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Singletary v. Howard University

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 26, 2018



          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN, U.S.D.J.

         Sylvia Singletary alleges that Howard University terminated her employment in violation of the False Claims Act (“FCA”) and in breach of her contract with the University. After she amended her initial complaint, the University moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The Court granted that motion, finding that Dr. Singletary neither sufficiently pleaded that she had engaged in protected activity as required by the FCA nor that she was in fact terminated by the University. See Singletary v. Howard Univ., 314 F.Supp.3d 330 (D.D.C. 2018) (“Singletary I”). Dr. Singletary now seeks leave to file a Second Amended Complaint. See Pl.'s Mem. in Supp. of Mot. for Leave to File, ECF No. 18 (“Pl.'s Mem.”). Because she has failed to remedy the deficiencies of her prior complaint, and because her proposed claims would not survive a motion to dismiss if brought by the University, the Court will deny leave to file.


         Dr. Singletary is a licensed veterinarian employed by Howard University from early 2013 until August 2014. Second Am. Compl. 3, 10, ECF No. 18-1. During that time, she served as the University's Director of Veterinary Services. Second Am. Compl. Ex. 1 at 1, ECF No. 18-3. She also served as a member of the University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (“IACUC”). Second Am. Compl. 4.

         As a recipient of government grants, the University must comply with various federal laws about the use of laboratory animals. Id. at 3. Dr. Singletary claims that during her tenure the “animals at Howard were being kept in conditions clearly in violation of” two such laws, the Animal Welfare Act and the Health Research Extension Act. Id. at 4. Mice were being housed “in areas that were too hot.” Id. Starting in mid-2013, Dr. Singletary told her supervisor, Dr. Thomas Obisesan, of the rodents' living conditions “[o]n several occasions, ” each time “exhort[ing]” him to remedy the problem. Id. at 5. Dr. Obisesan was also on the University's IACUC, serving as Howard's designated “Institutional Official.” Id. at 7.

         When Dr. Obisesan “did not act on Dr. Singletary's concerns, she made the same complaints” to IACUC Chair Thomas Heinbockel and medical school Dean Mark Johnson. Id. at 5-6. The air temperature problem was “allowed to continue, ” and in April 2014, Dr. Singletary “found 21 laboratory animals dead of heat exhaustion.” Id. at 6-7. Dr. Singletary then “decided that leaving the matter solely in Dr. Obisesan's hands would not be prudent.” Id. at 7. She emailed the National Institutes of Health's Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (“NIH”), a federal agency, to notify them of the rodents' death. Id.

         Dr. Obisesan “was incensed by Dr. Singletary's submission” to NIH, which “finally spurred Howard to act and add air conditioning capacity that solved the problem.” Id. At a team meeting a few weeks later, Dr. Obisesan “excoriated Dr. Singletary” and accused her “of a lack of professionalism and integrity” for contacting NIH. Id. at 7-8. Dr. Obisesan felt that she “had humiliated Howard before [NIH].” Id. at 8.

         A little over a month later, Dr. Obisesan “sent Dr. Singletary a letter informing her that [her employment contract] was terminated.” Id. The letter “gave her notice” that her last day of employment would be December 31, 2014. Id. Dr. Singletary continued working for the University until August 2014, when she resigned. Id. In a sworn declaration submitted to the Court, she explained that she resigned “because [she] found new employment, ” but that she also believed her resignation “was an involuntary termination forced upon [her] by Howard.” Decl. of Sylvia Singletary 3, ECF No. 11-1. She “had no choice but to leave Howard” because “the attending veterinarian community is small[, ] and she needed to protect her reputation” from “rumors within her professional community.” Second Am. Compl. 10.

         The proposed complaint alleges that (1) to receive and retain grant money, the University falsely certified to the government that it maintained appropriate living conditions for the laboratory animals; (2) Dr. Singletary tried to inform her supervisors that the University was not in compliance with federal law; (3) she contacted NIH directly when the University failed to take corrective action; (4) Dr. Obisesan fired her for contacting NIH; (5) “termination of [her] eighteen month initial appointment at Howard six months early constituted unlawful retaliation” in violation of the FCA; and (6) the University breached its employment contract with her by forcing her resignation. Second Am. Compl. 13-16. Dr. Singletary seeks various forms of relief, including back pay, lost benefits, contract damages, damages for emotional pain and suffering, and attorney's fees. Id. at 15-16.


         A plaintiff can amend her complaint “once as a matter of course within 21 days” of service. Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(1). In “all other cases, ” she may amend “only with the opposing party's written consent or the court's leave.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). The “grant or denial of an opportunity to amend is within the discretion” of the Court. Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962). Denial is warranted where the amended complaint shows a “repeated failure to cure deficiencies by amendments previously allowed.” Id. Leave to amend may also be denied as futile “if the proposed claim would not survive a motion to dismiss.” James Madison Ltd. by Hecht v. Ludwig, 82 F.3d 1085, 1099 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

         Litigants may move to dismiss a complaint when it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A valid complaint must contain 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). Mere “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement” are insufficient. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotations omitted). 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.” Id.

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss, 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 allegations. In re United Mine Workers of Am. Emp. Benefit Plans Litig., 854 F.Supp. 914, 915 (D.D.C. 1994). The Court need not, however, accept legal conclusions or mere conclusory statements as true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Evaluating a motion to dismiss is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679. It “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). The Court may judicially notice any 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).


         Dr. Singletary's proposed amendments do not remedy the defects of her previous complaint, and her allegations would not withstand a motion to dismiss. Her FCA claim fails because she has not sufficiently pleaded that she engaged in protected activity giving the University notice that she was investigating fraud. And, because she resigned voluntarily, Dr. ...

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