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Judge tosses several claims in students' retaliation suit against Chicago State University officials, but says they can amend some

By Kenneth Lowe | Feb 2, 2015

Two Chicago State University students who allege the school used underhanded tactics to punish them for criticizing leadership will need to amend their lawsuit after a federal judge in Chicago dismissed the majority of their claims.

Former student Willie Preston and current student Brittany Bailey filed suit in May 2014 against the university’s Board of Trustees and a handful of officials over alleged constitutional violations.

In their 36-page, 165-paragraph suit, Preston and Bailey accused university officials and members of the school’s Board of Trustees of arranging their arrests and invalidating student council election results to prevent them from representing the student body in retaliation for speaking out about allegedly “corrupt practices of several powerful and politically connected members of” the administration.

Named as defendants in the suit are CSU’s Board of Trustees, University President Wayne Watson, vice presidents Angela Henderson and Patrick Cage, Student Activities Director Matoya Marsh and campus Police Chief Ronnie Watson.

In her 22-opinion that was handed down late last month, U.S District Judge Joan B. Gottschall said both sides’ documents could stand to be more straightforward.

“The parties’ briefs often seem to be based on stream of consciousness,” Gottschall wrote. “In future submissions, the parties are very strongly encouraged to group all of their arguments about a single count in one place and to use point-headings to set off each separate argument.”

The university defendants argued, in part, that the case should be dismissed because Preston and Bailey failed to disclose nearly $2,000 in donations they received on  crowdfunding website, which they stipulated would be used only to cover legal fees. They had petitioned the court to allow them to proceed in forma pauperis (IFP), or without paying a filing fee to bring their suit.

“In their response to the motion to dismiss, the plaintiffs state that when they signed their IFP affidavits, they had just started to receive donations and that those donations were ‘not even close to being sufficient to cover legal fees,’” the opinion notes. “According to the plaintiffs, their counsel believed that the IFP affidavit required disclosure of assets and income, not donations for legal fees that the plaintiffs were not entitled to retain for personal use.”

Gottschall ultimately ruled against dismissal on the fraud allegation stemming from the IFP affidavits, saying that Preston and Bailey later refiled the paperwork to include those donations and even with the income, would still be regarded by the court as indigent.

The judge, however, then went on to grant the remainder of the defendants’ motion to dismiss.

After the defendants argued that the Eleventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a state institution from federal suits in the absence of exceptions granted by the state or Congress, Gottschall ruled that any counts leveled against the non-party university itself would be dismissed.

She also dismissed the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief against defendants in their official capacities and request to enjoin state court criminal proceedings, as well as the due process claims based on the criminal charges and university's Code of Conduct.

In addition, Gottschall tossed the plaintiffs' breach of contract count against the CUS trustees and their claims alleging violations of the state's Ethics Act, Illinois Campus Press Act and Chicago State University Act, as well as Code of Conduct.

The judge did, however, give the plaintiffs permission to amend their complaint to reallege some of those claims under, including one alleging due process violations and another seeking injunctive relief.

Gottschall provided guidance for doing so in her opinion, which reminds the plaintiffs that "[i]s improper and unnecessary to provide the kind of minute factual details and argumentative assertions that are largely responsible for the inordinate length of the current complaint."

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