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Taylor v. Country Club Hills School District 160

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

September 27, 2019



          Edmond E. Chang Judge.

         Plaintiff Tiffany Taylor worked as the Executive Secretary for Country Club Hills School District 160’s Board of Education. In 2017, Taylor complained that Board members subjected her to abusive treatment. A year later, the District fired Taylor. She now brings a civil rights lawsuit, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against several defendants: the District; the Board; the District’s Human Resources Director, Tracy Lett-Foreman; the Board’s President, Tamara Young; and individual Board members Margo Brown, Jacqueline Doss, Michael Humphrey, and Barbara Swain. R. 1, Compl.[1] Specifically, Taylor alleges that the Defendants violated her right to free speech under the First Amendment and her right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Defendants have moved to dismiss. R. 28, Defs.’ Mot. Dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, the Court grants the motion to dismiss, dismissing both claims, though without prejudice for now.

         I. Background

         For purposes of this motion, the Court accepts as true the allegations in the Complaint. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Taylor started working for the District as a School Secretary at Meadowview School in 2011. Compl. ¶ 13. A few years later, in 2014, she became the Executive Secretary to the Board. Id. According to Taylor, the Board members disrespected, intimidated, and harassed her on numerous occasions. Id.; see also R. 28-1, Defs.’ Mot. Dismiss, Exh. A, 9/6/17 Letter at 1.[2] Jacqueline Doss verbally “attacked” Taylor; Barbara Swain belittled her; and Margo Brown insulted her appearance. Id. In September 2017, Taylor wrote a letter to Tracy Lett-Foreman, the District’s Director of Human Resources, detailing these alleged abuses. Compl. ¶ 14; 9/6/17 Letter at 1. At the end of the letter, Taylor asked Lett-Foreman to place the letter in Taylor’s personnel file and declared that she would file a formal complaint if the abusive behavior did not end. 9/6/17 Letter at 1-2.

         But the abuse continued. So, a few months later, in March 2018, Taylor wrote another letter, this time to Interim Superintendent Dr. Griff Powell, informing the Board that the abuses of its members made her working conditions unbearable and that she was resigning from her position, effective June 30, 2018. Compl. ¶ 16. Meanwhile, on April 10, 2018, Powell met with Taylor to discuss two emails that Taylor had sent to Board President Tamara Young. Id. ¶ 18. Powell said that Taylor had referred to Young with “a name that Powell deemed to be disrespectful.” Id. Taylor apologized for the emails during their discussion. Id. After that discussion, Powell emailed Taylor with an instruction to stop using similar labels when addressing Board members. Id. Later that same day, Taylor also apologized to Young for the emails and explained that the offense was inadvertent. Id. ¶ 19.

         Shortly after her conversation with Young, Taylor arrived at a Board meeting to take the meeting’s minutes. Compl. ¶ 20. After a 2½-hour closed session, Taylor was asked to come into the meeting room. Id. Without any prior notice, Taylor was questioned by several Board members about the emails again. Id. Although Taylor tried to offer an explanation, the District’s Business Manager, Kenya Austin, shouted at Taylor and then left the room. Id. Then Lett-Foreman (the Human Resources Director) began making faces behind Taylor’s back, and Lett-Foreman was eventually asked to leave the room. Id. After Taylor finished apologizing to the Board, Taylor too left the room. Id.

         Powell then came out of the room and told Taylor that Board President Young and Board Members Margo Brown, Jacqueline Doss, Michael Humphrey, and Barbara Swain had voted to suspend her without pay until June 30, 2018. Compl. ¶ 21. Two days later, Powell told Taylor that her employment would not be “renewed” for the 2018-2019 schoolyear. Id. Before April 10, 2018 (the date that Powell confronted Taylor about the disrespectful emails), Taylor had not received any disciplinary write-ups, and all of her performance evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Id. ¶ 17.

         In this lawsuit, Taylor alleges that the Defendants violated her freedom of speech when they suspended her without pay for complaining about the Board members’ abuse, and that the Defendants violated her procedural due process rights by failing to give her a fair and objective hearing. The Defendants have moved to dismiss the claims, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), and also seek dismissal of Lett-Foreman because she was not personally involved in the alleged violations. Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss.

         II. Standard of Review

          Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a complaint generally need only include “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). This short and plain statement must “give the defendant fair notice of what the … claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007) (alteration in original) (cleaned up).[3] The Seventh Circuit has explained that this rule “reflects a liberal notice pleading regime, which is intended to focus litigation on the merits of a claim rather than on technicalities that might keep plaintiffs out of court.” Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 580 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002)) (cleaned up).

         “A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges the sufficiency of the complaint to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.” Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chi. Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009). “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). These allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. The allegations that are entitled to the assumption of truth are those that are factual, rather than mere legal conclusions. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

         III. Analysis

         A. First Amendment

         “To establish a claim for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, a public employee first must prove that her speech is constitutionally protected.” Forgue v. City of Chicago, 873 F.3d 962, 966 (7th Cir. 2017). For a public employee’s speech to be protected under the First Amendment, the employee must establish (1) that she spoke as a citizen; and (2) addressed a matter of public concern. Id.; Kubiak v. City of Chicago, 810 F.3d 476, 487 (7th Cir. 2016) (citing Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006)). Only the second element is at issue here. Whether speech is a matter of public concern depends on its content, form, and context. Kubiak, 810 F.3d at 483 (quoting Connick v. Meyers, 461 U.S. 138, 147–48 (1983)). The relevant question is “whether the objective of the speech-as determined ...

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