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Douglas v. University of Chicago

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

February 19, 2015

AARON J. DOUGLAS, Plaintiff,


MANISH S. SHAH, District Judge.

Plaintiff, Aaron J. Douglas, is an African-American economist. Complaint at 13.[1] Defendant, the University of Chicago, publishes an academic journal in the field of economics. Id. Douglas alleges that the University disproportionately rejects papers submitted by African-American authors. Id. at 15, 20, 27-32. In April 2014, the University rejected one of Douglas's papers. Id. at 22, 25. Douglas alleges that, in doing so, the University discriminated against him on the basis of his race and color. Complaint at 11. Douglas sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Complaint at 4. For the reasons discussed below, the University's motion to dismiss is granted and the complaint is dismissed with prejudice.

I. Legal Standards

In deciding whether to dismiss Douglas's claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), I construe the complaint in the light most favorable to Douglas, accept as true all well-pleaded facts, and draw reasonable inferences in his favor. Yeftich v. Navistar, Inc., 722 F.3d 911, 915 (7th Cir. 2013). The complaint must include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). It must "give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal marks omitted). To avoid dismissal, the complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Yeftich, 722 F.3d at 915 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. 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." Yeftich, 722 F.3d at 915 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

II. Analysis

A. Douglas lacks the required employment relationship with the University.

It is undisputed that Douglas was not employed by, and did not seek employment with, the University. Complaint at 1, 2, 11, 20, 26. The University argues that the lack of employment relationship dooms Douglas's claim. [14] at 4. Douglas offers two responses:[2] first, that the University is liable under Title VII for "interfering" with Douglas's relationships with other employers;[3] and second, that the University is liable under Title VII for administering a racially biased "employment related test." [19] ¶¶ 3-4. Neither response is persuasive.

First, to be liable under Title VII, a defendant must be the plaintiff's employer, prospective employer, or joint employer, or must be affiliated with the plaintiff's employer, prospective employer, or joint employer. Sklyarsky v. Means-Knaus Partners, L.P., -F.3d -, 2015 U.S.App. LEXIS 1494, *5-6 (7th Cir. Jan. 29, 2015). There is no liability where a defendant "interferes" with a plaintiff's employment with some unrelated employer. In Sklyarsky, the Seventh Circuit confirmed the validity of the interference theory for claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981, but not for Title VII claims. Id. at *6.[4] Though the Seventh Circuit has not yet explicitly rejected the Title VII interference theory, if given the opportunity, it would. See EEOC v. Illinois, 69 F.3d 167, 169 (7th Cir. 1995) ("We think it very doubtful that laws which forbid employers to discriminate create a blanket liability to employees of other employers for interference with their employment relationships.") (emphasis in original); Mays v. BNSF Ry. Co., 974 F.Supp.2d 1166, 1169-74 (N.D. Ill. 2013) (reviewing precedent and concluding that "it would not be unreasonable to predict that the Seventh Circuit would definitively reject the interference theory under Title VII if squarely presented with that question.").[5]

Douglas's second argument characterizes the University's selection of articles for publication as "administering" a racially biased employment-related test. [19] ¶¶ 4, 6; [20] ¶¶ 11, 14. Douglas correctly notes that Title VII prohibits the use of biased employment-related tests. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(l). But the ban is directed at Title VII "respondents"-a term that means employers, employment agencies, labor organizations, joint labor-management committees, and certain entities of the federal government. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e(n). In the context of this case, the University was none of those things, so Douglas cannot sue the University under Title VII for administering a biased test. See Chi. Reg'l Council of Carpenters v. Pepper Constr. Co., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 39909, *6-11 (N.D. Ill. 2014) (dismissing a claim brought against the creator of an employment test, rather than the employer that used it).

B. Even if no employment relationship is required, Douglas has not plausibly stated a claim.

Douglas's case against the University suffers from an independent flaw: he has not plausibly alleged that the University's actions caused him any employment-related harm. Douglas alleges that, if more of his articles had been published in prestigious journals, he would have been promoted or granted tenure with two prior employers. [19] ¶ 30. But he was denied tenure in 1971, and denied a promotion in 2011. [19] ¶ 30. The University's subsequent rejection of his paper (in April 2014) could not have caused those denials.

Douglas has not identified any employer or prospective employer that allegedly took any action that it would not have taken-or failed to take any action that it would have taken-had the University not rejected Douglas's paper. In other words, Douglas has not alleged facts that permit a reasonable inference that the University interfered with his employment. "A plaintiff who was not injured by a challenged employment practice-even an objectionable practice-has no ground to complain, whether the theory be disparate impact or any other." Welch v. Eli Lilly & Co., 585 Fed.Appx. 911, 913 (7th Cir. 2014).

C. Dismissal is with prejudice.

Although leave to amend is liberally granted, it need not be granted where amendment would be futile. Hongbo Han v. United Cont'l Holdings, Inc., 762 F.3d 598, 603 (7th Cir. 2014). In his original complaint, response brief, and amended complaint, Douglas failed to allege a connection between the University's actions and any employer or prospective employer.[6] While Douglas's pro se status affords him some leeway, he is an experienced litigant in federal court.[7] If he suffered a particular employment-related harm, he should have alleged it by now. More fundamentally, he has ...

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