147 A.3d 267 (D.C. 2016), 14-CV-1275, Poola v. Howard Univ.

Docket Nº:14-CV-1275
Citation:147 A.3d 267
Opinion Judge:Phyllis D. Thompson, Associate Judge
Party Name:INDIRA POOLA, APPELLANT, v. HOWARD UNIVERSITY, et al., APPELLEES
Attorney:David A. Branch for appellant. Alan S. Block, with whom Elizabeth E. Pavlick, was on the brief, for appellees.
Judge Panel:Before THOMPSON and MCLEESE, Associate Judges, and KING, Senior Judge.
Case Date:September 29, 2016
Court:Court of Appeals of Columbia District

Page 267

147 A.3d 267 (D.C. 2016)

INDIRA POOLA, APPELLANT,

v.

HOWARD UNIVERSITY, et al., APPELLEES

No. 14-CV-1275

Court of Appeals of Columbia District

September 29, 2016

Argued February 9, 2016

Page 268

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. (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.

OPINION

Page 271

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

Page 272

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

Page 273

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."

Page 274

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...

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14 practice notes
  • Buchanan v. Sony Music Entertainment, 052620 DCDC, 18-cv-3028 (KBJ)
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts District of Columbia
    • May 26, 2020
    ...(2) breach of that duty, and (3) injury to the plaintiff that was proximately caused by the breach.” Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 289 (D.C. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). And in his complaint, Buchanan alleges that the Record Companies are......
  • Hlatky v. Steward Health Care System, LLC, 042820 MASC, SJC-12688
    • United States
    • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • April 28, 2020
    ...cell samples, only to see it all destroyed through Steward's actions and failures to act. See, e.g., Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 272, 286-288 (D.C. 2016); Moncton vs. Argonne Nat'l Lab., No. 03-C-3989 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 14, To be sure, while uncommon in the em......
  • George v. Molson Coors Beverage Company USA, LLC, 092420 DCDC, 1:20-cv-01914 (TNM)
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts District of Columbia
    • September 24, 2020
    ...pled a nexus between the adverse employment actions and the alleged discriminatory motives.” Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 280 (D.C. George's Complaint fails this test. He alleges unfavorable treatment that manifested itself in several ways-an “inexplicably&#......
  • 253 F.Supp.3d 22 (D.D.C. 2017), C. A. 17-00028 (BAH), Easaw v. Newport
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Court, Federal Circuit
    • May 12, 2017
    ...nexus between defendants' alleged discriminatory motive and the adverse action," Pl.'s Opp'n at 11 (citing Poola, 147 A.3d at 276), that she " must present evidence above the speculative level," id. (citing Brown v. Sessoms, 774 F.3d 1016, 1023, ......
  • Free signup to view additional results
14 cases
  • Buchanan v. Sony Music Entertainment, 052620 DCDC, 18-cv-3028 (KBJ)
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts District of Columbia
    • May 26, 2020
    ...(2) breach of that duty, and (3) injury to the plaintiff that was proximately caused by the breach.” Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 289 (D.C. 2016) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). And in his complaint, Buchanan alleges that the Record Companies are......
  • Hlatky v. Steward Health Care System, LLC, 042820 MASC, SJC-12688
    • United States
    • Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
    • April 28, 2020
    ...cell samples, only to see it all destroyed through Steward's actions and failures to act. See, e.g., Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 272, 286-288 (D.C. 2016); Moncton vs. Argonne Nat'l Lab., No. 03-C-3989 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 14, To be sure, while uncommon in the em......
  • George v. Molson Coors Beverage Company USA, LLC, 092420 DCDC, 1:20-cv-01914 (TNM)
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Courts District of Columbia
    • September 24, 2020
    ...pled a nexus between the adverse employment actions and the alleged discriminatory motives.” Poola v. Howard Univ., 147 A.3d 267, 280 (D.C. George's Complaint fails this test. He alleges unfavorable treatment that manifested itself in several ways-an “inexplicably&#......
  • 253 F.Supp.3d 22 (D.D.C. 2017), C. A. 17-00028 (BAH), Easaw v. Newport
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States District Court, Federal Circuit
    • May 12, 2017
    ...nexus between defendants' alleged discriminatory motive and the adverse action," Pl.'s Opp'n at 11 (citing Poola, 147 A.3d at 276), that she " must present evidence above the speculative level," id. (citing Brown v. Sessoms, 774 F.3d 1016, 1023, ......
  • Free signup to view additional results