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Wahba v. New York University and Severo Ochoa

decided: February 11, 1974.


Appeal from an order of the District Court for the Southern District of New York, Whitman Knapp, Judge, granting defendants' motion for summary judgment, for lack of requisite government action, in a suit by a research associate professor whom defendants removed from research work on a project funded by a federal grant. Affirmed.

Moore, Friendly and Anderson, Circuit Judges.

Author: Friendly

FRIENDLY, Circuit Judge:

This appeal presents another variation on the pervasive theme of what constitutes government action. The complaint, filed in the District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleged the following: Plaintiff was a research associate professor in the Biochemistry Department of the New York University School of Medicine. Defendant Ochoa was chairman of the Department. Beginning in 1957, the New York University Medical Center received a series of annually renewed grants from the National Institute of Health (NIH), a component of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, for a program of basic research on Enzymic Mechanisms in Biosynthesis. The initial grant application designated Dr. Ochoa as "Principal Investigator;" Dr. Wahba was later listed as a participant. In January 1969 Dr. Wahba was invited to discuss the work he had been doing at a June symposium sponsored by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory of Quantitative Biology. Dr. Wahba accepted the invitation and subsequently agreed to submit a related manuscript for publication in the laboratory's journal. In September, the complaint alleged, Dr. Ochoa rebuked plaintiff for having sent the manuscript without clearance and without including Dr. Ochoa's name. He demanded that Dr. Wahba write that experiments performed after submission of the manuscript made it desirable to withhold publication. Deeming this to be untrue, plaintiff refused to sign. Dr. Ochoa then removed Dr. Wahba from work on the research project and demanded that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory cancel publication of the manuscript. About two months later, plaintiff was advised that his contract as a research associate professor would not be renewed upon its expiration on August 31, 1970. Prior to that time, Dr. Wahba obtained other employment at a medical school in Montreal. Apparently having suffered no economic loss, plaintiff requested punitive damages of $250,000 for harm to his reputation and emotional suffering.

In their answer, defendants attributed Dr. Ochoa's refusal to allow publication of the manuscript to the well-recognized scientific practice that papers emanating from group research shall not be published without the advance approval of the principal investigator. They added that Dr. Wahba's manuscript contained assertions that were at variance with findings of other investigators in the Department of Biochemistry which were then being prepared for publication. They also noted that despite Dr. Ochoa's protests, Dr. Wahba's manuscript was published. Alleging that it had continued to pay plaintiff's salary through February 1970, although he had been paid by the Sherbrooke University School of Medicine since January 2, defendant New York University counterclaimed for the two months' pay.

On the basis of affidavits of an attorney and two University officials,*fn1 accompanied by copious exhibits, defendants moved for dismissal of the complaint or summary judgment in their favor on the basis that their conduct did not constitute government action. Judge Knapp granted the motion for summary judgment in defendants' favor; he later issued the appropriate certificate under F.R.Civ.P. 54(b), noting that the pendency of the counterclaim afforded no just reason for delaying the entry of judgment. Plaintiff has appealed.

It is not clear from his complaint whether plaintiff seeks recovery for his dismissal from the research project, or for the University's failure to renew his one-year contract without according him a due process hearing, or for both. As a non-tenured faculty member, in order to sustain his claim that he was dismissed without the requisite procedural protections, he would have to show some deprivation of liberty or property under the criteria established in Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 92 S. Ct. 2701, 33 L. Ed. 2d 548 (1972), and Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 33 L. Ed. 2d 570, 92 S. Ct. 2694 (1972).*fn2 Beyond this, however, Dr. Wahba appears to claim that he was denied First Amendment rights by virtue of Dr. Ochoa's demand that he withdraw his paper, and that he was denied due process by being severed from the research program without a hearing. We find it unnecessary to differentiate among the various possible claims raised in the complaint, since we are unable to discern the government action necessary to sustain any of them.

Plaintiff characterizes his situation as analogous to that of the students at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, discussed in Powe v. Miles, 407 F.2d 73 (2 Cir. 1968). As to the Ceramics College students, we found state action in the administration of discipline even though this was done by the President and Dean of Students of Alfred, who were not state officials, and the acts of the students were committed outside the Ceramics College. The distance separating this case from that of the New York State Ceramics College is sufficiently shown by quoting the most pertinent portion of our opinion, 407 F.2d at 82-83:

We hold that regulation of demonstrations by and discipline of the students in the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University by the President and the Dean of Students constitutes state action, for the seemingly simple but entirely sufficient reason that the State has willed it that way. The very name of the college identifies it as a state institution. In part I of this opinion we have extensively reviewed the statutes making the college an integral part of the State University; it suffices here to cite Education Law § 6102, whereby Alfred University maintains discipline and determines educational policies with respect to the State College "as the representative of the state university trustees." We see no reason why the State should not be taken at its word. The statutory provisions are not mere verbiage; they reflect the Legislature's belief that the citizens of New York would demand retention of State control over an educational institution wholly supported by State money. If the discipline had been administered by the Dean of CC, all of whose salary is paid by the State, because of acts of CC students in the State-owned buildings, the existence of state action would hardly be doubted. We do not think a different result is justified because here the CC students were demonstrating on another part of the campus, which the State's payments on their behalf entitled them to enter for proper purposes, and the authority was exercised by delegates of the State who also have other roles. While even as to the CC students the President and the Dean of Students may lack the symbolic tie with the state furnished by the deputy sheriff's badge in Griffin v. Maryland, supra, or the public building in Burton v. Wilmington Parking Authority, supra, the students of the New York State College of Ceramics can properly regard themselves as receiving a public education and entitled to be treated by those in charge in the same way as their counterparts in other portions of the State University. If the State wanted Alfred's policy on demonstrations changed for the CC students, mere order of the State University trustees would suffice, Education Law § 355(1) (a), and (2) (b); no general legislation would be needed, as it would be if the State desired to control the policy for other students. However one characterizes Alfred's relationship to the State with respect to the New York State College of Ceramics, it is much closer than that of an independent contractor. The State furnishes the land, buildings and equipment; it meets and evidently expects to continue to meet the entire budget; it requires that all receipts be credited against that budget, Education Law § 6102; and in the last analysis it can tell Alfred not simply what to do but how to do it.

This, however, does not end the case. Plaintiff claims that the relationship established by the research grant sufficiently involves the United States to carry the First Amendment and the due process clause of the Fifth over to New York University's dealings with him.

The application for the initial grant stated the names, so far as available, and included biographical sketches of all the personnel whose salaries were to be funded; Dr. Wahba's name was not listed. The grant included the salaries, certain other itemized expenses, and 20% of the total for indirect costs. Dr. Wahba's name first appeared in answer to a request for the names and title of "all other professional personnel engaged in the project" in an application for continued support through August 31, 1964; he was not, however, among those whose salaries were to be reimbursed. The same pattern continued thereafter. Papers co-authored by Dr. Wahba were mentioned in several of the applications. The research was thus a project of the Biochemistry Department of the New York University School of Medicine carried on with the collaboration of a number of University-paid personnel and on University facilities. The University received no federal payment for the services of the personnel or the use of the facilities except insofar as these were covered by the 20% allowance for incidental costs.

Plaintiff cites a Policy Statement of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, revised July 1, 1967. This clearly informs grantees that

Public Health Service grants and awards must be administered in conformance with the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the regulation (45 CFR, Part 80) issued pursuant thereto by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and the grantee's Assurance of Compliance (Form HEW-441), on file with the Public Health Service.

Plaintiff makes no contention that the defendants have violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which provides, 42 U.S.C. § 2000d, that "No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Instead, he relies on general language in the Policy Statement which we set forth in the margin.*fn3 This, says the plaintiff, is clear evidence that the Federal Government regards itself as "a ...

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