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Breuder v. Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 502

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 17, 2018

Robert L. Breuder, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 502, et al., Defendants-Appellants.

          Argued November 7, 2017

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15-cv-09323 - Andrea R. Wood, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Rovner, and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          Easterbrook, Circuit Judge.

         The College of DuPage is a two-year community college in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. In 2008 the Board of Trustees of Community College District No. 502, which operates the College, hired Robert L. Breuder as the College's president. After extensions, his contract ran through 2019. But in October 2015 newly elected members of the Board, who had campaigned on a pledge to remove Breuder, discharged him without notice or a hearing. Resolutions adopted by the Board stated that Breuder had committed misconduct. The Board did not offer him a hearing and has refused to comply with clauses in his contract covering severance pay and retirement benefits. Breuder then filed this suit, which rests not only on Illinois contract and defamation law but also on 42 U.S.C. §1983. Breuder contends that his sacking without a hearing, but with defamatory statements, deprived him of both liberty and property without due process of law.

         The Board as an entity moved to dismiss the complaint, contending among other things that Breuder never had a valid contract of employment. Individual members of the Board moved to dismiss the §1983 claim on qualified-immunity grounds. The district court denied both motions. 238 F.Supp.3d 1054 (N.D. Ill. 2017). It certified the former decision for an interlocutory appeal, which we agreed to entertain. See 28 U.S.C. §1292(b). The Board's members took an interlocutory appeal of the latter decision on the authority of Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511 (1985).

         The Board's appeal starts with a norm of Illinois law: a governmental body whose members serve limited terms may not enter into contracts that extend beyond those terms. This rule was established in Millikin v. Edgar County, 142 Ill. 528 (1892), and has been applied since then, unless the state's legislature establishes a different rule. Breuder was hired in November 2008 on a contract that ran from January 2009 through June 2012. But the terms of some of the members sitting in fall 2008 expired the next spring. This meant, the Board submits, that Breuder's tenure could not run past May 2009. By the same reasoning the contract's two extensions, running through 2019, were invalid. The members elected in April 2015 (plus those elected earlier and continuing to serve) were entitled to make their own decisions about the College's presidency, the Board insists.

         The difficulty with this argument is Hostrop v. Board of Junior College District No. 515, 523 F.2d 569 (7th Cir. 1975), which holds that legislation superseded the Millikin rule for community colleges. This case is almost a replay of Hostrop, for that dispute, too, arose from a contract giving a college president tenure beyond the date of the next election to the board. Our decision relied on 110 ILCS 805/3-32, which permits the board of a community-college district to "establish tenure policies for the employment of teachers and administrative personnel". See also 110 ILCS 805/3-42 (board may "employ such personnel as may be needed" and establish "policies governing their employment and dismissal").

         None of the statutory language that led to the reasoning and result of Hostrop has changed since 1975, nor has any Illinois court suggested that we misunderstood state law. Illinois courts have cited Hostrop only once on an issue related to Millikin, see Libertyville Education Association v. Board of Education, 56 Ill.App.3d 503, 506 (1977), and that decision suggests agreement with Hostrop's conclusion.

         The state legislature has limited the powers of community-college districts with respect to contracts signed after September 22, 2015. 110 ILCS 805/3-65(b) (community-college contracts may not exceed four years; severance pay is capped at one year's salary). That statute does not apply to this suit or undermine the principle of Hostrop that a contract with a college president may extend past the next election; to the contrary, §805/3-65 implies that community colleges possess that power under §805/3-32. Why else limit its exercise?

         According to the Board, the enactment of two other statutes, 110 ILCS 805/3B-1, 3B-2, providing rules for the handling of tenure for members of the academic faculty, implicitly nullifies whatever power exists under §805/3-32. But Illinois follows the normal understanding that one statute implicitly repeals another only when their terms are incompatible. See U.S. Bank N.A. v. Clark, 216 Ill.2d 334, 344 (2005). Nothing in those statutes is incompatible with the grant of power in §805/3-32 to establish the tenure of administrative officers-to protect a bursar against arbitrary treatment with a rule requiring cause for dismissal, or to give a president a term of years in order to compete against institutions in other states fishing in the same pool of talent.

         A college in Illinois would have considerable difficulty hiring a quality president if it could offer only brief employment, while colleges elsewhere were offering the five-year (or longer) contracts common for a college's top office. The Board's members serve staggered six-year terms. Two or three posts come up for election every two years-and if any member of the Board has died or resigned recently, that position also is filled at these biennial elections. If Millikin applies, no appointment could exceed two years, and many would face much shorter limits. But because the new statutes about academic tenure do not address the subject of academic administration, they do not affect the laws that Hostrop interpreted.

         The Board offers two other objections to Breuder's contract. First, it observes that Illinois law permits the Board to act by majority vote, provided that a quorum is present. 110 ILCS 805/3-9. As the Board has seven members, 110 ILCS 805/3-6, this allows as few as three to take an effective decision (if only four or five appear for a meeting). But Breuder's contract provides that he may be dismissed only by the votes of at least five members, a supermajority. Second, the contract provides that the Board (or its chair) may extend the contract for one year without holding a public meeting. The Board contends that this clause violates the Illinois Open Meetings Act. 5 ILCS 120/1 to 120/7.5.

         The district court concluded that both contested parts of the contract are valid. 238 F.Supp.3d at 1061-62. The judge thought that the Board's right to determine an administrator's tenure includes a right to adjust procedures that affect that tenure, as the security of an office depends on both substantive and procedural ingredients. We need not determine whether that conclusion is correct-a subject to which state authority does not speak-because there is a difference between the validity of a clause and the validity of the contract. The Board supposes that, if any clause in a contract is improper under state law, then the contract as a whole is void. It does not furnish any authority for that belief. Courts in Illinois regularly refuse to enforce particular clauses-say, those creating penalties or imposing unreasonable restraints on competition after the end of employment-while enforcing the remainder of the contracts. See, e.g., Health Professionals, Ltd. v. Johnson, 339 Ill.App.3d 1021 (2003); Tortoriello v. Gerald Nissan of North Aurora, Inc., 379 Ill.App.3d 214, 238-39 (2008). The Board can prevail on ...

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