Earlier this month, the Illinois Supreme Court disposed of one of the older cases on its advisement docket. A sharply divided Court held in Leetaru v. The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois that a former employee and graduate student at the University of Illinois could maintain a suit for injunctive relief against the Board of Trustees and an associate vice chancellor. Our detailed summary of the facts and lower court opinions in Leetaru is here. Our report on the oral argument is here.
Leetaru began in January 2011, when the plaintiff was informed by a university official that his employment would cease the following January for “budgetary and performance issues.” Six weeks before his job was scheduled to be eliminated, the plaintiff was placed on administrative leave. Once that happened, the plaintiff was allegedly barred from his office and denied access to various documents, including documents and data relating to his graduate studies, doctoral research and dissertation materials. In February 2012, the plaintiff received notice that a formal research misconduct complaint had been filed against him. Attached to the complaint were the University’s Policy and Procedures on Academic Integrity in Research and Publication, and the bylaws of the Graduate College Handbook. Those two documents contain detailed procedures as to how a complaint for research misconduct is to be investigated and resolved.
The plaintiff’s initial response to the charges argued that, notwithstanding the University’s own rules and procedures, he had been denied access to the papers and data that might aid in his defense, and that his papers had in fact been placed in the custody of the person who had initiated the charge. Although a formal decision to proceed to the next stage of the proceeding, “inquiry,” was allegedly made in May 2012, the plaintiff didn’t learn about that until September 2012, when he was notified of nine specific charges. The inquiry team’s report was issued in November 2012. Both the plaintiff and his attorney responded, alleging that the university had failed to follow its own procedures in a host of ways.
In February 2013, the plaintiff initiated the lawsuit, alleging that the academic investigation had ignored the University’s regulations and seeking preliminary and permanent injunctive relief. The plaintiff did not challenge the University’s right to make the investigation; rather, he sought injunctive relief requiring the University to follow its own regulations in doing so.
The State moved to dismiss the action, alleging that pursuant to the State Lawsuit Immunity Act and the Court of Claims Act, the lawsuit was in effect one against the State, and therefore could proceed only in the Court of Claims. The Circuit Court agreed and dismissed the action for lack of jurisdiction, and the Appellate Court affirmed.
In a majority opinion by Justice Lloyd Karmeier (joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Thomas and Kilbride), the Court reversed. The majority explained that whether the lawsuit was actually one against the State depended on the issues involved and the relief sought. The general bar against Circuit Court actions against the State was subject to a well-settled exception; when an officer or agent of the State acted unlawfully, unconstitutionally or in excess of his or her authority, an action may be brought to restrain the conduct. In effect, by acting ultra vires, the employee’s conduct ceases to be that of the State. The officer exception includes actions to require compliance with administrative rules and regulations.
Since the plaintiff was merely asking for an injunction requiring the University to follow its own rules, the suit was properly in the Circuit Court, the majority held.
Justice Burke filed a lengthy dissent, joined by Justices Freeman and Theis. The dissenters argued that the proposition on which the majority opinion rested – that a purely injunctive claim could proceed against an arm of the state when it sought merely to restrain ultra vires conduct – conflicted with other authorities, both in Illinois and elsewhere. The dissenters would have found that an action against an arm of the state is barred regardless of the nature of the relief sought. Further, the dissenters argued that not even the plaintiff’s claim against the University officer should have survived, since the complaint alleged no ongoing misconduct – only past misconduct during earlier stages of the investigation. Moreover, the dissenters pointed out counsel’s statement at oral argument that the investigation was now in the penalty phase, and suggested that the appeal was likely moot anyway – a claim which they invited the State to raise on remand.
Given the limited scope of the majority opinion and the serious questions as to whether prospective relief is even possible, the decision in Leetaru may have limited impact.
Nevertheless, the opinion is interesting for those of us who carefully follow the Court’s work. Leetaru was argued on September 18, 2014. The State was asked slightly more questions than the plaintiff was – never an encouraging sign for an appellee. The Court originally announced that it would hand Leetaru down on December 18, 2014, as we wrote here – only 91 days after the argument. Ordinarily, such a short lag time suggests that a unanimous opinion is fairly likely. Such circumstances – an opinion listed on the upcoming list, but not filed – are exceedingly rare at the Court.
Although the decision was not listed on the Court’s initial upcoming opinions list for the week of April 13, it was filed on April 16, 2015. That’s 203 days after the oral argument, about 2-3 weeks longer than the Court’s mean lag time in recent years for non-unanimous civil decisions. The 20-page dissent has certain structural features which are more typical of a majority opinion, including a detailed discussion of the facts and procedural history. Lengthy dissents are exceedingly rare at the Court. Last year, the average dissent in a civil case was only 6.6 pages, and the Court’s average dissent has been below ten pages each of the last fifteen years. Indeed, Leetaru is the longest dissent in a civil case since 2011.