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Owens v. United States

argued: March 18, 1987.

DENISE OWENS
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, A BODY POLITIC, VETERANS ADMINISTRATION, A BODY POLITIC, DR. WILLIAM LOWE, DR. FRANK CASELLA, MR. VINCENT LISI, MR. JOSE VALAQUEZ, MR. JOHN HILL, MR. FRANK TAYLOR, MR. THOMAS TURNAGE, HEAD OF THE VETERANS ADMINISTRATION, A BODY POLITIC, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ET AL., APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, Newark, D.C. Civil Action No. 85-4988.

Before: HIGGINBOTHAM, MANSMANN and ROSENN, Circuit Judges.

Opinion OF THE COURT

Per Curiam:

This is an appeal from the district court's ruling on defendants-appellants' motion to dismiss the complaint of appellee Denise Owens ("Owens"). That complaint sought damages against defendants-appellants under the fourteenth amendment of the United States Constitution, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e (1982) ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (1982), the Constitution of the State of New Jersey, and the common law of New Jersey. Under the authority of Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1434, 79 S. Ct. 1335 (1959), and Araujo v. Welch, 742 F.2d 802 (3d Cir. 1984), the district court dismissed Owens's federal constitutional and § 1983 claims as to all defendants-appellants, dismissed Owens's Title VII claims as to all defendants-appellants except Thomas Turnage ("Turnage") as head of the Veterans Administration, and refused to dismiss Owens's state claims as to any appellant-defendant.

Because we find that Title VII provides Owens's exclusive federal remedy, we affirm the district courts ruling to the extent it dismissed the federal constitutional and § 1983 claims as to all defendants-appellants. Because we find that Turnage was the only appropriate Title VII party among defendants-appellants, we affirm the district court's decision to the extent it dismissed the Title VII claims against the other defendants. Because we find that the doctrine of absolute immunity does not shield defendant-appellant Dr. William Lowe ("Lose") from the state claims against him, we affirm the district court's ruling to the extent it upheld those claims. Because we find that the pleadings contain insufficient allegations and information to determine whether the doctrine of absolute immunity shields the remaining defendants-appellants ("the supervisory defendants") from the state claims against them, we remand those claims to the district court to afford Owens the opportunity to make more specific her allegations.

I.

At all relevant times, Denise Owens was employed by the Veterans Administration as a clerical worker at the Administration's Medical Center in East Orange, New Jersey. Owens alleges that from January 1984 to April 1985, Lowe, a staff physician for the Medical Center who worked with but did not supervise Owens, repeatedly harassed her sexually, causing Owens physical, emotional, and psychological harm. Owens alleges further that her protest did not end Lowe's sexual harassment and that her complaints concerning the harassment to Vincent Lisi ("Lisi"), Owens's immediate supervisor were ignored. Owens alleges additionally that her complaints to Lisi's supervisor, Jose Velaquez ("Velaquez"), to Velaquez's supervisor, John Hill ("Hill"), to Hill's supervisor, Frank Taylor ("Taylor"), and to Taylor's supervisor, Dr. Frank Casella ("Casella"), were also ignored. Indeed, Owens maintains that her supervisors ridiculed her for reporting the harassment and that Hill on several occasions attempted to persuade her to drop the Equal Employment Opportunity commission ("EEOC") complaint that Owens filed on February 25, 1985. Despite her supervisors' alleged actions, Owens filed the instant action in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey on October 21, 1985.

II.

This appeal requires us to determine whether principles of absolute immunity and federal statutory construction shield defendants-appellants under the circumstances of this case. For purposes of convenience, we will first consider the claims against Dr. Lowe. We will then consider the claims against the supervisory defendants. Because this case involves only a legal determination concerning the scope of absolute immunity, our review is plenary. See Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 105 S. Ct. 2806, 86 L. Ed. 2d 411 (1985). (immunity is generally a legal question for the court).

A.

The district court determined that Owens's federal constitutional and statutory claims against Lowe are completely barred. We agree with this determination. Interpretation of Title VII has shown that Title Vii provides federal employees a remedy that "precludes actions against federal officials for alleged constitutional violations as well as actions under other federal legislation." Kizas v. Webster, 227 U.S. App. D.C. 327, 707 F.2d 524, 542 (D.C. Cir. 1983) (citations omitted). See Brown v. GSA, 425 U.S. 820, 48 L. Ed. 2d 402, 96 S. Ct. 1961 (1976) (Title VII remedy exclusive federal remedy against federal officials for federal employee); Gissen v. Tackman, 537 F.2d 784 (3d Cir. 1976) (en ban) (same); Richardson v. Wiley, 186 U.S. App. D.C. 309, 569 F.2d 140 (D.C. Cir. 1977) (per curiam) (same). As discussed infra, p. 9, a Title VII action is properly filed only against the head of the relevant federal agency. Since in addition to federal constitutional and statutory claims against Lowe, Owens alleged a Title VII claim that provided Owens her exclusive federal remedy, the district court correctly dismissed the federal claims as to Lowe.

the state constitutional and common law claims against Lowe require more detailed analysis. The disposition of these claims depends upon our construction of our recent decision in Araujo v. Welch, 742 F.2d 802 (3d Cir. 1984), which defined the scope of the absolute immunity afforded federal officials by Barr v. Matteo, 360 U.S. 564, 3 L. Ed. 2d 1434, 79 S. Ct. 1335 (1959). Barr granted federal officials absolute immunity from civil liability for certain acts because the Supreme Court concluded that fear and threat of damage suits for acts performed by officials in furtherance of their duties might appreciably inhibit the vigorous and effective administration of government policies. Barr, 360 U.S. at 571. To foster only official acts in furtherance of effective administration of governmental policy, however, the Court held that immunity should be extended only where two requirements are satisfied. First, the official act must involve policymaking or the exercise of judgment. Id. at 574. This requirement has often been phrased as a requirement that the official engage in a discretionary, as opposed to a ministerial, function. Second, the official act must be "within the outer perimeter" of the official's duties. Id. at 575. Satisfaction of both requirements is a prerequisite for immunity.

With regard to the second Barr requirement, this Court has substantially refined its analysis. In Araujo, we adopted the "functional approach" applied in Carter v. Carlson, 144 U.S. App. D.C. 388, 447 F.2d 358 (D.C. Cir. 1971), rev'd on other grounds sub nom. District of Columbia v. Carter, 409 U.S. 418, 34 L. Ed. 2d 613, 93 S. Ct. 602 (1973), for determining whether an official act falls "within the outer perimeter" of an official's duties. The Carter functional approach requires us "to consider the precise function at issue, and to determine whether an officer is likely to be unduly inhibited in the performance of that function by the threat of liability for tortious conduct." Carter, 447 F.2d at 362.

In her amended complaint, Owens asserts state claims*fn1 based on the alleged fact that Lowe on several occasions made verbal sexual propositions. We find that such verbal acts are not immunized under Araujo. In order to be protected under the doctrine of absolute immunity, an official act must enhance the performance of official function by advancing some legitimate purpose of the office in question. See Araujo, 742 F.2d at 805. As Araujo clearly shows, verbal communication can enhance performance of official function when such communication concerns work-related matters. See id. at 806. Verbal sexual harassment is not communication that relates to work and consequently cannot enhance performance of official function. Indeed, verbal sexual harassment of a co-worker affirmatively impedes the performance of official ...


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