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Rahman v. Johanns

August 7, 2007

FAZAL RAHMAN, PH.D., PLAINTIFF,
v.
MIKE JOHANNS, SECRETARY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE, DEFENDANT.



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

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Fazal Rahman, proceeding pro se, brings this action alleging that he was not selected for two positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture ("USDA") because of his race and also challenging the lawfulness of an administrative class action settlement agreement resolving claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., by a broader class of Asian/Pacific American employees against the USDA. Pending before the Court are plaintiff's motion for recusal of the undersigned judge, defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted or, in the alternative, for a more definite statement, plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment, and plaintiff's motion to stop and reverse implementation of the class action settlement agreement. For the reasons explained below, the Court will deny plaintiff's motion for recusal, finding no provision in the governing statute, 28 U.S.C. § 455, that warrants recusal. The Court also concludes that the complaint satisfies the notice pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a), and thus will deny defendant's motion to dismiss and motion for a more definite statement. Finally, plaintiff's motion for summary judgment and motion to stop and reverse implementation of the settlement agreement fail to provide a sufficient basis for the relief requested, and thus will also be denied.

BACKGROUND

The following factual background is taken from plaintiff's complaint and the exhibits attached thereto. Plaintiff Fazal Rahman, an American of Pakistani descent, has an interdisciplinary background in agricultural, biological, and social sciences, and has served in high-level positions within the USDA and abroad, including Director of the Grain Legume Program for the Amazonian territory and Director of the National Tree Improvement Center in Zambia. See Compl. at 12. In 2000, he applied for two high-level positions within the USDA: Agricultural Administrator (ARS-X1W-1040), a GS-15 position, and Associate Deputy Administrator (ARS-SES-00-12), a position within the Senior Executive Service. Id. Plaintiff alleges that he was not considered for the positions, while white candidates who were less qualified were considered instead. Id. Plaintiff then filed an administrative employment discrimination complaint ("USDA Case No. 010538") to complain of the nonselections. Id.

Plaintiff's administrative complaint was held in abeyance for four years because he was considered a potential member of a proposed class in a separate administrative action pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), Basu v. Veneman, Agency No. 00190 ("Basu class action"). Id. at 12 & Ex. 7, at 1, 7.*fn1 In that administrative class action, six class agents sought certification of a proposed class of USDA employees of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage who, since February 1994, had allegedly been discriminated against in hiring, promotion, and other USDA practices. Id. Ex. 7, at 1.

EEOC proceedings over the proper definition of the class ensued, and ultimately resulted in a class defined as "all current Asian/Pacific Islander employees at the GS-7 level and above who were eligible for but have not received promotions and all Asian/Pacific Islander current employees who were eligible for and have applied for positions with the Department but have not been selected."*fn2 Compl. at 2 & Ex. 3 at 2 (EEOC Notice of Settlement) (emphasis added). Under the modified class definition, plaintiff believes he is excluded from the Basu class action because he was, by then, no longer a USDA employee. See Compl. at 3.

On October 31, 2003, the Basu parties entered into a settlement agreement, which was preliminarily approved by an EEOC administrative judge on January 27, 2004. Compl., Ex. 1 at 2. Under the proposed settlement agreement, the USDA would provide injunctive relief in the form of development, scholarship, and job fair programs covering a three-year period.*fn3 Compl. at 11-12 & Ex. 1 at 3-4. Individual relief would be based on a potential member's placement in one of the following four categories and would break down monetarily as follows:

Tier One: Six class agents due to receive approximately $632,000 in backpay and compensatory damages, $350,000 for reasonable attorney's fees, and certain promotions, reassignments, and/or training.

Tier Two: 22 remaining class agents due to receive a total of $372,500, plus attorney's fees not to exceed $25,000 for each of the five class agents with pending administrative complaints, and "all attorneys fees" for two class agents with pending district court complaints.

Tier Three: Individuals with pending administrative complaints eligible for a $5,000 lump-sum individual payment or, alternatively, an expedited hearing on the individual complaint along with the programmatic injunctive relief. Two individuals with pending district court cases each due to receive a lump-sum individual payment of $7,500 and attorney's fees.

Tier Four: All other class members who did not file individual complaints of discrimination eligible only for the programmatic injunctive relief.

See Compl. at 7-11 & Ex. 1 at 4-6. Plaintiff estimates that there are 58 individuals in Tiers One, Two, and Three, and 1,972 individuals in Tier Four. Compl. at 7-10. Plaintiff was notified that he fell within Tier Three and would thus be offered a $5,000 lump-sum payment to resolve his pending administrative complaint, No. 010538. Id. at 11-12 & Ex. 8, at 7-8. Plaintiff, however, believes he should be awarded over $400,000 in backpay. Id. On December 4, 2004, following notice to potential class members and the review of objections to the settlement, including objections from plaintiff, the EEOC administrative judge concluded that the settlement agreement was "fair, adequate, and reasonable to the class as a whole," and, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 1614.204(g)(4), granted final approval of the settlement agreement. Compl., Ex. 1 at 1-2.

Plaintiff then administratively appealed the final approval of the settlement agreement, including the modification of the class definition. Compl. at 3 & Ex. 4 (Letter from Rahman to EEOC, dated January 4, 2005). In his appeal, he argued that the settlement agreement failed to protect his rights under Title VII, and the rights of others, based on two main alleged flaws: first, the modified class definition unlawfully excluded former USDA employees of Asian/Pacific American heritage from the class, and second, that it unfairly and discriminatorily granted monetary and professional relief to the six class agents, to the detriment of all other affected Asian/Pacific American employees. See Compl. at 3-5 & Ex. 4. The EEOC Office of Federal Operations denied plaintiff's appeal on May 3, 2005, finding that plaintiff was not a class member entitled to relief, but at the same time recognizing that the USDA and class counsel considered plaintiff to be covered by the terms of the settlement agreement. See Compl. at 3 & Ex. 7 at 7. It later denied plaintiff's request for reconsideration of its decision, and advised plaintiff that he could file a civil action in an appropriate United States District Court. Compl. at 1 & Ex. 2.

On September 30, 2005, plaintiff filed the complaint under review in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona. Plaintiff requests an order enjoining implementation of the Basu settlement agreement, a declaration that the agreement is void, and an order requiring the USDA to restore the original class definition and negotiate a fair agreement with a new set of class agents. Compl. at 17. He also requests backpay for the higher of the two positions at issue, and compensatory and punitive damages. Id. at 18. On July 21, 2006, the case was transferred to this district upon defendant's motion. See Rahman v. Johanns, No. CV-05-3010, slip op. at 1 (D. Ariz. June 21, 2006).

ANALYSIS

I. Plaintiff's Motion for Recusal

Plaintiff moves to recuse the undersigned on the ground that his impartiality "might reasonably be questioned" under 28 U.S.C. ยง 455(a) due to the undersigned's previous service from 1980 to 1997 in the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia ("U.S. Attorney's Office"), the government office now representing defendant. See Pl.'s Mot. for Recusal at 4. However, under the recusal statute and the case law addressing the need ...


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