E-Alert Case Updates
Claims for Abuse of Process and Defamation Barred Under the Federal Torts Claims Act
Dr. Mahin Khatami v. Dr. Carolyn Compton
In this recently issued Memorandum Opinion from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. simultaneously granted the United States’ Motion to Substitute Parties, and Motion to Dismiss based on the Federal Tort Claims Act (“FTCA”) 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b)(1).
The underlying facts of the case were quite involved. The Plaintiff, Dr. Mahin Khatami (“Dr. Khatami”), and the Defendant Dr. Carolyn Compton (“Dr. Compton”) both worked at the National Cancer Institute (“NCI”) prior to Dr. Khatami’s forced retirement in 2009. Dr. Compton served as the Director of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research, a branch within NCI. As such, Dr. Compton was above Dr. Khatami in the hierarchical structure of NCI and served as her direct supervisor for at least six (6) months.
During Dr. Khatami’s employment at NCI, she filed numerous complaints of discrimination and retaliation to various administrative agencies including the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Dr. Compton was named in at least one such complaint. On November 2, 2009, a number of Dr. Khatami’s pending claims were settled, and Dr. Khatami’s retirement was a condition of such settlement. Thereafter, Dr. Khatami allegedly appeared at multiple NCI speaking engagements of Dr. Compton and confronted and/or harassed Dr. Compton at those events. This occurred to such an extent that Dr. Compton was concerned for her safety and requested that NCI protect her from Dr. Khatami’s harassment.
NCI informed Dr. Compton that it could not take such actions legally, but that if Dr. Compton obtained a Peace Order against Dr. Khatami, NCI would enforce the order. Dr. Compton sought such an order in the Circuit Court of Maryland for Montgomery County. Dr. Compton’s request was denied, however, as the judge determined that Dr. Khatami had not received any prior warning to cease such behavior. The judge issued such a warning to Dr. Khatami.
As a result of the legal action taken by Dr. Compton, Dr. Khatami filed this civil suit accusing Dr. Compton of malicious abuse of process and defamation. The United States government removed the case on federal jurisdiction grounds and contemporaneously filed the Motion to Substitute. The United States argued that Dr. Compton sought the Peace Order in the scope of her employment for the government, and as such the United States government, as her employer, should be substituted as the Defendant. Furthermore, the United States filed a Motion to Dismiss Dr. Khatami’s suit as barred against the government under the FTCA.
The key issue for determination by the Court was whether Dr. Compton had sought the Peace Order within the “scope of her employment” for NCI. The Court noted that Maryland law would control the scope of employment question. The Court noted that Sawyer v. Humphries, 587 A.2d 467 (Md. 1991) provided the applicable test, in which the Maryland Court of Appeals stated that for an employee’s tortious acts to be within the scope of his employment, the acts must be in furtherance of the employer’s business and ‘authorized’ by the employer. Id. at 470.
The Court determined that Dr. Compton did indeed pursue the Peace Order within the scope of her employment. The NCI advised her to seek a Peace Order after informing her that they could not protect her from Dr. Khatami otherwise, she was being harassed while performing key functions of her job duties, and she went to Court to obtain the Peace Order during work hours.
As such, Judge Williams found that the facts presented made clear that Dr. Compton’s pursuit of a Peace Order was within the scope of her employment and the United States should properly be substituted for Dr. Compton as Defendant. Therefore, Dr. Khatami’s claim was one against the United States Government and controlled by the FTCA. Under the FTCA such claims were barred as a result of Dr. Khatami’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies as well as the fact that the FTCA expressly excludes claims such as abuse of process/defamation against government employees.
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