United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
CASTILLO CHIEF JUDGE
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.
following facts are undisputed unless otherwise
noted. 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.
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.)
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.)
Azhar's Employment with Chicago Center for HIV
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.)
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.
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. ¶
Azhar's Request for Business Cards
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.)
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.)
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.)
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. ¶
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. ¶
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.)
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. ...