Appellate court: Breuder lawsuit can continue against College of DuPage
Former College of DuPage President Robert Breuder's wrongful-termination lawsuit will proceed after three U.S. Appellate Court judges on Tuesday refused to overturn a ruling by a trial judge.
Breuder filed the federal lawsuit against the Glen Ellyn school's seven-member board of trustees and specifically former Chairwoman Kathy Hamilton and three current board members -- Deanne Mazzochi, Frank Napolitano and Charles Bernstein -- after he was fired in October 2015.
The lawsuit alleges breach of contract, conspiracy, defamation and violation of Breuder's due process rights. He is seeking more than $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Attorneys for the board and the individual trustees filed separate motions in 2016 to dismiss all six counts of the lawsuit.
In March 2017, U.S. Northern District Court Judge Andrea Wood dismissed one of the counts -- which alleged interference with Breuder's contract -- in its entirety. She also dismissed portions of two other counts but allowed parts of them to remain.
Wood refused to dismiss three other counts. Two of them allege a due process violation, and the third alleges breach of contract.
That prompted the attorneys for the board and the individual trustees to appeal Wood's ruling.
But in a written decision, the federal appeals judges affirmed Wood's decision. They wrote that the board members, who campaigned on a pledge to remove Breuder, "discharged him without notice or a hearing."
Hamilton led the push to fire Breuder. She organized and financially supported a slate of candidates elected in April 2015, then within months cast the decisive vote declaring Breuder's contract void. Hamilton had been at odds with Breuder and the administration since not long after her election in 2013.
At a hearing in November, the board's attorney, Andrew Porter, argued that Breuder's contract was void. As a result, Porter argued, Breuder was an at-will employee who wasn't owed a process before his termination.
The appeals judges, however, concluded that Breuder's contract was valid.
"The board can prevail on this appeal only by persuading us that Breuder never had a valid contract," their ruling reads, adding "we have rejected that contention."
On Tuesday, the college released a statement saying it "respects that the court of appeals has ruled on the college's appeal of the denial of its motion to dismiss the Breuder lawsuit."
"We will continue to evaluate whether to pursue additional procedural options," the statement reads. "Either way, and as may be necessary, the college is prepared to address the substance of the plaintiff's allegations in due course and in the appropriate forum."
One of Breuder's lawyers, Melissa Eubanks, released a statement saying Breuder is "very pleased that the Seventh Circuit has affirmed that his claims are merited."
"Dr. Breuder had rights in his employment contract with COD and those rights were and remain entitled to the protections afforded under state and federal law," the statement reads. "Dr. Breuder looks forward to proceeding in the federal district court to further vindicate his rights and to repair the damage caused to him and his family by Mrs. Hamilton's and the board's conduct."
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 2014, Hamilton was censured by the then-board for making statements about the college's administration, most notably Breuder.
In 2015, Hamilton and the three new trustees sought to fire Breuder and take away his controversial $763,000 buyout approved by a different board months before.
Breuder's 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 October 2015, "based solely on their personal interests and political agendas."