Scott Holland Jul. 26, 2016, 4:55pm

A state appeals panel has found a Cook County judge misapplied state law in dismissing a taxpayer’s nepotism complaint against a suburban high school district, saying the judge was too hasty in determining the Rich Township taxpayer lacked the ability to sue the district over the school board’s decision to reinstate a principal, with the principal’s husband casting the deciding vote. 

Matteson-based Rich Township High School District 227, which includes Rich Central in Olympia Fields, Rich East in Park Forest and Rich South in Richton Park, faced legal action from taxpayer Frederick C. Veazey, who claimed the vote to reinstate a principal was illegal. After Cook County Circuit Court Judge Mary Lane Mikva granted a motion to dismiss the suit, Veazey appealed. 

Illinois First District Appellate Court Justice Mary Anne Mason wrote the July 20 opinion; Justices Aurelia Pucinski and Terrence J. Lavin concurred. 

The terminated principal, Bridget Imoukhuede, got back her job — with back pay and legal fees — after her husband, Emmanuael Imoukhuede, broke a board tie. Veazey argued that violated the district’s anti-nepotism policy. However, Mikva dismissed Veazey’s complaint, invoking the state’s Administrative Review Law and finding “he lacked standing to challenge the board’s vote because he was not a party to the administrative proceeding,” per Mason’s opinion. 

On appeal, Veazey argued he was challenging only the board’s vote, not the resulting reinstatement. While the appellate justices agreed Mikva erred in her application of the Review Law, Mason also made it clear Veazey’s complaint “fails to sufficiently plead facts supporting taxpayer standing,” an issue the trial court did not address. 

Bridget Imoukhuede started working for District 227 as a teacher in 1990. During the 2012-2013 school year, she was a tenured teacher and assistant principal of alternative programs. Emmanuael Imoukhuede first won election to the school board in 2007. The district adopted an anti-nepotism policy on March 19, 2013. On July 20, 2013, four board members voted to suspend Bridget Imoukhuede without pay and terminate her employment. Board records to not indicate if her husband voted on that resolution, which became effective Aug. 6, 2013. 

A hearing officer found the board’s decision to be “arbitrary and capricious” and that it violated Bridget Imoukhuede’s due process rights. The officer recommended reinstatement, which the board considered June 9, 2014. Although Emmanuael Imoukhuede “initially indicated he would abstain from voting,” he did officially support the reinstatement after the other six members were deadlocked. 

At a July 15, 2014, meeting to consider awarding back pay and legal fees, only five members were present. Emmanuael Imoukhuede “expressed no reservations about participating in the vote,” which passed 3-2. 

After the trial court dismissed Veazey’s complaint, Emmanuael Imoukhuede lost a re-election bid and the new board members were granted leave to appear with new legal representation, eventually filing its own complaint against the Imoukhuedes, arguing Emmanuael Imoukhuede violated the anti-nepotism policy, created a conflict of interest and hid from the board that Bridget Imoukhuede had announced her retirement before the reinstatement vote. 

In overturning Mikva’s dismissal, Mason explained how nothing in Veazey’s complaint “challenged or sought review of the merits of the administrative decision … the Review Law does not apply because the allegations of the complaint on their face challenge only the manner in which the board voted and not the merits of the board’s vote.” 

Had the reinstatement vote stalled at 3-3, Bridget Imoukhuede would not have had her job restored — but she would have been able “to seek judicial review of her dismissal under the Review Law.” 

By seeking a declaratory judgment, Mason wrote, Veazey’s complaint “falls squarely within those cases that have recognized a taxpayer challenge to the wrongful depletion of public funds.” With the motion remanded back to circuit court, Veazey has an opportunity to demonstrate how he, and all District 227 taxpayers, will be financially liable for payments that may result from the allegedly illegal vote. 

Veazey represented himself in the legal action, according to Cook County Circuit Court records. 

Rich Township High School District was represented by the firm of Sraga Hauser, of Flossmoor.

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