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Azhar v. The University of Chicago

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

June 5, 2019




         Plaintiff Sameena Azhar filed this employment discrimination case against the University of Chicago on November 7, 2016. (R. 1, Compl.) Before the Court is the University of Chicago's motion for summary judgment. (R. 78, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J.) For the reasons that follow, the motion is granted.


         The following facts are undisputed unless otherwise noted.[1] Plaintiff Sameena Azhar ("Azhar") was a University of Chicago ("the University") doctoral candidate at the University's School of Social Service Administration ("SSA") from 2012 until 2018. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. SOF ¶ 3.) Her specific research interest is human immunodeficiency viruses ("HIV"). (Id.) Azhar was first introduced to Dr. John Schneider because of their shared research interest in HIV. (Id. ¶ 13.) Dr. Schneider is an associate professor of medicine within the University's Department of Medicine's Section of Infectious Diseases and Global Health, an associate professor of epidemiology in its School of Public Health, and a member of numerous University committees focused on work in India. (Id. ¶ 4.) His clinical specialization focused on adolescent and adult HIV primary care. (Id. ¶ 5.) Dr. Alida Bouris is an assistant professor at SSA who teaches courses on social work practice and cognitive-behavioral therapy, and focuses her research on adolescent health and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. (Id. ¶ 7.) Dr. Melissa Gilliam is a professor in the University's Departments of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Pediatrics. (Id. ¶ 8.) She is also the Vice Provost for the University, leading its efforts around faculty development and institutional diversity, including overseeing the Center for Identity and Inclusion, the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality, and the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. (Id.)

         In 2014, Dr. Schneider agreed to serve on Azhar's dissertation committee and Dr. Bouris agreed to chair it. (Id. ¶ 16.) Full-time students in the SSA doctoral program like Azhar must complete a pre-dissertation research project, research and teaching assistantships, and a dissertation. (Id. ¶ 11.) In 2015, Azhar was engaged by Dr. Bouris to grade papers and serve as a teaching assistant. (Id. ¶ 12.) She also provided academic research to Dr. Bouris and is listed as an author in an upcoming article. (Id. ¶ 15.) Azhar also provided academic research to Dr. Schneider for two articles, one of which was published and lists her as an author. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         While she was an SSA student, Azhar received numerous grants, fellowships, and scholarships. (Id. ¶ 9.) For example, she was selected in 2013 for a Ford Foundation fellowship by a faculty group that included Dr. Bouris and Dr. Gilliam. (Id. ¶ 10.) Dr. Schneider wrote multiple letters of recommendation for Azhar to help her obtain grants or fellowships. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         I. Azhar's Employment with Chicago Center for HIV Elimination

         Drs. Schneider and Bouris co-founded and now serve as Director and Co-Director of the University's Chicago Center for HIV Elimination ("CCHE"), a research center for academic, research, medical, and clinical programs and services dedicated to eliminating new HIV transmissions in certain at-risk populations. (Id. ¶ 20.) Because CCHE is part of the University, people who work for CCHE are University employees. (Id. ¶ 22.) Dr. Schneider hired Azhar as a part-time student-employee at CCHE in March 2015. (Id. ¶ 27.) Employees and collaborators of CCHE include affiliated faculty members, staff, student-employees, and post-doctoral scholars. (Id. ¶ 24.) Two post-doctoral scholars, Lindsey Young, who is white, and Aditya Khana, who is South Asian, and one doctoral candidate, Britt Livak, who is white, were also employed there. (W.¶¶25, 29.)

         While at CCHE, Azhar worked on an observational study called the Building Agent-Based Models of Racialized Justice Systems ("BARS") Project. (Id. ¶ 27.) She was paid $17 per-hour, which was more than any other student who worked at CCHE. (Id. ¶ 28; R. 90-1, Eavou Dep. Tr. at 73-74.) It is undisputed that Azhar did most of her work remotely, although the parties disagree as to the reason. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s SOF ¶ 34.) In addition to an off-campus location called "the Village," CCHE had three separate on-campus workspaces during Azhar's employment there: third floor hallway space by Dr. Schneider's office, fifth floor shared office space, and cubicle space in a basement suite. (Id. ¶ 30.) At various points in 2015, the fifth floor office was shared by one African-American staff member, one Latino staff member, one white staff member, and one white student. (Id. ¶ 33.) According to Rebecca Eavou, who assigned office space for CCHE at the time, the basement work space was used by two white staff members, one white post-doctoral candidate, one white student, six African-American staff members, one South Asian post-doctoral candidate, and two South Asian students at various points in 2015. (Id. ¶ 32.) Azhar does not dispute that at least one white employee worked in the basement, but she nevertheless asserts that students of color understood that they were relegated to the basement office, which was less desirable because of its mold problem. (Id.)

         At the time Azhar worked on the BARS study, it was still in its development stage and did not yet involve interviewing participants. (Id. ¶ 36.) Accordingly, her work did not involve any face-to-face research subject contact but instead involved helping to schedule, coordinate, and memorialize project meetings. (Id. ¶ 35.) The University also did not anticipate that Azhar's work would include conducting interviews. (Id. ¶ 37.)

         II. Azhar's Request for Business Cards

         Students who worked for CCHE typically did not receive business cards. (Id. ¶ 40.) Dr. Schneider's general policy was that only faculty and full-time staff received business cards, unless the student's project involved research participant engagement. (Id.) The two postdoctoral candidates at CCHE received business cards, as did Livak. (Id. ¶¶ 41, 42, 48.) On October 31, 2015, Azhar requested business cards in order to have them for upcoming meetings and conferences. (Id. ¶ 43.) On November 2, 2015, after conferring with Dr. Schneider, Eavou informed Azhar that CCHE generally does not order cards for graduate students. (Id. ¶ 44.) By 9:00 a.m. the next morning, Azhar had sent six emails questioning the decision, and explaining her reasons for wanting the cards. (Id. ¶ 45.) According to Azhar, she had seen Livak and one of the post-doctoral candidate employees with cards, and so she believed that obtaining the cards reflected an equity issue. (Id. ¶ 45.) Specifically, she wrote that "issues of equity at CCHE . .. encompass age, race/ethnicity, and gender." (Id. ¶ 46; R. 92, Def.'s Resp. Pl.'s Add'l SOF ¶ 1.)

         Although Dr. Schneider agreed "[t]here are serious issues surrounding age, race/ethnicity and gender at CCHE, the BSD [Biological Sciences Division], SSA and at the University," he did not agree "this specific issue [was] one of them." (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s SOF ¶¶ 46, 48; R. 90-1, Pl.'s Ex. 11, CHI00004, Schneider Nov. 3, 2015 email.) Instead, Dr. Schneider explained that Azhar's role did not involve client contact, and he had not anticipated that it would. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. SOF ¶ 47.) Livak's CCHE position, on the other hand, involved direct client-contact. (Id. ¶ 48.) In Azhar's sixth November 3, 2015, email on the subject, she apologized for the "flaming" nature of her earlier messages. (Id. ¶ 49.) Nevertheless, she sent another three emails before noon on November 5, 2015 (id. ¶ 50), and called Eavou to discuss her request. (Id. ¶51.) Eavou testified that Azhar threatened legal action during the call, which Azhar denies. (Id. ¶ 51; R. 80-5, Eavou Dep. Tr. at 113:05-114:03; R. 90-1, Pl.'s Ex. 4, Azhar Decl. ¶ 12.)

         Shortly after noon on November 5, 2015, Dr. Schneider emailed Azhar to inform her that her emails had been inappropriate and combative, and that he was suspending her for four months. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. SOF ¶¶ 52, 53, 59.) He explained that her messages reflected "a sense of entitlement with limited respect for boundaries," and a lack of understanding of her role as a student-employee. (Id. ¶ 52.) Dr. Schneider chose suspension over termination because he wanted Azhar to learn from the situation, and to return to CCHE. (Id. ¶ 58.) The day after receiving the news, Azhar sent three emails to a total of 40 people stating that "underlying reasons of racial and gender equity" had prompted her suspension. (Id. ¶ 54.) On November 7, she emailed another 11 people to inform them of her suspension, and that "the cause for my suspension [was] related to my raising issues at the workplace regarding inequities in pay, benefits and treatment of staff, which were based on age, race/ethnicity, and gender." (Id. ¶ 55.)

         On November 9, 2015, Azhar unexpectedly visited the office of another member of her dissertation committee to discuss what had transpired at CCHE, although the parties disagree as to the conversation that took place there. (Id. ¶ 56.)

         On November 9, 2015, Chris Yanos, Director of Human Resources at BSD, advised Azhar, that there are no suspensions for student-employees, and that therefore her employment with CCHE had been terminated. (Id. ¶ 57.)[2] In the meanwhile, Dr. Schneider had also concluded that Azhar's response to the suspension had been inappropriate and unprofessional, and warranted her termination, (Id. ¶ 61.)

         Both Dr. Schneider and Dr. Bouris testified that while working with Azhar on her dissertation, they had observed her similar lack of respect for boundaries and professional roles. (Id. ¶ 19.) Specifically, Drs. Schneider and Bouris complained that Azhar made unscheduled calls to them, sent numerous emails, and requested dissertation edits within 48 hours without regard to their workloads and other commitments. (Id. ¶¶ 18, 19; R. 80-2, Def.'s Ex. H., Bouris Dep.Tr. at 94:04-14, 100:24-101:19, 102:02-11, 103:02-08, 109:20-110:01, 114:03-17; R. 80-2, Def.'s Ex. I, Schneider Dep. Tr. at 116:10-117:19, 125:11-127:13.) According to Azhar, however, she never did any such thing. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. Def.'s SOF ¶ 18; R. 90-1 at 43, Pl.'s Ex. 4, Azhar's Decl. ¶¶ 6, 8.) Moreover, she says, she communicated with Dr. Bouris only by email, and she only called Dr. Schneider for business-related purposes a handful of times and always at appropriate hours. (R. 90, Pl.'s Resp. ...

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