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University of Chicago faces $1 million lawsuit alleging race discrimination

An Indian-American doctoral student at the University of Chicago has filed a $1 million discrimination lawsuit against its board of trustees, alleging she was fired from a job at the school after she complained that white employees got preferential treatment.

Sameena Azhar's lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleges retaliation and race and national origin discrimination.

The Chicago resident complained in May 2016 to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to the Illinois Department of Human Rights, and in August 2016 received a "right to sue" notice, the lawsuit said.

Azhar is a doctoral candidate at the School of Social Service Administration and, starting in March 2015, worked for the university's Center for HIV Elimination. After working there for a few months, Azhar said she requested business cards, noting that white students had received them, but was eventually fired. While she worked there, the center also regularly segregated nonwhite and white staff, and white workers were paid more and had more flexible schedules, the lawsuit alleges.

Two faculty members at the center who were helping her on her dissertation stopped after she lost her job there, the suit says.

"Faculty members told her that she should stop complaining about discriminatory actions at U of C if she wanted to ... complete her dissertation," the lawsuit says.

The suit also says it became unclear whether she would get credit for a publication that she had co-written and alleges she also was asked to stop working on other pieces, including one on gender violence in Ugandan refugee camps on which she had become the main writer. Azhar also hasn't been paid for consulting work for a study by another center at the university, the suit says.

"Azhar made numerous attempts" to try to resolve her dispute over her firing and the "general discrimination" at the center, but she was stymied, the lawsuit says.

She filed two formal grievances with the university, but was dissatisfied with the process, including not being able to bring her own lawyer, the lawsuit said.

The university had no immediate comment.

Azhar is seeking a judgment against the board of trustees for more than $1 million.

The university "unlawfully retaliated against Azhar after she brought" the center's "discriminatory conduct to the attention of various faculty and administrators" at the institution, the lawsuit alleges. She also was defamed to academicians at other universities, the suit says.

byerak@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @beckyyerak

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