Northeastern Illinois Professor Settles with University in Years-Long Retaliation Case

February 13, 2014

Last month, Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) Professor Loretta Capeheart’s long-running legal battle against the institution for actions taken after her viewpoints clashed with the school’s finally ended when the two parties settled under confidential terms.

As my colleague Azhar Majeed reported back in 2011, Capeheart alleged that NEIU retaliated against her defense of protesting students and her criticism of the university by denying her promotions and a faculty award. She also alleged that she was threatened with disciplinary action for her own protests against military recruitment on campus. Capeheart’s complaint included charges that NEIU violated her right to free speech under both the federal and state constitutions, as well as defamation charges under state law against an administrator who claimed that Capeheart “stalked” a student in the course of her advocacy.

A federal district court rejected Capeheart’s First Amendment claims. Applying the Supreme Court’s holding in Garcetti v. Ceballos (2006), it held that because Capeheart’s speech was made “pursuant to” her official duties, it was not protected against retaliation by NEIU, her employer. The ruling stands in stark contrast to rulings in other circuits: The Ninth Circuit recently broadened its academic exception to Garcetti in Demers v. Austin, and a Fourth Circuit judge ruled in Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina Wilmington (PDF) that a lower court erred in applying Garcetti to a professor’s speech.

On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit vacated the district court’s ruling but instructed it to dismiss the claims on remand because Capeheart’s demand to be appointed department chair was withdrawn and her other claims were “too conjectural.” This was not an ideal result, but it did not foreclose the possibility of another First Amendment claim on similar grounds, as the district court’s application of Garcetti would have. In other words, the appeals court ordered the case dismissed because it concluded that there were deficiencies in how the allegations were set forth in the complaint, but it did not uphold or deny the lower court’s ruling on whether Garcetti applied.

In state court, NEIU fought the defamation claims by citing laws against so-called “SLAPP” (strategic lawsuits against public participation) suits. The state court rejected NEIU’s argument, stating that NEIU administrators had provided no evidence that Capeheart’s defamation claim was meritless, and therefore her lawsuit did not constitute a SLAPP:

Plaintiffs in SLAPP suits do not intend to win but rather to chill a defendant’s speech or activity and discourage opposition through delay, expense, and distraction. However, where a plaintiff files suit genuinely seeking relief for damages for alleged defamation or other intentionally tortious act, the lawsuit is not considered a SLAPP … . [Citation omitted.]

This brings us to the latest development: the settlement of the defamation claim. Capeheart wrote in a post to her supporters:

I am happy to report that my case against Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) has settled. I am pleased with the settlement and will continue to fight for free speech, academic freedom, worker’s rights, and affirmative action.

My name has been cleared. The university provided this statement: “Any suggestion that Professor Capeheart engaged in ‘stalking’ is without any basis, and the University regrets that such suggestion was communicated to anyone.”

We’ll have to wait for a different case to firmly establish professors’ free speech rights in the Seventh Circuit post-Garcetti, but the ultimate outcome of Capeheart’s case leaves professors in the Seventh Circuit freer than the district court’s broad and chilling initial ruling in favor of the school.

Schools:  Northeastern Illinois University