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Bhagwanani v. Howard University

January 17, 2005


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


On March 21, 2003, defendant Howard University removed this action concerning a dispute over an employment contract from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia to federal court. Shortly thereafter, plaintiff Sundri Bhagwanani filed a motion to remand the action to Superior Court, arguing that the lone count on which Howard University premised its removal -- a count alleging a District of Columbia law conspiracy to violate the Thirteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution -- did not give rise to a question of federal law sufficient to remove the case to federal court. The parties fully briefed the motion to remand, and then continued to prepare for trial consistent with a schedule set by the district court.

The motion to remand was still undecided, and the parties were at the eve of trial, when the case was transferred from the predecessor judge to this judge on October 7, 2004. At a hearing shortly after it received the case, this Court explained that it was obliged to resolve the pending motion to remand -- and the issues raised therein regarding the subject matter jurisdiction of this Court to hear the matter at all -- before it could entertain any other aspects of the case. This Court has now reviewed the motion to remand and responsive papers, the arguments of counsel at two separate hearings on the issue, and the case law on whether a state (or District of Columbia) law conspiracy to violate federal law states a federal cause of action for purposes of removal jurisdiction. The Court has also considered whether the presence of this case in federal court for more than a year and a half can itself provide an independent basis for maintaining the case in this Court notwithstanding any threshold deficiency in jurisdiction. Because the Court answers both questions in the negative, it is compelled to remand this action to the Superior Court.


Plaintiff is a doctor who holds both a medical degree and a Ph.D. and specializes in maternal-fetal medicine. On June 28, 2002, she filed a Complaint in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Howard University, alleging that the University had failed to pay her for work she performed while employed as an Assistant Professor in the University's College of Medicine. Compl. ¶¶ 22-23. The Complaint also alleges that the University had failed to provide her with the equipment and assistance she says she was promised for research, teaching, and clinical work, id. ¶¶ 24-29; that her supervisors harassed her and refused to promote her on account of her gender and national origin, id. ¶¶ 36-39; and other employment-related issues, id. ¶¶ 30-35, 40. The initial Complaint raised six claims under District of Columbia law: accounting, breach of contract (conditions of practice), breach of contract (denial of grievance procedure), fraud, sexual and national origin harassment in violation of the D.C. Human Rights Act, and retaliation.

On July 18, 2002, plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint that expanded on several of the factual allegations in the initial Complaint. Howard University filed an Answer to the First Amended Complaint. Following an initial round of discovery, plaintiff filed a motion in Superior Court to amend the Complaint again and to add Howard University Physicians, Inc. ("HUP") as a defendant. In the papers supporting the motion to amend, plaintiff noted that the First Amended Complaint sought"compensation under a contract theory for practice activity in which Plaintiff was required by her supervisors at Howard to engage and for which she had not been paid." Notice of Removal, Ex. 1 at 58-59 (Mem. Supp. Mot. Join HUP, Feb. 7, 2003). She explained that the proposed changes in the Second Amended Complaint were"directly related to and based on Howard's contention in pleadings and discovery that HUP's existence relieves Howard of responsibility regarding the compensation of its faculty for work Howard requires its faculty to do." Id. at 61. On February 14, 2003, the Superior Court granted the motion to file the Second Amended Complaint.

This newly amended Complaint added three new causes of action: a conspiracy to procure involuntary servitude, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment. Second Am. Compl. ¶¶ 45-50. Each of the counts, at least on its face, arises out of the allegation that Howard University and HUP failed to pay plaintiff for certain work she performed at the University. For example, the count alleging a conspiracy to procure involuntary servitude states:

Count VII: Conspiracy to Procure Involuntary Servitude Howard University and HUP have conspired to deprive Dr. Bhagwanani of payment for services that Howard University demanded that she provide as a maternal fetal medicine specialist. This action by Defendants violates Section 1 of Article 13 of the United States Constitution.

Id. ¶ 45. On March 21, 2003, Howard University removed the case to this Court,*fn1 citing 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b) and the conspiracy claim in the Second Amended Complaint.

Shortly thereafter, on April 6, 2004, plaintiff filed a motion to remand the action and for attorneys' fees. Plaintiff maintained that the conspiracy claim alleged a District of Columbia law conspiracy to violate the federal Constitution and that federal jurisdiction was therefore unavailable under the rule of Merrell Dow Pharm., Inc. v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804 (1986). Plaintiff also argued that the notice of removal was defective because HUP had failed to consent to the removal. (HUP would provide its timely consent to removal on April 24, 2003.) Finally, plaintiff sought costs and attorneys' fees traceable to the removal. The parties fully briefed the motion to remand, and the case continued towards trial in federal court. During the next year and a half, the parties completed discovery, the defendants filed motions for summary judgment on several of plaintiff's claims (including the conspiracy claim), and a trial date was set for September 21, 2004.

The motion to remand was still undecided when the parties were informed, on September 7, 2004, that this case would be reassigned from the prior judge, and that all previously set dates would be continued pending the reassignment. On October 7, 2004, the case was reassigned. On October 21, 2004, this Court held a status conference at which it explained that it was compelled to address the pending motion to remand before taking any other action in the case. Only if it concluded that there was federal subject matter jurisdiction over the action, this Court stated, would it turn to the pending partial summary judgment motion and reschedule the case for trial. This Court heard argument from the parties on the motion for remand on October 21, 2004, and again on January 4, 2005. It has carefully considered the parties' papers and the governing law.


The party seeking removal of an action bears the burden of proving that jurisdiction exists in federal court. See Mulcahey v. Columbia Organic Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 148, 151 (4th Cir. 1994); In re Tobacco/Gov'tal Health Care Costs Litig., 100 F. Supp. 2d 31, 35 (D.D.C. 2000). Because of the significant federalism concerns involved, this Court strictly construes the scope of its removal jurisdiction. See Shamrock Oil & Gas Corp. v. Sheets, 313 U.S. 100, 107-09 (1941); Johnson-Brown v. 2200 M Street LLC, 257 F. Supp. 2d 175, 177 (D.D.C. 2003). Accordingly,"if federal jurisdiction is doubtful, a remand to state court is necessary." Dixon v. Coburg Dairy, Inc., 369 F.3d 811, 815-16 (4th Cir. 2003) (en banc); see Johnson-Brown, 257 F. Supp. 2d at 177.

Defendants removed this action to federal court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b), which provides that"[a]ny civil action of which the district courts have original jurisdiction founded on a claim or right arising under the Constitution, treaties or laws of the United States shall be removable without regard to the citizenship or residence of the parties." 28 U.S.C. § 1441(b); Notice of Removal ¶ 4. Defendants premise the removal of this action on the contention that Count VII of the Second Amended Complaint alleging a District of Columbia law conspiracy to violate the Thirteenth ...

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