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Burns v. Levy

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

October 13, 2017

Antoinette Burns, D.O., Appellant
v.
Matthew D. Levy, et al., Appellees

          Argued September 11, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:13-cv-00898)

          J. Michael Hannon argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Joseph E. Schuler argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellees.

          Before: Millett, Circuit Judge, and Edwards and Williams, Senior Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

          Williams Senior Circuit Judge.

         Memo to 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.

         Lieutenant 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.

         The 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.

         Because 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.

         * * *

         Four 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.

         Burns 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.

         The 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' ...


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