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Goyal v. Gas Technology Institute

September 23, 2008

ANIL GOYAL, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GAS TECHNOLOGY INSTITUTE, AN ILLINOIS CORPORATION, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rebecca R. Pallmeyer United States District Judge

Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Anil Goyal was employed as a chemical engineer by Defendant Gas Technology Institute ("GTI") from 1977 until 2004. He brought this suit against GTI, alleging that he was fired in retaliation for blowing the whistle on a fraud committed by former high-level employees of Defendant. Plaintiff was hired by GTI's corporate predecessor in 1977 and continued to work for GTI or its subsidiary, Endesco Services, Inc. ("Endesco"), until he was suspended on September 4, 2003. Six months later, on March 9, 2004, GTI terminated his employment. Nearly a year before his suspension, on October 17, 2002, Plaintiff reported to John Riordan, the President of GTI, that two GTI employees had defrauded the company by funneling over $4 million of federal funds designated for research by Endesco to sham contractors. Following an investigation of Plaintiff's allegations, the two employees--Tony Lee and Peter Barone--were terminated by GTI on January 9, 2003. The Lee/Barone fraud has generated additional civil litigation between GTI and other business entities, as well as a federal indictment against Lee, Barone, and a third GTI employee, Amir Rehmat. Plaintiff's two-count complaint states both federal and state causes of action for retaliatory discharge, claiming that his suspension and ultimate termination from GTI were in retaliation for his whistle-blowing.

Defendant moved for summary judgment on both counts, claiming that it had valid, non-pretextual reasons for terminating Plaintiff. Defendant claims that Plaintiff was increasingly a source of problems within the organization and further alleges that Plaintiff had improperly received refunds for travel expenses he had not actually incurred.*fn1 The court finds that genuine issues of material fact exist as to whether Plaintiff has established a prima facie case and whether Defendant's offered reasons were pretextual, and therefore denies the motion for summary judgment.

DISCUSSION

The elements of Plaintiff's two claims for relief are substantially overlapping. To establish a violation under the False Claims Act (31 U.S.C. § 3730(h)), a plaintiff must show that (1) he was engaged in activity protected by the statute; (2) the employer knew he was engaged in such conduct; and (3) the discharge was at least partially motivated by a desire to retaliate. See Brandon v. Anesthesia & Pain Mgmt. Assocs., 277 F.3d 936, 944 (7th Cir. 2002). Similarly, to establish a claim for retaliatory discharge under Illinois law, a plaintiff must prove that (1) he has been discharged; (2) the discharge was in retaliation for his activities; and (3) the discharge violates a clear mandate of public policy. See Webber v. Wight & Co., 368 Ill. App. 3d 1007, 1021, 858 N.E.2d 579, 592 (1st Dist. 2006). For purposes of this motion, Defendant has not challenged Plaintiff's assertion that his reporting of Lee's and Barone's misconduct constitutes protected activity. Defendant argues, however, that no reasonable jury could find that it terminated Goyal in retaliation for that activity.

To defeat summary judgment on a claim for retaliation, a plaintiff must demonstrate that there are disputes of fact concerning the reasons for his termination, either by way of the direct method or the indirect method. See, e.g., Sylvester v. SOS Children's Vills. Ill., Inc., 453 F.3d 900, 902 (7th Cir. 2006). Goyal here proceeds only under the indirect method, under which he must establish a prima facie case supporting an inference of retaliation. Defendant can defeat the inference by offering a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the discharge. Goyal then bears the burden of proving that GTI's purported reasons are in fact pretexts for retaliation.

I. The Prima Facie Case

For the purposes of this motion, Defendant concedes that Goyal's reports of Barone's and Lee's wrongdoing were protected activity, and that Goyal was terminated. GTI nevertheless challenges Goyal's prima facie showing, arguing that Goyal has not demonstrated that he was performing satisfactorily, nor has he offered evidence of any similarly situated employee treated more favorably than he.

A. Goyal's Performance

Far from performing adequately after he reported the Lee/Barone fraud, GTI argues, Plaintiff became a "prickly, pushy, paranoid employee who believed he could behave in any manner he wanted . . . and then hide behind the fact that he had blown the whistle on the . . . fraud to avoid the consequences of his own behavior." (GTI's Reply to Pl.'s Resp. at 9.) Starting in the mid-1990s, Goyal worked on several projects involving a technology known as "Cement-Lock," which is a process that converts contaminated material into an environmentally safe end-product that can be used as an additive in materials such as cement. (GTI 56.1 ¶ 4.) As its first complaint regarding Goyal's behavior, GTI points to reports in the Fall of 2002, from Lee and Barone that Plaintiff was difficult to supervise and disruptive.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 10.) As noted earlier, Lee and Barone were fired in January 2003 for their participation in the fraud that Plaintiff reported -- a scheme that consisted of funneling millions of dollars to subcontractors who kept 10% of the money and kicked back the rest to Lee, Barone, and/or Rehmat. (Id. ¶ 75.) Francis Lau assumed control over the Cement-Lock project in January 2003, after Lee and Barone were removed. (Id. ¶ 19.) From the time Lau took charge until Plaintiff's suspension that September, Lau and others claim to have experienced continued problems with Plaintiff. The problems identified by Lau and others include his constant belittling of another chemical engineer (Michael Mensinger), interrupting others while they spoke at team meetings, and otherwise failing to interact constructively with colleagues and superiors. (See id. ¶¶ 18-36.) For example, at one specific meeting with an outside Cement-Lock project partner, Anderson 2000, Goyal allegedly refused to act with "professionalism and tact" and instead was "rude, accusatory and belligerent." (Id. ¶ 22.)

Plaintiff generally disputes these characterizations of his interactions with others, and states that the Anderson 2000 meeting was "contentious from the inception" because GTI was demanding payment from Anderson to fix errors it had made during the project. (Pl.'s Resp. ¶ 22.) Plaintiff does concede, however, that there was tension between his colleagues and himself at this time. Goyal attributes the tention to the pressure that GTI management imposed on him to keep the Cement-Lock project moving on schedule. According to Goyal, Lau had told him that he would be held personally accountable for keeping the entire team on schedule. As a result, Goyal claims, his co-workers "resented [Goyal's] prodding, and began to complain that he was difficult to work with, opinionated and rude for calling them on the carpet when their work was shoddy." (Pl.'s Resp. to Mot. for Summ. J. at 4.) From Goyal's perspective, the complaints from his colleagues were solely the product of his insistence on meeting deadlines and holding them accountable for untimely or low quality work. (Id.)

On June 20, 2003, Lau asked Barbara Weber, Director of Human Resources at GTI during this time, to remove Goyal from the project.(Lau Aff. ¶ 33, Ex. 9 to GTI 56.1.) Weber suggested counseling Plaintiff about his interpersonal problems instead of outright removal. (Id. ¶ 34.) On June 27, 2003, Lau, Weber, and Jim Dunne, GTI's CFO, met with Goyal and presented him with his annual performance review and a "Final Written Warning." (Exs. I & J to Lau Aff., Ex 9 to GTI 56.1.) The performance review rated Goyal at 2.7 out of 10, including a 1 out of 10 on "Organizational Contributions," a category which included the subcategory of interpersonal relationships. (Ex. I to Lau Aff., Ex. 9 to GTI 56.1.) Plaintiff disagreed with the criticism and also made further allegations of wrongdoing at GTI (neither party identifies the precise nature of these allegations). (GTI 56.1 ¶¶ 47, 52, 54.) Defendant retained the law firm of Greenberg Traurig as an outside consultant to investigate Plaintiff's allegations, but the fim ultimately found no evidence to support them. (Riordan Aff. ¶ 22, 24, Ex. 7 to GTI 56.1.) GTI contends that Goyal's inappropriate behavior continued, and he was therefore suspended in September 2003. After attempts to work out an agreeable severance package failed, Goyal was terminated on March 9, 2004. (GTI 56.1 ¶ 74.)

Plaintiff responds to these accusations by claiming that the alleged interpersonal problems were merely pretext for Defendant's actual, retaliatory motive. As proof, Plaintiff relies principally on his past performance reviews with GTI and Endesco over the prior two decades, all of which were generally positive and all of which were completed prior to his whistle-blowing activities. Plaintiff's most recent evaluation prior to his 2003 evaluation--completed by Barone--rated him at 5.9 out of 10, stated that he was "truly an asset for Endesco: technically astute, hardworking, and loyal," and listed no areas needing improvement. (Ex. 10 to Pl.'s Statement of Add'l Facts, at GTI 102.) Other scores on his prior evaluations were consistently between 7 and 8; from 1996 through 2000, his scores ranged from 7.0 to 7.5. (Id. at GTI 103-124.) Written comments concerning his performance were likewise consistently positive, including those relating to interpersonal relationships. The most negative comment Goyal received on that score was back in 1987, when Rehmat, his evaluator that year, wrote, "Anil should be more cooperative with other co-workers in helping with his technical knowledge." (Id. at GTI 133.) Even this comment was not harsh, and and Plaintiff still received a 6 out of 10 in the personal relations category. More common are comments like "excellent management skills"; "works well with ...


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