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Abraham v. Burwell

United States District Court, D. Maryland

October 31, 2016

GALA ABRAHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
SYLVIA MATHEWS BURWELL, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Gala Abraham (“Plaintiff” or “Abraham”) has brought this action against Defendant Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of the United States Department of Health and Human Services (“Defendant” or “HHS”), alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. In particular, Plaintiff alleges that HHS retaliated against her for engaging in protected behavior.

         Now pending before this Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, or, in the alternative, for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 34.) The Court has reviewed the parties' submissions and determined that no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6. (D. Md. 2014.) For the reasons stated below, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 34) is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 33) is DISMISSED.

         BACKGROUND

         This Court accepts as true the facts alleged in the plaintiff's complaint. See Aziz v. Alcolac, Inc., 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). From December 2003-July 2014, Plaintiff Gala Abraham was employed by HHS as a Management Specialist at the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”). (Am. Compl., ECF No. 33 at ¶¶ 4-6.) On December 28, 2010, Plaintiff filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) office against her immediate supervisor, Raya McCree (“McCree”), and second level supervisor, ShaAvhree Buckman. (Id. at ¶ 7.) In her complaint, Plaintiff alleged that Ms. McCree rejected Plaintiff's application for a vacant job position because of her age, race, and gender. (Id.) In July 2013, an Administrative Law Judge for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a final order dismissing Plaintiff's 2010 discrimination and 2011 retaliation complaints. See ECF No. 34 at 8.

         While Plaintiff's EEO complaint was before the EEOC, Ms. Abraham continued to work at HHS, serving on a temporary detail at the FDA's Office of Compliance under the supervision of Colin Figueroa from April 2011 through September 2011. (ECF No. 33 at ¶¶ 9-10.) During this temporary assignment, the Office of Internal Affairs (“Internal Affairs”) held several meetings with Plaintiff as part of an investigation into her alleged inappropriate conduct in the workplace. (ECF No. 33.) At the first meeting, in April 2011, Plaintiff received an “Administrative Warning” for her alleged involvement in spreading rumors about Ms. McCree and a male colleague. (Id. at ¶¶ 11, 14.) In May and June of 2011, Plaintiff attended two additional interviews with Internal Affairs, where she received further “Administrative Warnings” for her behavior. (Id. at ¶¶ 13-14.) During the final interview, in September 2011, Internal Affairs informed Plaintiff that she was suspected of sending a pornographic video and sexually explicit letter to Ms. McCree and the aforementioned male colleague. (Id. at ¶ 15.) Later that month, Plaintiff received notice of a proposed 12-day suspension.[1] (Id. at ¶ 17.)

         During the summer of 2011, while the investigation was ongoing, Plaintiff applied for another vacant job position. (ECF No. 33.) Ms. McCree rejected Plaintiff's application in September 2011. (Id. at ¶ 17.) On October 31, 2011, Plaintiff filed her second EEO complaint alleging unlawful retaliation for her prior EEO activity. (Id. at ¶ 18.)

         Following a four-month investigation into Plaintiff's conduct, Defendant ordered Plaintiff's 12-day suspension effective on February 12, 2012. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 33.) Subsequent to her May 2012 return, however, Plaintiff was placed on administrative leave based on new allegations of misconduct. (Id. at ¶ 32.) On November 14, 2012, Plaintiff filed her third EEO complaint asserting unlawful discrimination and retaliation.[2] (Id. at ¶ 29.) On January 3, 2013, Defendant issued an amended proposed removal notice, citing four grounds for Plaintiff's termination. (Id. at ¶¶ 33-34.) In February 2013, a Deciding Official for HHS sustained all four charges and affirmed Plaintiff's termination. See ECF No. 34 at 4-7.

         Plaintiff subsequently filed an appeal of her removal to the Merit Systems Protect Board (“MSPB”) in August 2013. (ECF No. 33 at ¶ 46.) On November 7, 2014, Administrative Law Judge Styles affirmed Plaintiff's termination, with an effective date of December 12, 2014. (Id.)

         Plaintiff filed the pending action in this Court on January 12, 2015. (ECF No. 33 at 9-10.) The sole count asserted in the Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is for unlawful retaliation against Plaintiff for her prior EEO activity, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. (Id. at 9.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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). Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P 12(b)(6). The purpose of Rule 12(b)(6) 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.” Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006).

         When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), this Court is guided by the Supreme Court's instructions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), which “require complaints in civil actions be alleged with greater specificity than previously was required.” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir.2012) (citation omitted). In Twombly, the Supreme Court articulated “[t]wo working principles” that courts must employ when ruling on Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         First, while a court must accept as true all the factual allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint, legal conclusions drawn from those facts are not afforded such deference. Id. (“Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice” to plead a claim; see also Wag More Dogs, LLC v. Cozart, 680 F.3d 359, 365 (4th Cir. 2012) (“Although we are constrained to take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, we need not accept legal conclusions couched as facts or unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.”). Second, a complaint must be dismissed if it does not allege “a plausible claim for relief.” Id. at 679. A claim is considered plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Department of ...


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