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Rafi v. Yale University School of Medicine

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

July 27, 2017

SYED K. RAFI, Plaintiff
v.
YALE UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE and RICHARD P. LIFTON; Defendants

          RULING ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          VICTOR A. BOLDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Dr. Syed Rafi (“Plaintiff”), a former employee of Yale University School of Medicine (“Yale”), brought this action against Yale and Dr. Richard Lifton, Chairman of the Department of Genetics (together “Defendants”). On September 15, 2016, the Court dismissed Dr. Rafi's initial Complaint without prejudice for failure to comply with the service requirements of Rule 4(m). Order, ECF No. 49. The following month, Dr. Rafi filed an Amended Complaint, reopening this case. Am. Compl., ECF No. 51. Defendants now move to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim; in the alternative, they seek to strike various portions of the Amended Complaint under Rule 12(f). Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 56.

         For the reasons that follow, the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED with prejudice, and Defendants' Motion to Strike is DENIED AS MOOT.[1]

I. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS

         Dr. Rafi is a former Cytogenetics Fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine (“Yale”)[2]. Am. Compl. at 4, ECF No. 51. In or around 2001, Dr. Rafi began his employment with Yale as a clinical cytogenetics trainee under the supervision of Dr. Richard Lifton, Chairman of the Genetics Department at the Yale University School of Medicine. Id. at 3-5. During his time as a cytogenetics trainee, Dr. Rafi worked in the laboratory of Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale employee and laboratory director, who was substantially involved in political activism about issues affecting Palestine and Israel. Id. at 8-11. Dr. Rafi alleges that Yale wanted to terminate Dr. Qumsiyeh, and that, as a means to help Yale avoid a potential employment discrimination complaint from Dr. Qumsiyeh, Dr. Lifton pressured Dr. Rafi to file a written complaint against Dr. Qumsiyeh. Id. At Dr. Lifton's request, Dr. Rafi provided a confidential statement for Yale describing Dr. Qumsiyeh's management of the Clinical Cytogenetics Laboratory and his alleged actions to pressure Dr. Rafi to participate in political activism. Qumsiyeh Compl., Am. Compl. Ex. 4, ECF No. 51-2.

         According to the Amended Complaint, Dr. Lifton “coercively demanded” this written complaint, and Dr. Rafi “yield[ed] to Dr. Lifton's coercion” by providing it. Am Compl. at 11, ECF No. 51. The Amended Complaint does not allege that Dr. Lifton demanded this written complaint because of Dr. Rafi's race or national origin; rather, Dr. Rafi states that he was asked to write this complaint “since Plaintiff had worked and trained at that clinical diagnostic cytogenetics laboratory that was abusively directed and exploited by Dr. Qumsiyeh….” Id.

         Dr. Rafi's written complaint states that Dr. Qumsiyeh was significantly involved in “Palestinian political activism” during his time as Director of the Clinical Cytogenetics Laboratory in which Dr. Rafi worked. Qumsiyeh Compl. at 1, Am. Compl. Ex. 4, ECF No. 51-2. According to the complaint, Dr. Qumsiyeh interfered with Dr. Rafi's application to undergo an American Board of Medical Genetics (“ABMG”) Medical Genetics Training Program at the Boston University School of Medicine because he wanted Dr. Rafi to complete the training at Yale instead. Id. at 1-2. After Dr. Rafi began the ABMG training program at Yale, he claims that Dr. Qumsiyeh “did not wait for too long to indirectly pressure [him] to attend his Palestinian Political meetings” and sent multiple unsolicited emails each day to Dr. Rafi's inbox regarding this political activity. Id.

         When Dr. Rafi refused to participate in these activities, he alleges that Dr. Qumsiyeh became “rude and authoritative.” Id. According to Dr. Rafi, Dr. Qumsiyeh required him to complete additional diagnostic laboratory work until 10 p.m. to compensate for time spent on ABMG training activities, required him to resign from his position as a full time technologist and accept the position of “temporary” technologist, which did not include benefits, and attempted to extend his training period even after he had already completed the required ABMG training program in order to compel him to perform additional unpaid research work on behalf of the laboratory. Id. at 3-4.

         Dr. Rafi eventually left Yale and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. Id. at 13. According to Dr. Rafi, Dr. Lifton and Yale unlawfully interfered with his efforts to obtain employment at various institutions in the Boston area, including at Harvard Medical School, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and others. Id. at 13-22. Dr. Rafi specifically alleges that Dr. Lifton “colluded” with Dr. Cynthia Morton, Director of Clinical Cytogenetic Laboratories at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, to ensure that he was not hired. Id. Dr. Rafi claims that this interference was in order for Dr. Lifton to employ him at Yale, so that he could testify as a witness against Dr. Qumsiyeh. Id. Dr. Rafi never alleges that Dr. Qumsiyeh filed an employment discrimination case against Yale, however, nor does he specify what sort of testimony he was being asked to give.

         Dr. Rafi states that he was eventually able to obtain lower-level roles at Harvard Medical School as a molecular genetics research associate and later as a manager at a core service laboratory. Id. at 16-17. He alleges that Dr. Barbara Pober, who left Yale around the same time as Dr. Qumsiyeh and who worked as an Associate Professor at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, participated in “influence peddling from within HMS” to ensure that those positions were terminated. Id. According to Dr. Rafi, Dr. Pober's husband was an influential Yale professor at the time of these alleged actions; however, he does not name Dr. Pober as a Defendant in this action. Id. at 15. Each time Dr. Rafi's employment in Boston was terminated, he was allegedly encouraged to apply to Yale. Id. at 16-17. Dr. Rafi also alleges that, although Yale also wanted Dr. Pober, who is Jewish and female, to return to Yale to testify against Dr. Qumsiyeh, they did not engage in similar retaliatory acts as to her following her employment with Yale.

         The Amended Complaint briefly includes an additional allegation that Defendants' interference with Dr. Rafi's employment efforts was also caused, in part, by a separate Title VII lawsuit that Dr. Rafi had previously brought against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”). Id. at 25-27. In this lawsuit, Dr. Rafi alleged that the National Institute of Health (“NIH”) discriminated against him, while he was working as a volunteer researcher. Id. Dr. Rafi claims that Dr. Lifton had a “special bond” with the director of the NIH at the time and that Dr. Rafi's previous Title VII complaint was “open and readily available, ” suggesting that Dr. Lifton knew about this complaint at the time of the allegedly retaliatory actions. Id. The Amended Complaint indicates that Dr. Rafi initiated this previous lawsuit in 2002, which would have been during his employment with Yale as a cytogenetics trainee. Id.

         Dr. Rafi claims that Dr. Lifton's interference in his job applications in the field of cytogenetics continues to this day. He claims that Yale's and Dr. Lifton's actions were primarily in retaliation for Dr. Rafi's refusal to work for Yale and testify against Dr. Qumsiyeh, and he claims that these acts violated the provisions of Title VI, Title VII, Title IX, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Fed R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draw all possible inferences from those allegations in favor of the plaintiff. See York v. Ass'n of the Bar of the City of New York, 286 F.3d 122, 125 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1089 (2002). The proper consideration is not whether the plaintiff ultimately will prevail, but whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief may be granted such that he should be entitled to offer evidence to support his claim. See id. (citation omitted). Courts considering motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) generally “must limit [their] analysis to the four corners of the complaint, ” though they may also consider documents that are “incorporated in the complaint by reference.” Kermanshah v. Kermanshah, 580 F.Supp.2d 247, 258 (S.D.N.Y. 2008).

         In reviewing a complaint under Rule 12(b)(6), the court applies “a ‘plausibility standard, '” which is guided by “two working principles.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). First, the requirement that the court accept as true the allegations in a complaint “is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Id. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. Second, to survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint must state a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 679. Determining whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief is “‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Harris v. Mills, 572 F.3d 66, 72 (2d Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants seek dismissal of Dr. Rafi's Complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) on the following grounds: (1) Dr. Rafi fails to state a claim under Title VII because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, his claims are untimely, and they do not sufficiently allege adverse action; (2) Dr. Rafi's Title VI claims are time-barred and are improperly alleged against Dr. Lifton; (3) Dr. Rafi fails to allege any gender-based discrimination as required to state a claim under Title IX; (4) Dr. Rafi's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (“Section 1981”) are time-barred; and (5) Dr. Rafi does not adequately allege state action, as required to state a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983). Alternatively, Defendants seek a more definite statement under Rule 12(e) as well as to strike various portions of the Complaint under Rule 12(f).

         A. Claims against Dr. Lifton

         The Amended Complaint asserts Title VII retaliation claims against Yale and Dr. Lifton, claiming that both Defendants retaliated against him for “refus[ing] to serve as a defense witness against Dr. Qumsiyeh” by interfering with his efforts to gain employment elsewhere. Am. Compl. at 2, ECF No. 51. The Amended Complaint also similarly asserts Title VI claims against Dr. Lifton as well as claims under Title IX. All of the claims against Dr. Lifton are dismissed.[3]

         1. Title VII

         Defendants argue that all Title VII claims brought against Dr. Lifton should be dismissed, as only employers, not individuals, can be liable under Title VII. Def. Mem. in Supp. at 11, ECF No. 56-1. The Court agrees.

         The Second Circuit has established that “individuals are not subject to liability under Title VII.” Patterson v. Cty. of Oneida, N.Y., 375 F.3d 206, 221 (2d Cir. 2004) (internal quotations and marks omitted). Accordingly, any Title VII claims asserted against Dr. Lipton individually are dismissed, and the Court considers Dr. Rafi's Title VII claims only as to Yale.

         2. Title VI

         In addition to his claims under Title VII, Dr. Rafi asserts that Dr. Lifton violated his rights under Title VI, by interfering with his re-employment efforts in retaliation for his refusal to work for Yale and testify against Dr. Qumsiyeh. Defendants argue that these claims cannot be asserted against Dr. Lifton, as Title VI is only applicable to programs receiving federal assistance. The Court agrees with Defendants.

         Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees' right to be free from race-based or national origin-based discrimination on the part of programs that receive federal assistance. 42 U.S.C. § 2000d (“No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, or denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”). Dr. Lifton cannot be a defendant in a Title VI action, as Title VI only applies to entities that receive federal financial assistance. See Milione, 950 F.Supp.2d at 708-709 (“The proper defendant in a Title VI action ‘is the entity that receives federal financial assistance, not an individual.'”) (quoting Kelly v. Rice, 375 F.Supp.2d 203, 208 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)). Accordingly, all Title VI claims against Dr. Lifton are dismissed.

         3. Title IX

         Dr. Rafi alleges that Dr. Lifton violated the sex discrimination provisions of Title IX through the same conduct alleged in connection with his other claims. Defendants claim that Title IX claims cannot be brought against individual Defendants, thus Dr. Rafi's claims against Dr. Lifton should be dismissed. The Court agrees with Defendants.

         Only federally funded educational institutions can be defendants in a Title IX action. See Davis Next Friend LaShonda D. v. Monroe County Bd. of Educ., 526 U.S. 629, 363 (1999) (recognizing dismissal of claims against individual defendants “on the ground that only federally funded educational institutions are subject to liability in private causes of action under Title IX”). Accordingly, Dr. Rafi's claims against Dr. Lifton are dismissed.

         B. Claims Against Yale

         Dr. Rafi asserts that Yale violated Title VII, Title VI, and Title IX. He also asserts that both Yale and Dr. Rafi violated Section 1981 and Section 1983. For the various reasons discussed below, all of these claims are dismissed.

         1. Title VII

         Defendants seek dismissal of Dr. Rafi's Title VII retaliation claims against Yale, arguing that: (a) Dr. Rafi failed to exhaust administrative remedies before bringing this lawsuit in federal court; (b) his claims are untimely; and (c) he failed to adequately allege adverse action on the part of Defendants. The Court concludes that Dr. Rafi did exhaust his administrative remedies and has properly alleged adverse action; however, aspects of his Title VII claims are untimely, and his Title VII retaliation claims ultimately fail because of his inability to allege participation in protected activity as required for a prima facie retaliation case.

         a. Exhaustion of ...


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