to allege a liberty interest protected by
the Fourteenth Amendment, there is an adequate
post-deprivation state law remedy that would provide due
process, and the matter presents a political question that
the Court should refrain from considering. Earnest suggests
he was deprived of his liberty interest in pursuing his
occupation as an effective Board member, although he was not
technically removed from the post, and was defamed by the
Board's public actions.
Fourteenth Amendment provides that no state shall
“deprive any person of life, liberty, or property
without due process of law.” U.S. Const. amend. 14.
This clause encompasses the guarantee of fair procedures
before an individual is deprived of a protected liberty or
property interest. Zinermon v. Burch, 494 U.S. 113,
125 (1990). To properly allege a procedural due process claim
based on the deprivation of a liberty interest, a plaintiff
“must sufficiently allege (1) that [he] had a
cognizable liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment;
(2) that [he] was deprived of that liberty interest; (3) and
that the deprivation was without due process.” Mann
v. Vogel, 707 F.3d 872, 877 (7th Cir. 2013). Thus,
“[t]he first inquiry in every due process challenge is
whether the plaintiff has been deprived of a protected
interest in ‘property' or
‘liberty.'” American Mfrs. Mut. Ins. Co.
v. Sullivan, 526 U.S. 40, 59 (1999). If there was such a
deprivation, the Court then must ask whether the process
accorded was appropriate. Id.
has pled that he has been deprived of his liberty interest in
effectively serving his constituents when he was not provided
information required for him to make fully informed
decisions. However, he has not pointed to any caselaw, and
the Court has been unable to independently locate any,
establishing a liberty interest in receiving confidential
information for use at a school board meeting.
closest thing to a liberty interest that Earnest alleges in
his Complaint is related to damage to his reputation.
However, it is well settled that damage to reputation alone
is not a protectable liberty interest. Paul v.
Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 712 (1976). “Rather, it is
only the alteration of legal status, such as government
deprivation of a right previously held, which, combined with
the injury resulting from the defamation, justif[ies] the
invocation of procedural safeguards.” Hinkle v.
White, 793 F.3d 764, 768 (7th Cir. 2015) (internal
quotations omitted). In the employment context, this is often
called the “stigma plus” test. Mann, 707
F.3d at 878. “Defamation alone, even if it renders it
‘virtually impossible for the [individual] to find new
employment in his chosen field, ' . . . thus is not
enough to invoke the procedural safeguards of the Fourteenth
Amendment.” Hinkle, 793 F.3d at 770 ...