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Sewell v. Strayer University

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

December 27, 2013

STARSHA MONET SEWELL,
v.
STRAYER UNIVERSITY

MEMORANDUM OPINION

DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for resolution in this employment discrimination case is Defendant Strayer University's ("Defendant" or "Strayer") motion to strike and dismiss with prejudice an amended complaint filed by pro se Plaintiff Starsha Monet Sewell ("Plaintiff" or "Ms. Sewell"). (ECF No. 29). Also pending are two motions filed by Plaintiff to dismiss both Defendant's motion to strike (ECF No. 33), and Defendant's request for sanctions in the motion to dismiss (ECF No. 34). The issues have been fully briefed, and the court now rules, no hearing being deemed necessary. Local Rule 105.6. For the following reasons, Defendant's motion will be granted and Plaintiff's motions will be denied as moot.

I. Background

On October 2, 2012, Plaintiff filed a complaint against Strayer, asserting claims of race-, color-, and gender-based discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"), as well as claims for race-based discrimination and retaliation under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 ("Section 1981"). (ECF No. 1). Defendant subsequently moved to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint and a memorandum opinion and order issued on July 9, 2013. (ECF No. 25). The relevant facts as alleged in Plaintiff's complaint are described in the prior opinion, but a brief background of the underlying factual and procedural issues in the case is necessary.

Strayer hired Plaintiff in February of 2006 to serve as a Quality Assurance Specialist for a salary of $50, 000 per year. (ECF No. 27, at 2).[1] Additionally, Plaintiff was hired to teach classes as a part-time member of the adjunct faculty, for which she was compensated an additional $18, 000 per year. ( Id. ). Plaintiff was promoted to the role of Associate Campus Dean in September of 2007 for an annual salary of $60, 000 and continued to teach classes as a part-time adjunct faculty member. Plaintiff earned a combined annual salary of $78, 000 for both positions. ( Id. ). Kelley Justice ("Ms. Justice") directly supervised Plaintiff in her role as Associate Campus Dean. ( Id. at 3).

In October 2007, Ms. Sewell filed an internal complaint of racial and age discrimination against Ms. Justice alleging that Ms. Justice subjected her to a hostile work environment because of her race. On November 21, 2007, Plaintiff received a letter from Debora Clark, an employee relations manager at Strayer, which provided that "[a]fter thoroughly reviewing information provided by you as well as conducting further interviews, Strayer is unable to substantiate your claim that Dean Justice discriminated against you or violated Strayer's Policy regarding, Other Forms of Illegal Harassment.' Notably, you did not provide any specific examples of conduct or statements indicating racial or age-based animus." (ECF No. 27-8, at 1).[2]

Plaintiff asserts that she was then "financially demoted" in March 2008 because Ms. Justice instructed Strayer's human resources department to stop compensating Ms. Sewell for her position as an adjunct part-time professor. This reduced Plaintiff's salary to $60, 000 and allegedly breached her contract with Strayer to teach as an adjunct professor.

On August 5, 2009, Ms. Sewell filed a charge of discrimination ("the August 2009 Charge") with the Office of Human Rights & Equity Programs, Human Rights Division, for Fairfax County, Virginia ("the FCHRC"). (ECF No. 10, at 3). In the August 5, 2009 Charge, Plaintiff alleged that Strayer retaliated against her for filing an internal complaint of discrimination against Ms. Justice in October 2007 and for filing a discrimination complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on March 25, 2008. Ms. Sewell cited the following events as examples of the purported retaliation: (1) her August 18, 2008 termination from Strayer after she returned from medical leave; (2) her belief that, beginning in August 2008, Strayer provided negative references to other prospective employers; and (3) the refusal of Ms. Deepali-Kala, Strayer's director of quality assurance, to provide Ms. Sewell with a reference in July 2009.

The July 9, 2013 memorandum opinion and order dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction Ms. Sewell's Title VII claims of race-, color-, and gender-based discrimination because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to those claims because she failed to include them in the August 2009 Charge. The opinion noted that even if the court had subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Title VII discrimination claims, such claims would be dismissed for two additional reasons. First, Plaintiff failed to respond to Strayer's substantive arguments regarding the factual allegations supporting her Title VII discrimination claims, and thus abandoned such claims. See Ferdinand-Davenport v. Children's Guild, 742 F.Supp.2d 772, 777 & 783 (D.Md. 2010). Second, Ms. Sewell's complaint was devoid of any factual allegations supporting a plausible claim of intentional discrimination. ( See ECF No. 25, at 18-19 n.9).

Although the court found that there was subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Title VII retaliation claim - which she alleged in the August 2009 Charge - the complaint clearly revealed that the allegations relating to Ms. Sewell's August 2008 termination and Strayer's provision of negative references in August 2008 were time-barred because these acts preceded the August 2009 Charge by more than 300 days. ( Id. at 23); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1); 29 U.S.C. § 626 (d)(1)(B).[3] Accordingly, Ms. Sewell's Title VII retaliation claim, to the extent it relied on either of these two discrete acts, was dismissed with prejudice.

Notably, the court assumed the truth of Plaintiff's allegation that she filed an earlier complaint with EEOC on March 25, 2008, and found it plausible that Ms. Sewell filed a timely administrative complaint with respect to the March 2008 "financial demotion." Ms. Sewell maintained in her opposition to Defendant's motion that a causal connection existed between the October 2007 charge and the alleged March 2008 demotion because Ms. Justice "retaliated against Sewell at the first opportunity that she had, upon Sewell's return to work from her medical leave absence." (ECF No. 14, at 3). The undersigned noted that Ms. Sewell's complaint was deficient insofar as it did not include any allegations that Ms. Sewell was on medical leave for some or all of the five-month period at issue here. Thus, the Plaintiff's retaliation claim, relying on the March 2008 "financial demotion, " was dismissed without prejudice to her right to file an amended complaint within twenty-one (21) days. The opinion provided that:

[i]f Ms. Sewell files an amended retaliation claim, she must include additional allegations regarding the causal connection between her October 2007 complaint and her March 2008 demotion, including but not limited to the allegations about (1) the timing and nature of any medical leave Ms. Sewell took during this period; and (2) if and when Ms. Justice learned about Ms. Sewell's October 2007 complaint of discrimination.

(ECF No. 25, at 28) (emphasis added). Plaintiff's Section 1981 claims were dismissed as untimely.[4]

Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on July 24, 2013, which included twenty-three (23) exhibits. (ECF No. 27). One of the exhibits is a "memorandum in support of the Plaintiff's amended complaint regarding EEOC timing requirement." (ECF No. 27-18). On August 12, 2012, Defendant moved to strike Plaintiff's amended complaint to the extent it includes claims and allegations previously dismissed with prejudice and also moved to dismiss her complaint for failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 29). Plaintiff filed an opposition on August 14, 2013 (ECF No. 31), and Defendant replied on September 3, 2013 (ECF No. 32). Plaintiff then moved to dismiss Defendant's motion to strike on September 23, 2013 (ECF No. 33) and, on the same day, filed a motion to dismiss Defendant's ...


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