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Hardison v. Healthcare Training Solutions, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

August 17, 2016

VALENCIA HARDISON, Plaintiff,
v.
HEALTHCARE TRAINING SOLUTIONS, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL W. GRIMM UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Valencia Hardison formerly worked for Healthcare Training Solutions, LLC (“Healthcare”) and its chief executive officer and owner, Carlecia McBryde, but after she complained twice that she had not been paid her full wages, McBryde promptly terminated her employment.[1] Compl. ¶¶ 4, 40, 45, ECF No. 1. Hardison filed a five-count complaint in federal court, alleging failure to pay wages, in violation of Maryland statutory law; retaliatory termination, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219; and wrongful discharge, in violation of Maryland public policy. Compl. ¶¶ 51-78. Defendants sought leave to file a motion to dismiss, specifically identifying defects they perceived in Hardison’s FLSA claim, ECF No. 6, and I held a pre-motion conference call on December 15, 2016, ECF No. 8. Plaintiff’s counsel stated that they believed that they had stated a claim and they did not need to amend, and I permitted Defendants to file the motion. See Defs.’ Mem. 8, ECF No. 9-1.

         Defendants contend that Hardison’s jurisdictional allegations are insufficient and that she fails to state a claim under the FLSA, and they move to dismiss the Complaint in its entirety, given that all other counts allege violations of state law. ECF No. 9.[2] In addition to the grounds previously identified, which are without merit, Defendants also argue that Hardison does not sufficiently allege (as required for an FLSA retaliation claim) that her complaints to Defendants alerted them that she was asserting FLSA rights. Defs.’ Mem. 11. Because Hardison’s Complaint is deficient in this regard, her FLSA claim is subject to dismissal. Yet, given that Defendants did not raise this ground for dismissal in their pre-motion conference request, I will allow Hardison to cure this deficiency, if she has a good faith basis for doing so under Rule 11.

         Jurisdiction

         Defendants first argue for dismissal on a technicality. They correctly note that “[t]he complaint alleges that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this action because the action is brought within the statute of limitations for FLSA lawsuits, ” and then assert that “the mere fact that a case is brought within the statute of limitations does not in and of itself confer subject matter jurisdiction.” Defs.’ Mem. 8 (citing Compl. ¶¶ 6-7). It is true that Rule 8 requires “a short and plain statement of the grounds for the court’s jurisdiction, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(1), which, for an FLSA claim, would be 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal question jurisdiction. But, while Hardison does not cite the proper statute, such that the Court’s jurisdiction is not plainly articulated in the Complaint, she clearly brings an FLSA claim and references the FLSA in her jurisdictional allegations. Because this Court has jurisdiction over FLSA claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, it has jurisdiction over Plaintiff’s Complaint. See 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331, 1367. To hold otherwise or dismiss on this technicality would be to exalt form over substance, contrary to Rule 1’s requirement that this Court construe the federal rules of civil procedure “to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 1.

         Standard of Review - Rule 12(b)(6)

         Hardison’s FLSA claim is subject to dismissal if it “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). 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, ” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). “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 678. Rule 12(b)(6)’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.’” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)).

         Sufficiency of FLSA Retaliation Claim

         It is “unlawful for any person . . . to discharge . . . any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to [the FLSA].” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). To state a claim for retaliation under this provision of the FLSA, Hardison must allege that “(1) [s]he engaged in an activity protected by the FLSA; (2) [s]he suffered adverse action by the employer subsequent to or contemporaneous with such protected activity; and (3) a causal connection exists between the employee’s activity and the employer’s adverse action.” Randolph v. ADT Sec. Servs., Inc., 701 F.Supp.2d 740, 746 (D. Md. 2010) (quoting Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334, 340 (4th Cir. 2008) (citations omitted)); see Whyte v. PP & G, Inc., No. WMN-13-2806, 2015 WL 3441955, at *6 (D. Md. May 26, 2015) (same). Making a complaint is one form of protected activity. See Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 563 U.S. 1, 7, 14 (2011) (concluding that “‘an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act” is “protected conduct under the [Act's] anti-retaliation provision’” where it is “sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection” (citation omitted)).

         Hardison’s FLSA claim is straightforward. In one pay period, she worked twenty-four hours and initially received only $425, even though her hourly wage was $21 per hour, such that she should have received $504. Compl. ¶¶ 35-36. She complained in writing on September 11, 2015, asserting that “she was paid incorrectly and that she did not understand how Ms. McBryde was paying her.” Id. ¶ 40. Specifically, she complained that “she had only been paid four hundred and twenty five dollars ($425) for a pay period in which she worked twenty four (24) hours.” Id. ¶ 67. She then received an additional payment of $47.50, for a total of $472.50. Id. ¶ 41. According to Hardison, even with the additional payment, “Defendants did not pay Ms. Hardison . . . for 1.5 hours of work performed.” Id. ¶ 44. On September 16, 2015, Hardison “orally complained about not being paid, ” that is, she “complained about not being paid correctly, ” because “[b]ased on her rate of pay of twenty-one (21) dollars per hour, Ms. Hardison was not paid a minimum wage for 3.76 hours of work performed, ” and McBryde terminated her that day. Id. ¶¶ 45, 68, 69 (emphasis added). As Hardison sees it, her “complaints were . . . protected activity under the FLSA, ” id. ¶ 70, such that her termination was a violation of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).[3]

         Defendants’ briefing with regard to why Hardison fails to state an FLSA retaliation claim is far from a model of clarity, but it appears to challenge Hardison’s pleading of the first element of her § 215(a)(3) claim. See Defs.’ Mem. 11-14. The essence of Defendants’ argument is that Hardison fails to allege that her complaints to Defendants alerted them that she was asserting FLSA rights, as opposed to contractual rights unmoored to any statutory entitlement, and consequently her lodging of those complaints was not protected activity. See Id. In Hardison’s view, she “has pled sufficient factual allegations showing that she gave Defendants fair notice that her complaints concerned rights protected by the FLSA” by “alleg[ing] that she was not paid any wage, including a minimum wage, on September 11, 2015 for 3.76 hours of work, ” and in response, she complained in writing that “she was not paid correctly” and orally “about not being paid.” Pl.’s Opp’n 5 (citing Compl. ¶¶ 35, 38, 40, 45).

         The parties agree that Kasten, 563 U.S. at 14, provides the standard for what a complaint to an employer must assert to constitute protected activity for purposes of § 215. See Defs.’ Mem. 11; Pl.’s Opp’n 4. The Kasten Court held that § 215 “requires fair notice, ” and therefore

a complaint is “filed” when “a reasonable, objective person would have understood the employee” to have “put the employer on notice that [the] employee is asserting statutory rights under the [Act].” . . . To fall within the scope of the antiretaliation provision, a complaint must be sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection. This standard can be met, however, by oral complaints, as well as by written ones.

Kasten, 563 U.S. at 14 (emphases added); see Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 669 F.3d 428, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) ...


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