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Muldrow v. Blank

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

March 10, 2014

MILTON MULDROW, JR., Plaintiff,
v.
REBECCA M. BLANK, Acting Secretary, United States Department of Commerce, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

PAUL W. GRIMM, District Judge.

Milton Muldrow, Jr. began work at the United States Department of Commerce in February, 2011, as a program management specialist. His primary responsibility was to manage a scholarship program fostering American competitiveness in science by providing educational opportunities to promising aspiring scientists. When he encountered difficulties succeeding in his job, he attributed them to the discriminatory motives of his supervisors. In August, 2011, believing that working conditions were intolerable, he quit his job. He has filed a pro se lawsuit that is less than a model of clarity, but appears to state claims for hostile work environment based on sex and race, discrimination based on sex, interference with FMLA rights, and retaliation. Defendant, the Acting Secretary of the Department of Commerce, has filed a motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for summary judgment.[1] Finding that Plaintiff only has stated a plausible retaliation claim, I dismiss his other claims.

I. BACKGROUND[2]

Plaintiff worked for the United States Department of Commerce ("the Agency") as a Program Management Specialist from February 2011 through August 23, 2011. Compl. 1, ECF No. 1; Def.'s Mem. 4. He "was hired to manage" the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program. Compl. 3. His supervisors were three women: Louisa Koch, Audrey Trotman, and Chantell Haskins. Def.'s Mem. 3; see Compl. 1-2.

In his Complaint, Plaintiff identifies various difficulties he had working with his supervisors. He claims that they misinformed him about the program he was managing and "withheld detailed budgetary information, " thereby "preventing [him] from making accurate projection and historical reporting, " as was "expected of" him. Compl. 1. He also alleges that he "was yelled at and berated publicly in the office." Id. at 2. Specifically, according to Plaintiff, when he sought guidance on how to "process[] the applications for the scholarship, " his supervisors "reprimanded [him] openly in the office, yelling...." Id. And, he "was yelled at and reprimanded in meetings for not producing a quality PowerPoint...." Id. at 3. He also claims that he "was pressured by Ms. Haskins and Ms. Trotman to discriminate on [sic] male Nancy Foster Applicants solely because they were male, " and claims that a scholarship applicant was reconsidered when Plaintiff informed his supervisors that the applicant was "partially black." Id. at 4. Additionally, he alleges that Ms. Haskins "often stated Louisa [Koch] just wanted to help the white' Nancy Foster graduates" and Ms. Haskins "stated white men don't need help.'" Id. at 3. Plaintiff also claims that "Audrey Trotman asked [him] if [he] was comfortable speaking with women' in a closed door meeting." Id. at 2.

According to Plaintiff, he learned "[i]n late May/Early June 2011" that "Chantell Haskins and OED [Office of Education] leadership" were "shifting money around" and "illegally" using the funds from the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program for another program. Compl. 3. He claims that his supervisors "demanded" that he "not... speak of the budget" when he made presentations to other programs so as not to reveal that "the budget numbers did not add up." Id. Declining to do so, Plaintiff states that he "reported the illegal use of funds." Id.

Plaintiff also complains about his interactions with his coworkers. He states that his "wife i[s] white, " and alleges that "[t]he staff at one time discussed black men dating white women disapprovingly." Compl. 3. Although Plaintiff does not disclose his race, it appears from the Complaint and Defendant's Memorandum that he is black or African American. See id.; Def.'s Mem. 1. According to Plaintiff, as a result of the environment at work, he "[u]nderwent paid psychiatric therapy and [was] diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder - Related to Stress Reaction at Place of Employment.'" Compl. 7.

On June 13, 2011, Plaintiff sent an email to his supervisors requesting leave for the birth of his child six months in advance of his wife's due date, pursuant to the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. ยง 2615. Compl. Ex. E, at 4, ECF No. 1-5. He wrote: "To give clear and advanced notice, and for proper planning, I plan to take up to 12 weeks off proceeding the birth of my newborn. This will be towards the beginning of the new year." Id. In a response written the same day, his supervisor wrote: "As the birth of a child requires planning so does covering your responsibilities as the Graduate Scholarship Program Manager for GSP and the Nancy Foster Scholarship Programs. Please develop a proposal with options as to how your duties will be performed during your 12 week absence." Compl. Ex. E, at 5. Plaintiff claims that he "was humiliated" one month later when "Haskins and another employee discuss[ed] [his] FMLA request openly and negatively so that everyone could hear." Compl. 5. On July 15, 2011, his supervisor asked again by email:

What is the status of your plan to cover your FMLA at the start of the new year? Applications for the graduate programs are due in January and February. What is the plan for getting these applications processed and selections made by April 2012? Please provide your written plan by Thursday, July 21, 2011.

Compl. Ex. D, at 2, ECF No. 1-4. And on July 20, 2011, after Plaintiff asked for suggestions about how to cover his work, his supervisor responded with a snarky comment that she "ha[d] no suggestions" but was "curious to find out how [his] duties [would] be performed during [his] absence." Compl. Ex. E, at 3.

According to Plaintiff, he "was never approved for this protected use of FMLA, " even though he "provided an FMLA medical certification upon request." Compl. 4. Plaintiff claims that he ultimately was "deemed... AWOL." Id. at 5. However, Defendant states that Plaintiff's employment ended August 23, 2011, Def.'s Mem. 4, and Plaintiff does not refute the date, while Plaintiff's child was not due until "the beginning of the new year, " Compl. Ex. E, at 4. Plaintiff's "wife ultimately delivered premature twins, " Compl. 7, but it still appears that Plaintiff's employment ended a little more than two months after he provided advance notification of his request for FMLA leave and well before the twins were born.

Additionally, Plaintiff claims that he repeatedly sought to use, but was denied, FMLA leave to be home with his wife for her "severe' morning sickness, " which "incapacitated [her] some mornings." Compl. 5. Plaintiff alleges that he "submitted a medical certification for this on Aug. 12 after they asked for one, " and "[t]he certification stated [he] would need to stay with her intermittently to care for her." Id. As Plaintiff sees it, he was denied this FMLA leave in August 2011, "soon after [he] report[ed] misuse of funds and hostile work environment." Id. at 3 & 6.

Plaintiff alleges that "[a]s a result of the above actions, [he] was forced to quit [his] job due to constructive discharge." Id. at 7. Specifically, he contends that he resigned because he "could not do [his] job while budget information was hidden" or while he "was scapegoated'" to cover the "illegal use of... funds"; and because he "was subject to hostile work environment." Id.

As Defendant noted in her motion, and as my own review confirms, Plaintiff's Complaint is far from clear. As best I can discern, in bringing this lawsuit, Plaintiff claims that he was subjected to a hostile work environment based on sex and race, Compl. 2 & 5; he was discriminated against based on sex and his FMLA rights were interfered with when he was asked to develop a plan to cover his work while he was out on FMLA leave, id. at 4-5; and he was denied FMLA leave in retaliation for "reporting misuse of funds and hostile work environment, " id. at 5-6. Defendant moves to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint in its entirety.[3] Def.'s Mot. 1.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for "the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012). This rule's purpose "is to test the sufficiency of a complaint and not to resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.'" Id. (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)). To that end, the Court bears in mind the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), when considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Specifically, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state "a plausible claim for relief, " as "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, " Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79. See Velencia, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (discussing standard from Iqbal and Twombly ). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663. Notably, when reviewing a motion to dismiss, "[t]he court may consider documents attached to the complaint, as well as documents attached to the motion to dismiss, if they are integral to the complaint and their authenticity is not disputed." Sposato v. First Mariner Bank, No. CCB-12-1569, 2013 WL 1308582, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 28, 2013); see CACI Int'l v. St. Paul Fire & Marine Ins. Co., 566 F.3d 150, 154 (4th Cir. 2009); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c) ("A copy of a written instrument that is an exhibit to a pleading is a part of the pleading for all purposes.").

Because pro se lawsuits, such as Mr. Muldrow's, "represent the work of an untutored hand requiring special judicial solicitude, " the Court must "construe pro se complaints liberally, " such that "litigants with meritorious claims [are] not... tripped up in court on technical niceties." Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1277-78 (4th Cir. 1985) (citing Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978)). Even so, "[d]istrict judges are not mind readers, " and "[e]ven in the case of pro se litigants, they cannot be expected to construct full blown claims from sentence fragments...." Id. at 1278. Therefore, "[p]rinciples ...


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