United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
September 11, 2017
from the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia (No. 1:13-cv-00898)
Michael Hannon argued the cause and filed the briefs for
E. Schuler argued the cause and filed the briefs for
Before: Millett, Circuit Judge, and Edwards and Williams,
Senior Circuit Judges.
Williams Senior Circuit Judge.
graduate students: When multiple institutions are involved in
a research fellowship, be sure that every one on which you
are relying is literally on the same page of an agreement.
Colonel Antoinette Burns (Major Burns, at the time) had a
falling out with Dr. Matthew Levy and others who were
overseeing her postgraduate clinical research fellowship at
Georgetown University Medical Center ("the
University") and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital
("the Hospital"). Burns believed that she had
patched things up and that all parties had agreed to her
voluntary withdrawal. When the Hospital reported to
Burns's employer, the U.S. Air Force, that she had been
terminated for cause, she brought this diversity action for
breach of contract, defamation, and tortious interference
with a prospective economic advantage.
district court granted summary judgment in the
defendants' favor on all counts. On the contract counts,
it ruled that the University did not breach its agreements
with Burns, and that because the Hospital was not a party to
any agreement between Burns and the University, it was not
bound to observe the notice and other procedures afforded by
Burns's agreement with the University. Burns v.
Georgetown Univ. Med. Ctr., Civil No. 13-898, 2016 WL
4275585, at *8-12 (D.D.C. Aug. 12, 2016). On the defamation
counts, the district court ruled that the common interest
privilege shielded Levy and the Hospital from liability for
their report to the Air Force of their critical assessment
and dismissal of Burns. Id. at *14-15. The district
court discarded Burns's intentional interference claim as
too speculative. Id. at *16.
there is a genuine factual dispute as to whether Levy and the
Hospital gave Burns's employer false information, the
district court incorrectly granted summary judgment on the
defamation claims. We therefore reverse and remand on those
claims. We affirm the district court's grant of summary
judgment on the other claims, for the reasons the district
court identified except as noted.
* * *
agreements form the basis of Burns's suit. The Air Force
and the University signed a Medical Residency/Fellowship
Agreement on June 8 and 9, 2011 (the "AF-University
Agreement"), providing that Burns would continue to be
employed by the Air Force during her fellowship and would
draw no salary from the University, but that the University
would make arrangements to cover Burns's medical
malpractice insurance. The agreement gave either party the
right to terminate on thirty days' notice.
and the University signed a Research Fellowship Agreement in
late August 2011 (the "Burns-University
Agreement"), an agreement that lies at the heart of
Burns's case. It required Burns to meet research and
educational requirements for the University and render
clinical services through the Hospital. In return the
University promised to provide research training and a
suitable environment for educational research. The agreement
allowed the University to terminate Burns for cause, subject
(unless she was intentionally or grossly delinquent in her
conduct) to notice and a right to appeal under the
University's grievance procedure.
University and the Hospital signed their own Letter of
Agreement on August 10 and 11, 2011 (the
"University-Hospital Agreement"). The agreement
stated that as a fellow, Burns would provide clinical
services and instruction to students through the Hospital.
The Hospital in turn gained the right to control Burns's
manner and method of performance, subject to the
understanding that Burns was an employee of the Air Force,
not of the Hospital or the University. The agreement gave
either party the right to terminate on thirty days'