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Rao v. Gondi

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

October 23, 2014

JASTI RAO, Plaintiff,
CHRISTOPHER GONDI et al., Defendants.


VIRGINIA M. KENDALL, District Judge.

Plaintiff Dr. Jasti Rao filed a complaint alleging eight counts against Dr. Christopher Gondi, Dr. Sarah Rusch, Dr. Dimitri Azar, and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Rusch, Azar and Gondi are all employees of the University. Specifically, Rao asserts claims against Rusch and Azar for race discrimination and retaliation under the 42 U.SC. § 1981(Counts III and IV); claims against Rusch and Gondi for tortious interference with business relations (Count V); claims against Gondi for defamation per se (Count VI); claims against Dr. Rusch for retaliation under the Illinois State Officials and Employee Ethics Act, 5 ILCS 430/15-10 (Count VII); and claims against the University for race discrimination under the Illinois Civil Rights Act of 2003, 740 ILCS 23/5 et seq. Counts I and II are not at issue. The Court grants the defendants' motion to dismiss Counts III, IV, V, and VI and denies the motion to dismiss Counts VII and VIII.


The Court treats the following allegations from the Amended Complaint as true for the purposes of this motion. Yeftich v. Navistar, Inc., 722 F.3d 911, 915 (7th Cir. 2013).

The University hired Rao, a native of India and a U.S. citizen, where he worked from January 2001 to March 2013 as a cancer researcher and professor. (Am. Comp. ¶ 1). Rao began working as the Professor and Director of Cancer Research, Department of Biomedical Therapeutic Sciences, then promoted to Head of the Department, then to Senior Associate Dean for Research at the University. ( Id. ¶ 13.)

Rusch was the Regional Dean for the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria. ( Id. ¶ 8). In May 2012, Rusch launched an investigation into allegations of plagiarism in Rao's lab. ( Id. ¶ 19). Rusch enlisted Azar, the Dean of the College of Medicine at Chicago, as the head of the internal investigative team. ( Id. ¶¶ 9& 22). Rusch did not initiate investigations of plagiarism into non-Indian professors even though similar allegations had been made against them. ( Id. ¶ 21).

In October 2012, the University asked Rao for the names of any other University officials whose publications might also contain errors. Rao gave the University the same report he gave to Rusch in July 2012. As requested, Rao also pointed out errors in publications by other University officials. He also reported a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 violation made by Rusch. Also in 2012, Dr. Rao filed a discrimination claim with the EEOC claiming the University discriminated against he and other foreign born personnel; the EEOC declined to investigate and informed him he could file a civil suit under 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. After this, Dr. Rao also claims the University intensified its investigation into his alleged misconduct. (Dkt. No. 20-2; Dkt. No. 20 ¶ 26-27).

Dr. Rao learned the University was also investigating allegations that he accepted bribes from other researchers in his lab in exchange for covering up errors in their publications. ( Id. ¶ 25). The University claimed that the basis of the allegation was a video recording of a conversation between him and Gondi, who at the time was also Rao's employee. ( Id. ¶ 7). The video allegedly showed Gondi giving money to Rao for a bribe. The University obtained a bank record reflecting a transaction in the same amount that was given to Rao in the video. ( Id. ¶ 29). Rao alleges the University misunderstood the statements made in the video and explained Dr. Gondi was paying him back for a loan. ( Id. ¶ 25). In addition to the initial investigation, the University launched a second investigation, also led by Azar, as a result of a list of allegations of professional misconduct sent anonymously to Rusch. ( Id. ¶¶ 22, 40). As a result of the findings in both investigations, on March 21, 2013 the University informed Dr. Rao that if he did not resign by March 25, 2013 his employment would be terminated. The University then revoked Dr. Rao's access to the University's email system; confiscated his keys to his office and lab, his University identification card, and his computers at work and in his home; relieved him of his duties; and escorted him off campus. ( Id. ¶¶ 41-42). On March 25, 2013 Dr. Rao unwillingly signed a letter of resignation. ( Id. ¶ 45).

Following his resignation, Dr. Rao claims Dr. Gondi continued to make false allegations that Dr. Rao solicited bribes from his employees. He further alleges Dr. Gondi stands to gain from Dr. Rao resigning, since the University reassigned very profitable and prestigious grants earned by Dr. Rao to Dr. Gondi and others. ( Id. ¶¶ 30, 47).


When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court accepts as true all facts alleged in the complaint and construes all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Yeftich, 722 F.3d at 915. To state a claim upon which relief can be granted, a compliant must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "Detailed factual allegations" are not required, but the plaintiff must allege facts that when "accepted as true... state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To determine whether a complaint meets this standard, the "reviewing court [must] draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.


A. Counts III and IV

Count III alleges discrimination under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and Count IV alleges retaliation under § 1981 against Rusch and Azar. The Court considers both § 1981 claims together because they should both be dismissed for the same reason. Title 42 section 1983 is the exclusive remedy for violations of § 1981 against state actors. Campbell v. Forest Preserve Dist. of Cook County, 752 F.3d 665, 671 (7th Cir. 2014). Rao concedes that the defendants are state actors ...

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