Monday, July 17, 2017

Former Northwestern University Employee Sues After Being Called a Lesbian By Her Supervisor

The United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois allowed a former employee of Northwestern University to continue her claims of sexual orientation bias, FMLA and ADA retaliation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (or IIED) against the institution.

Diane Trahanas began working for Northwestern University as a research technician in June 2012. She was hired as a technical expert or specialist, and often worked alone in her research lab. While many of her colleagues worked eight-hour days, Trahanas conducted twenty-four hour experiments, including experiments such as collecting blood and tissue samples, and analyzing their results.

In 2007, five years before Trahanas was hired by Northwestern, she began suffering from anxiety, depression, and ADHD. After struggling with her twenty-four hour work schedule at the university, she told her supervisor of her disability and requested accommodation in her work hours. Trahanas’ request was denied. She alleges that soon thereafter her supervisor began to mock and ridicule her for her inability to maintain and work the schedule she was given. Her supervisor allegedly called her “princess,” “spoiled,” and a lesbian and often made derogatory remarks to her. Trahanas alleges that her supervisor disclosed information about her disability to her coworkers and would laugh when people told her to take her meds.

Additionally, Trahanas was interested in applying to medical school, and alleges that both her supervisor and his supervisor wrote two extremely flattering letters of recommendation for her application. After starting a twelve week FMLA leave that was advised by her psychiatrist, Trahanas was locked out of her work computer. The next day she received a notification that her supervisor uploaded a new letter of recommendation to her medical school application. After almost a week, her supervisor allegedly uploaded a third letter of recommendation that Trahanas believed was the reason she was not accepted into medical school. After Trahanas completed her FMLA leave, it is unclear whether she tried to go back to work in her original position at Northwestern University, but she alleges she has not been able to get another job at the institution since.

Trahanas filed a complaint that alleged six counts against Northwestern University: hostile work environment and discrimination in violation of the ADA and Title VII, retaliation under the ADA, Title VII, and the FMLA, interference with exercising her rights under the ADA and FMLA, defamation, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court dismissed many of these claims but is allowing Trahanas to continue with her Title VII hostile work environment and discrimination, ADA retaliation, FMLA retaliation, and Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress claims against Northwestern.

The court held that Trahanas sufficiently alleged a Title VII hostile work environment and discrimination claim based on her supervisor’s comments involving her sexual orientation.  Relying on Hively v. Ivy Tech Community College, which we wrote about earlier this year, the remarks that Trahanas’ supervisor made daily about sexual orientation were prohibited. Additionally, the frequency of his remarks combined with having to work twenty-four hour work shifts while coworkers only had to work eight, allegedly having an experiment sabotaged for over six months, and other abuse suffered by Trahanas sufficed to state a claim for IIED. Last, the Court found that the allegations of Trahanas’ supervisor’s negative recommendation letter, after having written a positive one previously, was enough to state a claim for retaliation.

This is only the beginning of this lawsuit, and Northwestern University will have to defend against Trahanas’ surviving claims against them. While it is unclear at this point if this plaintiff’s supervisor was at fault, employers should take note that even organizations with the best reputations, like Northwestern, can run into problems if supervisors react inappropriately to difficult situations or difficult employees. Regular training and re-training on hot button issues such as FMLA, ADA and gender (i.e. sexual orientation) bias in the workplace will not only reduce claims by employees but will help ensure that supervisors remain aware of the words they use and decisions they make to avoid the types of claims made in this suit. We will keep you updated as this case progresses.