The former president of the College of DuPage won a victory in his federal court appeal against the trustees who ousted him. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that his employment contract was valid under Illinois law.
Robert Breuder was hired as president of the Glen Ellyn, Illinois-based community college for a four-year term beginning in 2008. The college’s board of trustees later extended his contract through 2019. In 2015, newly elected trustees, accusing Breuder of misconduct, discharged him without notice or a hearing. The board denied his severance pay and retirement benefits.
Breuder filed a complaint in Illinois federal court on state and federal grounds, accusing the board of breach of contract, deprivation of property without due process of law, and defamatory statements.
Public employees who serve pursuant to a contract are considered to have a property right in their job and generally must be afforded a hearing before termination.
The board obtained the dismissal of the complaint on the grounds that Breuder never had a valid employment contract.
The crux of the board’s argument was that under Illinois law dating back over a century, a governmental body whose members serve limited terms may not enter into contracts that extend beyond those terms (Millikin v. Edgar County, 142 Ill. 528 (1892)). The board that originally hired Breuder contained members whose terms expired the following year. Therefore, the defendants reasoned, both the original four-year contract and the extensions were invalid.
The Seventh Circuit panel that heard Breuder’s appeal disagreed, citing its own holding in the 1975 case Hostrop v. Board of Junior College District No. 515 (523 F.2d 569). Hostrop held that a state statute, 110 ILCS 805/3-32, superseded the Millikin rule by allowing the board of a community college district to establish tenure policies for teachers and administrative personnel.
More recent legislation has limited community-college contracts signed after September 2015 to a maximum of four years; however, the court noted, it does not apply to Breuder’s suit nor does it undermine the principle of Hostrop that a contract with a college president may extend past the next board election.
“Nothing in those statutes is incompatible with the grant of power in §805/3-32 to … give a president a term of years in order to compete against institutions in other states fishing in the same pool of talent,” the panel wrote in its opinion. “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 court noted that because the college’s board members serve staggered six-year terms if Millikin applied, no appointment could exceed two years.
Finding the contract valid, the panel ruled that Breuder had a constitutional right to a hearing before dismissal because U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires a hearing whenever the officeholder has a legitimate claim of entitlement to the job, which Breuder had.
Further, even an employee with no property interest in a public job has a constitutional entitlement to a hearing before being defamed as part of a discharge, or at a minimum to a name-clearing hearing after the discharge. The board maintained they were not required to offer that opportunity to Breuder before dismissing him for alleged misconduct. The panel disagreed.
“Both the duration of Breuder’s tenure and the existence of misconduct were debatable subjects. The members who refused even to listen to him violated his clearly established rights.”
The panel added that the college board could have summarily fired Breuder only if it agreed to pay off his contract’s remaining years: “That’s how the tenure of college football coaches ends, and it is hard to see why college presidents would be immune to the same procedure.”
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