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Rajaratnam v. The Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University

United States District Court, N.D. California

July 3, 2017



          HOWARD R. LLOYD United States Magistrate Judge

         Plaintiff Balakanapathy Rajaratnam (“Rajaratnam”) sues Defendant Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University (“Stanford”) for retaliation in violation of the whistleblower protection provisions of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (“ARRA”). Dkt. No. 1. Rajaratnam also sues Stanford and other defendants in state court for retaliation (under state law) and various additional claims related to the same underlying events. In the motion pending before the court, Stanford moves to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay this action pursuant to the Colorado River doctrine. Dkt. No. 19. Both parties have consented to magistrate judge jurisdiction. Dkt. Nos. 6, 13. For the reasons explained below, the court grants defendant's motion and STAYS this action.


         Rajaratnam is an Assistant Professor of Statistics and Earth System Science at Stanford. Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 3. Rajaratnam reported suspected plagiarism and conflicts of interest to the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, which appointed Stanford Professor Iaian Johnstone (“Johnstone”) to investigate the accusations. Id., ¶¶ 13, 14. Johnstone rejected Rajaratnam's charges, though Rajaratnam alleges that Johnstone concealed evidence of plagiarism and warned Plaintiff to keep his accusations quiet if he wanted to stay at Stanford. Id., ¶¶ 15, 16.

         Rajaratnam reported the suspected plagiarism and Johnstone's cover-up to Stanford Dean Pamela Matson (“Matson”) and several others, but Stanford declined to investigate Johnstone. Id., ¶¶ 17, 18. Instead, Rajaratnam alleges, when a graduate student advisee whose romantic overtures he had previously rebuffed filed a complaint against him, Dean Richard Saller, a “close personal friend of Johnstone, ” led the investigation. Id., ¶ 20. Rajaratnam asserts that the investigation did not comply with Stanford's procedures for handling such complaints and included irrelevant questions about his plagiarism accusations. Id., ¶ 20. At the conclusion of the investigation, Saller and Matson issued findings adverse to Rajaratnam and prohibited him from mentoring graduate students. Id., ¶ 21. Rajaratnam appealed to Provost John Etchemendy, and later to President John Hennessey, asserting that Saller used a student complaint as a pretext for retaliating against him for reporting Johnstone's cover-up. Id., ¶ 22. Etchemendy upheld Saller's decision. Id., ¶ 22. Hennessey denied the appeal and ordered Saller and Etchemendy's findings to be placed in Rajaratnam's personnel file, where they would be visible to the tenure review committee. Id., ¶ 26. Rajaratnam's tenure application was denied. Id., ¶ 27.

         In April 2015, Rajaratnam filed a whistleblower report against Stanford with the Office of the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation (“NSF”), alleging reprisal in violation of ARRA whistleblower provisions. Id., ¶ 25. The NSF declined to investigate. See id., ¶ 8.

         Rajaratnam's action against Stanford includes one claim for violation of ARRA Section 1553. This claim alleges that Stanford, a non-Federal employer receiving ARRA funds, retaliated against Plaintiff for reporting plagiarism and a related cover-up by disciplining him for unfounded sexual harassment allegations and denying him tenure. Id., ¶¶ 30-32. Plaitiff seeks compensatory damages, damages for mental and emotional distress, attorney fees, costs, and prejudgment interest. Id.

         Rajaratnam filed an action in Santa Clara County Superior Court in January 2015 against Stanford and various individual defendants, including Etchemendy, Saller, Matson, and others. Dkt. No. 19, Hurtado Decl., ¶ 3, Ex. 1. The First Amended Complaint in that action is based on the same sequence of events described above. Id., Ex. 1. It includes claims for breach of contract, breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, retaliation (Cal. Lab. Code § 1102.5), violation of the fair procedure doctrine, violation of privacy interests, interference with prospective economic advantage, specific performance, and defamation. Id. The retaliation claim asserts that defendants retaliated against Rajaratnam for reporting plagiarism and a cover-up by disciplining him. Id.

         All of the named parties in the state court action have been served and have filed answers. Dkt. No. 19, Hurtado Decl., ¶ 5. The court has conducted three case management conferences and four mediation status reviews, and the parties participated in a full-day mediation session. Id. The parties have exchanged written discovery, and the court ruled on one discovery motion. Id. The state court also denied Rajaratnam's motion for a preliminary injunction. Id., ¶ 4.

         In light of the state court action, Stanford moves the court to dismiss or, in the alternative, to stay this action pursuant to the Colorado River doctrine, arguing that the relevant factors for declining jurisdiction have been met. Rajaratnam opposes the motion, responding that the state and federal court actions are not parallel and that the Colorado River factors favor retaining jurisdiction.


         Ordinarily, “the pendency of an action in the state court is no bar to proceedings concerning the same matter in the Federal court having jurisdiction.” Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. U.S., 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (quoting McClellan v. Carland, 217 U.S. 268, 282 (1910)). But under “exceptional” circumstances, a district court may stay or dismiss an action where there are parallel proceedings pending in a state court. Moses H. Cone Memorial Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 15 (1983). Such a surrender of jurisdiction is not a form of abstention, but rather a form of deference to the state court in the interest of “wise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation.” Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 817 (quoting Kerotest Mfg. Co. v. C-O-Two Fire Equip. Co., 342 U.S. 180, 183 (1952)).

         The Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit have described several factors to consider in determining whether to stay or dismiss an action pursuant to Colorado River. These factors include: (1) whether either the state or federal court has assumed jurisdiction over a res, (2) the convenience of the forums, (3) the desirability of avoiding piecemeal litigation, (4) the order in which the forums obtained jurisdiction, (5) whether state or federal law provides the rule of decision, (6) whether the state court is capable of adequately protecting the federal litigant's rights, (7) the avoidance of forum-shopping, and (8) whether the state court proceedings will resolve all issues before the federal court. Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 818-20; Moses H. Cone, 460 U.S. at 23, 26; Nakash v. Marciano, 882 F.2d 1411, 1415 (9th Cir. 1989); R.R. Street & Co. Transp. Ins. Co., 656 F.3d 966, 978-79 (9th Cir. 2011). No factor is necessarily dispositive, and courts should not ...

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