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Mensah v. Morehouse School of Medicine

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

January 4, 2018

FREDA MENSAH, Plaintiff,
v.
MOREHOUSE SCHOOL OF MEDICINE, Defendant.

          MAGISTRATE JUDGE'S FINAL REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          LINDA T. WALKER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         This case is presently before the Court on Defendant Morehouse School of Medicine's Motion for Summary Judgment. (Doc. 14). For the reasons outlined below, the Court RECOMMENDS that this lawsuit be REMANDED to the Superior Court of Fulton County because the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction. The disposition of Defendant's pending summary judgment motion should be DEFERRED to the Superior Court of Fulton County. (Doc. 14).

         I. BACKGROUND

         On July 22, 2016, Plaintiff Freda Mensah (“Plaintiff”) filed this lawsuit against Defendant Morehouse School of Medicine (“Defendant”) in the Superior Court of Fulton County. (Doc. 1-1). Plaintiff alleges causes of action for breach of contract, damage to reputation, liability for punitive damages, and entitlement to attorneys' fees due to Defendant's bad faith and stubborn litigiousness. Plaintiff's claims stem from Defendant's alleged failure to comply with the terms of a settlement reached by the parties in a prior litigation. Specifically, Plaintiff avers in her Complaint, that she is a medical resident enrolled in Defendant's Community Pediatric Residency Program. (Compl. ¶ 2). Plaintiff avers that she previously brought suit against Defendant in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in 2014, alleging that Defendant discriminated against her on the basis of her disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12182 (“the ADA”) and the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 701, when Defendant denied her requests for reasonable accommodation and dismissed her from the residency program. (See Mensah v. Morehouse Sch. of Medicine, No. 1:14-CV-1991, Am. Compl., Doc. 7, at ¶¶ 65-79 (N.D.Ga. Aug. 25, 2014)). Plaintiff subsequently agreed to release all her claims and to dismiss the prior lawsuit against Defendant. (Compl. ¶¶ 3, 9; see also Mensah Dep, Ex. 3, Doc. 1404, at 40). Plaintiff avers that in exchange, Defendant was required to readmit her back into the Pediatric Residency Program as a Post Graduate Year 1 resident and provide reasonable accommodation for a broad range of covered disabilities. (Compl. ¶¶ 3, 9).

         Plaintiff also avers that although she fully complied with her obligations under the agreement, Defendant delayed her reentry into the program for more than a month, failed to provide her with self-study materials it agreed to make available prior to readmission, refused her permission to take time off for a post-surgery medical examination and procedure, omitted to provide her with access to a website containing mandatory training modules, did not include her on resident email communications which provided critical information necessary for her successful completion of the program, denied her leave so that she could attend mandatory orientation for residents, and refused to provide clinic experiences equivalent to those provided to other residents. (Compl. ¶¶ 4-14, 21). Plaintiff claims that Defendant's failure to provide her with training and access to training resources adversely impacted her evaluations and maintains that she was subjected to letters being placed in her file criticizing her professionalism and documenting performance issues. (Comp. ¶¶ 16-20). Plaintiff contends that Defendant's alleged failures and omissions breached the settlement agreement and caused her to be unable to complete the residency program resulting in professional harm and harm to her reputation. (Compl. ¶¶ 33-39). Plaintiff further contends that she is entitled to attorneys' fees and costs of litigation due to Defendants bad faith and stubborn litigiousness. (Compl. ¶¶ 40-41). Finally, Plaintiff asserts that she is entitled to punitive damages because Defendant intentionally retaliated against her for having brought her prior legal action and was determined to cause her to fail in the residency program. (Compl. ¶¶ 42-44).

         Defendant removed the matter to this Court on the grounds that Plaintiff sought to recover for violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act claiming that Defendant discriminated and retaliated her and failed to accommodate her based on her disabilities. (Def.'s Notice of Removal, Doc. 1, at ¶¶ 3-9). In support, Defendant points out that Plaintiff has filed two complaints with Defendant's Office of Civil Rights in late 2015 alleging that Defendant violated the Rehabilitation Act when Defendant denied her access to the same services, programs, and activities as other residents due to her disabilities, retaliated against her, and failed to accommodate her disabilities. (Notice of Removal ¶¶ 7-8). Finally, Defendant notes that in the settlement agreement, Plaintiff consented to the exclusive jurisdiction of this Court for matters relating to a breach of the settlement agreement. (Notice of Removal ¶ 6).

         II. SUBJECT MATTER JURISDICTION

         Although no party has raised the issue of whether the Court has subject matter jurisdiction, this Court has a duty to determine sua sponte whether it has subject matter jurisdiction over the case. Cotton v. Mass. Mut. Life Ins. Co., 402 F.3d 1267, 1280 (11th Cir. 2005) (“Ordinarily, if removal was improper, the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction and must raise the issue sua sponte and then dismiss on that ground”). “The district court may remand a case sua sponte for lack of subject matter jurisdiction at any time.” Corp. Mgmt. Advisors, Inc. v. Artjen Complexus, Inc., 561 F.3d 1294, 1296 (11th Cir. 2009); see also 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) (“If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.”)

         An action brought in a state court may only be “removed by the defendant or the defendants to the district court of the United States for the district and division embracing the place where such action is pending.” 28 U.S.C. § 1441(a). Such actions may only be removed if the district courts of the United States have original jurisdiction over the action. Id. “[I]n removal cases, the burden is on the party who sought removal to demonstrate that federal jurisdiction exists.” Kirkland v. Midland Mortg. Co., 243 F.3d 1277, 1281 n.5 (11th Cir. 2001) (citation omitted); Lowery v. Alabama Power Co., 483 F.3d 1184, 1207-08 (11th Cir. 2007). In determining whether removal jurisdiction exists, courts must strictly construe the removal statute because of the federalism concerns implicated. Palisades Collections, LLC v. Shorts, 552 F.3d 327, 333-34 (4th Cir. 2008); Univ. of S. Ala. v. The Am. Tobacco Co., 168 F.3d 405, 411 (11th Cir. 1999); Burns v. Windsor Ins. Co., 31 F.3d 1092, 1094 (11th Cir. 1994). “[U]ncertainties are resolved in favor of remand.” Burns, 31 F.3d at1095; see also Jones v. LMR Int'l, Inc., 457 F.3d 1174, 1177 (11th Cir. 2006) (“[I]t is axiomatic that ambiguities are generally construed against removal.”). In that vein, conclusory allegations within removal papers and speculation are not sufficient to establish a basis for jurisdiction. Lowery, 483 F.3d at 1214-15; Williams v. Best Buy Co., 269 F.3d 1316, 1319-20 (11th Cir. 2001).

         As noted above, Defendant maintains that this Court has federal question jurisdiction because Plaintiff's Complaint asserts claims that Defendant discriminated and retaliated against her and failed to accommodate her disabilities in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101 et seq. (“the ADA”), and/or the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 794 et seq. “The presence or absence of a federal-question jurisdiction is governed by the ‘well-pleaded complaint rule, ' which provides that federal jurisdiction exists when a federal question is presented on the face of plaintiff's properly pleaded complaint. The rule makes the plaintiff the master of the claim; he or she may avoid federal jurisdiction by exclusive reliance on state law.” Caterpillar Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987) (internal citation omitted). “To determine whether the claim arises under federal law, courts examine the ‘well pleaded' allegations of the complaint and ignore potential defenses: a suit arises under the Constitution and laws of the United States only when the plaintiff's statement of his own cause of action shows that it is based upon those laws or that Constitution.” Beneficial Nat'l Bank v. Anderson, 539 U.S. 1, 6 (2003). Federal jurisdiction is also proper when federal claims are wrongly characterized as state law claims or, in some limited cases, where the state law claims require interpretation of federal law. Rivet v. Regions Bank of La., 522 U.S. 470, 476 (1998); Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals v. Thompson, 478 U.S. 804, 807 (1986). Neither circumstance is present here.

         1. Plaintiff's Complaint Does Not Assert Claims Pursuant to the ADA or Rehabilitation Act

         First, contrary to Defendant's interpretation of the Complaint, Plaintiff does not assert an ADA or Rehabilitation Act claim and there is no federal claim present anywhere in the Complaint. Count I of Plaintiff's Complaint asserts a state law claim for breach of the settlement agreement. Count II asserts a state law claim for “damage to reputation” stemming from Defendant's “intentional or negligent failure to provide [her] the benefits of the settlement agreement.” In Count III, Plaintiff seeks attorneys' fees on the grounds that Defendant acted in bad faith and was stubbornly litigious.

         Finally, in Count IV, Plaintiff argues she is entitled to punitive damages because Defendant “intentionally retaliated against [her] for having brought her prior legal action and was determined to cause her to fail in the residency program.” No. federal laws were cited within the Complaint. Furthermore, since the filing of the Complaint, Plaintiff has described her claim as a breach of the settlement agreement and denies that she has asserted a claim pursuant to the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act. See Joint Preliminary Report and Discovery Plan, Doc. 5, at 1, 2; Pl.'s Br., Doc. 18, at 18-19; Pl.'s Dep. 227: Pl.'s Statement of Facts ¶ 31).

         While Plaintiff's language in Count IV that Defendant “intentionally retaliated against [her] for having brought her prior legal action and was determined to cause her to fail in the residency program” suggests the possibility that Plaintiff could be asserting a claim under the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act, further analysis suggests otherwise. First and foremost, Plaintiff never mentions the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act in the Count or anywhere else in the Complaint. Given Plaintiff's deliberate omission of the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act from the Complaint, it is more plausible that Plaintiff is pleading intentional infliction of emotional distress or some other tort pursuant to state law in Count IV. See, e.g. Yarbray v. S. Bell Tel. & Tel. Co., 261 Ga. 703, 706 (2) (1991) (concluding that where evidence showed employer deliberately set out to retaliate against its employee for testifying against the employer, including subjecting her to abuse and causing her severe emotional pain could subject the company to damage for intentional infliction of emotional distress.). To deduce that Count IV asserts a claim pursuant to the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act would be pure speculation and speculation is not enough to confer federal jurisdiction. Williams, 269 F.3d at 1319-20. The ambiguity in this case is construed against removal.[1]Jones v. LMR ...


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