URBANA — Former University of Illinois Professor Joseph Petry has filed a $7.9 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against the UI Board of Trustees in connection with his 2019 resignation agreement.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the Illinois Court of Claims, accuses the board of violating the terms of the resignation agreement signed in April 2019, according to Petry’s attorneys at the Urbana law firm Webber & Thies.
The agreement provided, in part, that in exchange for Petry’s resignation, the UI Office of Access and Equity would discontinue its investigation into all allegations made against him, the law firm said.
“Within days of the university making this promise, it sought to renegotiate its agreement to permit the continuation of its investigation,” the law firm said. “When Professor Petry did not agree to such a change, the university ignored its legal obligation and continued the investigation anyway.”
UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Thursday she knew nothing about the lawsuit and would have to see it and run it by university attorneys.
The one-count breach-of-contract complaint states that the UI’s investigation of Petry arose from false claims made by a former student he had sexually harassed her.
The allegations “were fabricated and the result of a student’s failed attempt to blackmail Petry into changing her grade,” the lawsuit states.
Petry’s lawyers contended that despite the university’s familiarity with problems with the student’s claim, the investigation into Petry continued for nearly a year before the UI acknowledged that the student’s accusations weren’t credible and that the university’s sexual-harassment policy hadn’t been violated.
Regardless of this conclusion, the UI expanded the investigation to consider whether Petry had violated a separate policy, its Code of Conduct, and reported a conclusion that Petry had violated that code, his lawyers said.
“By deliberately breaching the agreement and proceeding with its investigation, the university appears to have placed a priority on avoiding criticism that it was weak on claims of sexual harassment, no matter how meritless the allegations and no matter how much it would damage a distinguished member of its faculty,” said attorney John Thies. “Professor Petry did not deserve this treatment.”
As a result of the continued investigation, multiple news stories were published in print, on television, online and in social media, the lawsuit states.
“Professor Petry seeks to recover damages he has incurred as a direct result of the university’s breach, including damages for loss of employment opportunities, reputational harm and mental distress,” it states.
Since resigning from the UI, Petry has submitted more than 10 job applications for academic positions and more than 30 job applications in the private sector, and none of the prospective employers “has expressed meaningful interest, and most did not even respond to the applications,” the lawsuit states.
The bulk of damages Petry is seeking is for $5.2 million in lost wage claims based on what he anticipated earning from age 56 in 2019 to age 75 in 2038.
The rest of the amount Petry is seeking includes $537,046 for the loss of an annual tax deduction for each year he would have been employed at the UI, $103,000 in attorney fees and $2 million for mental distress.
“It pains me to sue my alma mater, an institution with which I’ve been associated as a faculty member for 18 years,” he said. “I am far from a perfect individual, but this does not justify the university’s utter disregard for its contractual obligations and the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach taken against me.”