Ex-COD boss and the architect of his downfall face off in court
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Former College of DuPage President Robert Breuder and his main nemesis, ex-board Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton, came face to face Tuesday morning for the first time in more than two years.
Hamilton, wearing bright red, provided the lone bit of color amid rows of lawyers in gray and black suits in the Dirksen Federal Building courtroom.
She sat erect, hands clasped in her lap, as lawyers argued before three U.S. Appellate Court judges. Breuder, meanwhile, sat on the opposite side of the room, left arm slung casually over a bench, looking intently ahead and occasionally jotting down notes.
The justices heard oral arguments on whether Breuder's contract was valid at the time of his October 2015 firing.
That firing was the result of Hamilton's efforts. She organized and financially supported a slate of candidates who were elected in April 2015, then within months cast the decisive 4-1 vote declaring Breuder's contract void. Hamilton had been at odds with Breuder and the administration not long after her election in 2013.
The contract issue is key in determining whether Breuder's wrongful termination lawsuit, which seeks more than $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages, continues or is ultimately dismissed.
Breuder claims that Hamilton, and the slate she supported -- trustees Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein -- violated his due process rights in suspending and firing him without a proper hearing.
In the lawsuit, he said he was entitled to have his termination decided by "a fair and impartial tribunal" instead of the board.
Andrew Porter, attorney for the college board as well as Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein, who are also being sued as individuals, argued before justices Ilana Rovner, David Hamilton and Frank Easterbrook that community college boards have a right to control and change their local government institutions. "Lame duck boards can't tie the hands of future boards as was done here," Porter said.
Breuder's lawyers, James Figliulo and Melissa Eubanks, said Breuder's contract was valid and he was denied due process.
They argued that community college presidents, both at College of DuPage and across the country, had contracts of similar lengths. They also argued that Breuder was "stigmatized" by the actions of the trustees before his firing, actions that included posting the reasons for his firing on the college's website days before it occurred.
The lawsuit says Hamilton ran a "malicious and wrongful scheme" that tarnished Breuder's professional reputation "while trampling on his contractual and constitutional rights." The lawsuit claims Hamilton, Mazzochi, Napolitano and Bernstein decided to fire Breuder long before that fall, "based solely on their personal interests and political agendas."
In 2014, Hamilton was censured by the then-board for making inappropriate statements about the college's administration, most notably, Breuder.
On Tuesday, Breuder, of Lake Barrington, and Hamilton, of Hinsdale, did not interact, either before or after the hearing, but they occasionally glanced across the courtroom at one another.
After the hearing, Hamilton quickly exited the courthouse without comment, while Breuder remained cloistered in a conference room with his attorneys.
Before that, he talked with the Daily Herald, saying it was the first time he's ever been in a federal courthouse and he found it somewhat "shocking" to hear his name mentioned aloud.
He decided to attend the oral arguments, he said, "because obviously I have great interest in the outcome."
Breuder declined to comment further, noting he counted on "the court and God to take care of the rest of it."
During his time at COD, Breuder oversaw a $550 million transformation of its Glen Ellyn campus. But his tenure also was filled with discord, including a 2014 "no confidence" vote in his leadership by faculty members.
That faculty vote was among several factors that prompted trustees to seek a change in school leadership.
In 2015, Hamilton and the three new trustees attempted to fulfill their campaign pledge: Fire Breuder and take away his controversial $763,000 buyout approved by a different board months before.
In their decision voiding his contract, the four cited a state law dating to 1892 that determined an outgoing board can't saddle an incoming board with a long-term contract.
One day after that firing, Breuder sued, claiming a breach of contract, conspiracy, defamation and violation of his due process rights.
In early 2016, attorneys for the board and the individual trustees filed separate motions to dismiss all six counts of Breuder's lawsuit.
Last spring, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Andrea Wood dismissed one of the counts -- which alleged interference with his contract -- in its entirety. She also dismissed portions of two other counts.
Wood refused to dismiss three other counts in the lawsuit. Two of them allege a due process violation, and the third alleges breach of contract.
That prompted the attorneys for the COD board and the individual trustees named in the suit to appeal Wood's ruling.
The panel of justices asked many questions of Porter, causing him to run over his allotted 30 minutes, while Figliulo and Eubanks arguments received far fewer interruptions from the bench.
A written opinion by the appellate court is expected to be issued in the coming months.