February 9, 2016
Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia
Civil Division (CAB-3-12), Hon. Gregory E. Jackson, Motions
Judge, Hon. Maurice A. Ross, Motions Judge.
A. Branch for appellant.
S. Block, with whom Elizabeth E. Pavlick, was on the brief,
BEFORE: Thompson and McLeese, Associate Judges; and King,
case came to be heard on the transcript of record and the
briefs filed, and was argued by counsel. On consideration
whereof, and as set forth in the opinion filed this date, it
is now hereby
and ADJUDGED that the judgments on appeal are affirmed in
part, and reversed and remanded in part.
PHYLLIS D. THOMPSON ASSOCIATE JUDGE.
Indira Poola, who for seventeen years had been a Research
Professor at the Howard University ("University")
College of Medicine, brought a multi-count complaint
(originally filed on January 3, 2012, and amended on August
13, 2012) against the University and three members of the
College of Medicine faculty (the "individual
appellees"), after she was denied re-appointment and
prevented from entering her former laboratory (and other
University offices where she had worked) to retrieve research
data, laboratory samples, and other items of physical
property. Judge Gregory Jackson granted appellees' motion
to dismiss the first count of the amended complaint, which
alleged that appellees blocked Dr. Poola's re-appointment
on the basis of her race, gender, and national origin, in
violation of the District of Columbia Human Rights Act
("DCHRA"). Judge Jackson also dismissed Dr.
Poola's tortious interference claim against the three
individual appellees (the only remaining claim against them),
but allowed the tortious interference claim against the
University (as well as claims for breach of implied contract,
conversion, and negligence that were not the subject of the
motion to dismiss) to proceed.
Judge Maurice Ross, to whom the case had been transferred,
granted the University's motion for a protective order,
prohibiting Dr. Poola from re-entering her former workspaces
to identify and inspect the items of property she claimed she
was forced to leave behind. Judge Ross also granted the
University's motion for partial summary judgment, ruling
that "all that [wa]s left of the case" were Dr.
Poola's claims that the University was liable for
negligence and conversion of items of her personal property.
Restricted by Judge Ross's ruling to going to trial only
on her (narrowed) conversion and negligence counts, Dr. Poola
stipulated to dismissal of her personal-property-related
claims in order to clear the way for this appeal.
reasons that follow, we conclude that the court did not err
in dismissing Dr. Poola's DCHRA claims against individual
appellees Dr. Edward Cornwell and Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick,
but did err in dismissing her DCHRA claims against the
University and appellee Dr. Robert Taylor. We find no error
in the court's grant of partial summary judgment to the
University with respect to Dr. Poola's claim for
conversion insofar as it relates to "equipment" and
"supplies" purchased with Department of Defense
("DoD") grant funds and with respect to
"equipment" purchased with Susan G. Komen Breast
Cancer Foundation ("Komen") grant funds. We
conclude, however, that the court erred in granting summary
judgment to the University on Dr. Poola's conversion
claim insofar as it relates to "supplies" purchased
with Komen grant funds and with respect to other property
that Dr. Poola describes as her "work product, "
because the University did not establish as a matter of law
that Dr. Poola has no ownership interest or superior
possessory interest in that property. We also conclude that
summary judgment was improperly entered in favor of the
University on Dr. Poola's negligence claim because the
University did not establish as a matter of law that it owed
no duty to Dr. Poola to safeguard the items in dispute. We
remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Poola, who identifies herself as a "South Asian female
from India, " asserted in her Amended Complaint that she
is a "world-renowned cancer research scientist" who
has held faculty positions at a number of universities,
including the Johns Hopkins University Medical School and the
George Washington University Medical School. According to the
Amended Complaint, she has published over twenty scholarly
articles, including in a medical journal that she asserts is
"the world's most prestigious journal for medicine,
" has been a reviewer for "the nation's leading
cancer research journals, " and has been a frequent
speaker at cancer research symposia. She began working as a
Research Assistant Professor at the University in 1994, and
during her tenure there, performed work under twenty
externally funded grants. She was a "without
compensation" professor, meaning that the University
paid her salary out of funds from external research grant
Amended Complaint notes that the University is a
"historically black college and university, " the
majority of whose faculty members, including at the College
of Medicine, are African American. The Amended Complaint
alleges that the University and its agents, including the
individual appellees, who are African-American males,
"willfully cultivated a pattern and practice of
discrimination against non-African-Americans and females, by
reason of race, national origin, and gender." According
to the Amended Complaint, this discrimination
"manifested" itself in the form of
non-African-Americans and female staff being subjected to
"discriminatory work assignments, "
"subjective performance appraisals which resulted in
lower evaluations, " a "disproportionate number of
lower performance evaluations than African Americans and
males, " "discriminatory discipline and
terminations, " "terminations at a higher rate than
African Americans and males, " harassment,
"discriminatory compensation and research funding
policies, " and belittlement of professional
Amended Complaint further alleges that in 2010, Dr. Poola
"was awarded prestigious grants" from Komen and
from DoD. In August 2010, Dr. Poola requested re-appointment
to the faculty of the University's College of Medicine
Surgery Department to enable her to conduct research under
the grants. Shortly thereafter, Dr. Taylor and Dr. Cornwell
"met and decided to deny Dr. Poola's
appointment." In October 2010, Dr. Poola sought
appointment to the Biochemistry Department, whose Chair
"initially agreed to support her request, " but
later withdrew his support after he met with Dr. Taylor, who
"demanded that Dr. Poola's appointment be
denied." The Amended Complaint further alleges that in
January 2011, Dr. Poola met with the Chair of the Physiology
Division, a white male, who thereafter requested that Dr.
Taylor approve a partial salary for Dr. Poola in that
Division. In March 2011, Dr. Taylor denied the request.
Amended Complaint alleges that Drs. Taylor and Cornwell took
the foregoing actions to block Dr. Poola's appointment
with the intent of "derailing the career of a
non-African-American female and to prevent her professional
accomplishments from eclipsing their own and those of African
American and male faculty." The Amended Complaint
further alleges that Drs. Taylor and Cornwell "exhibited
discriminatory animus against Dr. Poola in the form of
disrespectful comments, belittling her accomplishments,
attempting to steal her intellectual property, interference
with her research, and unwarranted critique of her
to the Amended Complaint, in May 2011, after the Physiology
Division Chair requested that Dr. Poola be appointed to his
Division without compensation from the University, Dr. Poola
was notified by the Surgery Department Administrator that she
should surrender "all equipment and intellectual
property" and be prepared to leave the University by the
end of June 2011. On June 30, 2011, the Surgery Department
Administrator and a representative from the Dean's office
came to Dr. Poola's office while she was in the middle of
an experiment and demanded that she surrender her keys,
identification badge, and parking sticker, and that she leave
the premises. Dr. Poola was thus required to abandon her
research and grants, "seventeen years of research and
equipment and other property purchased with personal and
grant funding" with an "aggregate value . . .
exceed[ing] several million dollars." The Amended
Complaint also alleges that Dr. Poola has "lost millions
of dollars in future grants."
Amended Complaint further alleges that in July 2011, after
Dr. Poola sent letters to the Dean of the College of Medicine
and other University officials stating her desire to continue
working on her grant projects and her concerns about
abandoning her research and losing future grants, Health
Sciences Vice President Dr. Eve Higginbotham approved a
90-day reappointment for Dr. Poola. However, although Dr.
Taylor signed the approval letter, he allegedly "refused
to acknowledge Dr. Higginbotham's authority and denied
Dr. Poola access to the facility, " doing so because he
"resented the accomplishments of Dr. Poola as a
non-African-American female" and with the intent to
derail her career.
the Amended Complaint alleges that the defendants'
treatment of Dr. Poola "mirrors the treatment to which
[d]efendants have subjected other [M.D. or doctorate-level]
non-African-Americans and/or females" in order to derail
their careers. More specifically, it asserts that Dr.
Higginbotham was removed from her position with only two
days' notice, "after the African American males in
the College of Medicine campaigned for her removal, " in
part because of her support of Dr. Poola; that a woman hired
as an Assistant Vice President for Faculty Development
resigned after she was "subjected to pervasive
harassment by African American male faculty" including
Dr. Taylor, who "belittled [her] accomplishments and
refused to recognize her authority"; that a woman hired
as Provost was "removed in under one year after African
American male faculty campaigned to have her removed";
that promptly upon his own hiring, Dr. Taylor forced a woman
who had been Director of the Cancer Center for over ten years
to accept a demotion; and that an "Asian Indian
female" who was Chief of Oncology was belittled and
harassed by Dr. Frederick and was forced to resign because of
the "lack of promotional opportunities available to
non-African Americans and females." According to the
Amended Complaint, during Dr. Poola's tenure at the
University, appellees "never took the same or similar
action against African Americans or males."
The DCHRA Claims
The Court's Rulings on the Defendants' Motions to
Count I of the Amended Complaint, Dr. Poola claims that
appellees' conduct toward her violated the DCHRA. Ruling
on appellees' motion to dismiss Count I, the court
recognized that Dr. Poola's DCHRA claims were subject to
a one-year statute of limitations. The court then determined
that the only actionable conduct by defendants/appellees was
"discrete acts of discrimination" that occurred
after January 3, 2011, i.e., within a year before Dr. Poola
filed her original complaint. The court found that, regarding
Dr. Frederick, Dr. Poola alleged only that he participated in
"willfully cultivat[ing] a pattern and practice of
discrimination against non-African-Americans and females, by
reason of race, national origin, and gender[, ]"and thus
"failed to plead any specific allegations[.]" Our
review of the Amended Complaint reveals that Dr. Poola also
alleged that Dr. Frederick "belittled and harassed"
the female Chief of Oncology. Whether or not that allegation
or the allegation that Dr. Frederick "cultivated a
pattern and practice of discrimination" was, in the
court's words, "far too general to raise the right
to relief above the level of speculation, " what is
clear is that the Amended Complaint does not identify the
date(s) when Dr. Frederick allegedly so acted. Thus, Dr.
Poola "failed to plead any specific factual allegations
against Dr. Frederick" that occurred during the
limitations period. Dr. Poola offers no specific rebuttal to,
and we see nothing in the Amended Complaint that provides a
basis for rejecting, appellees' argument that Dr.
Poola's DCHRA claim against Dr. Frederick was untimely,
and we therefore do not disturb the dismissal of the claim.
respect to Dr. Cornwell as well, the court found that Dr.
Poola's allegations either confirm that Dr.
Cornwell's conduct occurred outside of the limitations
period (e.g., Dr. Cornwell's decision, sometime before
October 2010, to veto Dr. Poola's re-appointment to the
Surgery Department) or fail to include the dates when he
allegedly committed the described actions. As to Dr.
Cornwell, too, we discern no basis for disturbing the
court's dismissal of the DCHRA claim.
court recognized that some of Dr. Poola's allegations
about Dr. Taylor relate to conduct that occurred within the
DCHRA limitations period. These include the allegation that
in March 2011, Dr. Taylor denied the Physiology Division
Chief's request that Dr. Poola be appointed to that
Division and the allegation that in July 2011, Dr. Taylor
denied Dr. Poola access to University facilities, in both
instances because of Dr. Taylor's "resent[ment of]
the accomplishments of Dr. Poola as a non-African-American
female" and his discriminatory intent to derail her
career. The court also recognized that Dr. Poola included in
her Amended Complaint allegations about other (named)
non-African Americans and women who were subjected to similar
discrimination. The court ruled, however, that Dr.
Poola's allegations were only "conclusory
statements" that failed "[t]o establish the
required nexus between the adverse employment actions and the
alleged discriminatory motive." The court reasoned that
Dr. Poola was required to "show, rather than
merely state that the [d]efendant harbored
discriminatory intent in carrying out the adverse employment
actions against the [p]laintiff." The court therefore
dismissed the DCHRA claim against Dr. Taylor for failing
"to state a claim that raises the right to relief above
the level of speculation." Finally, having dismissed the
DCHRA claims against each of the individual defendants (the
"agents" of the University), the court also
dismissed the DCHRA claim against the University.
Subsequently, on July 9, 2014, he denied Dr. Poola's
motion to reconsider the dismissals.
court reviews de novo a dismissal under Super. Ct.
Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) for failure to state a claim on which
relief can be granted. See Comer v. Wells Fargo Bank,
N.A., 108 A.3d 364, 371 (D.C. 2015). In doing so, we
construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the
plaintiff and take her factual allegations as true. See
Francis v. Rehman, 110 A.3d 615, 620 (D.C. 2015). We
have adopted the pleading standard articulated by the Supreme
Court in Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544
(2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).
See Equal Rights Ctr. v. Props. Int'l, 110 A.3d
599, 602-03 (D.C. 2015). Under that standard, to survive a
Super. Ct. Civ. R. 12 (b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint
must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that
is plausible on its face, " Twombly, 550 U.S.
at 570, i.e., "factual content that allows the court to
draw the reasonable inference that defendant is liable for
the misconduct alleged." Comer, 108 A.3d at 371
(internal quotation marks omitted); see also
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (explaining that the
plausibility pleading standard "simply calls for enough
fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will
reveal evidence of" the defendants' misconduct). A
complaint does not "suffice if it tenders naked
assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement."
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation marks
omitted). Although this standard "does not require
detailed factual allegations, " it does "demand
more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me
accusation"; factual allegations must be enough to raise
a right to relief above the speculative level. Id.
at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted). But at the
pleading stage, the plaintiff's burden "is not
onerous." Equal Rights Ctr., 110 A.3d at 603.
If a complaint's factual allegations are sufficient,
"the case must not be dismissed even if the court doubts
that the plaintiff will ultimately prevail." Doe v.
Bernabei & Wachtel, PLLC, 116 A.3d 1262, 1266 (D.C.
2015) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Poola argues that the court erred in ruling that her Amended
Complaint was insufficient to state a claim. In particular,
she argues that the court erred in ruling that she was
required to allege more to establish the required
"nexus" between the defendants' allegedly
discriminatory motives and the denial of her reappointment
and her exclusion from her laboratory and offices. She argues
that the court's reasoning, i.e., that she must
"show, rather than merely state, that
the [d]efendant[s] harbored discriminatory intent in carrying
out the adverse employment actions[, ]" effectively and
improperly required her to establish a prima facie
case when she had not yet had the benefit of discovery. On
the basis of the analysis set out below, we agree, and
therefore conclude that court erred in dismissing the DCHRA
claims against Dr. Taylor and the University.
analysis requires us to decide how the
Twombly/Iqbal pleading standard is applied
to a complaint alleging employment discrimination in
violation of the DCHRA. We begin by giving careful attention
to the Supreme Court's rationale in Twombly, a
case in which the plaintiff alleged a conspiracy to restrain
trade in violation of the Sherman Act, see 550 U.S.
at 548-49, and in Iqbal, a case presenting Fifth
Amendment equal protection and First Amendment claims,
see 556 U.S. at 669.
Supreme Court explained in Twombly that "when
allegations of parallel conduct are set out in order to make
a [claim under § 1 of the Sherman Act], they must be
placed in a context that raises a suggestion of a preceding
agreement, not merely parallel conduct that could just as
well be independent action." 550 U.S. at 557. Thus, the
Court said, "stating such a claim requires a complaint
with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest that an
agreement was made[, ]" i.e., "enough fact to raise
a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence
of illegal agreement." Id. at 556. At the same
time, the Court explained, "[a]sking for plausible
grounds to infer an agreement does not impose a probability
requirement at the pleading stage[.]" Id.
specifically to the commercial context of the dispute before
it, the Twombly Court agreed with the parties that
"complex and historically unprecedented changes in
pricing structure made at the very same time by multiple
competitors, and made for no other discernible reason, would
support a plausible inference of conspiracy."
Id. at 556 n.4 (internal quotation marks omitted).
By contrast, the Court explained, even if a complaint alleges
parallel conduct, "without [some] further circumstance
pointing toward a meeting of the minds, an account of a
defendant's commercial efforts stays in neutral
territory." Id. at 557. Stated differently,
"[a]n allegation of parallel conduct . . . gets the
complaint close to stating a claim, but without some further
factual enhancement[, ] it stops short of the line between
possibility and plausibility of "entitle[ment] to
relief." Id. (internal quotation marks
omitted). The Court acknowledged that "[i]n a
traditionally unregulated industry with low barriers to
entry, sparse competition among large firms dominating
separate geographical segments of the market could very well
signify illegal agreement, " but observed as to the case
before it - one in which "a natural explanation for the
noncompetition alleged is that the former
Government-sanctioned [telephone carrier] monopolists were
sitting tight, expecting their neighbors to do the same
thing" - "here we have an obvious alternative
explanation." Id. at 556-57; see also
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 680 ...