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Mansfield v. Pfaff

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

August 27, 2014

DAWN JONES PFAFF, et al., Defendants.


JAMES L. ROBART, District Judge.


Before the court is Plaintiff Pamela Mansfield's motion for partial summary judgment. (Mot. (Dkt. # 20).) Ms. Mansfield asks the court to apply the doctrine of collateral estoppel to decide certain key factual issues in this case. ( See id. ) She claims that the collateral estoppel doctrine bars relitigation of factual issues that were already decided once before in a Washington State administrative tribunal. ( See id. ) The court has examined the submissions of the parties, the governing law, and the record, and concludes that the collateral estoppel doctrine does not apply here because the parties and issues are different than in the previous proceeding. Accordingly, and because there are genuine issues of material fact, the court DENIES Ms. Mansfield's motion for partial summary judgment.


This case began as a dispute between co-workers but has now blossomed into a federal court lawsuit. Plaintiff Ms. Mansfield is a registered nurse who was employed by the University of Washington ("UW"). (1st Am. Compl. (Dkt. # 1-2) ¶ 1.) She began working for UW in 1994 and eventually advanced to the position of Research-Nurse-2. ( Id. ¶ 10.) In 2007, she was appointed to a lead position assisting Dr. Jerry Palmer with several grant-funded diabetes prevention and treatment studies. ( Id. ) Dr. Palmer and his research team conducted those studies at the Seattle office of the United States Department of Veteran's Affairs ("VA"). ( Id. ) As such, Dr. Palmer and his team, including Ms. Mansfield, were required to, at least nominally, be appointed as volunteer employees of the VA, even though their salaries were all paid either by UW or by the Seattle Institute for Biomedical and Clinical Research ("SIBCR"). (Resp. (Dkt. # 18) at 2-3.)

Dr. Palmer's research team was rounded out by an administrative aid, a lab technician, and a lab supervisor. All of them are now defendants in this lawsuit. ( See generally 1st Am. Compl.) The administrative aid, Dawn Jones Pfaff, was an SIBCR employee assigned to the team. ( Id. ¶ 4.) She was supervised by both Dr. Palmer and Ms. Mansfield. ( Id. ¶¶ 4, 10.) The lab technician, Jessica Reichow, was a UW employee assigned to work with Dr. Palmer. ( Id. ¶ 6.) The lab supervisor, Barbara Brooks Worrell, has a PhD and was Ms. Mansfield's supervisor with respect to lab work. ( Id. ¶ 7.) Ms. Brooks Worrell had design and implementation authority over Dr. Palmer's team in connection with research studies funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. ( Id. ) Together, these five worked at the VA to research and treat diabetes patients. ( See id. ¶ 10.)

Over time, certain relationships within the team soured. In particular, and most relevant to this lawsuit, Ms. Mansfield and Ms. Pfaff grew to dislike one another. It is unclear to the court exactly what sparked this mutual dislike, but it is evident that with time it became rather pronounced. To begin, Ms. Mansfield took exception to a number of Ms. Pfaff's clinical practices. ( Id. ¶ 12.) For example, Ms. Mansfield alleges that Ms. Pfaff publicized patients' private medical histories ( id. ¶¶ 12B-C), prepared doses of prescription medicine without a health care license ( id. ¶ 12E), and scheduled a child for an appointment at an adults-only clinic ( id. ¶ 12I). Ms. Mansfield makes similar allegations against other members of the team, and alleges that she publicized those allegations at various times. ( Id. ¶ 12.)

However, the dispute between Ms. Mansfield and Ms. Pfaff clearly took on a personal dimension as well. ( See id. ¶¶ 13-22.) Ms. Mansfield alleges that Ms. Pfaff physically attacked Ms. Mansfield in 2011, repeatedly slamming her head into her desk then fleeing down a stairwell "as a good Samaritan tried to stop her for questioning." ( Id. ¶ 19.) She further alleges that Ms. Pfaff attempted to cover up this attack by orchestrating an effort by the Palmer research team to "furnish coordinated round-table testimony." ( Id. ) She alleges that this testimony not only attempted to absolve Ms. Pfaff of any blame for the attack, but also tried to portray Ms. Mansfield as mentally unstable, an illegal drug distributor, and a violent threat. ( Id. ) The VA police officer who investigated the incident concluded that Ms. Mansfield falsified her injury report and that the alleged attack never happened. ( Id. ¶ 20.)

As a result of these incidents, Ms. Mansfield lost her job. VA officials concluded that Ms. Mansfield could not be trusted with access to a federal facility in light of her falsified injury report. ( Id. ¶ 20.) This conclusion, in turn, caused UW to terminate Ms. Mansfield's employment. ( Id. ) A UW employee named Mara Fletcher reviewed Ms. Mansfield's file, including her reports of abuses by the Palmer research team, and "executed UW's authorization" to terminate her UW employment. ( Id. ¶ 8, 21.) Ms. Fletcher is now a defendant in this lawsuit as well. ( Id. ¶ 8.)

Several years later, the dispute migrated from the halls of the VA office to the court system. In 2013, Ms. Mansfield filed a complaint in King County Superior Court. Her original complaint alleged only a single cause of action for wrongful interference with contract against Ms. Pfaff. However, she amended her original complaint in state court, adding the rest of the Palmer research team as defendants as well as UW, SIBCR, [1] and Ms. Fletcher. ( See generally 1st Am. Compl.) In addition, she alleged new causes of action for negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent supervision and retention, civil conspiracy, and First Amendment violations under 28 U.S.C. § 1983. (1st Am. Compl. ¶¶ 27-37.)

The United States was soon substituted as a defendant in the case. The United States substituted itself as sole party defendant in place of Ms. Pfaff, Ms. Reichow, and Ms. Brooks Worrell. (Not. of Substitution (Dkt. ## 3, 13).) The United States certified that these defendants were acting within the scope of their federal employment when the alleged torts occurred and that accordingly they were entitled to a limited form of immunity under the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(d)(2). (Pfaff/Reichow Certification (Dkt. # 1-3); Brooks Worrell Certification (Dkt. # 13).)

This summary judgment motion followed the United States' substitution. In effect, the motion challenges the substitution by asserting that Ms. Pfaff, Ms. Reichow, and Ms. Brooks Worrell were acting outside the scope of their employment when the alleged torts occurred. ( See Mot.) Ms. Mansfield argues that she is entitled to summary judgment on several factual issues related to the substitution and to Westfall Act immunity. ( Id. )


A. Governing Law Under the ...

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