Goins v. Fanning et al
ORDER granting 10 Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction; denying as futile 18 Motion to Amend/Correct. Signed by Chief Judge James C. Dever III on 8/14/2017. (Briggeman, N.)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE EASTERN DISTRICT OF NORTH CAROLINA
. DANIELLE R. GOINS,
. ROBERT M. SPEER, acting Secretary of the
Army, and DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY,
On AprilS, 2016, Danielle R. Goins ("Goins") filed a complaint against the Secretary of the
Army 1 and the Department of the Army (''the government") alleging breach of contract based on a .
settlement agreement the parties executed in October 2004 to resolve a Title VII case [D.E. 1]. On
April19, 2016, Goins filed an amended complaint [D.E. 3V Goins seeks specific performance of
the settlement agreement and compensatory damages "in excess of $58,631.00." Id. Prayer for
Relief. On October 31, 2016, the government answered [D.E. 8]. On December 14, 2016, the
government moved to dismiss Goins's amended complaint for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction
[D.E. 10] and filed a supporting memorandum [D.E. 11]. On January 4, 2017, Goins responded in
opposition [D.E. 16]. On January 6, 2017, Goins moved to amend her complaint [D.E. 18]. On
In her complaint, Goins named then-Acting Secretary of the Army EricK. Fanning. On
January 20, 2017, Robert M. Speer became Acting Secretary of the Army. Pursuant to Ru1e 25(d)
of the Federal Ru1es of Civil Procedure, the court substitutes Acting Secretary Speer as the relevant
Although the docket reflects this filing as a "Corrected Complaint," Goins styled it an
· "Amended Complaint," and a comparison of this filing and Goins's original complaint reveals
substantive changes in Goins's state of residency. Compare [D.E. 1] ~ 4, with [D.E. 3] ~ 4. Thus,
the court treats docket entry three as an amended complaint.
January 18, 2017, the government responded in opposition to Goins's motion to amend [D.E. 19]
and replied to Goins's response in opposition to the government's motion to dismiss [D.E. 20]. As
explained below, the court grants the government's motion to dismiss and denies as futile Goins's
motion to amend her complaint.
On December 3, 2003, Goins sued the Acting Secretary of the Department of the Army in
this district. See Complaint, Evans v. Brownlee, 5:03-CV-897, Compl. [D.E. 1] (E.D.N.C.). A
civilian employee, Goins alleged that the Army had fired her during her probationary period because
of her race and sex in violation of Title VII. See id.
1, 3-4. On October 6, 2004, the parties
executed a settlement agreement ("the settlement agreement"). See Am. Compl. [D.E. 3] ~ 8; [D.E.
8-2] (settlement agreement). The Army agreed to remove a form in Goins's personnel file stating
. that she had been terminated during her probationary period and to replace it with one stating that
Goins had resigned for personal reasons. See [D.E. 8-2] ~ 3(b); Am. Compl. ~ 11. The Army agreed
to cancel the original form and expunge it from Army records and Goins's personnel file. [D.E. 8-2]
In return, Goins agreed to dismiss the action with prejudice and to not seek employment with
the Army for three years. Id.
3(d), (f). The settlement agreement also provided that it
"constitute[d] the complete understanding" between Goins and the Army and that"[n]o other terms,
promises, or agreements will have any force or effect unless reduced to writing and signed by all the
parties to the Agreement." .Id. ~ 2. The court never approved the settlement, incorporated it into an
order, or explicitly retained jurisdiction over its enforcement. On November 8, 2004, Goins filed
. On December 1, 2004, an employee of the Army notified Goins that the Army had removed
the original form stating that Goins had been terminated during her probationary period and replaced
it with a form stating that she had resigned for personal reasons. Am. Compl. ~ 12. On September
7, 2006, in response to Goins's inquiries, the Army again told Goins that it had removed and
destroyed the original form. Id. ~~ 13-17.
On February 9, 2015, Goins obtained a conditional appointment to serve in the Ultrasound
Section of the U.S. Army Medical Command's Department ofRadiology. ld. ~ 18. Around March
2015, Goins applied to serve as a Supervisory Medical Instrument Technician (Ultrasound) with the
U.S: Army Medical Command. Id. ~ 19. In her application, Goins stated that she had resigned from
her position that was the subject of the 2003lawsuit and resulting settlement agreement. ld. ~ 20.
After applying, Goins learned she was being investigated for allegedly lying about having resigned
from her previous position. Id. ~ 21. Nothing came of the investigation, but Goins did not obtain
position and its $58,631.00 annual salary. Id. ~~ 22-23.
On December 8, 2015, Goins reviewed her personnel file. Id. ~ 24. She discovered that the
Army had not replaced the original form. Id. ~ 25. Her electronic personnel file similarly stated that
she was terminated during her probationary period. Id.
On December 17, 2015, Goins wrote the Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") Director
at Fort Bragg. ld. ~ 27; see [D.E. 8-9]. Goins alleged that the Army had breached the settlement
agreement and demanded $55,000.00 in compensatory damages. Am. Compl. ~ 27; [D.E. 8-9]. On
December 21,2015, the EEO Director told Goins to notify the Director ofEEO Compliance and
Complaints Review at Fort Belvoir of the alleged breach. Am. Compl. ~ 28; [D.E. 8-10]. On
. January 5, 2016, Goins contacted the Director of EEO Compliance and Complaints Review
concerning the alleged breach. See Am. Compl.
On January 12, 2016, the Director ofEEO Compliance and Complaints Review issued a
Final Decision denying Goins's request for relief because the agency lacked jurisdiction to render
a decision~ [D.E. 8-3]. The agency lacked jurisdiction because ''the allegation of noncompliance
involves a settlement agreement reached in United States District Court and the settlement agreement
neither resolved other pending administrative claims nor contained a blanket waiver of all pending
·.·· EEO claims." Id. at 2. In support, the Final Decision cited EEOC opinions holding that the agency
· lacks jurisdiction to entertain allegations that a federal agency breached a settlement agreement
entered into to resolve a civil action filed in a United States District Court. Id. at 3. The Final
Decision concluded that Goins's "allegations of breach of the civil action settlement agreement
should be raised in a different forum such as a United States [D]istrict [C]ourt." Id. The Final
Decision also stated that Goins could appeal to the EEOC or, "[i]n lieu of an appeal to the
Commission," that Goins ''may file a lawsuit in the appropriate United States District Court" as
"authorized under Title VII, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ('ADEA'), and the
Rehabilitation Act." Id. at 5.
On AprilS, 2016, Goins filed a complaint in this court against the Secretary ofthe Army and
· the Department of the Army alleging breach of the settlement agreement [D.E.1]. Goins seeks
. specific performance of the settlement agreement and compensatory damages "in excess of
$58,631.00." [D.E. 3] Prayer for Relief.
The government moves to dismiss Goins's complaint for la.Ck of subject-matter jurisdiction.
A motion to dismiss under Federal Rule ofCivil Procedure 12(b)(1) tests subject-matter jurisdiction,
which is ''the court's statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case." Steel Co. v. Citizens
for a Better Env't, 523 U.S. 83, 89 (1998) (emphasis omitted); see Holloway v. Pagan River
Dockside Seafood. Inc., 669 F.3d 448, 453 (4th Cir. 2012). "[T]he party invoking federal
. jurisdiction bears the burden of establishing its existence." Steel Co., 523 U.S. at 104; see, e.g.,
Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). In considering a motion to dismiss
for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, the court may consider evidence outside the pleadings without
converting the motion into one for summary judgment. See, ~' Richmond. Fredericksburg &
Potomac R.R. Co. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991).
Enforcement of a settlement agreement, ''whether through award of damages or decree of
specific performance, is more than just a continuation or renewal of the dismissed suit, and hence
requites its own basis for jurisdiction." Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co. of Am., 511 U.S. 375,
378 (1994). One such basis arises when the district court retains jurisdiction over a settlement
agreement's enforcement. For jurisdiction to exist on this basis, "[t]he obligation to comply with
a settlement's terms must be expressly made part of a court's order." Smyth ex rel. Smyth v. Rivero,
282 F.3d 268,283 (4th Cir. 2002). A district court cannot enforce a settlement agreement ''unless
the obligation to comply with its terms is 'made part of the order of dismissal-either by separate
provision (such as a provision 'retaining jurisdiction' over the settlement agreement) or by
incorporating the terms of the settlement agreement in the order.'"
Id. at 280--81 (quoting
Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 381).
In 2004, the court did not expressly make the settlement agreement's terms part of a court
order. Accordingly, ''jurisdiction to enforce the settlement agreement [does] exist absent some
independent basis of jurisdiction." Id. at 281; see Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 3 81-82.
Goins argues that federal-question jurisdiction exists to enforce the settlement agreement
· because her claim arises under Title VII. The court rejects this argument for several reasons. First,
although part of the consideration for the settlement agreement was dismissal of Goins's Title VII
. action, "[n]o federal statute makes that connection (if it constitutionally could) the basis for
fed,eral-court jurisdiction over the contract dispute." Kokkonen, 511 U.S. at 381. On its face,
· Goins's complaint alleges only a breach of the settlement agreement. It does not allege that
defendants violated Title Vll or engaged in discriminatory conduct. As purely a breach-of-contract
claim, Goins's claim does not arise under Title Vll. See Atkinson v. Sellers, 233 F. App'x 268,
272-73 (4th Cir. 2007) (unpublished); see also Charles v. McHugh, 613 F. App'x 330,333 (5th Cir.
2015) (per curiam) (unpublished); Thompson v. McHugh, 388 F. App'x 870, 872-73 (11th Cir.
2010) (per curiam) (unpublished); Morris v. Ci1y ofHobart, 39 F.3d 1105, 1110-12 & n.4 (lOth Cir.
Second, Title Vll's waiver of sovereign immunity does not extend to payment of monetary
damages if the federal government breaches a settlement agreement that resolved a Title Vll claim.
See Frahm v. United States, 492 F.3d 258, 262 (4th Cir. 2007). Likewise, Title Vll's waiver of
sovereign immunity does not encompass an action requesting specific performance of a settlement
agreement thatresolved a Title Vll action. See Lindstrom v. United States, 510 F.3d 119i, 1195 &
n.4 (lOth Cir. 2007); Kaplan v. James, 25 F. Supp. 3d 835, 839-40 (E.D. Va. 2014) (collecting
cases); Benyv. Gutierrez, 587 F. Supp. 2d 717,728 (E.D. Va. 2008), aff'd sub nom., Berryv. Locke,
331 F. App'x 23 7 (4th Cir. 2009) (per curiam) (unpublished). Moreover, although the Fourth Circuit
has implied that the federal government can waive sovereign immunity if a settlement agreement
contemplates monetary damages in case of the government's breach, Frahm, 492 F.3d at 262,
Goins's settlement agreement does not do so.
.Finally, the Final Decision's statement that Goins could file suit in federal district court
provides no support for concluding that subject-matter jurisdiction exists. This boilerplate language
'neither provides a basis for jurisdiction nor waives the federal government's sovereign immunity.
See United States v. N.Y. Rayon Importing Co., 329 U.S. 654, 660 (1947) ("It has long been settled
that officers ofthe United States possess no power through their actions to waive an immunity ofthe
United States or to confer jurisdiction on a court in the absence of some express provision by
Congress."); Charles, 613 F. App'x at 335; Thompson, 388 F. App'x at 874; Kaplmt,25 F. Supp.
3d at 841.
Goins's theories for subject-matter jurisdiction lack merit. Nonetheless, in its motion to
dismiss the government acknowledges the possibility of jurisdiction under the Little Tucker Act.
The Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346, and its companion statute the Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. §
waive sovereign immunity for certain breach-of-contract claims brought against the United
·· · States.· The statutes create a jurisdictional scheme dependent upon the amount of damages claimed:
The Tucker Act confers jurisdiction only on the United States Court of Federal
Claims to hear cases involving express or implied contracts with the United States.
28 U .S.C. § 1491 (a)(1 ). The Little Tucker Act confers concurrent jurisdiction on the
district courts to hear contract claims involving the United States that do not exceed
$10,000. 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2).
Vill. ofBaldHeadlsland v. U.S.ArmyCor;psofEng'rs, 833 F. Supp. 2d524, 534 (E.D.N.C. 2011),
affd, 714 F.3d 186 (4th Cir. 2013); see Randall v. United States, 95 F.3d 339, 346-47 (4th Cir.
1996). If a plaintiff's claim is for more than $10,000, she must bring the action in the Court of
Federal Claims. See Randall, 95 F.3d at 347. A settlement agreement with the federal government
qualifies as a contract within the meaning of the Tucker Act and Little Tucker Act. See, ~'
Hendrickson v. United States, 791 F.3d 354,362 (2d Cir. 2015); Bianchi v. United States, 475 F.3d
1268, 1273-74(Fed. Cir. 2007);Friedmanv. UnitedStates,391 F.3d 1313,1314-15 (llthCir.2004
(per curiam); Shaffer v. Venemmt, 325 F.3d 370, 372 (D.C. Cir. 2003); see also United States v.
Wise, No. 5:14-CV-844-FL, 2016 WL 755627, at *3 n.3 (E.D.N.C. Feb. 25, 2016) (unpublished);
Bell v. McDonald, No. 1:14CV188, 2015 WL 3463479, at *4-5 (M.D.N.C. June 1, 2015)
The government contends that Goins's claim does not fall within the Little Tucker Act's
grant of concurrent jurisdiction due to the remedies she seeks:
specific performance and
compensatory damages "in excess of$58,631.00." "The Tucker and Little Tucker Acts implicitly
forbid federal courts from ordering declaratory or injunctive relief, at least in the form of specific
performance, for contract claims against the government ...." Village of Bald Head Island, 833 F.
Supp. 2d at 534 (quotation omitted); see Robbins v. U.S. Bureau of Land Mgmt., 438 F.3d 1074,
1082 (1Oth Cir. 2006); Presidential Gardens Assocs. v. United States ex rei. Sec 'y ofHous. & Urban
Dev., 175 F.3d 132, 143 (2d Cir. 1999); Price v. U.S. Gen. Servs. Admin., 894 F.2d 323, 325 (9th
Cir. 1990).3 As for damages, those claimed in Goins's original complaint exceed $10,000, triggering
the Court of Federal Claims's exclusive jurisdiction.
Goins seeks to remedy this jurisdictional bar by moving to amend her complaint. A party
generally may amend her complaint once as a matter of course. Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(1). On April
19, 2016, Goins did so. See [D.E. 3]. Further amendments are allowed "only with the opposing
party's written consent or the court's leave," although "[t]he court should freely give leave when
.justice so requires." Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a)(2). A district court may deny leave to amend a complaint
· if amendment would be futile. See Foman v. Davis, 371 U.S. 178, 182 (1962); Newort News
Holdings Com. v. Virtual City Vision. Inc., 650 F.3d 423,439 (4th Cir. 2011). If the court would
lack subject-matter jurisdiction over a plaintiff's amended complaint, the amendment would be
·futile. See U.S. ex rei. Ahumada v. NISH. 756 F.3d 268, 274, 279-82 (4th Cir. 2014); Harris v.
Although the Fourth Circuit has held that a district court has jurisdiction to order specific
performance ofcontracts against the government, it has done so only where such reliefwas expressly
allowed by statUte. See Village ofBald Head Island, 833 F. Supp. 2d at 534 n.5 (citing Charter Fed.
· Sav. Bank v. Office of Thrift Supervision,976 F.2d 203,210 (4th Cir.1992); Foxworth v. United
States, No. 3:10-CV-317, 2010 WL 3938267, at *4 (E.D. Va. Oct. 6, 2010) (unpublished)).
(unpublished); see also Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404,426 (4th Cir. 2006) (en bane); Johnson v.
Oroweat Foods Co., 785 F.2d 503, 509-10 (4th Cir. 1986).
In her motion to amend, Goins states that she "seeks to amend her Complaint to revise the
amount prayed for as damages to be in line with the Little Tucker Act." [D.E. 18]
5. In her
· proposed amended complaint, however, Goins merely replaces "Compensatory damages in excess
of$58,631.00" with "Compensatory Damages in an amount allowed by law." Compare [D.E. 3]
Prayer for Relief, with [D.E. 18-1] Prayer for Relief. The government asserts that this amendment
fails to show that the court has subject-matter jurisdiction "because the proposed language lacks the
requisite clarity that Plaintiff intends to cap any damages at $10,000." [D.E. 19] 2. Thus, the
government argues that the amendment is futile:
"The amount of a claim under the Little Tucker Act, for jurisdictional purposes, is based on
the actual recovery sought by a plaintiffpursuant to that claim and is not based on the potential worth
oftheclaim." Smithv. Orr, 855 F.2d 1544, 1553 (Fed. Cir.1988). Aplaintiffcanbringa breach-ofcontract claim against the United States worth more than $10,000 in federal district court "if the
plaintiff waives [her] right to recover the amount exceeding $10,000." Id.; see Randall, 95 F.3d at
347 n.8 ("A plaintiff can waive damages in excess of$10,000 to remain in district court ...."). A·
district court, however, may decline to exercise jurisdiction ''where there is no indication that [the]
Plaintiff has done so." Randall, 95 F.3d at 347 n.8. "[F]or a district court to maintain jurisdiction
over a claim that might otherwise exceed $10,000, a plaintiffs waiver ofamounts over that threshold
· must be clearly and adequately expressed." Waters v. Rumsfeld, 320 F.3d 265,271 (D.C. Cir. 2003)
Given Goins's expressed desire in her proposed amended complaint to "revise the amount
prayed for as damages to be in line with the Little Tucker Act," Goins urges the court to read
"Compensatory Damages in an amount allowed by law'' as waiving damages exceeding $10,000.
The court rejects Goins's proposed reading. First, the Little Tucker Act simply sets the monetary
ceiling above which a district court cannot exercise concurrent jurisdiction. The "amount allowed
by law'' for damages flows from contract law and the type of damages sought (i.e., compensatory).
The fact that Goins seeks to recover "Compensatory Damages in an amount allowed by law'' does
not embody a clear waiver of damages exceeding $10,000. Second, a difference exists between
requesting a certain amount of damages and expressly waiving recovery of damages exceeding that
. mount. For example, a plaintiff might request $10,000, but that does not mean she would not
· .accept a larger award. Goins may have intended to waive damages exceeding $10,000, but she has
not Clearly waived her right to recover any amount exceeding $10,000. Thus, Goins has not clearly
waived claims in excess of the Little Tucker .Act's jurisdictional ceiling.
· . A plaintiff's claim presumptively falls outside a federal court's limited jurisdiction. See
Kokkone!l, 511 U.S. at 377. As the party asserting the claim, Goins bears the burden of establishing
subject-matter jurisdiction, a burden that requires her to show that she clearly waives any right to
recover damages exceeding $10,000. Given the ambiguity of Goins's proposed amendment, she has
not met that burden~ Thus, the court denies Goins's motion to amend as futile.
Neither party addressed whether the court should transfer the action to the Court of Federal
Claims. If a district court concludes "that there is a want ofjurisdiction, the court shall, if it is in the
interest ofjustice, transfer such action or appeal to any other such court in which the action or appeal
. could have been brought at the time it was filed." 28 U.S.C. § 1631. It is not in the interest of
justice to transfer this case, mainly because Goins may desire to waive damages exceeding $10,000
in order to stay in this court. If so, Goins can cure the defect based on this desired outcome by filing
a new action in this court clearly waiving any damages exceeding $10,000. If not, Goins may file
a new action for the initially requested amount in the Court of Federal Claims.
In sum, the court GRANTS the government's motion to dismiss [D.E. 10] and DENIES as
futile Goins's motion to amend her complaint [D.E. 18].
SO ORDERED. This ...1i_ day of August 2017.
Chief United States District Judge
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