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Aina v. Howard-Vital

United States District Court, Third Circuit

October 8, 2013

AINA, et al., Plaintiffs,
HOWARD-VITAL, et al., Defendants.



Tinuke Aina and Dr. Ayodele Aina, her husband, assert claims against defendants Michelle Howard-Vital, Suzanne Phillips, Joanne Harris, Pamela Hadley, and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Aina states that the individual defendants caused her to be fired from her job as a Certified Registered Nurse Practitioner (“CRNP”) at Cheyney’s Health Center in retaliation for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. She further alleges that they injured her reputation in violation of the same statute. Mrs. Aina also claims that Dr. Howard-Vital, Dr. Phillips, Ms. Harris, and Dr. Hadley committed the tort of defamation, and that these individuals together with Cheyney University violated 42 Pa. C.S. § 1422, Pennsylvania’s Whistleblower statute. Dr. Ayodele Aina asserts that Dr. Howard-Vital, Dr. Phillips, and Ms. Harris caused him economic harm and emotional distress by firing Mrs. Aina and that she was fired because Dr. Aina exercised his own right to free speech, again violating 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Both plaintiffs claim that the relevant defendants acted in concert in depriving them of their constitutional rights, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985.

Except with respect to the Pennsylvania Whistleblower claim, Defendants move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons discussed below, the Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. Factual Background[1]

Mrs. Aina was a CRNP at Cheyney University’s Health Center for about six years. As a CRNP, she provided primary medical care for individual students, working under the supervision of medical doctors. These doctors were supposed to, and at times did, enter into collaborative agreements with Mrs. Aina that gave her authority to write prescriptions for students when physicians were unavailable.

Defendant Dr. Phillips was Mrs. Aina’s administrative supervisor and was directly responsible for the operations of the health center. Defendant Dr. Howard-Vital was the president of Cheyney. Defendant Ms. Harris was Cheyney’s Director of Human Resources. Defendant Dr. Hadley, the only individual defendant who was not a Cheyney employee, was a medical doctor hired as a contractor to work in the Health Center. She supervised Mrs. Aina on a day-to-day basis.

Throughout her time working at Cheyney, the Health Center was beset by problems that resulted in the provision of inadequate care to patients. For example, Defendants failed to inform the doctors who worked at Cheyney that they were supposed to enter into collaborative agreements with Mrs. Aina. The doctors that Defendants hired kept irregular schedules, failed to show up to work during their office hours, and failed to make their scheduled appointments. There were even times when the Health Center lacked any medical doctor on staff.

The Health Center also lacked an adequate staff of nurse technicians, nurse assistants, and clerical support, and it did not keep a reasonable supply of medical equipment or medicines, even basic ones. Mrs. Aina kept Drs. Phillips and Howard-Vital aware of these shortcomings. Rather than remedy these problems, Cheyney compounded them by hiring as contractor Dr. Hadley. She failed to provide Mrs. Aina with a schedule, regularly missed appointments, and kept the health center badly stocked with basic medical needs. These failings led to serious, chronic health problems among students.

Mrs. Aina informed her superiors, including all the individual defendants, of the problems plaguing the Health Center. She also complained to her husband and Nancy Jones, whose job was to help move the Health Center to a new building (a plan Mrs. Aina vocally opposed); to Greg Benjamin, Cheyney’s Director of Alumni Relations; to Scott Gibson, the Director of the Health Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania; to Dr. Phillps’s administrative assistant; and to Monique Baylor, Cheyney’s director of Business Support Services.

Not only did Mrs. Aina make these complaints, but her husband, a tenured professor of mathematics at Cheyney, a member of the Leadership Committee of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties (“APSCUF”) at Cheyney, and a member of the Cheyney Faculty Senate, pressed them as well. Instead of taking the Ainas’ suggestions and criticisms to heart, Defendants engaged in a scheme to silence Mrs. Aina-and thereby to retaliate against Dr. Aina-threatening her with disciplinary action and termination of her employment. Mrs. Aina was terminated on December 21, 2012.

After Mrs. Aina’s employment terminated, she filed a grievance through her union. After that grievance was filed, defendants filed false charges against Mrs. Aina before the Pennsylvania Board of Nursing, accusing Mrs. Aina of practicing as a CRNP without entering into a collaborative agreement with a doctor and of administering tests to students without a license. These falsehoods damaged Mrs. Aina’s professional reputation and caused her severe emotional distress. This lawsuit followed.

II. Jurisdiction

This Court has jurisdiction to hear the Ainas’ claims based on 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331, since they arise under the Constitution and laws of the United States. It has jurisdiction to hear Mrs. Aina’s state-law claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367 because the state-law claims are so related to the federal claims that they form a part of the same case or controversy under Article III of the Constitution.

III. Standard of Review

In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.”[2] Additionally, it “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.”[3] A plaintiff who survives a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim on which relief may be granted states facts sufficient to “‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.’”[4]

IV. Mrs. Aina’s § 1983 Claims

A. Retaliation

In order to state a claim for retaliation under § 1983, “a public employee must demonstrate that (1) he or she engaged in activity that is protected by the First Amendment, and (2) the protected activity was a substantial factor in retaliatory action by the employer.”[5] The first inquiry is a question of law, the second of fact.[6] To establish that the activity was protected by the First Amendment, the plaintiff must show that he or she spoke as a citizen and on a matter of public concern. After making this showing, the plaintiff must persuade the court that the employee’s interests “as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern” outweighs “the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting the efficiency of the public services it performs through its employees.”[7]

The crucial question here is whether Mrs. Aina spoke “as a citizen.” She did not do so if she spoke “pursuant to [her] official duties.”[8] Whether speech is made pursuant to one’s official “duties is a mixed question of fact and law.”[9] The Third Circuit has “consistently held that complaints up the chain of command about issues related to an employee’s workplace duties- for example, possible safety issues or misconduct by other employees-are within an employee's official duties.”[10] By contrast, a “First Amendment retaliation claim insofar as it is premised on [a plaintiff’s] advocating and supporting ideas, principles and projects, ” will not be dismissed.[11]Mrs. Aina’s official duties included “developing and evaluating comprehensive primary medical treatment plans for individual Cheyney students according to established treatment protocols created by Cheyney-affiliated physicians.”[12] Moreover, she was responsible for cooperating with physicians who were “expected to enter into written collaborative agreements with Mrs. Aina to give her prescriptive authority.”[13]

In evaluating whether Mrs. Aina has stated a claim under § 1983, “[t]he court . . . cannot make a superficial characterization of the speech or activity taken as a whole . . . . Instead, it must conduct a particularized examination of each activity for which the protection of the First Amendment is claimed.”[14] Mrs. Aina made repeated complaints about the conditions at the health center to many people. Some of these complaints were clearly made “up the chain of command about issues related to an employee’s workplace duties” and thus are not protected by the First Amendment.[15] For example, her complaints to Dr. Hadley, the attending physician under whom Mrs. Aina worked, [16] that the Health Center lacked necessary equipment, [17] that Dr. Hadley ...

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