Editor's note: This article has been updated from a previous published version which incorrectly named the location of the school being sued.
CHICAGO — A federal judge will allow a DuPage County surgeon and his family to continue their lawsuit alleging an Oak Brook school district retaliated against them and their children after they were implicated in accusations of cheating in a geography bee.
Rahul Julka, acting as his own attorney, filed his complaint April 14, 2017, in Chicago, after Butler School District 53 barred his sons from participating in the 2016 contest following another family’s report the family had obtained bee questions. The suit named three groups of defendants — school officials and board members, the accusing family and attorneys from the Chicago firm of Robbins Schwartz. Julka initially demanded $50 million in damages.
Julka is now represented by attorney Anish Parikh, of Parikh Law Group LLC, of Chicago.
U.S. District Judge Matthew Kennelly had dismissed several portions of the complaint, leaving only the family’s allegations the school district and board violated their First Amendment rights, a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against the school district defendants and the parent who brought the issue to the school, and a claim for injunctive relief against the school defendants.
In an opinion issued Aug. 26, Kennelly said although generally First Amendment retaliation allegations must be connected to an individual’s protected speech, that policy doesn’t apply when the parents’ grievance concerns allegedly unjust disciplinary sanctions against students, identified in the initial complaint as R.J. and A.J.
“Insofar as the grievance was sent by R.J.’s parents on his behalf,” Kennelly wrote, “it would be incongruous to hold that R.J. — then an 11-year-old elementary school student — was not entitled to First Amendment protections because he did not personally write or deliver the grievance.”
Kennelly further noted R.J. couldn’t get a copy of his own student records without parental permission, let alone file the grievance that would be subject to First Amendment protections.
The Julkas alleged a 2015 disciplinary report in R.J.’s file was falsified, which is why it wasn’t included in April 5, 2016, records, but was present when those records were later obtained again on May 10. The school defendants argued the evidence is circumstantial, saying they mistakenly did not include all of the records when they were first delivered in April 2016. But Kennelly said a jury might reasonably infer the late addition was not an oversight but intentional and retaliatory, noting R.J.’s signature is inexplicably missing from the 2015 report.
“The plaintiffs have pointed to evidence from which a jury could reasonably find that the school district and the school board engaged in a pattern of conduct in which they unfairly sanctioned the Julka family, publicized their alleged wrongdoing and the resulting sanctions to the community, and took retaliatory actions against R.J.,” Kennelly wrote. “Although each one of these actions considered in isolation might be insufficient to establish extreme and outrageous conduct toward (the parents) and A.J., a jury evaluating the allegations and the evidence as a whole could reasonably conclude that the defendants' entire course of conduct was tortious.”
However, Kennelly said Vandana Badlani, the parent who reported the issue to the school, is entitled to be excused from accusations she inflicted emotional distress. The Julkas accused Badlani of illegally recording a phone call with them. But even that isn’t extreme or beyond the bounds of decency, Kennelly said.
“Badlani did not occupy a position of authority over any of the plaintiffs, and her involvement in the disciplinary dispute was relatively limited in time and scope,” Kennelly wrote. “No reasonable jury could find that she engaged in extreme and outrageous conduct.”
Kennelly also granted the school district summary judgment on the Julkas’ request for injunctive relief. The family had sought to have any improperly placed “negative documents” removed from the students’ files, but the district said it had already done so, rending an injunction unnecessary.
A status hearing is set for Sept. 3.
The school district is represented by Darcy L. Proctor and others with the firm of Wiedner & McAuliffe Ltd., of Chicago.
Badlani has been represented by attorneys Adam H. Fleischer, of the firm of Bates Carey Nicolaides LLP, and Katherine F. Letcher, of Tressler LLP.