CHICAGO — For school boards, local governments and other public bodies that may be subject to taxpayer lawsuits, a recent appellate court decision reminds public officials to keep an eye on enforcing their own policies, as well as local, state and federal laws, an education lawyer said.
Besides reinforcing the fact that policies set by public bodies have the same weight as law, the appellate decision clarifies taxpayers’ power to challenge financial actions under certain circumstances, according to Nicki Bazer, an attorney at Franczek Radelet in Chicago.
“It is a clear statement by the appellate court that taxpayers have standing to bring suits against local school boards if they believe that the board has violated one of its policies and negatively impacted the public,” Bazer told the Cook County Record.
An Illinois First District Appellate Court panel reversed a Cook County Circuit Court decision to dismiss a case brought by Frederick C. Veazey, a taxpayer seeking to recover money he claims the board spent after violating a district anti-nepotism policy. The circuit court judge had determined Veazey lacked standing to challenge the board’s vote. Judges on the appellate court disagreed and sent the case back to the circuit court for review.
The case involves allegations that the Rich Township High School District 227 school board violated the district’s anti-nepotism policy. The board voted to reinstate Bridget Imoukhuede, an assistant principal, and pay her $144,000 in back pay and legal fees. Her husband, Emmanuel Imoukhuede, a school board member at the time, first indicated he would abstain from voting on the issue. But when the vote tied, he became the deciding factor. Later, he “expressed no reservations” in voting in support of back pay and legal fees.
On appeal, Veazey argued he was challenging only the board’s vote, not the resulting reinstatement. The panel’s opinion explained that the purpose of Veazey’s complaint was not to challenge the merits of the board’s vote, but rather only the manner of the vote. The opinion went on to say that the complaint "falls squarely within those cases that have recognized a taxpayer challenge to the wrongful depletion of public funds." When the case returns to the circuit court, Veazey will have the chance to show how District 227 taxpayers will be financially liable for money spent as a result of the allegedly illegal vote.
The standing the appellate court granted Veazey wouldn’t extend to taxpayer complaints about how a school board spends money that isn’t connected to a policy violation.
“This case dealt with the violation of a board policy so we can only speak to what the court ruled on,” Bazer said. “It certainly may be applicable to a general expenditure challenge, but the taxpayer would still need to allege the violation of a law or policy. Mere disagreement of an expenditure decision would not be enough to bring a claim.”
After the circuit court dismissed Veazey’s claims, Emmanuel Imoukhuede lost a campaign for re-election. New board members eventually filed their own complaint against the Imoukhuedes, arguing the former board member violated the anti-nepotism policy, created a conflict of interest and hid the fact that his wife had announced her retirement before the board reinstated her.