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Sadid v. Vailas

United States District Court, Ninth Circuit

May 2, 2013

HABIB SADID, Plaintiff,
v.
ARTHUR VAILAS, RICHARD JACOBSEN, GRAHAM GARNER, DAVID BEARD, and JOHN/JANE DOES I through Z, whose true identities are presently unknown, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

In March 2013, this Court granted summary judgment to the defendants on all of plaintiff Habib Sadid's federal claims. The only remaining claims are Dr. Sadid's state-law claims for tortious interference with contract, defamation, and intentional interference with emotional distress. Defendants seek summary adjudication of these claims as well.

Before ruling on these state-law claims, the Court invited the parties to indicate whether they wanted the Court to retain jurisdiction, now that the federal claims are gone. Both parties asked the Court to retain jurisdiction. Accordingly, and for the reasons further explained below, the Court will retain jurisdiction of the state-law claims and rule on defendants' pending motions for summary judgment of these claims.[1]

The Court will grant defendants' motions for summary judgment of plaintiff's claims for emotional distress and interference with contract. The Court will also summarily adjudicate Dr. Sadid's defamation claim against Dr. Beard, but will deny defendant Garner's motion for summary judgment on the defamation claim against him.

FACTS

A full recitation of the relevant facts can be found in the Court's March 28, 2013 Order.[2] See Dkt. 128. A brief synopsis is as follows:

From 1994 until 2009, Dr. Sadid worked as a tenured professor at ISU in the College of Engineering. First Amend. Compl., Dkt. 39, §§ 14-15. During his tenure, Dr. Sadid criticized the university's and college's administrations as inept, corrupt, and secretive. After a particularly contentious faculty meeting in April 2009, Dean Richard Jacobsen issued a notice of contemplated action (NOCA) to Dr. Sadid. Dkt. 91, Ex. F. The NOCA informed Dr. Sadid that Dean Jacobsen was considering recommending Dr. Sadid for dismissal, in part, because his "aggressive, angry, and hostile outbursts have created tension and a sense of fear among much of the administrative staff." Id. at 3. Dean Jacobsen invited him to a private meeting to present "any reason, evidence, or information in opposition to that contemplated action." Id. The meeting, however, did not change Dean Jacobsen's mind, and he recommended to President Vailas that Dr. Sadid be terminated from his position. See Dkt. 92, Ex. I.

On August 4, 2009, President Vailas informed Dr. Sadid of Dean Jacobsen's recommendation and placed Dr. Sadid on administrative leave until President Vailas made the final decision. Id. at 2. President Vailas indicated, however, that he would withhold his decision until Dr. Sadid presented his case to the university's grievance committee in accordance with ISU's policies. See id. Attached to President Vailas's letter was a five-page memorandum prepared by Dean Jacobsen.

The memorandum stated that Dean Jacobsen believed Dr. Sadid should be dismissed for cause and listed several examples of his behavior that contributed to Dean Jacobsen's conclusion. Id. at 15-20. For example, it stated that Dr. Sadid made "several accusatory, threatening, and denigrating comments about [Dean Jacobsen] and other individuals, " id at 16, and made "obscene gestures" at a provost and his spouse, id. at 19. The letter also cites staff member Patricia Goldbeck's need to be "hyper-sensitive around Dr. Sadid" lest she end up on his "blacklist." Id. at 18. The most specific example of the tension allegedly caused by Dr. Sadid's actions can be found in the following passage describing the reaction of Annie Havlicak, a staff member, to an argument between Dr. Sadid and Dean Jacobsen:

Also, [Havlicak] once overheard, from her office, Dr. Sadid yelling in an angry voice at me in my office. Given her prior history in witnessing Dr. Sadid loudly and angrily berating the former Dean in a classroom - at a time when she was an engineering student some years earlier - she experienced severe anxiety and fear of imminent violence, to the extent that she prepared an escape plan from her office, planning to crawl up through the drop ceiling in order to avoid Dr. Saadid [sic]."

Id. at 17 (emphasis added).

In any event, Dr. Sadid's grievance hearing lasted for several weeks as Dr. Sadid and the administration presented their cases. Among the witnesses who testified during the hearing process were Goldbeck, Havlicak, and a third staff member, Ronda Mahl. Each woman testified that the confrontation between Dr. Sadid and Dean Jacobsen referenced in the NOCA made them fear for their safety, although each also stated that Dr. Sadid had never directly threatened them with violence. See Goldbeck Dep., Dkt. 87-1 at 4-5 and Dkt. 88-22 at 5; Havlicak Dep., Dkt. 87, Ex. 1 at 55-57 and Dkt. 88-21 at 3-6; Mahl Dep., Dkt. 87-1 at 2 and Dkt. 88-23 at 6.[3] At the conclusion of the hearing, the grievance committee recommended that Dr. Sadid be reinstated. See Dkt. 88-11 at 2. The committee's recommendation, however, was not binding on President Vailas.

President Vailas rejected the committee's recommendation and terminated Dr. Sadid's employment. See Dkt. 88-13. President Vailas explained his reasoning to Dr. Sadid in a letter dated October 29, which stated that Dr. Sadid's termination was effective "at the end of business" the next day - October 30, 2009. Id. at 10. "One of the most compelling issues" to President Vailas was the abusive nature of and toxic atmosphere created by Dr. Sadid's behavior. Id. at 3. The strongest evidence for his conclusion was Goldbeck's, Mahl's, and Havlicak's testimony, id. § 1, but their testimony was by no measure the only evidence President Vailas cited to support his conclusion, id. §§ 2, 4, 7-8, 12, 15.

Dr. Sadid's discharge garnered a significant amount of attention in the local and college press. The Idaho State Journal ran an article entitled "Prof. Fired." The article detailed the circumstances surrounding Dr. Sadid's termination and quoted from the portion of President Vailas's termination letter that discussed Goldbeck's, Mahl's, and Havlicak's safety concerns. Dkt. 87 at 22. Following that story, the ISU Bengal published an article suggesting that the decision to terminate Dr. Sadid was political. See Dkt. 88-15. That article prompted Garner to issue a statement explaining Dr. Sadid's termination. The ISU Bengal published Garner's statements in a second article on November 18, 2009. The article quotes Garner as saying, "This firing was not politically motivated... However, [Dr. Sadid] presented a lot of safety issues. There were many individuals who filed reports where they claimed Sadid threatened them." Id.

In March 2011, Dr. Sadid filed this action. As noted above, his complaint includes claims for interference with contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and defamation.

ANALYSIS

1. Supplemental Jurisdiction of Dr. Sadid's State-Law Claims

Even though all the federal claims in this action have been dismissed, the Court has discretion to retain jurisdiction of the state-law claims. See Satey v. JP Morgan Chase & Co., 521 F.3d 1087, 1091 (9th Cir. 2008). After reviewing the parties briefing on this point, see Dkts. 132, 133, the Court has determined that retaining jurisdiction would best accommodate the objectives of economy, convenience, fairness to the parties, and comity. Trustees of Constr. Indus. & Laborers Health & Welfare Trust v. Desert Valley Landscape & Maintenance, Inc., 333 F.3d 923, 925 (9th Cir. 2003). As previously noted, this case has been on the Court's docket for over two years and the defendants have moved for summary judgment on all pending claims. The factual issues giving rise to the state claims are closely related to the federal claims and the Court is now familiar with the complicated factual and procedural history of this case. Further, as the parties have explained, retaining jurisdiction likely will avoid piecemeal appeals from this Court. The Court will therefore retain jurisdiction of the state-law claims. See, e.g., Munger v. Glasgow Police Dep't, 227 F.3d 1082, 1089 n.4 (9th Cir. 2000) (district court properly retained jurisdiction of state law claims where they were based on the same factual allegations as the federal claims and the district court was fully familiar with the record).

2. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

Turning to the merits of Dr. Sadid's state-law claims, the Court concludes that the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim is not viable. To prove this claim, a plaintiff must show that: "(1) the defendant's conduct was intentional or reckless, (2) the conduct was extreme and outrageous, (3) there was a causal connection between the wrongful conduct and the plaintiff's emotional distress, and (4) the emotional distress was severe." Johnson v. McPhee, 210 P.3d 563, 572 (Idaho Ct. App. 2009). "Liability for this intentional tort is generated only by conduct that is very extreme. The conduct must be not merely unjustifiable; it must rise to the level of atrocious' and beyond all possible bounds of decency, ' such that it would cause an average member of the community to believe that it was outrageous." Id. (citing Edmonson v. Shearer Lumber Prods., 75 P.3d 733, 741 (Idaho 2003).

None of Dr. Sadid's allegations about his termination, including his allegations regarding defendants' post-termination comments, approach the sort of extreme conduct where plaintiffs have recovered for emotional distress in connection with a discharge. See Holmes v. Union Oil Co. of Cal., 760 P.2d 1189, 1197 (Idaho Ct. App. 1988) (citing Alcorn v. Anbro Engineering, Inc., 468 P.2d 216 (Cal. 1970) (supervisor made abusive and racially motivated remarks when terminating employee) and Agis v. Howard Johnson Co., 355 N.E.2d 315 (Mass. 1976) (manager fired waitresses in alphabetical order to coerce them into disclosing whether one was stealing from the restaurant)). As explained in the Court's March 28, 2013 Order, see Dkt. 128, Dr. Sadid's firing did not violate any of his civil rights and the fact that a university professor is fired, in and of itself, is not "very extreme" conduct - even assuming it was unjustifiable. Similarly, Garner's comments to the newspaper reporter shortly after the termination were not "atrocious" and "beyond all possible bounds of decency." After all, Dr. Sadid had previously published information about his termination; Garner was responding to Dr. Sadid's statements; and Garner's comments were arguably based on the actual reasons for Dr. Sadid's termination.

Note, however, that "based on" is a key term here. That is, Dr. Garner said that many individuals reported that Dr. Sadid threatened them and, indeed, Dr. Sadid's termination letter says he was terminated, in part, because some women felt threatened by his behavior. It did not say, however, that Dr. Sadid directly threatened anybody, and, viewing the facts favorably to the plaintiff, that is what Garner implied when he spoke to the reporter. Nevertheless, although this factual dispute precludes summary judgment of Dr. Sadid's defamation claim, Garner's conduct cannot be viewed as extreme and outrageous enough to support Dr. Sadid's emotional distress claim. In other words, Garner may have defamed Dr. Sadid, but, viewed in context, his doing so cannot be seen as "extreme and outrageous" conduct, particularly when there is a good argument that his statements were substantially accurate. This point is discussed further below, in connection with the Court's ruling on Dr. Sadid's defamation claim.

3. Tortious Interference with Contract By A Third Party

Dr. Sadid's tortious interference with contract claim also fails. A basic principle underlying this claim is that "a party cannot tortiously interfere with its own contract." Ostrander v. Farm Bureau Mut. Ins. Co. of Idaho, Inc., 851 P.2d 946, 950 (Idaho 1993). Dr. Sadid does not dispute that defendants were acting within the course and scope of their employment with ISU in the alleged activities that led to Dr. Sadid's termination.[4] As a result, Dr. Sadid is arguing that ISU, though its agents, interfered with its own contract. Idaho Courts have squarely rejected such claims. See, e.g., id. ("Since "Hart's actions with respect to Ostrander were within the scope of his authority as an agent of Farm Bureau, there was no third party to the contract."); Jenkins v. Boise Cascade Corp., 108 P.3d 233, 243 (Idaho 1993) (same). The Court will therefore grant defendants' motion for summary judgment of Dr. Sadid's interference with contract claim.

4. Defamation

The Court cannot grant summary judgment on Dr. Sadid's entire defamation claim, however. There are two allegedly defamatory communications in this case: (1) Dr. Beard's forwarding the minority report to a newspaper; and (2) Garner's comments about Dr. Sadid's termination to a newspaper reporter, as quoted in ...


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