A Burr Ridge man will be able to resume his legal action against Wheaton College and others after an appellate court determined the lower court had erred in throwing out his case accusing the school’s president, acting at the behest of others involved in a child custody battle, of releasing portions of his confidential student record that allegedly cost him a business relationship with former U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert.
In an unpublished order issued May 20, a split panel of the Second District Appellate Court in Elgin overturned since-retired DuPage County Circuit Judge Hollis L. Webster's decision to dismiss David John's suit against Wheaton College and four other defendants.
Justice Susan F. Hutchinson wrote the panel's order, with Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok concurring. Justice Joseph E. Birkett concurred in part and dissented in part.
The case centers on allegations brought by John that his alma mater Wheaton College, through its president, Phillip Ryken, improperly revealed to others portions of his student record, which included a woman's accusation John had impregnated her out of wedlock, and then pressured her to have an abortion.
John argued that his records included those accusations, which the order repeatedly referred to as “false,” because he had revealed them to a school counselor during his time as a student at the private college in Wheaton.
He claimed that portion of his school record should have been protected under federal privacy laws and was distributed by Ryken to Todd Pratt, a Michigan man who headed a prison ministry and served as a trustee at Wheaton College until 2010.
John alleged Pratt, in turn, delivered the information to a longtime friend of his, Grant Bolinder of Arkansas, who supposedly delivered the information to lawyers representing his daughter, Megan Bolinder.
Those lawyers, John claimed in his suit, then used the information to combat his attempt to establish paternity of a child born in 2010 who he claims to have fathered with Megan Bolinder.
Along with the college, Megan Bolinder, her parents Grant and Dixie, and Pratt are named as defendants in John's suit.
John's also accused the defendants of using the information from his student record, as well as his personal relationships, to interfere with and ultimately destroy a business relationship with Hastert that John said he had enjoyed and profited from since 2008.
In response, Wheaton College asked the DuPage County Circuit Court to dismiss the action, claiming John could not prove his case because the college had not revealed the information to “the public at large,” and the information the college allegedly released didn't include “true facts that would be highly offensive to the reasonable person.”
The school further argued it had nothing to do with ending John's business relationship with Hastert, asserting that John could not produce a written contract indicating that such a relationship even existed.
In addition to Wheaton College's dismissal request, the Bolinders and Pratt asked the court to toss the suit against them on the basis John had improperly sued them in Illinois, and denied they ever threatened to “destroy” John.
Following John's appeal over the dismissal of his suit, the majority of the Second District panel found flaws in much of the trial court’s rulings that favored the defendants.
Particularly, the justices said the Bolinders and Pratt should fall under the jurisdiction of Illinois for the purposes of this case.
Even though the Bolinders and Pratt live in Arkansas and Michigan, respectively, the panel determined Illinois courts have jurisdiction over them regardless of whether they were physically present in the state because all of the allegations John raised deal with events that occurred in Illinois and were allegedly influenced or instigated by them.
As for the allegations against Wheaton College, the majority of the appeals panel said the college should have to answer whether its president and others associated with the school engaged in a conspiracy to disseminate “confidential information" from John's student file in violation of privacy laws.
“Plaintiff’s private sexual relations and intimate details were acquired through a deception and then reported to defendant Pratt, who then distributed the information to defendants Dixie and Megan Bolinder, and finally reaching Megan Bolinder’s family law attorney in Arkansas,” Hutchinson wrote on behalf of the majority.
She added, “At this stage of the proceedings … we can decide at the very least that an issue of fact exists regarding whether a reasonable person would find it highly offensive.”
The majority also rejected Wheaton’s arguments that the fact the information was “false” negated John’s complaint.
“We believe the private facts were ‘truthfully alleged’ and sufficient to sustain this cause of action,” Hutchinson wrote.
And the majority determined the school, through Ryken's alleged passing of the information to Pratt, could have distributed the information with the knowledge it would be made widely known and public.
In his partial dissent, Birkett sided with the school’s contention that false accusations, even if “private,” cannot be considered “true facts” for the purposes of sustaining a suit like John’s. As such, Birkett wrote he believed the trial court was correct in dismissing John’s complaint against Wheaton College.
The full panel affirmed the trial judge’s dismissal of John’s count concerning the alleged destruction of his business relationship with Hastert, saying that John had failed to substantiate that relationship with any supporting written documentation beyond copies of emails and correspondence between John and Hastert.
The appellate court remanded the case to the circuit court for further proceedings.