Brooklyn federal court unable to hear Interfaith Hospital board member’s claims

February 6, 2014 By Charisma L. Miller, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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The Eastern District Federal Court has found that a Brooklyn hospital board member’s claims of First Amendment violations by her employer cannot proceed in federal court.

Julia James was a board member of the financially troubled Interfaith Hospital (Interfaith) — serving the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant — when Interfaith made the decision to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  

James claimed that she was vocal against the bankruptcy filing because, in her estimation, the hospital was not insolvent, and that her protests are what led Interfaith officials to terminate her employment with the facility. Her objection to the bankruptcy filing notwithstanding, James further asserted that documents pertaining to the filing were invalid, since they were not presented to or voted on by the board prior to being filed in Brooklyn’s bankruptcy court.

Upon inspection of James’ filing, Hon. Carol Amon, chief judge of the Eastern District, ruled that James’ claims could not proceed due to an insufficient showing that federal court had adequate jurisdiction over the case.

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In order for any case to be heard by a court, the plaintiff or petitioner must show that such court has jurisdiction or authority to hear the claims presented. Jurisdiction in federal court can be established one of two ways: by diversity of citizenship or federal question. To demonstrate citizenship diversity, both parties must be from different states and the amount at issue in the case must exceed $75,000.

For federal question jurisdiction, on the other hand, the plaintiff must show that an entity, acting with governmental authority — or under the color of state law — has violated the plaintiff’s Constitutional rights or any other federal law.

James, who represented herself sans attorney, latched onto jurisdiction through federal question, arguing that Interfaith violated her freedom of speech rights, a constitutionally protected freedom, when the hospital terminated her employment following her disagreement with the hospital’s bankruptcy filing. Unfortunately for James, Amon was unable to reach a decision on the merits of James’ argued claims.

The requirement that federal question cases involve a form of government activity precluded James’ claims from moving forward. “[T]he under-color-of-state-law element…excludes from its reach merely private conduct, no matter how discriminatory or wrongful,” Amon noted, citing 1999 case precedent.  Interfaith is a private institution, and James did not indictate if staff members were “state actors, were acting in concert with state actors, or were serving as an instrumentality of the state.” In the absence of such evidence of governmental action, Amon found it “unclear whether [James] can properly invoke federal question jurisdiction.”

Possibly due to the fact that James was representing herself pro se, Amon did allow James an opportunity to file an amended claim to better establish appropriate jurisdiction.  The chief judge also provided James with some guidance, noting that James’ amended complaint must “provide facts sufficient to allow each named defendant to have a fair understanding of what [James] is complaining about and to know whether there is a legal basis for recovery … include all relevant dates and … any relevant documents [and James] must also state the relief she is seeking.”

All proceedings in the case have been stayed for 30 days or until James complies with Amon’s ruling.  

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