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Roberts v. Columbia College Chicago

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

April 21, 2015

JOSEPH S. ROBERTS, Plaintiff,
v.
COLUMBIA COLLEGE CHICAGO, ELIZA NICHOLS, and PHILIPPE RAVANAS, Defendant

For Joseph Roberts, Plaintiff: Jamie S. Franklin, LEAD ATTORNEY, The Franklin Law Firm LLC, Chicago, IL.

For Columbia College Chicago, Ravanas Philippe, Eliza Nichols, Defendants: Jeffrey Ray Rosenberg, LEAD ATTORNEY, Michael J. Victor, O'Halloran, Kosoff, Geitner & Cook, PC, Northbrook, IL.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

HON. JORGE L. ALONSO, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff Joseph S. Roberts sues defendants Columbia College Chicago (" Columbia" ), Eliza Nichols, and Philippe Ravanas for breach of contract, retaliatory discharge, defamation and discrimination under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § § 2000e et seq.; 42 U.S.C. § 1981; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (" ADEA" ), 29 U.S.C. § § 621 et seq.; and the Americans with Disabilities Act (" ADA" ), 42 U.S.C. § § 12101 et seq. This case is before the Court on defendants' motion for summary judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion.

BACKGROUND

Joseph Roberts, a 56-year-old naturalized United States citizen originally from India (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(B) Resp. ¶ 1), worked as a tenure-track and, later, tenured professor at Columbia from 1999 to 2011 (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 12-13). His termination in 2011 is the basis for this lawsuit.

Professor Roberts taught in the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management (" AEMM" ) Department at Columbia. ( Id. at 15-17.) His main area of scholarly interest and expertise is entrepreneurship ( id. at 110-11), and, after a few years at Columbia, he sought materials that might be useful in teaching economics to arts students ( id. at 19). Roberts found that there existed no single textbook that was suitable for an economics course for arts students, and he wanted to spare his students the expense of purchasing multiple books, of which they would only use a portion, for a single-semester course. ( Id. at 19-21.)

To remedy this problem, Roberts approached the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. (" McGraw-Hill" ) about publishing a " custom" textbook that would include and adapt chapters from several previously-published economics textbooks. ( Id. at 21-23.) The three main source books were Issues in Economics Today by Robert C. Guell, Economics Is Everywhere by Daniel S. Hamermesh, and Basic Economic Concepts by Werner Sichel and Peter Eckstein. The first two books were recent publications of McGraw-Hill; the third was a 1974 book published by Rand McNally College Publishing Company. Roberts wrote an introductory first chapter, but the rest of his book, which he called Economics for Arts Entrepreneurs and Managers, was made up of chapters taken from the previously-published textbooks. ( Id. at 29-31; id., Ex. 1, at 1-2.)

Roberts hoped that the book could be finished in time to be used in his Fall 2004 courses, but he was still waiting for the publisher to send him the final proof of the book when the semester began. At the first class meeting of his economics course, he found that his students had already purchased the book from the college bookstore, although the publisher had never sent him a final proof or even an author's courtesy copy. ( Id., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 47-48.) Roberts purchased a copy for himself, and he found that the book contained numerous errors and omissions, including the omission of references, citations and a glossary he had expected McGraw-Hill to include. ( Id. at 23, 52-53.) Roberts called to " let McGraw-Hill know" that the references were missing, but he " didn't try to correct it or anything" because he had decided, in consultation with other faculty members, that they " were never going to use it again," ( id. at 54, 57), because the book was a " total disaster" ( id. at 61). In subsequent years, Roberts made efforts to revise the book with another instructor and publish it with an internal Columbia publishing service, but he abandoned the project before any revised book was completed. ( Id. at 70-79.)

In 2007, Roberts led a search committee charged with finding a new dean for the School of Fine and Performing Arts, the school in which the AEMM department was housed. ( Id., Ex. A, Nichols Dep. Ex. 3.) When the search ended unsuccessfully because the two candidates the committee recommended were unable to come to terms with Columbia ( Id., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 83), Provost Steve Kapelke offered the position to Eliza Nichols, whom Columbia administrators had met at a recent conference, for a limited, renewable term of three years. ( Id., Ex. A, Nichols Dep. at 15-16; id., Ex. 4.) Roberts publicly questioned whether it was appropriate to select a dean without formally " reopen[ing] the search" ( id., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 97), but Nichols was hired despite Roberts's objections. After Nichols's first term ended in 2010, she accepted an offer of a second three-year term. ( Id., Ex. A, Nichols Dep. at 8-9.)

In 2010, Roberts served on another search committee, this time for a chairperson of the AEMM department. ( Id., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 132.) At least initially, the search failed again, with the search committee's chosen candidate ultimately turning down the position. ( Id., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. at 23.) Roberts claims that, rather than allowing the committee to meet again and recommend someone else based on fresh deliberations, Eliza Nichols forced the committee members to give her their second choice in a matter of minutes. ( Id., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 132.) Under pressure, the committee recommended Philippe Ravanas as a " reluctant second choice." ( Id. at 133.) Roberts " expressed concern" about the way Columbia handled the matter after the initial candidate withdrew, just as he had done when Columbia hired Nichols. ( Id. at 132.)

Almost from the beginning of Ravanas's tenure as AEMM chair, there was friction between Roberts and Ravanas. Ravanas gave Roberts poor performance reviews ( id., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. at 15-16), confronted Roberts about what Ravanas perceived to be his various professional faults and errors (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-2, Roberts Decl. ¶ ¶ 70-74), and even seemed to solicit information that was critical of Roberts or damaging to him (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. at 180; id., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. Ex. 22, 24).

Ravanas allegedly made numerous comments to the effect that Roberts and some of the other older, tenured faculty members did not embody the " image" that he wanted the AEMM department at Columbia to have. (Pl.'s LR 56.1(b)(3)(C) Stmt. ¶ 7.) Roberts claims that Ravanas told him, " we are trying to create a young and hip look for the program and you and some of our colleagues do not fit that bill." ( Id.) He removed a photo of Roberts from the online directory because he did not " project the look" that Ravanas wanted for his department. ( Id.) Roberts also heard Ravanas make disparaging comments about " Asians and Asian immigrants." ( Id. ¶ ¶ 6, 8.) Further, Ravanas once remarked " with displeasure" that Roberts's skin condition, vitiligo, which causes uneven pigmentation, was something that had to be " explained" to students, and, although the condition is entirely harmless, Ravanas repeatedly commented on it " with open distaste." ( Id. ¶ 9.)

A number of tenured AEMM faculty, Roberts included, felt that Ravanas was mismanaging the AEMM department, both by making unwise decisions about AEMM courses and alienating faculty with his harsh management style. On May 2, 2011, Roberts and five of his colleagues communicated their concerns to Ravanas in a letter, with copies sent to Provost Steve Kapelke and Dean Nichols. (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-2, Roberts Decl. ¶ ¶ 76-77; Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. C, Roberts Dep. Ex. 26.) They sought to meet with Kapelke, but the meeting was twice canceled. They finally met with Louise Love, who had succeeded Kapelke as Provost, on May 31, 2011. (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-2, Roberts Decl. ¶ ¶ 80.)

Meanwhile, in March of 2011, Nissan Wasfie, the AEMM lecturer and administrator who had joined Roberts in attempting to revise Economics for Arts Entrepreneurs and Managers until they had a falling-out in 2008, approached Ravanas with information about Roberts. Wasfie gave Ravanas a copy of Roberts's book and told Ravanas that he suspected Roberts of plagiarizing large portions of it from Sichel and Eckstein's Basic Economic Concepts. (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. B., Ravanas Dep. at 36-37.) Ravanas checked out a two-volume version of Basic Economic Concepts at a library and examined it alongside Roberts's book. ( Id. at 37-39.) Roberts is listed as the lead author of Economics for Arts Entrepreneurs and Managers ; he thanks his family on the dedication page and thanks the colleagues and graduate assistants who helped him prepare the book on a " Special Thanks" page. (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-9 at 4-7.) The book contains no references other than the following short statement on the copyright page of the book:

This book contains selected material from:
Issues in Economics Today by Robert C. Guell. Copyright © 2003 by the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
Economics Is Everywhere by Daniel S. Hamermesh Copyright © 2004 by the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
This book also contains Original Material by Joseph S. Roberts.

(Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-9 at 5; Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. Ex. 2 (memo prepared by Ravanas).) The copyright page also contains the following statement: " McGraw-Hill's College Custom Series consists of products that are produced from camera-ready copy. Peer review, class testing and accuracy are primarily the responsibility of the author(s)." (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-9 at 5.) The chapters taken from Basic Economics Concepts are reproduced almost word for word, with some slight alterations to the explanatory examples, including changing products to " art" or " paintings," changing persons' names to those of the graduate assistants who helped Roberts prepare the book, and changing place names to the names of cities in Illinois. (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. Ex. 2.) Ravanas prepared a memo summarizing and substantiating his conclusion that Roberts had plagiarized from Sichel and Eckstein ( see id.), which he sent to Eliza Nichols in early April 2011 ( id., Ex. B, Ravanas Dep. at 31.) Nichols, in turn, alerted the provost's office and the general counsel's office. ( Id., Ex. A, Nichols Dep. at 27.)

On May 31, 2011, after Provost Love met with Roberts and the five faculty members who had complained about Ravanas, Nichols met with Roberts in her office. (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-2, Roberts Decl. ¶ 81.) Their accounts of the meeting differ. Nichols contends that she asked Roberts to review Ravanas's memo with her and address the allegations contained within it, but Roberts " couldn't get past the first line," insisting that " the title of the book was incorrect, and therefore, he was not the author of the book" [1] that was the subject of the memo. (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. A, Nichols Dep. at 29.) Nichols attempted to go through the memo line by line, but Roberts was " very confusing" in his response ( id.) and could give " absolutely no comprehensible excuse for what he did" ( id. at 42).

Roberts claims that Nichols told him that he had committed plagiarism, without giving him any details about the alleged plagiarism, and he had five minutes to resign or he would be terminated. (Pl.'s Exs. Opp'n Summ. J., P-2, Roberts Decl. ¶ 82.) Roberts went back to his office to think about it, but he called Nichols after only a few moments to tell her that he would not resign. ( Id. ΒΆ 85) He later received a written notice of dismissal from Provost Love, dated June 9, 2011, informing him that he was being terminated due to " academic dishonesty" under Section IX (A)(2) of his tenure agreement. (Defs.' LR 56.1(a)(3) Stmt., Ex. F, Love Dep. Ex. 2.) Columbia's Statement of Policy on Academic Freedom, Faculty Status, Tenure and Due Process (" ...


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