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Jangjoo v. Broadcasting Board of Governors

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 27, 2017

SOHEILA JANGJOO, et al., Plaintiffs,


          AMY BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge

         Plaintiffs Sohelia Jangjoo and Ardavan Roozbeh have sued the Broadcasting Board of Governors (“BBG”), an independent federal agency, and a BBG employee, Setareh Derakhshesh Sieg, in her individual capacity. Plaintiffs worked for BBG's Persian language service, the Persian News Network (“PNN”), which is a component of BBG's broader “Voice of America” network. First Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 14] (“Am. Compl.”) ¶¶ 2, 17, 30, 82. Defendant Sieg is the Director of PNN, and had supervisory control over both plaintiffs. Id. ¶¶ 16, 51.

         On April 2, 2015, PNN announced that the popular host of its show Ofogh, Siamak Dehghanpour, would be replaced. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19-23. A public outcry followed. Id. ¶¶ 24- 25. Supporters of Dehghanpour created a petition on “, ” demanding that he be reinstated. Id. ¶¶ 25-26. Plaintiff Jangjoo signed the petition. Id. ¶ 40. Plaintiff Roozbeh did not sign the petition, but he maintained a friendly relationship with Dehghanpour even after the network's decision. See Id . ¶ 28. Plaintiffs allege that in retaliation for supporting Dehghanpour, and in violation of their First Amendment rights, Sieg and BBG fired them. Id. ¶ 29. They also allege that the terminations violated their Fifth Amendment rights to due process. Id. ¶¶ 128-40; 164-75. They seek damages, and a declaratory judgment and injunction to remedy the alleged constitutional injuries. Id. ¶¶ 141-50; 176-85.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss in part. While they do not challenge Counts I and III - plaintiff Jangjoo's First and Fifth Amendment claims against defendant Sieg, in her individual capacity - they move to dismiss the remaining counts. Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss in Part &, in the Alternative, to Sever Pls.' Am. Compl. [Dkt. # 15] (“Defs.' Mot.”) at 2. Defendants argue that all of the claims against BBG - Counts II, IV, VI, and VIII - should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) because BBG, as a government entity, enjoys sovereign immunity. Id. at 7-8. And defendant Sieg moves to dismiss the claims brought against her by plaintiff Roozbeh (Counts V and VII) under Rule 12(b)(6), on the grounds that Roozbeh's First and Fifth Amendment claims fail to allege a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 8-12.

         Defendants also move to sever plaintiff Jangjoo's claims from those of plaintiff Roozbeh under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 20, arguing that while the two plaintiffs shared a common employer and supervisors, their dismissals did not arise from the “same transaction, occurrence, or series of transactions or occurrences.” Id. at 12-13.

         The Court will grant the motion to dismiss. BBG is entitled to sovereign immunity, so all of the claims against it will be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1). With respect to plaintiff Roozbeh's claim in Count V that defendant Sieg infringed on Roozbeh's constitutional rights by forcing him to waive his right to file a complaint against the agency and by retaliating against him for making statements about her conduct as a manager, plaintiff has failed to plausibly allege a First Amendment violation because the statements at issue were made as part of his official duties as a BBG employee. And with respect to plaintiff Roozbeh's allegation in Count VII that defendant Sieg violated his Fifth Amendment rights when she terminated his employment with BBG, plaintiff Roozbeh likely lacks standing to pursue a claim against Sieg; he specifically alleges that he resigned, and therefore, his alleged injuries are not fairly traceable to defendant Sieg's conduct. And even if plaintiff had standing, his procedural due process claim would fail on the merits. Because the Court will dismiss all claims brought by plaintiff Roozbeh, it need not address defendant's motion to sever the claims of the two plaintiffs.


         To resolve the pending motion to dismiss, the Court accepts as true the allegations in plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint.[1]

         Defendant BBG is an independent federal agency whose “mission is to inform, engage and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy.” Am. Compl. ¶ 17. In pursuit of that mission, BBG operates several media outlets, including Voice of America, a multimedia network producing “popular news, information and cultural programs in 45 languages.” Id. One foreign language subsidiary of Voice of America is PNN, which is “directed towards the people of Iran and Persian-speakers in furtherance of BBG's mission.” Id.

         One of PNN's most popular programs is a show called Ofogh, an informational talk show formerly hosted by Siamak Dehghanpour. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 19-20. In late March and early April of 2015, a series of disagreements between Dehghanpour and PNN's management team culminated in PNN management removing Dehghanpour as the host of Ofogh on April 2, 2015. Id. ¶¶ 22-23. Because of Dehghanpour's popularity, Ofogh viewers began circulating a petition on expressing concern about his removal and calling for his reinstatement. Id. ¶¶ 25- 26. Plaintiff Jangjoo signed this petition. Id. ¶ 40.

         I. Plaintiff Jangjoo

         Plaintiff Jangjoo worked on several PNN programs as a Purchase Order Vendor (“POV”) from April of 2012 to November of 2015, starting out as a “Chyron/Teleprompter Operator” and eventually rising to a “Writer/Researcher/Reporter/Producer” position. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 31-32, 35.[2] Jangjoo typically received 18 assignments per month, the equivalent of 18 full-time work days. Id. ¶ 34. But according to the complaint, after Jangjoo signed the petition, her supervisors, at Sieg's direction, reduced her workload to 10 assignments per month. Id. ¶ 41. Since she was paid on a per-assignment basis, her overall pay was reduced. Id. ¶ 42.

         Plaintiff Jangjoo alleges she emailed Sieg directly to discuss the reduction in her assignments, but Sieg did not respond. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 45-46. Jangjoo's relationship with Sieg soured from there; Sieg even stopped responding to Jangjoo's greetings when they passed each other in the hallways of the office. Id. ¶ 46. Eventually, Jangjoo was able to speak with Sieg, who accused Jangjoo of going “behind [her] back.” Id. ¶ 47. Jangjoo understood Sieg's accusation to be in reference to Jangjoo's signing of the petition. Id. Though plaintiff says that she told Sieg that she had signed the petition in her capacity as a private citizen, Sieg responded by confirming that her assignments “were going to be reduced to 10 per month regardless of what she said, ” and that Jangjoo should stop asking Sieg to change her mind. Id. ¶¶ 48-49.[3]

         On November 12, 2015, plaintiff's immediate supervisors confirmed in a meeting that Sieg's decision would not be revisited, and that plaintiff's hours would be reduced. Am. Compl. ¶ 57. Plaintiff then became “distraught and began crying, ” and expressed to her supervisors “her feelings regarding the injustice of this action and the extreme hardship she expected to endure.” Id. ¶ 58. As she put it, “[u]pon the implementation of Defendant Sieg's decision . . . Plaintiff Jangjoo suffered from severe emotional distress and was referred to the BBG Security Office.” Id. ¶ 60. Apparently, during the meeting, plaintiff made statements giving rise to the impression that she intended to harm herself, but she claims that she “clarified” those statements the following day when she arrived at work but was detained because she had not reported to the Security Office. Id. ¶¶ 62-67, 69. She told the BBG supervisors she met with that day “that she never actually meant to hurt herself and she had merely made a statement under severe emotional stress.” Id. ¶ 68. According to plaintiff Jangjoo, “[s]he very clearly denied having any suicidal inclinations.” Id.

         Nevertheless, Jangjoo was “involuntarily taken away in handcuffs and committed to the [District of Columbia] Department of Behavioral Health, ” and she alleges that step was taken in order to discredit her reputation and her complaints against defendant Sieg. Am. Compl. ¶ 69. She was later discharged from the Department of Behavioral Health after being declared “to be in a stable mental state and to not be either suicidal or homicidal, ” but merely “stressed.” Id. ¶ 73.

         However, when plaintiff Jangjoo sought to return to work after her release, she was “told to come and gather her belongings.” Am. Compl. ¶ 74. She was “made to believe that her employment contract with BBG had been terminated, ” although she never received a letter formally terminating the arrangement. Id. ¶¶ 74-76. Jangjoo alleges that she has been effectively barred from performing her employment duties because she was “banned from entering the BBG headquarters.” Id. ¶ 77. And she claims that as a result of the actions taken against her by defendant Sieg and others at BBG, she has suffered “physical, emotional, mental and financial damage.” Id. ¶ 81.

         II. Plaintiff Roozbeh

         Plaintiff Roozbeh worked as a Purchase Order Vendor and Social Media Administrator for PNN from November 10, 2014 until August 24, 2015, handling PNN's social media outreach on platforms including Facebook, Google Plus, and Instagram. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 82-83, 86, 88, 96. As Social Media Administrator, he worked under Sieg, who had direct control over anything that Roozbeh posted on PNN's social media channels. See Id . ¶¶ 86-88.

         Roozbeh alleges Sieg pressured him to upload favorable photos and videos of her to Facebook and Instagram, Am. Compl. ¶¶ 86, 88-89, using him “as her instrument to commit waste, ” which “purposefully interfered with [his] ability to fulfill his professional obligations.” Id. ¶ 87. Sieg ordered Roozbeh to upload content favorable to her, and to delete content that portrayed her in an unfavorable light, personally or professionally, in order “to promote herself as an individual and to promote her own shows on PNN.” Id. ¶ 87-88, 94.

         In one instance, the State Department's Persian Language Spokesperson asked his followers on Facebook whether they thought PNN was a better news source than BBC Farsi. Id. ¶ 89. After followers responded strongly in favor of BBC Farsi, defendant Sieg ordered one of her subordinates, Mohammad Manzarpour, to tell plaintiff Roozbeh “to find individuals, at whatever cost, to leave positive comments regarding PNN and [defendant Sieg]” on the post. Id. Roozbeh “found the demand appalling and refused to comply.” Id.

         In addition, Sieg “frowned upon” Roozbeh's continued friendship with Dehghanpour. Am. Compl. ¶ 90. According to the complaint, she tried to pressure Roozbeh by complaining to his contracting supervisor about the pace of his social media updates. Id. ¶ 91. Roozbeh later explained to his supervisor that “he was in fact not delaying any posts or online submissions, but rather . . . he was strategically working to ensure that PNN received the largest web following possible.” Id. Sieg's complaint was noted in plaintiff Roozbeh's employment file anyway. Id. ¶ 92.

         Roozbeh also alleges that Sieg ordered him and others to “delete every comment, from PNN's social media outlets, that related to Mr. Dehghanpour. Id. ¶ 94. Roozbeh refused this request, arguing that it violated BBG policy. Id. Sieg then “began to create unnecessary administrative red tape” for Roozbeh, including delaying his request for a replacement press badge and sending him email assignments that “served absolutely no functional purpose” other than to “harass and micro-manage” him. Id. ¶¶ 95-96.

         In light of these incidents, on Friday August 21, 2015, plaintiff Roozbeh “decided to voice his grievances to [Voice of America] and BBG senior management by writing an email in [the] form of a resignation letter, ” which “inform[ed] them of [d]efendant Sieg's behavior and [Roozbeh's] reasons for resigning.” Am. Compl. ¶ 97. After no one from BBG responded to the email over the weekend, Roozbeh came to work on Monday, August 24, 2015 and learned that Sieg was taking steps to terminate him in the wake of his resignation. Id. ¶¶ 99-100. So Roozbeh sent another resignation email, this time to all PNN staffers, in which “he shared his decision to resign, and also his grievances with the mismanagement at PNN and particularly with [d]efendant Sieg's abusive behavior and interference with his contractual obligations.” Id. ¶ 100

         Roozbeh's supervisors challenged the second resignation. Am. Compl. ¶ 101. They “interrogated” him in a meeting by “yelling” at him, and asking him “how dare he quit his contract.” Id. ¶¶ 101-102. Eventually, an unnamed individual told Roozbeh that he would “help him out” and proposed that Roozbeh waive his legal right to file a complaint against BBG in exchange for BBG's closing out the employment contract administratively. Id. ¶ 103. Roozbeh rejected those terms. Id. ¶¶ 103-104. While Roozbeh was meeting with PNN management, Sieg was “smearing his reputation and misinforming her staff about the truth of the matter, ” by claiming that he had been terminated, not that he had resigned. Id. ¶ 105.

         The next day, August 25, 2015, Roozbeh again went to the contracting office to meet with his supervisors. Am. Compl. ¶ 106. He told them that “if the Agency did not agree with his resignation letter, then he would go back to his desk and would continue working until the end of his contract.” Id. In response, his supervisors again attempted to induce him to sign a letter terminating his employment and waiving his right to file a complaint against BBG. Id. After he again refused, a supervisor told him “you will sign and then you will get out of here.” Id. ΒΆ 107. ...

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