There is an interesting case this week involving an adjunct professor at George Washington Law School, where I teach. Hdeel Abdelhady, who teaches part-time in the areas of international trade and Islamic law, sued the university for a variety of torts, including allegations that counsel for the university made overtures to an administrative judge about securing a federal judgeship. Her claims were dismissed by Judge Trevoer McFadden who found that they were foreclosed by worker’s compensation as well as failing to state a claim on various torts. At the time of the ruling, Abdelhady was proceeding pro se, which also proved an issue for the court to address.
In May 2019, Abdelhady attended an “adjunct appreciation luncheon.” When she was leaving, she fell after stepping “on an uneven, sticky, and additionally hazardous stair surface.” She hit the wall at the bottom of the stairwell, injuring her head, face, wrist, hand, and fingers. Abdelhady was taken to The George Washington University Hospital.
In the course of the litigation, Abdelhady asked the court to ignore her election (and receipt) of workers’ compensation benefits and find that the WCA does not apply after all. She insisted that, since she was not acting within the scope of her employment, she was not subject to the WCA. The court rejected the claim and held that “her successful pursuit of workers’ compensation benefits forecloses this argument.”
There are are a couple of interesting elements to this case. First, the court found that the Worker’s Compensation Act was the “exclusive remedy” for recovery and dismissed her negligence claim. At issue was her failure to supply needed information in compliance with the WCA, including information on her medical injuries and cost.
Abdelhady had a drawn out litigation under WCA to force payments from the university. That history includes this notable entry of the court:
“During the prehearing discovery phase, Defendants obtained nine subpoenas for Abdelhady‘s medical and law firm records from the administrative law judge (ALJ) presiding over her claim. Id. ¶ 174. She claims that Defendants’ lawyer had ex parte communications with the ALJ and offered to help her secure a Maryland judgeship. Id. ¶ 154. Abdelhady contends these subpoenas were illegal and thus caused four of her medical providers to release privileged medical information in violationof their fiduciary duty to her. Id. ¶¶ 175-76.” (emphasis added)
That claim failed and the D.C. courts dismissed her claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. See Abdelhady v. D.C. Dep’t of Emp’t Servs., 270 A.3d 896 (D.C. 2022). Throughout this process, she proceeded with counsel.
The university moved forward on Rule 12(b)(6) that Abdelhady failed to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Abdelhady notably proceeded per se but the court rejected any accommodation for that status:
Abdelhady now proceeds pro se. Yet she is “not automatically subject to the very liberal standards afforded to a non-attorney pro se plaintiff because an attorney is presumed to have a knowledge of the legal system and needs less protections from the court.” Robinson v. Howard Univ., Inc., 335 F. Supp. 3d 13, 22 (D.D.C. 2018) (cleaned up), aff’d sub. nom., Robinson v. Wutoh, 788 F. App’x 738 (D.C. Cir. 2019). For starters, Abdelhady is practicing member of the D.C. Bar. See Compl. ¶ 55; Affidavit of Hdeel Abdelhady (Abdelhady SMJ Aff.) ¶ 12, ECF No. 26-5. More, Abdelhady began proceeding pro se after substantive briefing on Defendants’ dispositive motions had finished. See ECF No. 41. Thus, Abdelhady‘s pleadings are not entitled to the special solicitude that courts ordinarily give to pro se parties.
The court proceeded to dismiss a claim against GWU under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act, 18 U.S.C § 1962, by “acting as an enterprise to make money and subvert the [WCA].” This claim included the allegation that GWU dangled a judgeship before the lower court judge.
Abdelhady also entered a claim of negligent infliction of emotional distress based on a special relationship. The court found that she failed to show that “(1) the defendant has a relationship with plaintiff, or has undertaken an obligation to the plaintiff, of a nature that necessarily implicates the plaintiff’s emotional well-being, (2) there is an especially likely risk that the defendant’s negligence would cause serious emotional distress to the plaintiff, and (3) negligent actions or omissions of the defendant in breach of that obligation have, in fact, caused serious emotional distress to the plaintiff.” Hedgepeth v. Whitman Walker Clinic, 22 A.3d 789, 810-11 (D.C. 2011) (en banc).
Abdelhady alleged that a special relationship exists because GW “undertook an obligation to [her] . . . to act in compliance with both its own and the [WCA’s] policies and procedures.” She also claims that GW’s status as a landowner creates a special relationship. Both claims were rejected.
Abdelhady‘s employment and work-related injury did not give rise to a special relationship. The D.C. Court of Appeals teaches that “most cases claiming negligent infliction of emotional distress have arisen—as we think will continue to arise—in the context of doctor-patient relationships.” Hedgepeth, 22 A.3d at 813. This is so because in the doctor-patient context “the emotional well-being of others is at the core of, or is necessarily implicated by, the undertaking.” Id. On the other hand, “many other relationships, even if they involve fiduciary obligations, generally will not come within the rule, because neither the purpose of the relationship nor the fiduciary’s undertaking is to care for the plaintiff’s well-being; rather the object of the engagement is to obtain a financial, commercial or legal objective.” Id.
Abdelhady has failed to allege that she and Defendants were engaged in “a relationship or undertaking . . . that necessarily implicates [her] emotional well-being.” The special relationship that Abdelhady describes is merely an employment relationship. And it is well established that “merely alleging an employer-employee relationship forecloses any special relationship liability.” Nor is there any reason to think that it is “especially likely that serious emotional distress will result from” negligence in the administration of her workers’ compensation claim.
The case is Abdelhady v. George Washington Univ., 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 216915.