Saying he became the target of anti-male bias from certain female administrators at the college, who used a lunch meeting with an influential donor at a Trump hotel to brand him as “anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-black,” the 59-year-old former head of alumni relations at John Marshall Law School has sued the school and two deans at the school, saying he is owed at least $4 million after he was fired on allegedly trumped up accusations to cover for alleged age and sex discrimination.
On Jan. 2, John Bergholz filed suit against the Chicago-based JMLS in federal court, asserting the school violated his civil rights.
According to the complaint, Bergholz had worked for JMLS since June 2015, when he was hired to serve as the school’s executive director of development and alumni relations, a key fundraising post. He had worked in college fundraising for the previous 20 years, the complaint said, including a stint in a similar post at Northwestern University.
The lawsuit asserts Bergholz “was successful in raising funds and strengthening alumni relations,” including persuading all members of the JMLS board to participate in “financially supporting the school,” which he said was achieved “for the first time in JMLS’ history.” He supervised eight employees, the complaint said.
However, in the fall of 2016, amid the tumultuous U.S. presidential election contest between current President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Bergholz and another JMLS staffer traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with an undisclosed “significant past donor to JMLS,” who had ceased supporting the school at some point in the past after she “had previously been offended by racist and anti-Semitic comments made by a JMLS adjunct professor.”
That meeting with the donor was held, the complaint said, “at the donor’s specific request … at a restaurant in the Washington, D.C., Trump Hotel.”
Bergholz later disclosed that lunch meeting “as part of his regularly scheduled senior staff meeting.” The complaint said within two hours of that report, an associate dean at JMLS, identified as Anthony Niedwiecki, sent an email to Bergholz, allegedly saying his decision to meet at the Trump hotel amounted to an endorsement of Trump for president, and allegedly accused Bergholz of being “therefore anti-gay, anti-Muslim and anti-Black.” Bergholz, who notes in a footnote in his filing that one of his grandfathers was Muslim, asserts he denied the accusations.
In January 2017, the dean who had hired Bergholz retired and was replaced by a new dean identified in the complaint as Angela "Darby" Dickerson. In the lawsuit, Bergholz accused Dickerson of maintaining “a pattern and practice … to eliminate the employment of men, and particularly older men,” after she became dean.
According to the lawsuit, Bergholz alleges Dickerson became aware of Niedwiecki’s criticism of his lunch meeting with the donor, but did not bring it up to him. However, in March 2017, Bergholz said he was informed by the college’s director of diversity that “four women on Bergholz’ staff had complained about his lack of ‘sensitivity.’” At no time, Bergholz said, was he accused of harassment and “no formal investigation was opened.”
The complaint said Dickerson fired Bergholz about a month later, saying “she ‘did not want to incur the cost of a Title IX investigation,’” which Bergholz asserts in his complaint “would have entailed an investigation of the same ‘insensitivity’ allegations made by Bergholz’ four subordinates.”
Bergholz asserts in his complaint any “investigation would have revealed that there was no basis for a claim of violation of Title IX as those allegations had no basis in fact or law.”
Rather, he said his firing was a part of what Bergholz alleged was a “pattern of gender bias toward men” at the school under Dickerson.
Bergholz has asked the court to order JMLS to reinstate him to his former position, pay him triple his back pay, and to order Niedwiecki, who is also named as a defendant in the suit, to pay him $1 million in compensatory damages and $3 million in punitive damages for allegedly interfering with his employment at JMLS.
Bergholz is represented in the matter by attorney Thomas D. Rosenwein, of Rosenwein Law Group, of Chicago.
In an emailed statement, JMLS said: “John Marshall terminated Mr. Bergholz’s employment for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, and John Marshall denies that it engaged in any unlawful conduct. The law school will defend against Mr. Bergholz’s claims.”
Niedwiecki, who now serves as dean of the school of law at Golden Gate University in San Francisco, according to an announcement on JMLS' website, did not reply to an email sent by the Cook County Record requesting comment.