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Goswami v. Depaul University

United States District Court, Seventh Circuit

January 14, 2014



JEFFREY COLE, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Namita Goswami, was a professor at DePaul University for eight years until the University denied her application for tenure and terminated her employment based on her gender, race, color, and national origin. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 1). But the claims at issue here are her charges against two of her former colleagues, Peg Birmingham and Elizabeth Rottenberg, for tortious interference with prospective economic advantage. The defendants have moved to dismiss those counts for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.



Standards Applicable to Motions to Dismiss

Ms. Goswami argues that her complaint cannot be dismissed unless "there is no set of facts [she] could prove that would entitle her to relief." ( Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition, at 5). But this is no longer the standard. The Supreme Court specifically disavowed it six years ago in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 563 (2007)("The phrase is best forgotten...."). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. The plausibility standard requires more than a mere possibility that the claim is valid; something akin to a non-eligible probability is required, although plausibility does not equate to the preponderance standard that applies at trial. Brooks v. Pactiv Corp., 729 F.3d 758, 763 (7th Cir. 2013). "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, at 679; Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).


The Complaint's Allegations

As is always the case when considering a motion to dismiss a complaint, the plaintiff's allegations must be accepted as true and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in her favor. Brooks, 279 F.3d at 763; Justice v. Town of Cicero, 577 F.3d 768, 771 (7th Cir. 2009).

In 2003, DePaul hired Ms. Goswami as an assistant professor on the tenure track in its Department of Philosophy. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 15). The terms of the contract between DePaul and Ms. Goswami were set out in the DePaul Faculty Handbook, which governed faculty appointment, as well as the tenure and review process. ( Amended Complaint, ¶¶ 30, 157). Under those terms, Ms. Goswami had to complete a six-year probationary period before she was eligible to apply for tenure. ( Amended Complaint, ¶¶ 15, 30, 62). She also had to undergo annual reviews during the probationary period "[t]o assess progress toward promotion and tenure, " and "to determine whether reappointment for the next academic year is appropriate and desired." (Defendants' Ex. A § 3.2.2). If tenure-track faculty members are "not granted tenure... [they] will not be offered a contract renewal at DePaul." ( Amended Complaint, ¶157; Defendants' Ex. A § 3.5.4). Their appointment would simply "terminate at the conclusion of the contract for the following academic year that was previously issued." ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 157; Defendants' Ex. A § 3.6.1).

Tenure, of course, is not automatic; it is not an entitlement. (Exhibit A §§ 3.5-3.6). As detailed in the handbook, DePaul's tenure process involves multiple levels of review by faculty, with the final decision resting with the University's president. ( Amended Complaint, ¶¶ 30-43). Following that multi-level review process, the University may confer tenure only if it has "no reasonable doubt about the faculty member's demonstrated qualifications" in the areas of teaching, scholarship, and service. ( Amended Compliant, ¶¶ 30, 157; Defendants' Ex. A § Ms. Goswami claims, however, that it was DePaul's practice to grant tenure to candidates "who met at least two out of the three tenure criteria." ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 33). She further claims that DePaul's associate vice president of academic affairs said that a candidate had to be excellent in two of the categories and adequate in a third. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 34). In the College of Liberal Arts, where Ms. Goswami taught, teaching was considered in the tenure calculus. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 36).

Ms. Goswami's six-year probationary review period began in 2003, and, during that time, the University gave her no indication that she was lacking in teaching, scholarship, or service. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 63). There were merit reviews, biennial informal reviews, and biennial formal reviews; the formal reviews were used to assess progress toward tenure. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 64). Her first merit review five months in was "very good." ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 65). Her first formal review was as well. She was said to have a "strong beginning in the areas of teaching research, and service...." The committee was "pleased" with her as a "teacher, a scholar, and a citizen of the department, college, and university." Her research added "an important dimension to the department, " and it was hoped that "more could be done to integrate her scholarship into departmental offerings." The committee was also "very pleased with her record of service to [that point]." ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 66).

Ms. Goswami's second annual merit review - for 2004 - was positive, too. She was ranked as "very good" overall, with "very good" in teaching and service and "good" in research. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 67). But, the philosophy department chair, Peg Birmingham, noted that Ms. Goswami was "needlessly confrontational." ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 68). David Kendall - assigned by Ms. Birmingham - conducted a peer review of one of her classes and felt it was more of a women's studies class rather than a philosophy class. That was not a misogynistic assessment, as he suggested Ms. Goswami teach philosophers, including female thinkers like de Beauvoir, Irigary, and Kristeva. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 68). Ms. Goswami bristled at this notion because those women were white. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 68).

Ms. Goswami complained to the Dean and the University ombudsman regarding Ms. Birmingham. Ms. Birmingham apologized in an email and said it would be placed in Ms. Goswami's file. It never was. ( Amended Complaint, ¶ 69). A week after the email, Ms. Birmingham conducted the first informal review of Ms Goswami in June 2005. She again noted Ms. ...

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