Black v. Jeevanandam, 1-21-0694

CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois
Writing for the CourtELLIS JUSTICE.
Citation2022 IL App (1st) 210694 U
PartiesSAMANTHA BLACK, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. VALLUVAN JEEVANANDAM, DOUGLAS RICHARDSON, ABIGAIL IRVINE, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, and THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO DIVISION OF BIOLOGICIAL SCIENCES, DEPARTMENT OF SURGERY, Defendants-Appellees.
Docket Number1-21-0694
Decision Date22 November 2022

2022 IL App (1st) 210694-U

SAMANTHA BLACK, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.

VALLUVAN JEEVANANDAM, DOUGLAS RICHARDSON, ABIGAIL IRVINE, THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO, and THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO DIVISION OF BIOLOGICIAL SCIENCES, DEPARTMENT OF SURGERY, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 1-21-0694

Court of Appeals of Illinois, First District, Second Division

November 22, 2022


This order was filed under Supreme Court Rule 23 and is not precedent except in the limited circumstances allowed under Rule 23(e)(1).

Appeal from the Circuit Court of Cook County 2019-L-2604 Honorable Daniel Kubasiak, Judge Presiding.

JUSTICE ELLIS delivered the judgment of the court. Presiding Justice Fitzgerald Smith and Justice Howse concurred in the judgment.

ORDER

ELLIS JUSTICE.

¶ 1 Held: Affirmed. Court correctly dismissed amended complaint, as plaintiff did not timely exhaust administrative remedies before suing defendants in circuit court, and individual defendant could not be held personally liable for acts attributable to his employer.

¶ 2 Litigation via the Illinois Human Rights Act can be difficult, even treacherous, considering that some miscues can be fatal for a plaintiff. This case, unfortunately, is an

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example.

¶ 3 Plaintiff, Samantha Black, claims she was sexually harassed while on the job at the University of Chicago's Department of Surgery, which is in its Biological Sciences Department. Plaintiff, a physician's assistant, says that the person in charge of training her sent her sexually harassing text messages. When she turned down his advances, he excluded her from training opportunities. She reported the harassment to administrators, but Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, one of the defendants here, began to disparage her to his colleagues. Eventually, the University asked her to leave the hospital or risk being terminated. When she refused to leave, the University fired her, purportedly for bad performance. She believed she was the victim of retaliation.

¶ 4 This triggered a mess of litigation, often with the wrong parties, in the wrong forum, at the wrong time, and with the wrong claims. Eventually, Plaintiff tried to sue the University of Chicago, Jeevanandam, and two university administrators, Douglas Richardson and Abigail Irvine, in circuit court for violating her civil rights. When the dust settled, the circuit court dismissed plaintiff's claims, largely because she did not exhaust the administrative remedies available to her under the Human Rights Act. We agree and affirm.

¶ 5 BACKGROUND

¶ 6 We gather the following from the record, and because this case was dismissed at the pleading stage, we take the allegations in the amended complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of plaintiff. Krozel v. Court of Claims, 2017 IL App (1st) 162068, 13.

7 Plaintiff, a physician's assistant, was hired by the University of Chicago's Department of Surgery on October 13, 2017. Tim Wombacher was assigned to help train her, and plaintiff and Wombacher frequently texted back and forth. Wombacher's texts eventually went beyond work topics and included several sexually harassing and explicit messages. Plaintiff rebuffed his

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advances, which caused Wombacher's tone to shift. He began to tell Black that she shouldn't "get too comfortable" in her job because she might not be at the hospital very long. Wombacher also began to exclude plaintiff from the operating room and effectively stopped training her.

¶ 8 In January 2018, plaintiff reported Wombacher's sexual harassment to Abigail Irvine, the Section Administrator in the department. Irvine later reported the harassment to Douglas Richardson, the department's Executive Administrator.

¶ 9 In February 2018, and after plaintiff had reported the harassment to Irvine and Richardson, Dr. Valluvan Jeevanandam, the Chairman of the Cardio-Thoracic Surgery Department at the University, began to disparage plaintiff to her colleagues, telling other surgeons to exclude plaintiff from surgeries because her job performance was poor. Plaintiff, however, received positive feedback from other coworkers and thus alleges that Jeevanandam harbored a grudge against her for reporting Wombacher's behavior. Jeevanandam, who worked with Wombacher on a daily basis, continued to disparage plaintiff, at one point scolding her for poor work she did on a patient, even though another person in the room believed plaintiff had done a good job.

¶ 10 Meanwhile, Irvine asked plaintiff if she would consider relocating to Riverside Hospital in Kankakee, approximately 70 miles from where plaintiff lived. Plaintiff never requested the transfer and wanted to continue working in Hyde Park. Plaintiff began to feel like she was being punished for reporting the sexual harassment. The matter came to a head on March 2, 2018, when Richardson sent plaintiff an ultimatum: accept a small severance and resign or be terminated. Plaintiff refused to quit, and on March 25, 2018, the University fired plaintiff, allegedly for poor performance.

¶ 11 This triggered a long series of charges and complaints, which we discuss in detail

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because they explain the disposition of this appeal.

¶ 12 On May 15, 2018, plaintiff filed charges of sexual harassment and retaliation with the Illinois Department of Human Rights (the Department) against Jeevanandam, the University of Chicago Medical Center (UCMC), and Sharon O'Keefe, president of the UCMC. Plaintiff, however, did not file charges against the University, Irvine, or Richardson. On September 18, 2018, Jeevanandam filed a response to the charges, denying that he sexually harassed or retaliated against her and likewise denying that plaintiff worked for the UCMC (though he did not specify the entity for whom plaintiff did work).

¶ 13 On January 4, 2019, the Department dismissed the charges against Jeevanandam and O'Keefe. The Department said that, because plaintiff did not allege that Jeevanandam or O'Keefe personally sexually harassed her, those charges could not stand. The Department dismissed the retaliation charges as well, reasoning that plaintiff was pursuing charges of retaliation against the UCMC, and the Illinois Human Rights Act ("the Act") did not allow a charging party to name an individual as personally liable when also attacking an official action of her employer. After this, only the charge against the UCMC remained pending.

¶ 14 In February 2019, plaintiff's counsel reached out to the Department investigator who was looking into plaintiff's claim, as there appeared to be confusion over the identity of plaintiff's employer and whether the correct employer had been named in the charges. Counsel did not believe that the UCMC was an entity separate and distinct from the University. He asked, however, for the investigator to send him "a technical amendment to change Respondent to UCMC," even though UCMC was already the respondent in the charge. The investigator later responded and told counsel that the Department was trying to determine who the correct respondent was and that a technical amendment could be made during or after a fact-finding

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conference in the case. Plaintiff never sought to amend her charge and add the University as a respondent, however.

¶ 15 On March 11, 2019, plaintiff filed a two-count complaint in the circuit court of Cook County, naming Jeevanandam, O'Keefe, and the UCMC as defendants and alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. On April 4, 2019, she amended the complaint, this time naming Jeevanandam, Irvine, Richardson, the University, and the University's Division of Biological Sciences, Department of Surgery (the BSD). Plaintiff dropped the UCMC and O'Keefe from the suit.

¶ 16 Five days later, on April 9, the Department dismissed plaintiff's charges against the only remaining respondent, the UCMC. The Department concluded that the UCMC was not plaintiff's employer as the Act defines it. Rather, plaintiff was an employee of the University; the University and the UCMC are two separate legal entities with their own human resources departments, and the UCMC cannot make employment decisions for employees of the University. The Department also found that Wombacher, Irvine, and Jeevanandam were also employees of the University, not the UCMC.

¶ 17 Back in the circuit court, the defendants moved to dismiss the amended complaint in July 2019. Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed the BSD with prejudice because it was not a legal entity that could be sued and was instead part of the University.

¶ 18 On October 19, 2019, the circuit court dismissed the amended complaint without prejudice against the remaining defendants. In doing so, the court determined that plaintiff had failed to exhaust administrative remedies against the University, Irvine, and Richardson, as the Act requires. As for the count of retaliation against Jeevanandam, the court noted that the Act does not allow retaliation claims to be brought against individual employees unless the

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retaliation is personally motivated or done without the knowledge or consent of the employer.

¶ 19 On November 14, 2019, plaintiff filed new charges with the Department, naming for the first time the University itself in a claim of sexual harassment, along with a count of retaliation against Jeevanandam. The Department dismissed both charges in August 2020, again determining it lacked statutory authority to hear them. The Department noted that the sexual harassment charge was filed 655 days after the last incident of harassment occurred, and that the retaliation charge had been filed 599 days after it allegedly occurred. The Act requires that such charges be brought within 300 days of the incident for the Department to have jurisdiction to investigate them; since neither were, the charges were dismissed. The Department dismissed the charges against Jeevanandam for the same reason it had in 2019, again finding he could not be...

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