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Singletary v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 6, 2018

SYLVIA SINGLETARY, Plaintiff,
v.
HOWARD UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          TREVOR N. McFADDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Sylvia Singletary, a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine, alleges that her former employer, Howard University, unlawfully terminated her employment and seeks damages and other relief for breach of contract and under the Anti-Retaliation Clause of the False Claims Act and the District of Columbia's wrongful termination public policy exception. First Am. Compl. (“Am. Compl.”) ¶¶ 1-2, 7, ECF No. 4. The University seeks to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim, contending that Dr. Singletary did not engage in activity protected under the False Claims Act and that the University did not actually terminate her employment. Howard Univ.'s Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss (“Mot. to Dismiss”) 6-12, ECF No. 9. The Court finds that Dr. Singletary has neither sufficiently alleged that she engaged in protected activity nor that the University terminated her employment. Dr. Singletary's False Claims Act claim should therefore be dismissed for failure to state a claim, and because the University's other grounds for dismissal presents a challenge to her standing, her other claims will be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The University's motion will accordingly be granted and the Amended Complaint will be dismissed.

         I.

         Dr. Singletary, a licensed doctor of veterinary medicine, is a former University employee. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 9.[1] At the University, she was responsible for the care, treatment, and custody of all laboratory animals at the University's College of Medicine. Id. ¶¶ 9-10. She also was responsible for maintaining the University's compliance with various federal statutes and regulations on the care of the laboratory animals, including the Animal Welfare Act (“AWA”) and the Health Research Extensions Act (“HREA”), both enforced by the National Institute of Health (“NIH”). Id. ¶¶ 11, 14.

         Early in 2014, Dr. Singletary allegedly noticed and informed her superiors that the animals' living conditions violated the AWA and HREA; specifically, that the animals were being kept in areas that were too hot, leading to the “unnecessary suffering and deaths” of some animals. Id. ¶ 12. After her “efforts and many communications to her superiors, ” Dr. Singletary alleges that she formally lodged a complaint to the NIH on April 15, 2014. Id. ¶ 15. After making her complaint, Dr. Singletary alleges that she was subject to “open hostility from management” and that the University gave her notice in June 2014 that she would be terminated. Id. ¶¶ 16, 18.

         Dr. Singletary's three-count Amended Complaint alleges that (1) the University retaliated against her in violation of the False Claims Act (“FCA”) because she engaged in protected activity by communicating her concern to her superiors and making a report to NIH, id. ¶¶ 28-29; (2) she was wrongfully terminated in violation of the public policy of the District of Columbia, id. ¶ 33; and (3) the University breached its employment contract with her by terminating her without cause, id. ¶¶ 21, 37.

         II.

         Subject matter jurisdiction concerns a court's power to hear a claim. Macharia v. United States, 334 F.3d 61, 64 (D.C. Cir. 2003). If the “irreducible constitutional minimum of standing” is not met, a court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the claim. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560-61 (1992). The plaintiff bears the burden of proof to establish that she has standing and must show that she personally suffered an actual or imminent injury because of the defendant's illegal conduct, and that the injury can be redressed by a favorable court decision. Id. at 560. A court may look beyond the complaint to consider “undisputed facts evidenced on the record” to satisfy itself that it has subject matter jurisdiction. Coalition for Underground Expansion v. Mineta, 333 F.3d 193, 198 (D.C. Cir. 2003).

         A party may move to dismiss a complaint because it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint must contain sufficient factual allegations that, if true, “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A complaint is insufficient if it merely offers “‘labels and conclusions'” or “‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 546). Rather, “[a] claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Plausibility “asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully, ” id., and pleading facts that are “merely consistent with” a defendant's liability “stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 545-46.

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and accept as true all reasonable factual inferences drawn from well-pleaded factual allegations. See In re United Mine Workers of Am. Emp. Benefit Plans Litig., 854 F.Supp. 914, 915 (D.D.C. 1994). The Court does not accept as true legal conclusions or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “In determining whether a complaint fails to state a claim, [the court] may consider only the facts alleged in the complaint, any documents either attached to or incorporated in the complaint and matters of which [the court] may take judicial notice.” EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). A court “may judicially notice a fact that is not subject to reasonable dispute because it . . . can be accurately and readily determined from sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.” Fed.R.Evid. 201(b)(2).

         III.

         Each of Dr. Singletary's claims fail. Her FCA claim fails to state a claim because she has not sufficiently pleaded that she engaged in a protected activity. Dr. Singletary's other claims fail because she has not met her burden to show that she has standing for her claims of wrongful termination and breach of contract. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 9-10. Both bases are discussed below.

         A.

         The FCA imposes liability on “any person who knowingly presents, or causes to be presented, a false or fraudulent claim for payment or approval.” 31 U.S.C. § 3729(a)(1)(A). Individuals who aid the Government in these actions receive a monetary award up to 25% of the proceeds of the action or settlement of the claim. Id. § 3730(d)(1)(b). The FCA also provides broad anti-retaliation protection for whistleblowers. An “employee, contractor, or agent” may seek relief if an employer “discharged, demoted, suspended, threatened, harassed, or in any other manner discriminated against in the terms and conditions of employment because of [the] ...


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