Manley v. Law, No. 16-3846 (7th Cir. 2018)

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Justia Opinion Summary

Manley, a school board member, was not up for reelection but her allies were when she had a verbal altercation with a student who was leaf-letting for Manley’s political opponents outside a high school play. The student accused Manley of bullying; the student and her parents pursued a campaign to embarrass Manley with online petitions, newspaper articles, and comments at public meetings. The superintendent began an investigation. Manley sued to enjoin the investigation. No injunction was issued. A public report found that Manley violated a board policy calling for “mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct” at school events. The board formally admonished Manley. Manley did not seek reelection. Manley’s claim for damages was rejected on summary judgment for failure to offer evidence of a required element of a due process claim: the deprivation of a constitutionally recognized liberty or property interest. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, rejecting Manley’s claims that she was deprived of a feeling of fair‐dealing on the part of the government; her mental and emotional well‐being; and processes mandated by the state and the district. The Constitution does not require government officials to avoid upsetting other officials; this “unprecedented theory’s threat to robust public debate is obvious.” Emotional distress alone is insufficient to prove a denial of due process. Manley identified no substantive liberty or property interest attached to the procedural rules the district allegedly violated.

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________ No. 16 3846 CLAUDIA MANLEY and NOEL MANLEY, Plaintiffs Appellants, v. BRUCE LAW and HINSDALE TOWNSHIP HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT 86, Defendants Appellees. ____________________ Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 15 CV 7499 — Edmond E. Chang, Judge. ____________________ ARGUED OCTOBER 24, 2017 — DECIDED MAY 10, 2018 ____________________ Before EASTERBROOK, ROVNER, and HAMILTON, Circuit Judges. HAMILTON, Circuit Judge. American politics is not for the thin skinned. In this case, a dispute between an elected school board member and a student outside a high school play esca lated quickly. The school board launched an investigation into the board member’s alleged bullying of the student. The 2 No. 16 3846 board member and her husband filed this lawsuit, originally to try to stop the investigation. After that did not work, the plaintiffs asserted that the school board and superintendent violated their federal constitutional rights by conducting the investigation and publicly criticizing the board member for her handling of the dispute with the student. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, plaintiffs tell us, pro tects their emotional well being and entitles them to feel that the government treated them fairly. We affirm the district court’s grant of summary judgment dismissing the case. I. Factual and Procedural Background Because the plaintiffs appeal the grant of summary judg ment against them, we view the facts in the light reasonably most favorable to them, giving them the benefit of all infer ences drawn from the evidence in the record. Brunson v. Mur ray, 843 F.3d 698, 701 (7th Cir. 2016). This does not mean, how ever, that we vouch for the objective truth of all the facts pre sented. Id. Plaintiff Claudia Manley was a member of the school board for Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Du Page County, Illinois. In the winter of 2015, the district was preparing for a contested election in April for three school board seats. Manley was not up for reelection, but her allies on the board were. On the evening of March 12, 2015, Manley got into a verbal altercation with a student who was leaf letting for Manley’s political opponents outside a high school play. Manley insisted that the leafletting violated school board policy. The altercation between Manley and the student sparked a wider controversy. The student accused Manley of bullying, No. 16 3846 3 and a wave of support for the student crashed against Manley. The night of the incident, the student’s parents called Manley and left her several voicemails. When those messages were not returned, the student and her parents pursued a public campaign to embarrass Manley that included online petitions, newspaper articles, and comments at public meetings, all aimed at removing Manley from her position on the board. As the pressure increased, the school district’s superinten dent, defendant Bruce Law, began an investigation into Man ley’s behavior outside the play. After Law announced the in vestigation, Manley and her husband Noel filed suit in state court to enjoin the investigation. No injunction was issued, and the investigation ended with no change in Manley’s legal rights or legal status. Manley has alleged bias and unfairness on the part of the board, the superintendent, and his investigator, but the investigation ended with nothing more than a public report finding that Manley violated a board policy calling for “mutual respect, civility and orderly conduct” at school events. The board adopted the investigative report’s findings and formally ad monished Manley for violating the board’s policy and for overstepping her authority in attempting to enforce unilater ally the district’s leafletting policy. Manley is no longer on the school board, but not because of district action against her. She decided not to seek reelection in 2017. As these events unfolded, the Manleys’ lawsuit evolved in state court from an action to enjoin the investigation to a suit seeking a declaratory judgment that numerous alleged proce dural irregularities violated state and local law. The amended 4 No. 16 3846 complaint, however, also sought damages that “might, for ex ample, be awarded pursuant to the remedies provided by 42 U.S.C. § 1983.” Based on this reference to relief under a federal statute for alleged federal constitutional violations, the defendants re moved the suit to federal court. The plaintiffs fought to sup port their federal claims. Both sides moved for summary judgment, and the district court granted the defendants’ mo tion. The court found that the plaintiffs failed to offer evi dence of a required element of a due process claim: the depri vation of a constitutionally recognized liberty or property in terest. The district court also found that Noel Manley lacked standing to assert his federal claims. With no remaining ques tions of federal law and no diversity of citizenship between the parties, the district court declined to exercise supple mental jurisdiction over the plaintiffs’ state law claims through 28 U.S.C. § 1367, remanding the remaining claims to state court. Plaintiffs have appealed. We review de novo the district court’s grant of summary judgment. Brunson, 843 F.3d at 704. II. Analysis Bitter disagreements and harsh words are not new to American politics. Nearly two centuries ago, Tocqueville wrote that in American politics, “electioneering intrigues, the meanness of candidates, and the calumnies of their opponents … are occasions of enmity which occur the oftener, the more frequent elections become.” Alexis de Tocqueville, 2 Democ racy in America 125 (Henry Reeve trans., 1862). The legal sys tem leaves most of these matters to the political process, not the courts. No. 16 3846 5 The Constitution does not guarantee good feelings or reg ulate manners in political disputes. Toward the ends of liberty and self rule, the Constitution’s embrace of free speech and popular elections ensures robust and sometimes even rude public discourse. These side effects of liberty and representa tive government are well known. If the transient evils of “an election accidentally severs two friends, the electoral system brings a multitude of citizens permanently together …. Free dom produces private animosities, but despotism gives birth to general indifference.” Id. at 125. These insights form the foundation of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), where the Supreme Court de scribed “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caus tic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Id. at 270. More recently, Justice Scalia observed that public accountability for political acts “fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” Doe v. Reed, 561 U.S. 186, 228 (2010) (Scalia, J., concurring in the judg ment). That courage is needed because of the sometimes harsh and unfair attacks on public officials and candidates. As we said, American politics is not for the thin skinned, even, or perhaps especially, at the local level. Neither does the Constitution forbid official investigations carried out by public officials, even when undertaken for po litical reasons. Framer and Justice James Wilson found in our tradition the power of legislators to act as “grand inquisitors of the realm.” James Wilson, Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament, in 3 The Works of the Honourable James Wilson, L.L.D. 199, at 6 No. 16 3846 219 (1804). Writing of the British House of Commons, he ob served: “The proudest ministers of the proudest monarchs have trembled at their censures; and have appeared at the bar of the house, to give an account of their conduct, and ask par don for their faults.” Id. Congress has assumed that investigative power over pub lic officials since the Nation’s birth. See David P. Currie, The Constitution in Congress at 20–21, 163 (1997); Kilbourn v. Thomp son, 103 U.S. 168, 189–90 (1881) (“[T]he Constitution expressly empowers each House to punish its own members for disor derly behavior.”). In the First Congress, the House of Repre sentatives decided it had authority to investigate the Superin tendent of Finance of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. James Madison supported the investigation, saying that the legislature “should possess itself of the fullest information in order to doing justice to the country and to public officers,” 2 Annals of Cong. 1515 (1790), and Madison’s view prevailed. In its early years, Congress exercised this power in other circumstances, often investigating and criticiz ing Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s administration of the Treasury Department. See 3 Annals of Cong. 899–906 (1793); 4 Annals of Cong. 465–466 (1794). If Congress may investigate and censure public officials for political purposes, a local school board’s admonishment of a member is not likely to be the stuff of constitutional violation. Against this backdrop, we proceed to the specific legal questions at hand. A. Procedural Due Process The Due Process Clause imposes basic procedural obliga tions on the government—in most cases, prior notice and a meaningful opportunity to be heard—before it deprives a per son of life, liberty, or property. Cleveland Board of Education v. No. 16 3846 7 Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985). When a state or local gov ernment violates these obligations, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 may au thorize an award of damages against the government and/or its officers. These damages may include compensation for in tangible emotional harm and even nominal damages where no actual injury occurs. Carey v. Piphus, 435 U.S. 247, 263–64, 266 (1978). This does not mean, however, that every person who suffers harm traceable to procedurally questionable gov ernment actions can recover damages from the government. Before a plaintiff can recover any damages at all, he or she must first establish that a due process violation occurred. See Carey, 435 U.S. at 266; Babchuk v. Indiana University Health, Inc., 809 F.3d 966, 969 (7th Cir. 2016). To establish a violation, the plaintiff must show that he or she was deprived of a liberty or property interest at issue in the case. See Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. 693, 711 (1976); Babchuk, 809 F.3d at 969. Procedural due process does not protect every conceivable legal interest. The doctrine requires that the interest meet three requirements relevant to this case. First, the affected in terest must have a foundation in state or federal positive law. Paul v. Davis, 424 U.S. at 710–11 & n.5. Second, the interest must be a freestanding entitlement and not contingent on post injury administrative or judicial processes for recogni tion. Id. at 712. Third, the interest must itself be substantive rather than procedural in nature. Cromwell v. City of Momence, 713 F.3d 361, 364 (7th Cir. 2013); Cain v. Larson, 879 F.2d 1424, 1426 (7th Cir. 1989). The Manleys argue here that the investigation and repri mand impaired three interests that should be protected under the Due Process Clause: a feeling of fair dealing on the part of the government; their mental and emotional well being; and 8 No. 16 3846 entitlement to processes mandated by the state and the dis trict itself. Each of these interests fails at least one of the re quirements for a viable due process claim. 1. Fair Dealing by the Government The plaintiffs claim a liberty interest in “a feeling that the government has dealt with [them] fairly.” To the extent the plaintiffs identify a positive law basis for this purported inter est, they claim it resides in the procedural component of the Due Process Clause. They do not base any claim on any sub stantive aspect of due process. As Paul v. Davis makes clear, however, the procedural component of the Due Process Clause does not provide substantive rights itself. 424 U.S. at 701 (procedural due process does not “ex proprio vigore extend to [plaintiffs] a right to be free of injury wherever the state may be characterized as the tortfeasor”). The plaintiffs’ argu ment that they have a liberty interest in a feeling of fair deal ing through the clause itself fails. The plaintiffs have not directed us to cases recognizing a protected liberty or property interest in a feeling that the gov ernment is dealing fairly with anyone. They rely on the Su preme Court’s statement in Carey v. Piphus that “a purpose of procedural due process is to convey to the individual a feeling that the government has dealt with him fairly.” 435 U.S. at 262. From this statement, the Manleys argue that if a law has a cer tain purpose, “it follows logically that the result is an ‘interest’ protected by the law.” That conclusion does not follow from the premises. An “interest” in procedural due process doc trine is not an amorphous “interest” in the general meaning of that word. As far as we know, no court has gone so far as to say, as the plaintiffs argue, that the United States Constitu No. 16 3846 9 tion requires state and local government officials to avoid up setting other public officials and candidates affected by their actions or words. This unprecedented theory’s threat to robust public debate is obvious. The district court properly rejected it. 2. Emotional Well Being The plaintiffs also argue that the defendants deprived them of a protected liberty interest in their emotional well being. Emotional well being, unlike the more elusive subjec tive feeling of fairness, is recognized in state law, at least in some situations. States protect limited personal interests in emotional well being through the torts of intentional and neg ligent infliction of emotional distress and through compensa tory damages for emotional distress tied to other tort liability. See, e.g., Schweihs v. Chase Home Finance, LLC, 77 N.E.3d 50 (Ill. 2016). This limited interest has not been recognized as an in dependent liberty interest protected by due process. Procedural due process protects only interests that are freestanding entitlements protected against injury or depriva tion, independent of procedural protections granted by law. The Supreme Court made this clear in Paul v. Davis when it held that procedural due process does not protect reputa tional interests because Kentucky did not create a freestand ing “legal guarantee of present enjoyment of reputation” al tered by the state’s branding that individual an active shop lifter. 424 U.S. at 711. Instead, the Court explained, an individ ual’s “interest in reputation is simply one of a number which the State may protect against injury by virtue of its tort law, providing a forum for vindication of those interests by means of damages actions.” Id. at 712. 10 No. 16 3846 The same is true here. Illinois does not create a freestand ing legal guarantee of present enjoyment of emotional well being. Instead, it protects people from certain negligent and intentional actions that injure them. E.g., Schweihs, 77 N.E.3d 50. Any legal protection of emotional well being is contingent on tort doctrines. When a tortious injury causes physical harm, compensatory damages are available for harm to emo tional well being, but when a tortious act causes no physical harm, emotional damages are available only if the act was ex treme or outrageous and undertaken with the knowledge and intent that the action would likely result in severe emotional harm. Id. at 59, 63. Since plaintiffs must prove these injuries and damages in court, the substantive restrictions of tort law and the procedural requirements of the state judicial process shape whatever liberty interest might be derived from the plaintiffs’ claim. The nature of this process itself determines what process might be due to the plaintiffs here: access to the courts to pur sue a tort claim against the defendants. The Manleys have not argued that any defendant or the state itself has deprived them of the ability to pursue these claims. If the plaintiffs be lieve they have viable claims under state law, they may be able to pursue them in state court. To support their claims to a federally protected liberty in terest in emotional well being, the plaintiffs again rely on Carey v. Piphus. In that case, the Supreme Court determined that students who received lengthy school suspensions with out an opportunity to respond to the charges against them could recover damages for this due process violation even if in the end the suspensions were justified. 435 U.S. at 249–50, No. 16 3846 11 262–63. To recover damages exceeding a nominal sum, how ever, the students had to show that they suffered compensa ble harm traceable only to the denial of a hearing—that is, to the due process violation itself—and not traceable to justified suspensions. Id. at 263. The plaintiffs misread the case in two ways. First, Carey did not decide whether a due process violation occurred, let alone whether people have a right to a hearing before the gov ernment takes action that upsets them. The case decided only the availability of certain damages once a due process viola tion has been established. Id. at 262–64. The defense in Carey simply did not contest the district court’s holding that a school’s suspension of students without procedural protec tions violated due process. Id. at 251 n.5. This points to plain tiffs’ second error. The underlying liberty interest in Carey was not emotional well being, as the plaintiffs argue, but a state entitlement to public education that the Court recognized as a protected liberty interest in Goss v. Lopez, 419 U.S. 565 (1975). No similar entitlement is involved in this case. Plaintiffs’ reliance on Alston v. King, 231 F.3d 383 (7th Cir. 2000), is also misplaced. The plaintiff in Alston was a city offi cial whose employment contract entitled him to a hearing be fore he could be fired. He was fired summarily, without the promised hearing, and he ultimately showed both a breach of contract and a due process violation. We held that the district court had erred in limiting the due process damages to nom inal damages, at least as a matter of law, because the plaintiff had offered at least some evidence that the denial of a hearing was itself humiliating. Id. at 389. The underlying due process violation in Alston was not contested or decided on appeal, however. See Alston v. King, 157 F.3d 1113, 1116–17 & n.5 (7th 12 No. 16 3846 Cir. 1998) (opinion from earlier appeal). Alston did not hold that emotional distress alone is sufficient to prove a denial of due process, which is plaintiffs’ theory in this case. 3. Procedural Interests The plaintiffs alleged in their complaint that the school district did not follow board policy or state procedural law in the investigation. To the extent that the plaintiffs maintain the school district denied them a constitutional right to these le gally prescribed processes, their claim fails. Even when re quired by statute or ordinance, purely procedural rules of state and local law give rise to constitutionally protected in terests only when the mandated procedure contains within it a substantive liberty or property interest. Cromwell, 713 F.3d at 364. In other words, the federal Constitution does not enforce compliance with state procedural rules. E.g., Swarthout v. Cooke, 562 U.S. 216, 221–22 (2011) (per curiam) (due process does not require federal courts to review “the application of all state prescribed procedures in cases involving liberty or property interests”). For example, a government promise that an employee can be fired only for good cause creates a substantive property right in secure employment, whether or not the government provides procedures to enforce that right. Id. By contrast, a rule that “merely provides procedures to be followed does not include a substantive right” if the procedures protect nothing more than employment that can be terminated at will. Miyler v. Village of East Galesburg, 512 F.3d 896, 898 (7th Cir. 2008); ac cord, e.g., Cain, 879 F.2d at 1426 (“It is by now well established that in order to demonstrate a property interest worthy of protection under the fourteenth amendment’s due process No. 16 3846 13 clause, a party may not simply rely upon the procedural guar antees of state law or local ordinance.”). The plaintiffs have identified no substantive liberty or property interest attached to the procedural rules they claim the district violated. B. Remaining Matters The plaintiffs also argue that the federal Declaratory Judg ment Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2201, provides authority to adjudicate their due process claim. That Act offers no independent basis for the plaintiffs’ federal claims. The lack of a protected liberty or property interest defeats those claims on the merits, re gardless of the nature of the relief sought. To the extent the plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgment of their rights under state law, the federal Declaratory Judgment Act provides no basis for doing so. The Act provides no independent source of federal subject matter jurisdiction. Skelly Oil Co. v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 339 U.S. 667, 671 (1950). The district court wisely chose to decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims, and the plaintiffs have not challenged that decision on appeal. Finally, the district court gave lack of standing as an alter native reason for dismissing Noel Manley’s claims. It is clear that Claudia Manley has standing and that Noel’s claims all derive from hers. Deciding whether Noel’s federal claims fail on the merits or for lack of standing would make no differ ence. No relief is available to Noel under federal law. We need not decide more here. The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.

Primary Holding

School board member, embarrassed by an investigation of her verbal altercation with a student, did not state a claim for due process violations.

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