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O'Connor-Goun v. Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University

United States District Court, S.D. New York

July 30, 2013

AGNES O'CONNOR-GOUN, Plaintiff,
v.
WEILL CORNELL MEDICAL COLLEGE OF CORNELL UNIVERSITY and RONALD G. CRYSTAL, M.D., Defendants

Decided: July 29, 2013.

For Agnes O'Connor-Goun, on behalf of the United States of America, Plaintiff: John A. Beranbaum, Beranbaum Menken Ben- Asher & Bierman LLP, New York, NY.

For Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University, Ronald G. Crystal, M.D., Defendants: Michael Emanuel DeLarco, Tracey Ann Tiska, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Hogan & Hartson L.L.P. (NYC), New York, NY; Caroline H. Cheng, Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP (nyc), New York, NY.

OPINION

Page 550

MEMORANDUM ORDER

JED S. RAKOFF, U.S.D.J.

Plaintiff Agnes O'Connor-Goun brings this action against defendants Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University (" WCMC" ) and Dr. Ronald G. Crystal under the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § § 3729 et seq., alleging that the defendants unlawfully terminated her employment with WCMC in retaliation for her blowing the whistle on the defendants' fraudulent misuse of federal research funds. By letter brief, defendants moved to enforce a settlement agreement reached between the parties on January 17, 2013. Plaintiff opposed the motion on the ground that she validly exercised a right to revoke the settlement. On April 22, 2013, the Court issued a " bottom line" order granting defendants' motion. This Memorandum explains the reasons for that ruling and directs the entry of final judgment.

The pertinent facts are not in dispute. In her Second Amended Complaint (" SAC" ), plaintiff alleged that from November to December 2010, she was employed at WCMC as Administrator of the Department of Genetic Medicine, reporting directly to Crystal, the Chairman of the Department. Soon after starting in this position, plaintiff allegedly discovered that

Page 551

Crystal and WCMC were misappropriating federal research funds provided by the National Institutes of Health and were using " two sets of books," in violation of the False Claims Act. SAC ¶ 43. Pursuant to WCMC's false claims policy, plaintiff then allegedly reported the defendants' wrongdoing to a senior WCMC human resources officer, Lisa Abbott, who told plaintiff she would " make every effort" to find plaintiff another job at WCMC. Id. ¶ 47. Plaintiff alleged, however, that Abbott and her human resources associates made only nominal efforts to find plaintiff another position, and less than three weeks after she first disclosed the alleged fraud, plaintiff was fired. Id. ¶ ¶ 54-60, 62.

Thereafter, plaintiff filed suit, and the parties commenced discovery. On January 17, 2013, after plaintiff's deposition of Abbott and defendants' deposition of plaintiff, the parties agreed to a settlement, which was memorialized in an exchange of emails between counsel. See Decl. of Michael DeLarco in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Enforce (" DeLarco Decl." ), ¶ ¶ 4-9; Cert. of John A. Beranbaum (" Beranbaum Cert." ), ¶ 5. This settlement included a number of terms, including, as relevant here, an agreement to draft " a more formal agreement." See DeLarco Decl., ex. A, at 1.

The parties quickly took steps to perform the settlement. The parties immediately discontinued discovery and cancelled all scheduled depositions. Id. The next day, at plaintiff's counsel's initiation, counsel jointly called Chambers to inform the Court of the settlement. See DeLarco Decl., ex. B. Plaintiff's counsel also emailed counsel at non-party The American Museum of Natural History (" AMNH" ) to advise that " [t]he case has settled," and thus AMNH did not have to comply with a pending third-party subpoena for production of documents. DeLarco Decl. ¶ 12; id. ex. C.

A week later, however, on January 25, 2013, plaintiff's counsel for the first time spoke with Kenneth Handler, a WCMC human resources employee, whom Abbott allegedly tasked with finding plaintiff a new position at WCMC. Plaintiff's counsel had previously noticed Handler's deposition, but had been unable to speak with him. Handler told plaintiff's counsel that Abbot had explicitly instructed him not to help plaintiff find another job and had told him that " Agnes needs to go away." Beranbaum Cert., ¶ ¶ 8-9; Cert. of Kenneth Handler, ¶ ¶ 4-6. If true, that directive squarely contradicted what Abbott told plaintiff. See Berenbaum Cert., ¶ 10 (quoting Abbott's deposition testimony that " I recall saying to Agnes that we hired her in good faith and that we wanted to work with her in good faith if we could find a mutually suitable position for which she was interested and qualified" ). Handler also stated that he, like plaintiff, had been wrongfully fired by WCMC. Id., ¶ 8. In addition, also on January 25, 2013, another former employee of WCMC called plaintiff's counsel, stating that Handler had recommended that she do so. She explained that she too had been wrongfully terminated by WCMC, and that she knew yet another employee whom WCMC had also treated wrongfully. Id. ¶ 7.

Three days later, on January 28, 2013, plaintiff's counsel emailed defense counsel reminding him that he had promised to send over a " draft agreement." DeLarco Decl., ex. D. Later the same day, defense counsel emailed plaintiff's counsel a draft settlement agreement, prominently marked " DRAFT" on the first page in bold, italics, and all capital letters, reflecting the terms of the January 17 ...


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