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Price v. Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 30, 2014

OSCAR L. PRICE, Plaintiff,
v.
GRASONVILLE VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ELLEN LIPTON HOLLANDER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Oscar L. Price was a volunteer firefighter for defendant, the Grasonville Volunteer Fire Department (the "Department") in Queen Anne's County, Maryland. See ECF 1 at ¶¶ 5, 6 ("Complaint"). He has sued the Department, asserting four claims: employment discrimination on the basis of race, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII") (Count One); a racially hostile work environment, also in violation of Title VII (Count Two); employment discrimination on the basis of race, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1991, 42 U.S.C. § 1981 et seq. (Count Three); and retaliation, in violation of Title VII (Count Four).[1]

At issue before the Court is defendant's "Preliminary Motion to Dismiss or in [the] Alternative Motion to Strike" (ECF 5, "Motion"), [2] which has been fully briefed.[3] No hearing is necessary to resolve it. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, the Motion will be denied.

Factual Background[4]

Mr. Price, who is African American, began volunteering with the Department in 1983. Complaint ¶ 5. He was the first African American firefighter admitted to the Department, id. ¶ 6, and served as an engineer and a driver. Id. ¶ 5. Although the Department did not compensate Mr. Price directly for his services, he alleges that he was entitled to certain benefits pursuant to several Maryland statutes, which amount to compensation. ECF 19 at 3, 8.[5] In particular, Mr. Price claims that, in exchange for his work as a volunteer firefighter, he was entitled to the following: "a generous state-funded disability pension, group life insurance, survivors' benefits for dependents, a scholarship for dependents, tuition reimbursement, workers' compensation, and federal and state income tax credits, deductions, and exemptions." Id. at 3.[6]

Mr. Price alleges that, "[a]fter twenty-six years of honorably serving the Department, he became subject to discrimination and harassment by the Department's new President Robert Sharp and new line staff, " which included Chief Jason Anthony, Lieutenant Keith Thomas, Matt Coursey, John Werkheiser, and Ray Stokes. ECF 1 at ¶ 6. To illustrate, plaintiff refers to an incident that occurred on December 14, 2009. On that date, plaintiff was unable to attend the Department's annual election meeting, at which Sharp presided, and so he submitted a ballot in a sealed envelope. Id. ¶ 7. He asserts, in part, id.:

At the meeting, President Sharp made a spectacle of Mr. Price by throwing Mr. Price's ballot in the trash in front of the entire Department. Dawn Anthony[, another member of the Department, ] protested President Sharp's actions and was physically assaulted for her opposition. President Sharp was subsequently found guilty of second degree assault in connection with his attack.

Ms. Anthony subsequently related to Mr. Price what happened at the meeting. Id . ¶ 8. When Mr. Price attempted to address with President Sharp and his command staff the issue of why his vote did not count, Mr. Price was told that his one vote "did not matter." Id.

Plaintiff also alleges that in February 2010, Chief Anthony requested that Mr. Price be available on "February 5, 2010 and February 11, 2011"[7] to clear the Department's parking lot during snow storms. Id. at ¶ 9. Mr. Price agreed, but he informed Chief Anthony that he would have to rent a tractor in order to remove the snow because his own was broken. Id. Chief Anthony told Mr. Price that the Department would "cover the costs associated with the snow removal." Id.

In reliance on Chief Anthony's assurances, Mr. Price rented a tractor and cleared the snow. Id. at 10. Thereafter, he submitted an invoice to the Department for a total of $1, 950, which included the costs of renting the tractor and Mr. Price's thirty-five hours of labor to clear the snow. Id. at 10. According to Mr. Price, the Department received funds from FEMA for snow removal, but the Department did not reimburse Mr. Price for the cost of renting the tractor or for his time and labor. Id. Mr. Price alleges that President Sharp remarked that the Department "was not going to pay his black ass.'" Id. Nonetheless, according to Mr. Price, the Department paid a Caucasian individual who also removed snow from the Department's parking lot. Id.

Shortly after the February snow storms, the harassment against Mr. Price allegedly escalated. Mr. Price contends that his equipment necessary to respond to fires had been moved to the back of the station, "without his knowledge or consent." Id. ¶ 11. Also, Caucasian Department officers and line staff began to refer to him as "black son of a bitch" and to command him to "get his black ass on the truck." Id. In particular, Lieutenant Keith Thomas told Mr. Price to "take [his] black ass and drive' a snow plow." Id. ¶ 14. Mr. Price also alleges that in an effort to "embarrass and mock" him, Caucasian members of the Department would photograph themselves "in stereotypical urban, gang member style." Id. ¶ 13.

In the Spring of 2010, Mr. Price filed a Charge of Discrimination ("Charge") with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). Id. at ¶ 14. Mr. Price alleges that once the Department received notice of the Charge in or around May 2010, Mr. Price's equipment necessary to respond to fires went missing. Id. He claims that Lieutenant Keith Thomas "bragged to others that we took that nigger's gear and put it in a locker and that is where it is going to stay.'" Id. Without his equipment, Mr. Price was unable to respond to fires. Id. ¶ 15. According to Mr. Price, Chief Anthony also refused to provide a pager to Mr. Price, despite his repeated requests for a new one. Id. Mr. Price has alleged, inter alia, that "[t]he officers and line staff's actions have effectively discharged Mr. Price from membership without affording him any due process." Id. ¶ 15.

According to plaintiff, the EEOC "found cause that Plaintiff was terminated because of his race and was retaliated against for protected activity, i.e., the reporting of the racist comments and seeking protection under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964." Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff attached the EEOC "Determination" as an exhibit to the Complaint. See ECF 1-3. In his Complaint, Price quotes from the EEOC's determination, Complaint ¶ 17 (emphasis in Complaint):

"Evidence obtained during the Commission's investigation revealed that since at least 2009 and continuing through [Mr. Price's] active membership with [the Department] in 2010, [Mr. Price] was subjected to racial harassment in the form of offensive race-based comments made by the President and various officers, as well as finding his gear removed from his locker and placed in the back of the fire house. I find that this conduct was severe and pervasive and that because the harassers were supervisors, [the Department] may be held liable for their conduct."

On or around March 19, 2014, the EEOC mailed plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue ("Letter"). Complaint ¶ 18; ECF 1-4. Plaintiff alleges that he received the Letter on or around March 21, 2014. Complaint ¶ 18. He filed suit in this Court on June 19, 2014. See id. at 1. Initially, defendant sought dismissal of plaintiff's claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) on the grounds that the suit was not timely. See Motion ¶ 8-11. The Department added that Price was never an employee of the Department. Reply ¶ 1.

Additional facts will be included in the Discussion.

Discussion

A. Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) tests the adequacy of a complaint. To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must satisfy the pleading standard articulated in Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), which requires a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." The purpose of the rule is to provide the defendant with "fair notice" of the claim and the "grounds" for entitlement to relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 & n.3 (2007). That showing must consist of more than "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action" or "naked assertion[s] devoid of further factual enhancement." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal citations omitted); see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013).

To defeat a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint "must plead facts sufficient to show that [the] claim has substantive plausibility." Johnson v. City of Shelby, Miss., ___ U.S. ___, 135 S.Ct. 346, 347 (2014) (per curiam); see Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 684 ("Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for all civil actions'....") (citation omitted); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570; see also Epps v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 675 ...


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