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Poola v. Howard University

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 29, 2016

Indira Poola, Appellant,
v.
Howard University, et al., Appellees.

          Argued February 9, 2016

         On 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.

          David A. Branch for appellant.

          Alan S. Block, with whom Elizabeth E. Pavlick, was on the brief, for appellees.

          BEFORE: Thompson and McLeese, Associate Judges; and King, Senior Judge.

         JUDGMENT

         This 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

         ORDERED and ADJUDGED that the judgments on appeal are affirmed in part, and reversed and remanded in part.

          OPINION

          PHYLLIS D. THOMPSON ASSOCIATE JUDGE.

         Appellant 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").[1] 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.

         Thereafter, 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.

         For the 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.[2] 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.

         I.

         Dr. 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 funds.

         The 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 accomplishments.

         The 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[3] 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.

         The 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 performance."

         According 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."

         The 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.

         Finally, 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."

         II. The DCHRA Claims

         A. The Court's Rulings on the Defendants' Motions to Dismiss

         In 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.[4] 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.

         With 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.

         The 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.

         B. Applicable Law

         This 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).

         C. Analysis

         Dr. 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.[5]

         Our 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.

         The 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.

         Turning 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 ...


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