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Dr. Manhua Mandy Lin v. Rohm and Haas Company D/B/A Dow Advanced Materials

March 26, 2012

DR. MANHUA MANDY LIN, PLAINTIFF,
v.
ROHM AND HAAS COMPANY D/B/A DOW ADVANCED MATERIALS, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Yohn, J.

MEMORANDUM

Dr. Manhua Mandy Lin brings this action against Rohm and Haas Company d/b/a Dow Advanced Materials ("Rohm and Haas"), alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (the "PHRA"), 43 Pa. Stat. Ann. §§ 951 et seq., as well as breach of contract and intentional interference with prospective contractual relations.

This is the latest in a series of lawsuits between the parties. Dr. Lin's claims in this action stem largely from Rohm and Haas's conduct in a prior lawsuit brought by the company in state court on June 2, 2000, and not yet finally resolved. In a federal lawsuit filed on June 5, 2002, Dr. Lin unsuccessfully challenged the initiation of that state lawsuit and certain other conduct by Rohm and Haas. The federal lawsuit was finally resolved on October 28, 2004, when the Third Circuit dismissed Dr. Lin's appeal as untimely.

Currently before me is Rohm and Haas's motion to dismiss Dr. Lin's complaint. Rohm and Haas contends that the prior federal and state lawsuits bar Dr. Lin's claims in this action, and makes several other arguments for dismissal. Because I agree that some of Dr. Lin's retaliation claims are barred by res judicata, I will grant Rohm and Haas's motion to dismiss those claims. But I will deny the motion with respect to Dr. Lin's other claims.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY*fn1

Dr. Lin was hired by Rohm and Haas as a research scientist on January 3, 1989. (Compl. ¶ 23.) After she filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC") in January 1999, Dr. Lin and Rohm and Haas entered into a settlement agreement in November 1999, in which she agreed to resign. (Id. ¶¶ 25--26.) The parties also entered into a companion agreement that contained a non-compete provision and addressed certain confidentiality issues. (Id. ¶¶ 27, 29.) The agreements authorized Dr. Lin to publish papers and make presentations regarding her research, subject to trade-secret review by Rohm and Haas. (Id. ¶¶ 28--29.)

On June 2, 2000, Rohm and Haas filed a lawsuit in the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, alleging that Dr. Lin had taken confidential information from Rohm and Haas without its permission and had disclosed its trade secrets in a presentation to the American Chemical Society. (Id. ¶¶ 43, 46.) The trial court granted a preliminary injunction against Dr. Lin on April 17, 2001,*fn2 which the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed on February 20, 2003. See Rohm & Haas Co. v. Lin, No. 1246 EDA 2001 (Pa. Super. Ct. Feb. 20, 2003) (attached as Exhibit A to Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss).

Dr. Lin alleges that in March 2003, after the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the trial court's preliminary injunction, Rohm and Haas learned that EverNu Technology, LLC ("EverNu"), a company founded by Dr. Lin in June 2000 to conduct chemical research (Compl. ¶¶ 50--55), had been awarded a grant by the Small Business Innovative Research (the "SBIR") program of the U.S. Department of Energy (the "DOE"), and that Rohm and Haas "began to improperly use the [state lawsuit] in an attempt to obtain EverNu's intellectual property" (id. ¶ 85).

In April 2003, for example, Rohm and Haas served Dr. Lin with a document request seeking all grant applications filed by EverNu, as well as EverNu's communications with the DOE. Notwithstanding Dr. Lin's objections, the trial court granted Rohm and Haas's motion to compel discovery. (Id. Ex. A, Statement of Complaint Filed with the EEOC on May 20, 2004 ("EEOC Statement") ¶ 9.)

Similarly, on August 20, 2003, Rohm and Haas served a subpoena on EverNu allegedly demanding that EverNu produce documents containing confidential business information, trade secrets, and intellectual property. (Id. ¶ 87.) EverNu filed a motion for a protective order, but the trial court denied the motion and later granted a motion by Rohm and Haas seeking to compel EverNu to provide the requested information. (Id. ¶¶ 88--90.) After EverNu and Dr. Lin failed to comply with the orders, the court imposed monetary sanctions against Dr. Lin and EverNu. (Id. ¶ 91.) EverNu appealed this order, but it was quashed as interlocutory. (Id.)

Meanwhile, on June 5, 2002, while her appeal of the preliminary injunction was pending before the Pennsylvania Superior Court, Dr. Lin filed a federal lawsuit in this district ("Lin I"), alleging, among other things, that Rohm and Haas had filed the state lawsuit as retaliation against her for her informal complaints to the EEOC, in violation of Title VII and the PHRA.*fn3 The district court initially denied Rohm and Haas's motion for summary judgment as to that claim, concluding, in a memorandum and order dated November 13, 2003, that Dr. Lin had cast sufficient doubt on Rohm and Haas's proffered nonretaliatory reason for initiating the state lawsuit to defeat summary judgment. See Lin v. Rohm & Haas Co., 293 F. Supp. 2d 505 (E.D. Pa. 2003). Upon Rohm and Haas's motion for reconsideration or, in the alternative, renewed motion for summary judgment, however, the district court concluded that the state lawsuit was not an "adverse employment action" under Title VII, and in a memorandum and order dated January 22, 2004, granted Rohm and Haas's motion for summary judgment. See Lin v. Rohm & Haas Co., 301 F. Supp. 2d 403 (E.D. Pa. 2004).

Dr. Lin filed a motion seeking reconsideration of the district court's conclusion that the state lawsuit was not an "adverse employment action." In an order dated May 6, 2004, the district court denied Dr. Lin's motion for reconsideration, asserting that "[t]his Court does not believe that Defendant's lawful use of the state judicial system and its discovery process can be the basis of Plaintiff's claim of unlawful retaliation under Title VII." Order at n.1, Lin v. Rohm & Haas Co., No. 02-3612 (E.D. Pa. May 6, 2004). Noting that, in her motion for reconsideration, Dr. Lin had "largely predicate[d] the 'adverse employment action' prong of her retaliation claim on the discovery requests propounded on EverNu," and that the state court had denied Dr. Lin's and EverNu's challenges to such discovery requests, the district court asserted, "We do not believe that discovery sanctioned by the state court can constitute an adverse employment action simply because the correlating legal fees have affected Plaintiff's salary." Id.

Dr. Lin filed a second motion for reconsideration, which the district court denied in an order dated July 27, 2004. Dr. Lin then filed a notice of appeal on August 18, 2004, but on October 28, 2004, the Third Circuit dismissed her appeal for lack of jurisdiction because it was untimely.

Meanwhile, on June 21, 2004, Dr. Lin filed an EEOC charge-her fourth such charge-alleging that Rohm and Haas had retaliated against her by filing "burdensome and unlawful requests for discovery and production of documents" in the state lawsuit.*fn4 (Compl. Ex. A, Charge of Discrimination; see also Compl. ¶ 17.) She alleged that the wrongful conduct occurred between August 20, 2003, and May 20, 2004. (Compl. Ex. A, Charge of Discrimination.)

With respect to the ongoing state litigation, Dr. Lin alleges that in June 2006, "Rohm and Haas caused a $32,200 judgment to be entered against . . . EverNu . . . and caused writs of execution to be served upon EverNu's banks, which froze EverNu's accounts." (Compl.¶ 92.) In June 2007, however, the trial court ordered that the judgment be struck. (Id.) In or around June 2006, Rohm and Haas also served a subpoena on Temple University, EverNu's research collaborator, seeking EverNu's "confidential and proprietary research information." (Id. ¶ 93.) According to Dr. Lin, the court "forced Temple University to produce 750 pages of research documents that belonged to EverNu." (Id.)

In March 2007, after Rohm and Haas had received the research documents from Temple University, Rohm and Haas allegedly "approached Dr. Lin and made a 'settlement proposal.'" (Id. ¶ 94.) According to Dr. Lin, Rohm and Haas offered to settle the lawsuit if EverNu "grant[ed] Rohm and Haas a non-exclusive license for the technology underpinning [its methacrylic acid research project] for no consideration." (Id. ¶ 95.) Dr. Lin further alleges that Rohm and Haas "threatened to destroy EverNu's relationship with the DOE if EverNu did not agree to the 'settlement proposal' and provide Rohm and Haas with its technology for free." (Id. ¶ 96.) Nonetheless, Dr. Lin and EverNu rejected the settlement proposal. (Id. ¶ 97.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Lin failed to comply with the state court's discovery orders, and in December 2007, Rohm and Haas moved for a default judgment against Dr. Lin as a discovery sanction. (Id. ¶ 98.) On May 5, 2008, the trial court entered a default judgment against Dr. Lin and issued a permanent injunction as a discovery sanction. (Id. ¶ 99.) The injunction provided:

1. The Defendant Dr. Lin is permanently enjoined from using, disclosing or divulging directly or indirectly any information that Plaintiff Rohm and Haas Company considers confidential or a trade secret.

2. The Defendant Dr. Lin and any other entity or individual associated with Dr. Lin or acting on her behalf are permanently enjoined from proceeding with methacrylic acid research and making other disclosures and uses of Rohm and Haas['s] trade secrets.

3. The Defendant Dr. Lin shall cease and desist from consulting, performing any research or engaging in other activities pursuant to the outstanding EverNu Technologies LLC's contracts with the Department of Energy or any other research contracts concerning or involving methacrylic acid.

4. Defendant, Dr. Lin, for the next three (3) years shall not make, contribute [to] or participate in any (a) presentation or proposal; (b) publication; (c) application or proposal for research grant whether said presentation or submission for publication or application for a research grant is made on her own behalf, or any other entity she owns or is associated with or on which she will be working as a principal scientist, collaborator, employee or otherwise, without submitting the same to Rohm and Haas ninety (90) days in advance for a trade secret review and obtaining agreement of the Plaintiff Rohm and Haas, that the presentation, publication or research grant application or proposal contains no Rohm and Haas trade secrets.

Rohm & Haas Co. v. Lin, 992 A.2d 132, 146--47 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2010).

Dr. Lin further alleges that in July 2008, at the request of Rohm and Haas, the court entered four separate monetary judgments against EverNu, including the $32,200 judgment that the court had struck in June 2007, as well as four monetary judgments against Dr. Lin. Rohm and Haas also allegedly caused writs of execution to be served on EverNu's and Dr. Lin's banks, which resulted in the freezing of their accounts. In November 2008, however, the trial court ordered that each of these judgments be struck. (Id. ¶ 99.)

Dr. Lin appealed the May 5, 2008, default judgment and injunction. In an opinion dated March 1, 2010, the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed the entry of a default judgment against Dr. Lin, concluding that "the trial court did not abuse its discretion or commit an error of law in entering a default judgment in favor of Rohm and Haas as a sanction for Dr. Lin's willful violation of the trial court's numerous discovery orders." Rohm & Haas Co. v. Lin, 992 A.2d at 144. The Superior Court similarly affirmed portions of the permanent injunction (paragraphs 1 and 4), but it vacated other portions (paragraphs 2 and 3), which it concluded were "overly broad and not supported by the record," and remanded the matter "to the trial court to enable Rohm and Haas to produce evidence in support of the relief granted by the trial court in paragraphs 2 and 3." Id. at 148--49.

Meanwhile, on May 13, 2008, while Dr. Lin's appeal of the default judgment and injunction was pending, Rohm and Haas allegedly "wrote to the DOE and demanded that the DOE cease doing business with EverNu." (Compl. ¶ 102.) Dr. Lin alleges that Rohm and Haas provided a copy of the default judgment to the DOE and "demanded that the DOE inform it as to what actions the DOE planned to take against EverNu." (Id. ¶ 103.) On June 23, 2008, Rohm and Haas allegedly sent an e-mail to the DOE "demand[ing] to know whether 'all work and funding' of EverNu's [methacrylic acid research project] had stopped." (Id. ¶ 104.) Dr. Lin further alleges that "Rohm and Haas also insinuated that EverNu may have misused the SBIR grants." (Id.) According to Dr. Lin, over the next two months, Rohm and Haas continued to "barrage" the DOE with e-mails about EverNu. (Id. ¶ 105.)

Dr. Lin alleges that the DOE had previously "determined that Dr. Lin was not copying Rohm and Haas research" with respect to the methacrylic acid research project for which she had been awarded a grant. (Id. ¶ 109.) According to Dr. Lin, in response to a request by the DOE's general counsel, a DOE official reviewed EverNu's research proposals and concluded that they were "different and unrelated to the content and research direction presented in the Rohm and Haas documents" that had been provided to the DOE. (Id.)

On February 1, 2011, the EEOC issued a determination letter regarding her fourth charge, which she had filed in 2004. (Id. ¶ 18; see also id. Ex. B, Letter from Spencer H. Lewis to Manhua M. Lin (Feb. 1, 2011) ("EEOC Determination").) After investigating Dr. Lin's allegation, the district director of the EEOC concluded that "the evidence obtained during the investigation establishes . . . that [Dr. Lin] was and continues to be subjected to retaliatory actions by [Rohm and Haas]." (EEOC Determination at 2.) The district director asserted that "[t]he evidence of record clearly shows that . . . [Rohm and Haas] has continuously filed burdensome motions without any relevant bases in an effort to gain access to [Dr. Lin's] research, to disrupt her business, and to ultimately impose an undue financial burden upon her." (Id.) The EEOC sent Dr. Lin a right-to-sue notice on March 8, 2011. (Compl. Ex. C.)

Dr. Lin then filed this action against Rohm and Haas on May 13, 2011, alleging retaliation in violation of Title VII (count I) and the PHRA (count II), as well as breach of contract (count III) and intentional interference with prospective contractual relations (count IV).

Rohm and Haas has now filed a motion to dismiss Dr. Lin's complaint.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

"To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Factual allegations "that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability," or that permit the court to infer no more than "the mere possibility of misconduct" are not enough. Id. at 1949--50 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). Rather, the plaintiff must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 1949. When a court evaluates a motion to dismiss, "the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. at 210--11; see also Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950 (asserting that a court should assume the veracity of well-pleaded factual allegations, but legal conclusions "are not entitled to the assumption of truth"). And the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. See McTernan v. City of York, 577 F.3d 521, 526 (3d Cir. 2009).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Retaliation (Counts I ...


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