United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
DIANE M. TRAHANAS, Plaintiff,
NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY and STEVEN J. SCHWULST, Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge.
Trahanas alleges that she was subjected to discriminatory
harassment under multiple statutes and retaliated against
(among other claims) during her three year employment at
Northwestern University. Several of her claims are facially
deficient, but others survive the defendants' motion to
dismiss. Therefore, the motion is granted in part and denied
in part as set forth below.
Diane Trahanas has sued her former employer, Northwestern
University, and her former supervisor, Steven Schwulst, for
violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA),
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Family
Medical Leave Act (FMLA).At the motion to dismiss stage, all
well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint are
accepted as true and all inferences are drawn in favor of the
plaintiff. See Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074,
1081 (7th Cir. 2008).
was hired by Northwestern in June 2012 to work as a research
technician under Dr. Steven Schwulst. First Am. Compl.
(“Compl.”) ¶ 12. Trahanas served as a
“technical expert or specialist” in her research
lab, established and optimized experimental protocols, and
coordinated the conduct of various complex experiments.
Id. at ¶ 18. She also helped conduct the
experiments, such as by collecting blood and tissue samples,
and analyzed their results. Id. Although many of her
colleagues worked only eight hour days, Trahanas was
“usually” alone in the lab conducting twenty-four
hour experiments. Id. at ¶ 22.
has suffered from anxiety, depression, and ADHD since 2007
(long before she started working at Northwestern). Compl.
¶ 6-7. She has been under a psychiatrist's care
since her diagnosis and, since 2012, she has taken
psychotropic medication. Id. at ¶ 9-10. In 2012
or 2013,  Trahanas told Schwulst about her
disability and requested that her work hours be reduced as an
accommodation. Id. at ¶ 27. According to the
complaint, Schwulst “failed to accommodate her
disability and request for consideration, ” presumably
meaning he did not reduce her hours. Id. at ¶
the disclosure of her disability and request for
accommodation, Schwulst began to “mock and ridicule
Plaintiff in front of her coworkers because she could not
maintain the work schedule he was imposing.” Compl.
¶ 29. In her response, Trahanas asserts this harassment
happened on a daily basis. See Resp. at 6, ECF No.
31. Some of the comments related directly to Trahanas's
work schedule and request for reduced hours, such as calling
her a “Princess” and stating she was
“spoiled.” Compl. ¶ 31. Schwulst also
disclosed information about Trahanas's disability to her
coworkers (although exactly what information is not clear
from the complaint, other than that she had asked him to not
share information about her health). Id. at ¶
40-41. Schwulst merely laughed when coworkers told Trahanas
to “take your meds” and regularly told coworkers
that she “always make[s] mistakes.” Id.
at ¶ 47-54. Neither Schwulst nor her coworkers were
disciplined even when the remarks were made in front of
Schwulst's supervisor (Dr. Perlman). Id. at
¶ 58-59. Trahanas's coworkers were also not
disciplined when they intentionally gave her an outdated
protocol that made an experiment much more difficult.
Id. at ¶ 60-64.
also apparently believed Trahanas was a lesbian, regularly
calling her one in front of her coworkers, calling her a
“softball player” because “all softball
players are lesbians, ” asserting all basketball
players are lesbians, and calling her “manly.”
Id. at ¶ 31-38. He also stated that he hoped
his daughter would be like Trahanas so that he would not have
to worry about her getting pregnant. Id. at ¶
39. These comments made Trahanas visibly uncomfortable,
causing her to turn away or make a face. Id. at
was interested in applying to medical school and alleges
(apparently notwithstanding Schwult's alleged routine
sexual harassment) that on October 14, 2014, Schwulst wrote
her a glowing letter of recommendation which gave her the
“highest possible recommendation for admission to
medical school.” Id. at ¶ 23. She also
received a very positive letter from Dr. Perlman.
Id. at ¶ 25. Both doctors reviewed their
letters of recommendation with Trahanas before uploading them
to the medical school application service. Id. at
¶¶ 24, 26.
point thereafter, Trahanas began feeling “fatigued,
tense, sluggish, depressed and overwhelmed” because of
the harassment and her work schedule. Compl. ¶ 65. She
explained to her psychiatrist that she was
“experiencing insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, and
depression in the work place and was contemplating hurting
herself.” Id. at ¶ 66. Following the
advice of her psychiatrist, Trahanas applied for leave under
the FMLA, which she was granted. Id. at ¶
68-70. Trahanas began her 12 weeks of FMLA leave on February
17, 2015. Id. at ¶¶ 71, 73.
following day, Trahanas was locked out of her work computer.
Id. at ¶ 77. Trahanas needed access to her work
computer in order to answer questions that had been sent to
her by the manager of professional affairs at Northwestern.
Id. at ¶ 78-79. Trahanas and Schwulst were the
only people that had her username and password, and according
to a Northwestern HR representative Trahanas should have been
able to access her computer during leave. Id. at
¶ 81-83. Trahanas, however, was never able to access her
work computer again. Id. at ¶ 85.
February 19, 2015, two days after she began FMLA leave and
the same day she reported her computer problems, Trahanas
received a notification that Schwulst had uploaded a new
letter to her medical school application. Compl. ¶ 86.
Trahanas notified Northwestern HR and the manager of
professional affairs in her department. Id. at
¶ 87. Northwestern advised Trahanas to ask Schwulst if
he knew anything about the new letter and warned her not to
accuse him of wrongdoing so he did not “get mad again
and start hollering.” Id. at ¶ 88-90.
Trahanas emailed Schwulst and received no reply. Id.
at ¶ 91-92. Trahanas asked Northwestern HR to look into
the new letter and they assured her they would, but she never
received any further responses from them or Schwulst despite
repeated calls and emails. Id. at ¶ 92-100.
apparently uploaded a third letter to Trahanas's medical
school application on February 26, 2015. Compl. ¶ 97.
Plaintiff asserts, on information and belief, that the later
letters were “not good” and “besmirched her
professional reputation and competence, and foreclosed her
enrollment in medical school.” Id. at ¶
101. On February 27, 2015, Trahanas hired a lawyer and the
attorney demanded Schwulst turn over a copy of the second
recommendation letter. Id. at ¶ 103. Schwulst
refused and threated a countersuit. Id. at ¶
end of her FMLA leave, Trahanas's psychiatrist stated she
could go back to work at Northwestern as long as she was not
supervised by Schwulst or placed in the “hostile work
environment he had fostered.” Compl. ¶ 74. It is
not clear whether Trahanas attempted to go back to work,
although she alleges that she has not been able to secure
“another position of employment at Northwestern
University.” Id. at ¶ 133. Trahanas filed
an EEOC charge on ...