Illinois Appellate Court Reverses Dismissal of Northwestern Professor’s Defamation Lawsuit, Remands for Further Proceedings – Mauvais-Jarvis v. Wong

An appellate court in Illinois reversed a lower court ruling dismissing a defamation lawsuit brought by an associate professor at Northwestern University. Mauvais-Jarvis v. Wong, et al, Nos. 1-12-0070, 1-12-0237 cons., slip op. (Ill. App. 1st Dist., Mar. 28, 2013). The plaintiff claimed that the defendants committed libel against him in emails and other correspondence exchanged in the course of an internal investigation into data presented by the plaintiff for publication. The trial court dismissed all defamation claims, holding that the statements in question were subject to an absolute privilege because the defendants were investigating “suspected research misconduct.” Id. at 2. The appellate court accepted the plaintiff’s argument that the statements are only protected by a qualified privilege, and that the defendants had not established in their motion to dismiss that the privilege should apply.

The plaintiff, Franck Mauvais-Jarvis, is an associate professor of medicine at Northwestern University and the research director of the school’s Comprehensive Center on Obesity. Part of his research is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The court gives a comprehensive overview of HHS’ policies on “research misconduct,” which includes fabrication, falsification, or manipulation of data and research materials, as well as plagiarism. Id. at 4. Northwestern maintains an Office of Research Integrity (ORI) based on HHS regulations, which conducts reviews of alleged research misconduct.

The plaintiff and two defendants, who at the time worked for him as a postdoctoral fellow and a research technician, submitted a manuscript for possible publication in an academic journal in June 2008. Two figures in the manuscript contained alleged fabricated data, id. at 11-12, but the parties disagreed over who was responsible for the alleged fabrication. The research technician reported her concerns to another professor, then told the plaintiff. The plaintiff received a formal notice of an accusation of research misconduct from Northwestern’s ORI at the end of July 2008. The investigation discovered other alleged inaccurate data, and by June 2011, an inquiry committee concluded that a full investigation was warranted. The plaintiff filed his lawsuit shortly after receiving that notice.

The lawsuit alleged libel against the postdoc, the research technician, the other professor, the director of Northwestern’s ORI, and other school officials. The plaintiff claimed that the postdoc “acted in retaliation for being terminated,” and that the research technician and ORI director were retaliating against him for reporting them to the provost. Id. at 53. The trial court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss the defamation claims based on absolute privilege, and the plaintiff appealed.

The court found that absolute privilege only applies to statements made in “legislative, judicial and some quasi-judicial proceedings.” Id. at 44. Northwestern, as a private university, is not legally capable of conducting a “quasi-judicial proceeding” under Illinois law. Id. at 45-46. The court instead considered whether the statements were protected by a qualified privilege, and noted that the defendants never pleaded qualified privilege as an alternative to absolute privilege or directly addressed the plaintiff’s accusations of retaliation. Because the court had to review the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, as the non-moving party, it found that it did not have a sufficient factual basis to determine if qualified privilege applied. It therefore reversed the trial court’s order and remanded the case.

Lubin Austermuehle’s slander and libel attorneys represent both businesses and consumers who have suffered damages due to unlawful defamation, or who are defending against allegations of defamation by competitors or others. We have decades of experience handling defamation lawsuits throughout the greater Chicago area and Mid-West region, including Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Please contact us today online, at (630) 333-0333, or at 630-333-0333 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

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