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Dr. Maria Artunduaga v. the University of Chicago Medical Center and Dr. David Song

May 16, 2013

DR. MARIA ARTUNDUAGA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO MEDICAL CENTER AND DR. DAVID SONG, INDIVIDUALLY, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge James B. Zagel

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Dr. Maria Artunduaga has brought this action against the University of Chicago Medical Center ("UCMC") for employment discrimination, a hostile work environment, and retaliation, all in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and against UCMC and Dr. David Song for Defamation per se, and Defamation per quod, and against Dr. Song for Intentional Interference with Employment. Currently before the Court is Defendants' motion to dismiss the defamation and intentional interference claims, or Counts III-VII of the First Amended Complaint, for failure to state a claim.*fn1 Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). For the following reasons, Defendants' motion is granted.

BACKGROUND

In June 2011, Plaintiff began a residency at UCMC in the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery program. Her supervisor there was the individual defendant, Dr. David Song. Plaintiff signed a one-year residency contract, renewable at the University's discretion. If completed, the residency program would last six years.

In November 2011, Plaintiff met with Dr. Song and others to discuss what Dr. Song apparently viewed to be unsatisfactory performance on the part of Plaintiff. The substance of this meeting was later summarized in a memo written by Dr. Song (the "November Memo") that was subsequently distributed to approximately 20 UCMC employees.

Plaintiff was placed on probation on November 15, 2011. Later, on March 27, 2012, she was informed that UCMC would not be renewing her contract for a second year. On April 30, 2012, Dr. Song sent Plaintiff a letter (the "April Letter") summarizing her status at UCMC and setting forth for her a new assignment for the completion of her internship year. Dr. Song sent copies of this letter to Barry Kamin, Director of Graduate Medical Education and Jane McAtee, Associate General Counsel.

Finally, a grievance hearing was held on May 16, 2012, where Dr. Song read aloud an August 31, 2011 email (the "Hearing Email") containing critical comments about Plaintiff's performance by General Surgery Chief Resident John Seal. While reading the email, Dr. Song is alleged to have included an additional critical assessment of Plaintiff's performance that was not actually articulated in the email.

Plaintiff points to specific statements included in the November Memo, the April Letter, and Dr. Song's recitation of the Hearing Email, alleging that they constitute defamation. Plaintiff also alleges that Dr. Song's conduct in connection with the three communications and their allegedly defamatory content constitutes intentional interference with employment.

DISCUSSION

Although state law governs the substantive aspects of the claims currently before the Court, federal pleading rules apply. See Fishering v. City of Chicago, 2008 WL 834436, *2 (March 27, 2008, N.D.Ill. 2008). When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state claim, the court treats all well-pleaded allegations as true, and draws all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor. Justice v. Town of Cicero, 577 F.3d 768, 771 (7th Cir. 2009). "While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, that is, the pleading must contain something more than a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion of a legally cognizable right of action. Id.

A. Defamation

"A statement is considered defamatory if it tends to cause such harm to the reputation of another that it lowers that person in the eyes of the community or deters third persons from associating with him. Kolegas v. Heftel Broad. Corp., 154 Ill.2d 1, 10 (1992). "To state a defamation claim, a plaintiff must present facts showing that the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff, that the defendant made an unprivileged publication of that statement to a third party, and that this publication caused damages." Green v. Rogers, 234 Ill.2d 478, 491 (2009).

Further, "statements of opinion, although defamatory, do not give rise to a defamation claim." Giant Screen Sports v. Canadian Imperial Bank Of Commerce, 553 F.3d 527, 534 (7th Cir. 2009) (and cited cases). Actionable defamation must contain an objectively verifiable factual assertion. Id. at 535. "Although in one sense all opinions imply facts, the question of whether a statement of opinion is actionable as defamation is one of degree; the vaguer and more generalized the opinion, the more likely the opinion is non-actionable as a matter of law." Id.

Statements may be considered defamatory per se or defamatory per quod. When a statement is per se defamatory, the statement's defamatory character is apparent on its face. Kolegas, 154 Ill.2d at 10. The words used are so obviously and materially harmful to the plaintiff that the damages element of the claim is presumed. Id.

In Illinois, a statement that is allegedly per se defamatory must fit into one of five categories: (1) words that impute a person has committed a crime; (2) words that impute a person is infected with a loathsome communicable disease; (3) words that impute a person is unable to perform or lacks integrity in performing her or his employment duties; (4) words that impute a person lacks ability or otherwise prejudices that person in her or his profession; and (5) words that impute a person has engaged in adultery or fornication. Green, 234 Ill.2d at 492.

Even if a statement were to fit within one of these categories, however, it still will not be actionable if it is reasonably capable of an innocent construction. Id. at 499. "Under the 'innocent construction rule,' a court must consider the statement in context and give the words of the statement, and any implications arising from them, their natural and obvious meaning." Id. (emphasis in original). "[A] statement reasonably capable of a non-defamatory interpretation, given ...


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