Elementary School Geography Bee Cheating Scandal Leads to Litigation

Jury finds school defendants liable for intentional infliction of emotional distress on father, in part because they publicly accused his children (apparently wrongly) of cheating, but awards him no damages.

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From Judge Matthew F. Kennelly's decision Monday in A.J. v. Butler Ill. School Dist. #53 (N.D. Ill.):

Rahul Julka and Komal Julka are the parents of two children who, at the relevant time, were elementary school students in Butler School District 53. The two children, A.J. and R.J, were registered to participate in the 2016 National Geographic Bee (GeoBee) hosted by the district. Before the GeoBee was held, it was discovered that Komal had acquired the actual contest questions. This led to the withdrawal of A.J. and R.J. from the GeoBee as well as actions by the District and administrators that led the Julkas to file the present lawsuit….

After a series of pretrial rulings that resulted in the dismissal of some of [plaintiffs'] claims, … [a] jury found for Rahul on his IIED [intentional infliction of emotional distress] claim against the school board and its president but awarded him no damages….

In 2016, R.J. and A.J. were both elementary school students in Butler School District 53 and registered to compete in the 2016 GeoBee, an academic competition administered each year by the school district. In January 2016, a few days before the start of the competition, Kelly Voliva, the elementary school principal, Heidi Wennstrom, the district's superintendent, and Alan Hanzlik, the school board president, were informed that Komal had obtained the official contest questions for the upcoming GeoBee. Wennstrom, in consultation with Hanzlik, investigated this allegation. She concluded that it was true and sanctioned the Julkas.

Specifically, on February 8, 2016, Wennstrom sent a letter addressed to Rahul and Komal detailing the findings of her investigation and explaining the sanctions she was imposing. She found that the Julkas had improperly acquired the contest questions and shared them with the Jain family, who also had a child in the school district who was registered to compete in the 2016 GeoBee.

Wennstrom's letter to Rahul and Komal stated that "[t]he academic dishonesty and cheating which you and your children engaged [sic] put all of the District students participating in the contest and the District at risk of being banned from current and future National Geographic Bee contests." Wennstrom prohibited A.J. and R.J. from participating in any Butler School District 53 academic competitions and prohibited the parents from volunteering in any school contests or competitions. Wennstrom testified at trial that she sent a similar letter to the Jains, describing her findings and imposing sanctions. Like the Julka children, the Jain child was prohibited from participating in academic competitions in the district.

That same day, Wennstrom mailed a letter to other families in the school district reporting on her investigation and findings. This letter did not mention the Julkas by name. Wennstrom stated that she had imposed restrictions on those who were involved in the academic dishonesty related to the GeoBee competition, but she did not describe the sanctions.

Rahul and Komal filed a grievance with the school board, challenging Wennstrom's findings and sanctions. The board hired an attorney from the Robbins Schwartz law firm to investigate the grievance. At the conclusion of her investigation, the attorney issued a report recommending that the school board affirm only Wennstrom's findings of misconduct by Rahul and Komal but not her findings regarding cheating by the Julka children. The attorney also recommended affirming the sanctions Wennstrom had imposed. The school board adopted the attorney's recommendations and affirmed Wennstrom's findings of misconduct by the Julka parents and the sanctions imposed upon the family.

In April 2016, Hanzlik wrote to Rahul and Komal, reporting on the grievance investigation, the Robbins Schwartz attorney's findings and recommendations, and the school board's decision. He also noted that "[i]n light of an error" in Wennstrom's February letter, the school board had directed that her letter be revised to delete the reference to academic dishonesty and cheating by the Julka children….

Hanzlik and the school board have moved for judgment as a matter of law on Rahul's IIED claim against them…. Under Illinois law, an IIED claim has three elements: (1) extreme and outrageous conduct by the defendant; (2) intent by the defendant to inflict severe emotional distress or knowledge of "at least a high probability" that conduct would cause severe distress; and (3) severe emotional distress experienced by the plaintiff. The defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment as a matter of law because the evidence was not legally sufficient to establish any of these three elements.

The first element, extreme and outrageous conduct, requires that the defendant's actions "go beyond all bounds of decency and be considered intolerable in a civilized society." Whether conduct is extreme and outrageous is "based on the facts of the particular case." A defendant's conduct may be deemed outrageous if it is directed to an individual that the defendant knows is particularly susceptible to emotional distress. "The extreme and outrageous nature of the conduct may arise from the defendant's abuse of some position that gives him authority over the plaintiff or the power to affect the plaintiff's interests."

As the Court explained in its decision denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment on the IIED claim, a jury could reasonably conclude that the actions of Hanzlik and the school board constituted extreme and outrageous conduct. These two defendants are school authorities—the "types of individuals who in exercising their authority can become liable for extreme abuses of their positions."

The sanctions they imposed and their public accusations of cheating were directed, in part, to the Julka children, who Hanzlik and the board knew had heightened susceptibility to emotional distress due to their young age. Additionally, Hanzlik had threatened to sue the Julkas to recover $100,000 in litigation expenses. This evidence was legally sufficient to support the jury's finding that the conduct of Hanzlik and the school board was extreme and outrageous.

Hanzlik and the school board argue, however, that the evidence was insufficient to support a finding that their conduct specifically was extreme and outrageous. They argue that they were not the defendants who imposed the sanctions on the Julkas. That contention is contrary to the evidence. After the Julkas filed the grievance challenging Wennstrom's sanctions, Hanzlik and the board affirmed them.

As for the public statements about the Julkas and Hanzlik's letter threatening litigation, the defendants point to evidence—primarily Hanzlik's testimony—suggesting that these actions were not extreme and outrageous. The defendants' reliance on this evidence is unavailing, because in ruling on their renewed Rule 50 motion, the Court must disregard all evidence favorable to the defendants, refrain from weighing the evidence, and give Rahul the benefit of every reasonable inference. As previously discussed, the jury reasonably concluded that the actions by Hanzlik and the school board directed to Rahul constituted extreme and outrageous conduct.

The defendants argue that even if their conduct was extreme and outrageous, the evidence was legally insufficient to support the jury's finding that Rahul experienced severe emotional distress. To establish this element of an IIED claim, the plaintiff must show that his distress was so severe that "no reasonable man could be expected to endure it." Rahul testified at trial that the defendants' actions left him feeling shocked and humiliated. Additionally, the stress and behavioral changes he observed in R.J. and A.J. in the months following the filing of the grievance made Rahul feel hurt, disappointed, and frustrated.

The defendants first argue that Rahul's distress was not sufficiently severe because he failed to provide any evidence that he sought medical treatment. This argument lacks merit. "[N]either physical injury nor the need for medical treatment is a necessary prerequisite to establishing severe emotional distress." …

Finally, Hanzlik and the school board argue that the evidence was legally insufficient to support the jury's finding that they had the requisite intent for an IIED claim. Illinois courts have "generally found this element to be satisfied either when a defendant's actions, by their very nature, were likely to cause severe distress or when the defendant knew that a plaintiff was particularly susceptible to such distress and that, because of this susceptibility, the defendant's actions were likely to cause it to occur." Some of the defendants' conduct—public accusations of cheating and prohibition from participating in any academic competition in the school district—was directed to Rahul's children, A.J. and R.J., who had heightened susceptibility to distress due to their age.

Though the claim at issue was brought by Rahul, any reasonable person in the defendants' position would understand that an attack on one's children by a person in a position of authority—particularly a public accusation of cheating—would be highly likely to cause the children's parents severe distress. With this in mind, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Hanzlik and the school board, who knew that their sanctions and public statements targeted Rahul's minor children, acted with knowledge of "at least a high probability" that their conduct would cause distress….

The court rejected plaintiffs' motion for a new trial (which was based chiefly on procedural arguments), so the plaintiffs are stuck with their $0 recovery.