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Trahanas v. Northwestern University

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

July 6, 2017



          John J. Tharp, Jr. United States District Judge.

         Diane 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.


         Plaintiff 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).[1]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).

         Trahanas 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.

         Trahanas 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, [2] 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 ¶ 28.

         Following 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.

         Schwulst 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 ¶ 35.

         Trahanas 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.

         At some point thereafter, Trahanas began feeling “fatigued, tense, sluggish, depressed and overwhelmed” because of the harassment and her work schedule.[3] 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.

         The 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.

         On 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.

         Schwulst 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 ¶ 104.

         At the 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 ΒΆ 133. Trahanas filed an EEOC charge on ...

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