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Syed v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University

August 18, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael P. McCUSKEY Chief U.S. District Judge


This matter comes before the Court on the Defendants Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University (Board), Andrew J. Varney, M.D., Christine Y. Todd, M.D., and David S. Resch, M.D.'s Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) for Lack of Jurisdiction and for Failure to State a Claim Upon Which Relief Can be Granted (d/e 12) (Motion). Plaintiff Salam Syed, M.D., participated in the residency program (Residency Program) at Southern Illinois University (University) School of Medicine (School of Medicine). He was not renewed as a third year resident. Dr. Syed's nine-count Complaint (d/e 1) alleges three federal civil rights violations. Count I alleges retaliation in violation of the First Amendment; Count II alleges a violation of due process; and Count III alleges a "class-of-one" violation of equal protection. Complaint, Counts IIII. In addition, Dr. Syed alleges six state-law claims. Complaint, Counts IV-IX.

The Defendants moved to dismiss all of the Complaint except the individual capacity claims in Count III. Upon review of the Complaint, the Court directed the parties to address whether Count III should also be dismissed in light of the Supreme Court's decision in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture. Text Order entered July 6, 2010; see Engquist, 553 U.S. 591, 128 S.Ct. 2146 (2008). The Court may, sua sponte, raise the issue of whether a claim should be dismissed with notice to the parties. Dawson v. Newman, 419 F.3d 656, 660 (7th Cir. 2005). The parties have now fully briefed the Motion and the issue raised by the Court. For the reasons set forth below, the Complaint is dismissed. Dr. Syed fails to state a claim for a due process violation in Count II, and the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on the First Amendment retaliation and class-of-one equal protection claims in Counts I and III. The Court dismisses the remaining state-law claims without prejudice because the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over those claims.

For purposes of this Motion, the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations contained in the Complaint and draw all inferences in the light most favorable to Dr. Syed. Hager v. City of West Peoria, 84 F.3d 865, 868-69 (7th Cir. 1996); Covington Court, Ltd. v. Village of Oak Brook, 77 F.3d 177, 178 (7th Cir. 1996). The Court may also consider documents referenced in the Complaint and central to the claim. Levenstein v. Salafsky, 164 F.3d 345, 347 (7th Cir. 1998). When read in that light, the Complaint must set forth a short and plain statement of the claims showing that Dr. Syed is entitled to relief. Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 559-63 (2007); Airborne Beepers & Video, Inc. v. AT & T Mobility LLC, 499 F.3d 663 (7th Cir. 2007). In doing so, the allegations must plausibly suggest that Dr. Syed is entitled to relief. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 569 n.14. Allegations of bare legal conclusions or labels alone are not sufficient. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, __ U.S. __, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009).


The allegations are taken from the Complaint and the contractual documents accompanying the Motion. The Court considers the contractual documents because the contract between the parties is referenced in the Complaint and is central to Dr. Syed's due process claim. Levenstein, 164 F.3d at 347. On September 15, 2007, Dr. Syed entered into an Agreement to accept the position as a second-year resident in the School of Medicine's Department of Internal Medicine (Department). The parties executed a written Agreement. Motion, Exhibit A, Affidavit of Andrew J. Varney, M.D. (Varney Affidavit), Exhibit 1, Agreement With Physician - 2007-2008 (2007 Agreement). The 2007 Agreement was between Dr. Syed, the School of Medicine, and St. John's Hospital of Springfield, Illinois (St. John's). St. John's agreed to pay Dr. Syed a salary of $45,137.00 for the term of the residency, plus benefits. Id., ¶ A. The School of Medicine agreed to provide a graduate medical education program to Dr. Syed. Id., ¶ B. Dr. Syed agreed to perform duties as assigned by the Residency Program Director and approved by St. John's. These duties included providing patient care. Id., ¶ C. The term of the 2007 Agreement ran from August 29, 2007, to August 28, 2008, and renewed automatically unless the Residency Program Director gave four months written notice. Id., ¶ H. Defendant Dr. Varney was an associate professor of medicine in the Department and the Residency Program Director. Defendants Drs. Resch and Todd were also associate professors of medicine in the Department.

In early January 2008, Dr. Syed was on night call at Memorial Medical Center in Springfield, Illinois (Memorial), as part of his residency. Dr. Syed observed the treatment of a patient identified as "JB". Defendant Dr. Resch admitted JB to Memorial's psychiatric unit through the emergency room. Before leaving Memorial at the end of his shift, Dr. Syed documented his observations of the treatment given to JB by School of Medicine faculty in a handwritten note which he placed in JB's medical file. JB died after Dr. Syed's shift ended. Complaint, ¶¶ 18-21.

Dr. Syed reported for rounds the next day. In the presence of other residents, School of Medicine faculty member Dr. Praveen Kandula asked if Dr. Syed knew what happened to JB. Dr. Syed stated that he did not know what happened to JB. Dr. Syed also stated that he advised Dr. Resch and others on the School of Medicine's faculty of the seriousness of JB's condition, but they ignored him. Dr. Kandula became upset and told Dr. Syed that if a malpractice suit was filed, Dr. Syed would not be spared. Complaint, ¶¶ 22-24.

Thereafter, School of Medicine officials and faculty, including Drs. Varney, Todd, and Resch, targeted Dr. Syed for less favorable treatment than similarly situated residents in the Residency Program. In March 2008, the Department sent Dr. Syed an email informing him that he had to pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam - Step 3 by the end of April 2008 or he would not be promoted to a third year resident position (PGY-3) at the conclusion of the year. Dr. Syed passed the test on his first try in March 2008. Other residents took the test several times before they passed. Complaint, ¶¶ 30-33.

On April 14, 2008, Dr. Todd advised Dr. Syed by email that: (1) the American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM) required a resident to be rated a "4" or above to gain promotion to third year status, and (2) Dr. Syed would be required to participate in a stimulated recall exercise (Exercise).*fn1 The Exercise would be recorded. According to Dr. Todd's email, the results would be "reviewed extensively" with Dr. Syed and presented to the Clinical Competency Committee together with recommendations for any remediation that would be helpful to Dr. Syed. Dr. Resch was one of the physicians assigned to observe and assess Dr. Syed's performance in the Exercise. Complaint, ¶¶ 34-36.

Dr. Syed participated in the Exercise. At the conclusion of the Exercise, School of Medicine officials met with Dr. Syed. The officials asked numerous question of Dr. Syed's performance. Dr. Syed received little instruction or advice on how to improve his performance. Complaint,¶ 37.

On May 23, 2008, School of Medicine officials, including Drs. Varney, Todd, and Resch, placed Dr. Syed on probation and instructed Dr. Todd to prepare a remediation plan. On June 10, 2008, Drs. Todd and Varney met with Dr. Syed and gave him a letter informing him that he had been placed on probation and the terms of the probation. The remediation plan prepared by Dr. Todd required Dr. Syed to do the following: (1) obtain a "5" rating on all rotations even though the ABIM only required a "4" rating to gain promotion; (2) complete all Hopkins Ambulatory Modules and ACP online modules before September 1, 2008; (3) sit for the NBME Shelf Test in medicine on July 2, 2008; and (4) make case presentations that contained the organization and quality level expected of a third year resident. Dr. Syed believed that no other resident was required to obtain a "5" rating on all rotations in order to gain promotion to third year status. Complaint, ¶¶ 38-45.

On August 21, 2008, School of Medicine officials met to discuss Dr. Syed's residency. Dr. Resch presented a motion to terminate Dr. Syed from the residency program. School of Medicine officials, including Drs. Varney and Todd, approved of Dr. Resch's motion to terminate Dr. Syed. Complaint, ¶¶ 46-47.

Dr. Syed filed a grievance. The Grievance Committee held a hearing on October 21, 2008. Dr. Todd made false accusations at the hearing. Among the false accusations, Dr. Todd falsely asserted that Dr. Syed used the fact that English was his second language to evade ...

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