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Rangarajan v. Johns Hopkins University

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 22, 2019

MITRA RANGARAJAN, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, Defendant-Appellee. MITRA RANGARAJAN, United States of America, State of Maryland, ex rel., Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH SYSTEM CORPORATION; JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL, INCORPORATED, trading as Johns Hopkins Medicine; ANTHONY KALLOO, M.D.; JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, Defendants - Appellees. MITRA RANGARAJAN, United States of America, State of Maryland, ex rel., Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH SYSTEM CORPORATION AND JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY, trading as Johns Hopkins Medicine; JOHNS HOPKINS HOSPITAL, INCORPORATED, Defendants - Appellees.

          Argued: November 1, 2018

          Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore. William M. Nickerson, Senior District Judge. (1:12-cv-01953-WMN; 1:13-cv-03630-WMN; 1:17-cv-00807-WMN)

          ARGUED: Erienne A. Sutherell, Hansel Law, P.C., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Robert Thomas Smith, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, Washington D.C., for Appellees.

          ON BRIEF: Cary J. Hansel, III, Hansel Law, P.C., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellant.

          Maria E. Rodriguez, Elizabeth Clark Rinehart, Venable, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland; Daniel E. Lipton, Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, Washington, D.C., for Appellees.

          Before GREGORY, Chief Judge, and NIEMEYER and HARRIS, Circuit Judges.

          NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge

         Mitra Rangarajan, who claims that she was constructively discharged as a nurse practitioner at the School of Medicine of Johns Hopkins University - whether because of discrimination and retaliation, as she contends, or because of her performance, as Johns Hopkins contends - commenced four separate actions against the University[*]arising out of the same course of events and alleging state torts of defamation and interference with prospective advantage, as well as violations of the False Claims Act, the Maryland False Health Claims Act, Title VII, and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Over the long course of proceedings in these cases, the district court dismissed one action for failure to prosecute and the remaining three actions as the sanction for Rangarajan's "flagrant and unremitting" violations of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, especially with respect to discovery and summary judgment practice.

         On appeal, Rangarajan contends that the district court abused its discretion by failing to give her adequate warning of the sanction and failing to show required restraint by imposing lesser sanctions. After careful review of the lengthy procedural history of the cases, we conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion. Rangarajan's conduct under the procedural rules was inept and abusive to the degree that, as the district court found in its thorough 44-page opinion, it rendered virtually useless five years of proceedings before the district court, and such abuse would likely have continued in any future proceedings. Accordingly, we affirm.

         I

         Rangarajan's employment at Johns Hopkins as a nurse over the period from 2007 to 2011 was volatile and unsatisfactory to both Rangarajan and Johns Hopkins. From Rangarajan's viewpoint, as the district court summarized, she was a stellar healthcare provider who was treated unfairly by supervisors and coworkers in the following respects:

[S]he was denied the $95, 000 salary that she was allegedly promised; she was assigned unmanageable workloads; she was not provided the training she needed to advance her career while Dr. [Anthony] Kalloo, [the director of the GI Division in which Rangarajan worked] showed favoritism and provided those opportunities to another Nurse Practitioner . . .; [she] applied for but was denied permission to participate in a Nurse Practitioner Fellowship Program; while she was accepted into a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program, once in the program she was treated unfairly by the program director . . .; she was given an undeserved failing grade by the Capstone Professor in the DNP program . . .; and, she was denied vacation leave and reimbursement for attending professional conferences.

         But from Johns Hopkins' point of view, again as the district court summarized, she failed as a professional nurse:

[Rangarajan] had attendance and tardiness issues, she failed to timely check for test results and follow-up with patients, and her notes in medical histories were often disorganized and unreliable. In response to a round of negative performance reviews, [Rangarajan] was placed on a performance improvement plan in January of 2011. Before that plan could be fully implemented, [she] demonstrated poor judgment in the care of a patient that [Johns Hopkins] assert[s] could have had catastrophic results for that patient. In response to those concerns, Dr. Anthony Kalloo, the director of the GI Division, suspended [Rangarajan's] clinical privileges.

         After Rangarajan was suspended, she resigned from Johns Hopkins in May 2011, claiming that she was constructively discharged. She then began litigation against Johns Hopkins, filing four separate actions based on its treatment of her.

         In the first action filed in October 2012 - No. 12-1953 - Rangarajan alleged that Johns Hopkins engaged in widespread fraudulent billing of the U.S. Government and then retaliated against her for reporting it internally. Because her claims under the False Claims Act and the Maryland False Health Claims Act were qui tam actions, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Maryland Attorney General investigated them but then declined to intervene, as those statutes would allow. Rangarajan thereafter voluntarily dismissed the qui tam claims but continued her claim alleging that Johns Hopkins retaliated against her for reporting fraudulent billing practices. Later, however, she filed a motion to amend her complaint to reallege the qui tam claims, but the district court denied her motion as untimely and prejudicial.

         Several months after filing the first action, Rangarajan filed a second action against Johns Hopkins - No. 13-3630 - alleging that Johns Hopkins had discriminated against her on the basis of race, national origin, age, and sex, in violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. This action was based on the same conduct that formed the basis for her claims in the first action.

         A month after the district court denied Rangarajan's motion to amend the first action to re-allege her qui tam claims, Rangarajan filed a third action - No. 15-1394 - alleging those same qui tam action claims again. She did not, however, pursue this action in accordance with the rules of procedure, and, after it languished for over a year and a half, the district court dismissed it for failure to prosecute.

         Rather than appealing the district court's ruling in the third action, Rangarajan filed a fourth action - No. 17-807 - which the district court concluded was "essentially identical to the just-dismissed [third] action." The court by then, however, had before it Johns Hopkins' motion for sanctions based on Rangarajan's discovery and summary judgment practices in the first and ...


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