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Sharma v. Board of Trustees of University of Illinois

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

August 26, 2019



          Andrea R. Wood United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Suresh Sharma, a former employee of the University of Illinois College of Medicine (“UIC Med”), alleges that Defendants Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (“Board”), Dimitri T. Azar, Todd Van Neck, Benjamin Van Voorhees, and Alan Friedman targeted Sharma and ultimately terminated his employment due to his race and because he reported their misconduct. Sharma has filed a Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) asserting claims based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act (“Ethics Act”), 5 ILCS 430/1 et seq., and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. He also asserts several state common law tort claims, including claims for interference with contract or prospective economic advantage, retaliatory discharge, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.[1] Before the Court are two motions to dismiss the SAC pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6): one motion filed on behalf of the Board, Azar, Van Neck, and Van Voorhees (collectively, “UIC Defendants”) and a separate motion on behalf of Friedman. (Dkt. Nos. 23, 32.) For the reasons explained below, the UIC Defendants' motion is granted in part and denied in part, and Friedman's motion is granted in its entirety.


         For the purposes of Defendants' motions to dismiss, this Court accepts as true the well-pleaded facts in the SAC and views those facts in the light most favorable to Sharma. Firestone Fin. Corp. v. Meyer, 796 F.3d 822, 826-27 (7th Cir. 2015). Sharma has alleged as follows.

         The Parties

         Sharma, who identifies his race as Asian and his national origin as Indian, used to work at the University of Illinois at Chicago (“UIC”). (SAC ¶ 7, Dkt. No. 19.) Sharma was initially hired in July 2005 by the UIC Office of the Dean, College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, as a Business and Financial Systems Specialist. (Id.) Eventually, after multiple promotions, Sharma became Director of Administrative Operations for the Department of Pediatrics (“Department”) at UIC Med. (Id.) Despite receiving praise from multiple individuals within the Department and achieving high scores on his annual performance reviews, Sharma was terminated on June 28, 2016, with his discharge becoming effective on July 20, 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 7, 20-22, 25.)

         The Board oversees the University of Illinois's various campuses, including UIC. (Id. ¶ 8.) During the relevant time period at UIC, Azar held the title of Dean, Van Neck was Associate Dean of Administration, and Van Voorhees was the Head of the Department and, at times, Sharma's immediate supervisor. (Id. ¶¶ 9-11, 78.) Friedman, who works as a psychiatrist at Northwestern University, has been named as a defendant in this case based on a psychiatric evaluation of Sharma he conducted at UIC's request. (Id. ¶ 14.)

         The Bad-Debt Issue

         In 2011, the Board appointed Azar as Interim Dean of UIC Med. (Id. ¶ 27 at 6.)[2] In 2013, after Azar officially took over as Dean, Sharma reported a concern regarding UIC's financial statements: the line item for bad-debt expenses increased in the 2012 fiscal year (Azar's first year as Dean) by approximately $1 million compared to earlier years. (Id. ¶¶ 28, 21 at 6.) (For purposes of this opinion, the Court will refer to this accounting matter as the “bad-debt issue.”) After investigating, Sharma determined that UIC had begun to record bad-debt expenses for the Department at very high dollar amounts, resulting in erroneous year-end operating statements. (Id. ¶ 22.) Sharma reported the bad-debt issue to Dr. Usha Raj, who at the time was the Head of the Department and Sharma's immediate supervisor. (Id. ¶ 23.)

         Others at UIC soon found out about Sharma's discovery, including Van Neck, who was Associate Dean for Administration and Finance. (Id. ¶ 24.) Sharma's co-worker, Marc Archambeau, told Sharma that Van Neck and others in the Dean's office were “unhappy” with Sharma for bringing the bad-debt issue to light because it reflected poorly on them. (Id. ¶ 26.) Archambeau warned Sharma to be careful, saying that Azar and Van Neck had bad-mouthed Sharma and intended to terminate him. (Id. ¶ 27.)

         Rather than stay quiet, Sharma voiced his concerns about being targeted by Azar and Van Neck to Raj, who reassured him that he was doing a good job and she had no issues with his work performance. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.) At Sharma's next performance review, Raj awarded Sharma 35 out of 36 points and approved a seven percent merit raise for him. (Id. ¶ 30.) Yet Sharma ultimately received only a three percent merit raise. (Id. ¶ 31.) Raj explained to Sharma that Van Neck and Marci Fanti, Director of Human Resources at UIC Med, lowered Sharma's raise as punishment for raising the bad-debt issue. (Id. ¶ 32.)

         Subsequently, in January 2015, UIC determined that the codes used to classify bad debts versus insurance adjustments were outdated and instituted a system-wide reform, confirming Sharma's suspicions about the bad-debt issue. (Id. ¶¶ 34-36.) Around that time, Archambeau again warned Sharma that certain individuals at UIC felt he was a troublemaker and wanted him to be terminated. (Id. ¶ 37.)

         Conflicts with Van Voorhees

         Also in January 2015, Sharma refused to approve certain travel expenses submitted by Van Voorhees that violated UIC policies and procedures. (Id. ¶¶ 39-42.) In February, Azar removed Raj from her position as Department Head and replaced her with Van Voorhees. (Id. ¶¶ 44-45.) Then, on March 4, 2015, Sharma again refused to authorize improper payroll payment requests for payments to Van Voorhees's “life empathy coach, ” as doing so would be illegal and violate UIC policies and procedures. (Id. ¶¶ 48-50.) Van Voorhees repeatedly pressured Sharma to transfer funds retroactively to his grant during the eight months prior to his promotion to Department Head, but Sharma refused. (Id. ¶ 51.)

         In March and April 2015, Sharma applied and interviewed for the position of Associate Dean for Administration and Finance at UIC's College of Dentistry, but he was not selected. (Id. ¶ 47.) Sharma believes Defendants intervened and sabotaged his candidacy, but he does not specifically identify which Defendants did so or describe any specific conduct. (Id.)

         On April 22, 2015, Sharma was in a budget meeting when Van Voorhees forcefully dragged Sharma to his office. (Id. ¶ 52.) There, Van Voorhees and Dr. Mary Lou Schmidt pressured Sharma to violate UIC's internal pay equity process and policy by immediately processing a $10, 000 salary increase for an employee named Laura Ravens. (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.) For the next three months, Van Voorhees continued pressuring Sharma to administer the salary increase for Ravens. (Id. ¶ 54.) Sharma ultimately agreed to do so but informed Van Voorhees and Schmidt that he wished to follow the internal pay equity process and policy with respect to other employees to prevent potential lawsuits. (Id. ¶ 55.)

         Between March 2015 and May 2015, Van Voorhees hired two Caucasian consultants to work in the Department, who yelled at Sharma on multiple occasions. (Id. ¶¶ 58-60.) Sharma complained to Van Voorhees about the situation, but neither Van Voorhees nor any other Defendant did anything to intervene. (Id. ¶¶ 63-64.) Sharma also complained about his treatment to UIC's Office of Access and Equity (“OAE”) and asked for a “congenial, harassment free atmosphere.” (Id. ¶¶ 65, 74-76.) In his meeting with the OAE, Sharma recounted the bad-debt issue, the repeated attempts by Van Voorhees to get Sharma to waive or ignore financial controls and procedures, attempts by Van Voorhees to demote Sharma, and incidents when Van Voorhees and the consultants yelled at Sharma. (Id. ¶ 77.) But the OAE ultimately decided that Defendants had not retaliated against him. (Id. ¶ 66.)

         Meanwhile, Sharma continued to perform his job responsibilities at a high level, receiving compliments on his work from supervisors and colleagues. (Id. ¶¶ 67-73.) At no point did Van Voorhees or any other UIC employee inform Sharma about any issues with his work performance or that any complaints had been lodged against him. (Id. ¶ 88.)

         The Evaluations

         On July 17, 2015, around noon, Sharma received a vague calendar notification from Van Voorhees for a meeting at 3:00 p.m. (Id. ¶ 78.) That afternoon, Sharma was giving a budget presentation when Van Voorhees, accompanied by his assistant and two security officers, abruptly interrupted and instructed Sharma to follow him. (Id. ¶¶ 82-84.) When Sharma followed him out of the room, Van Voorhees said that Sharma was being taken for a medical evaluation at University Health Services (“UHS”). (Id. ¶¶ 84-85.) On his way to UHS, Sharma knocked on the door to Human Resources Coordinator Nivid Thakar's office and asked if under UIC's policies he was entitled to know the reason for the evaluation. (Id. ¶ 85.) Before Thakar could answer, Van Voorhees interrupted and told Sharma that he would be fired if he did not immediately comply. (Id. ¶¶ 86-87.) Sharma then asked whether UIC had a policy on medical evaluations and requested a copy of any such policy, but Van Voorhees again threatened to fire Sharma. (Id. ¶ 87.) Sharma later learned that after he left the building to go to UHS, Defendants arranged for someone to inform the employees in the building to lock their doors due to a safety issue involving Sharma. (Id. ¶ 104.)

         When they arrived at the UHS clinic, Sharma and Van Voorhees met with two other UIC employees, Dr. David Marder and Trinnette Zahakaylo. (Id. ¶ 91.) Van Voorhees demanded that Sharma turn over his UIC badge and keys and then left. (Id. ¶ 92.) Marder interrogated Sharma about his employment at UIC and recent occurrences within the Department. (Id. ¶ 95.) Marder also instructed Sharma to take alcohol and drug tests, which he passed. (Id. ¶ 96.) Finally, Marder required Sharma to authorize the release of his medical records. (Id. ¶ 101.) At the end of the evaluation, Sharma was told that he had been cooperative and no issues had been identified. (Id. ¶ 97.) Nonetheless, Zahakaylo informed Sharma that UIC had placed him on administrative leave and that he was not permitted to have any contact with UIC employees or set foot on campus. (Id. ¶ 103.)

         Three days later, on July 20, 2015, Van Voorhees, Fanti, Daniel Harper (Associate Director of Labor and Employee Relations), and a UIC security officer held an urgent Department meeting, at which they told other UIC employees that Sharma had been placed on administrative leave and that they should keep their doors locked as a safety measure and contact security if they felt threatened. (Id. ¶¶ 108-10.)

         On July 18, Sharma met with his personal doctor, Dr. Jason Dy, who found him to be in good health and able to return to full duty. (Id. ¶ 105.) After the visit, Dy's office faxed a letter to UIC stating that Sharma was medically capable of performing his job duties. (Id. ¶ 106.) Sharma also personally handed a copy of Dy's letter to Zahakaylo on July 21, 2015. (Id. ¶ 107.) Nonetheless, Van Voorhees required Sharma to undergo further evaluations with a social worker and a psychiatrist. (Id. ¶ 99.) On July 21, Sharma reported to UHS as instructed, where he met with a social worker. (Id. ¶¶ 112-13.) The social worker asked Sharma personal questions about his family and background. (Id. ¶ 114.) Afterwards, she told Sharma that she perceived him as soft-spoken and cooperative and that he had passed her evaluation. (Id.)

         Sharma was also told that, despite earlier representations that he would undergo the psychiatric evaluation at UIC, he would have to meet with Friedman, a psychiatrist from Northwestern University. (Id. ¶ 115.) Sharma subsequently contacted Zahakaylo via email, expressing concerns that Friedman had not received positive reviews from his patients and requesting another physician, but his request was denied. (Id. ¶ 119.)

         On July 31, 2015, Van Voorhees sent Sharma a letter claiming that the reasons for the evaluations were: (1) repeated instances of insubordination, (2) disregard of directions, and (3) disorganized thinking. (Id. ¶ 164.) Van Voorhees also falsely stated that after Sharma was placed on leave, UIC had to respond to multiple allegations of emotional and physical intimidation, several violations of UIC's ethics policy involving travel, and potential violations of UIC's payroll policies. (Id.) However, Sharma's personnel file did not reflect any of these issues. (Id.) Furthermore, Caucasian employees who actually engaged in well-documented verbal abuse and intimidation at UIC had not been subjected to any of the same treatment as Sharma, such as medical evaluations or administrative leave. (Id. ¶¶ 201-07.)

         On August 5, 2015, Sharma received an email from Harper stating that he would receive information about the complaints against him after completing the evaluations. (Id. ¶ 131.) Harper also stated that Sharma would be disciplined and potentially fired if he failed to cooperate. (Id. ¶ 132.) In addition, Harper called Sharma's home on August 6 and left a threatening voicemail message for Sharma's son Parth, a student employee at the Department. (Id. ¶¶ 139-45.) Van Voorhees similarly left threatening voicemail messages on Sharma's home phone. (Id. ¶ 120.) On August 7, Sharma informed Donna McNeely, University Ethics Officer, of the unethical, illegal, and retaliatory acts of Azar, Van Neck, and Van Voorhees. (Id. ¶ 147.)

         Van Voorhees eventually instructed Sharma to see Friedman on August 10. (Id. ¶ 126.) When Sharma arrived that day, Friedman asked him a series of personal questions, followed by questions relating to his employment at UIC and within the Department. (Id. ¶¶ 149-50.) Friedman then instructed Sharma to answer two questionnaires with almost 900 questions, which took Sharma several hours. (Id. ¶¶ 151-52, 155.) Ultimately, Friedman submitted a report to Marder stating that Sharma had been forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation because of his troubling comments, difficulty controlling his emotions during group meetings, inappropriate behavior, and angry and disrespectful behavior. (Id. ¶ 162.) Friedman concluded that he could not diagnose the issue because he believed Sharma had lied in response to some of his questions. (Id. ¶ 163.)

         Sharma's Termination

         On September 25, 2015, Sharma met with Van Voorhees and Harper, who presented him with a separation agreement with a waiver and release. (Id. ¶¶ 194-95.) Van Voorhees threatened Sharma that if he did not sign the release, Van Voorhees “would not let him live with dignity, ” and UIC would truncate his notice rights.[3] (Id. ¶¶ 195, 197.) Nonetheless, Sharma did not sign the agreement. (Id. ¶ 196.) On June 28, 2016, Sharma received an email from Fanti stating that Van Voorhees and Van Neck had signed a request to the Board requesting a notice of non-reappointment (“NOA”) as to Sharma. (Id. ¶¶ 198-99.)

         On January 7, 2016, Sharma filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) alleging discrimination on the basis of color, national origin, age, and disability, and alleging that he had been subjected to retaliation and improper medical evaluations. (Id. ¶ 208.) In UIC's position statement to the EEOC, Van Voorhees made multiple false statements about Sharma, accusing him of misconduct and unprofessional behavior. (Id. ¶¶ 166- 91.) On July 17, 2017, the EEOC issued Sharma a notice of right to sue. (Id. ¶ 209.)


         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). This pleading standard does not necessarily require a complaint to contain detailed factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Rather, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Adams v. City of Indianapolis, 742 F.3d 720, 728 (7th Cir. 2014) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).

         I. Title VII Race ...

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