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Knox v. Mayor & City Council Baltimore City

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 29, 2017

RHONDA KNOX, Plaintiff


          James K. Bredar Chief Judge.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Rhonda Knox filed this suit claiming employment discrimination in the form of sexual harassment, retaliation for engaging in protected activity, federal civil rights violations, violations of state law, and acts of tortious conduct. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The named Defendants are the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore City (“City”), Fabian Lewis, and Yolanda Cason. Following the filing of a motion to dismiss, [1] Knox filed an amended complaint (Am. Compl., ECF No. 14), to which the City and Cason filed a motion to dismiss (City Defs.' Mot., ECF No. 16) and to which Lewis filed a counterclaim (Countercl., ECF No. 17) and a motion to dismiss (Lewis's Mot., ECF No. 20). In turn, Knox filed a motion to dismiss Lewis's counterclaim (Knox's Mot., ECF No. 24.) The motions have been briefed (ECF Nos. 21, 25, 26, 27) and are ready for decision. No hearing is necessary. Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). The motions will be granted in part and denied in part.

         II. Standard of Dismissal for Failure to State a Claim

         A complaint must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). Facial plausibility exists “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. An inference of a mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. As the Twombly opinion stated, “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” 550 U.S. at 555. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.' . . . Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Although when considering a motion to dismiss a court must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint, this principle does not apply to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         III. Allegations of the Complaint

         Knox is a female who has been working with the City's Department of Transportation (“DOT”) in the Safety Division since 2004. (Am. Compl. ¶ 13.) Her initial position was that of a Parking Control Agent. (Id.) On September 26, 2013, she was promoted to Transportation Enforcement Supervisor and began reporting to Lewis, who was Deputy Chief of the DOT Safety Division. (Id. ¶ 14.) At that time, Lewis began making lewd comments to her and engaging in unwanted physical touching. (Id.) In October 2013, Lewis began making “inappropriate sexual comments towards her while at work.” (Id. ¶ 15.) In November 2013, Lewis entered Knox's office, “grabbed her and kissed her on the mouth, then stated that she wouldn't be a supervisor if it wasn't for him.” (Id. ¶ 16.) By January 2014, Lewis “had begun regularly groping Ms. Knox when others were not present.” (Id. ¶ 17.)

         In early 2014, Knox informed Lt. Caroline Brooks, a higher-ranking supervisor[2] within the Safety Division, of Lewis's behavior. (Id. ¶ 18.) Brooks's initial comment to Knox was that Lewis “was just a dirty old man.” (Id.) Brooks then attended a meeting with Knox and Lewis “and specifically told Mr. Lewis the harassment would need to stop or Lt. Brooks would report him.” (Id. ¶ 19.) Brooks told Knox that she, Brooks, had told Cason, Chief of the Safety Division, about the alleged harassment. (Id. ¶ 20.) After the meeting of Brooks, Lewis, and Knox, Lewis changed Knox's schedule (id. ¶ 21), but Knox provides no particulars as to that schedule change. Knox alleges Lewis made “threats of other retaliation” (id.), but provides no factual content as to what those threats were. While still in the six-month probationary period for her new position of Traffic Enforcement Supervisor, Knox “became nervous that she would face further retaliation, or even be fired, if she did not respond to Mr. Lewis's retaliatory behavior and continued sexual solicitations.” (Id.)

         Knox alleges another officer in the same division complained of harassment and was relocated as a result (id. ¶ 22), but Knox does not specify who that harasser was, when the harassment occurred, whether it was sexual harassment, and whether the relocation was welcomed as a protective measure or regarded as a punitive action.

         Lewis began sending text messages to Knox, asking her to take and send nude pictures of herself while she was at work. (Id. ¶ 23.) Knox alleges the text messages “conveyed that if the nude photographs or videos were not sent to him, he would not approve [her] request for overtime hours, scheduling requests, or requests for additional staffing.” (Id. ¶ 24.) Knox alleges Lewis's text messages “contained lascivious comments, including [his] saying ‘I want to have you for lunch' and ‘I'm sitting outside of your house.'” (Id. ¶ 25.) She alleges her “nonconsensual responses of sending nude photographs [were] in exchange for receiving proper staffing, approval of overtime, and appropriate scheduling.” (Id. ¶ 3.) One time, Lewis told Knox “he had a pink dildo in his briefcase and wanted to stick it in her butt.” (Id. ¶ 26.)

         Knox took a leave from work of unspecified length in August 2015 “due to her anxiety.” (Id. ¶ 27.) In November 2015, Lewis called Knox into a storeroom in the office, and, when she entered the storeroom, Lewis ejaculated on her arm and her sweater. (Id. ¶ 28.) Knox alleges she never welcomed or consented to Lewis's sexual harassment or advances; instead, she responded out of fear of losing her job or because she wanted “to attain work related compensation as was afforded to other employees without such demands.” (Id. ¶ 29.) She alleges that male employees of DOT were never subjected to Lewis's “harassing behavior and retaliatory actions.” (Id. ¶ 60.)

         Although she was initially reluctant to make a complaint against her supervisor based on her fear of retaliation, in December 2015, Knox filed a formal complaint with Cason and the Department's Inspector General. (Id. ¶¶ 31, 32.) After the complaint was filed, and allegedly pursuant to Cason's directives, Knox's duty shift changed five times, which Knox alleges was “a particularly cruel hardship” for her because she is a mother of school-aged children and she had to make arrangements to get her children off of the bus and to make other accommodations to care for her family. (Id. ¶ 33.) Knox alleges the schedule changes negatively affected both her productivity in her work and her quality of life outside of work. (Id.)

         Knox also alleges she was assigned individual directives and assignments not given to others with her same rank and title, adding to her workload and resulting in unnecessary stress and anxiety (id ¶ 34), but she does not provide any details as to these additional directives and assignments, other than to say that Cason assigned her individual directives (id ¶ 5). She alleges the schedule changes and additional directives and assignments were a direct result of her complaint against Lewis. (Id. ¶ 35.) Knox additionally says she was informed she needed to purchase a new cell phone because she had lost her cell phone's stylus, but she persuaded “her employers” to make her responsible only for purchasing a new stylus, not a new cell phone (id); Knox does not say who informed her of this requirement, but says others in her department have not been held to this requirement (id).

         Knox alleges that, after she filed her formal complaint against Lewis, an investigation commenced and at least fifteen other women came forward and complained of similar misconduct by Lewis. (Id. ¶ 36.) Lewis was provided a “pretermination” letter, which notified him he was being recommended for termination. (Id. ¶ 37.) Before termination occurred, Lewis “quietly resigned.” (Id.) The date of his resignation is not alleged.

         In March 2016, Knox filed a complaint against Cason with DOT's Department of Human Resources. (Id. ¶ 38.) Knox does not indicate the outcome of that complaint.

         Knox's amended complaint filed in this Court sets out twelve counts:

• Count I against City: Hostile Environment Sexual Harassment - Knox concedes this count is brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. (Pl.'s Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. Dismiss 6, ECF No. 15.)
• Count II against City: Quid Pro Quo Sexual Harassment - Knox also concedes this count is brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. (Id.)
• Count III against City, Cason, and Lewis: Civil Rights Act Due Process Claim - the Court infers this is brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
• Count IV against City, Cason, and Lewis: Civil Rights Act Equal Protection Claim - the Court infers this is also brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
• Count V against City: Sexual Harassment under Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act, [State Government] Code § 20-606: Hostile Work Environment and Quid Pro Quo
• Count VI against City, Cason, and Lewis: Maryland Constitution Articles 24 & 26 Due Process Claim
• Count VII against City, Cason, and Lewis: Maryland Constitution Articles 24 & 26 Equal Protection Claim
• Count VIII against City, Cason, and Lewis: Maryland Constitution Article 46 Gender Discrimination
• Count IX against City, Cason, and Lewis: Maryland Constitution Longtin-type Pattern or Practice Claim
• Count X against City, Cason, and Lewis: Negligent Hiring, Training, Retention & Supervision
• Count XI against City, Cason, and Lewis: Negligent Entrustment
• Count XII against Lewis: Assault and Battery

         IV. Allegations of the Counterclaim

         Lewis's counterclaim presents a different set of allegations indicating Knox was the aggressor in their relationship. Lewis alleges he is sixty-five years old, a “gentleman, ” and that he served as the Superintendent of Parking for the City from October 2012 until February 2016. (Countercl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 17.) While serving in that capacity, he helped to manage parking enforcement and school crossing guard programs. (Id.)

         After Knox's appointment to parking control supervisor in September 2013, Lewis met with her “and all the other newly appointed supervisors to discuss expectations and clarify performance metrics.” (Id. ¶¶ 7, 8.) “At the end of that meeting, Mrs. Knox exited the room where the meeting was held, immediately returned, and asked Mr. Lewis if she could speak with him privately. Mr. Lewis informed her that she could and she went on to inform him of intimate and personal details of her married life.” (Id. ¶ 8.) Lewis alleges Knox informed him that Knox's husband was cheating on her, staying away from home every Friday night and returning home Saturday afternoon. (Id. ¶ 9.) Knox further informed Lewis that she was having health issues. (Id. ¶ 10.) When Lewis told her his spouse was a healthcare provider and that he would ask his wife about Knox's possible condition, Knox “jumped up, grabbed Mr. Lewis without his consent, kissed him on his lips, and stated, ‘There is more where that came from.'” (Id. ¶ 11.) Lewis immediately informed Knox “he did not welcome her assaulting him.” (Id. ¶ 12.)

         After that incident, Knox “began the relentless pursuit of Mr. Lewis to engage in sex with her.” (Id. ¶ 13.) Knox routinely began making lewd comments to Lewis and engaging in unwanted physical touching of him. (Id. ¶ 14.) Lewis told Knox her conduct was inappropriate, and she responded, “‘I do this with everybody. What makes you think you are so special?'” (Id. ¶ 15.) In October 2013, Knox told Lewis she was sexually unsatisfied, saying “her husband suffered from premature ejaculation and was thus unable to satisfy her sexually, ” and asked Lewis's advice “as to how she could ensure that her husband could sustain an erection during sex.” (Id. ¶ 17.)

         Knox began to call Lewis “on a nearly daily basis and would engage in ‘phone sex' in which she would imply that she was masturbating while she was on the phone with Mr. Lewis.” (Id. ¶ 18.) On multiple occasions, Knox made videos of herself masturbating, brought them into Lewis's office, and showed them to him. (Id. ¶ 19.) She also sent nude pictures of herself to Lewis on multiple occasions. (Id. ¶ 20.) Additionally, she told Lewis she had worn out her vibrator and needed another one so she could continue recording videos. (Id. ¶ 21.) Lewis told her she should buy a new one on Amazon, but Knox told Lewis she did not want her husband to know she was buying sex toys and asked Lewis to purchase it for her, providing Lewis with the website and the ordering details when he agreed to do so. (Id. ¶¶ 22-25.) Lewis bought the vibrator and gave it to Knox. (Id. ¶ 26.) Afterwards, Knox would take photos showing the vibrator inserted into her body and would send the pictures to Lewis. (Id. ¶ 27.)

         Knox would also come into Lewis's office, sit on his lap, and “wiggle her body against his.” (Id. ¶ 28.) She also entered his office, exposed her breasts to him, touched her breasts with her mouth, and invited him to suck them. (Id. ¶ 29.) On at least thirteen occasions from November 2013 to November 2015, Knox called Lewis, told him she was “wet, ” and invited him to meet her somewhere. (Id. ¶ 32.) On those occasions, Knox exposed her breasts, fondled Lewis's genitals, and “force[d]” him to fondle her genitals and insert his fingers into her vagina. (Id. ¶ 33.) On one of those occasions in November 2015, Knox removed Lewis's “penis, against his will, from his pants, and massaged his penis causing him to ejaculate.” (Id. ¶ 34.)

         Lewis alleges he insisted Knox's behavior towards him must stop and that Knox became angry and filed a complaint with the City. (Id. ¶¶ 37-39.) The City found no merit to Knox's complaint. (Id. ¶ 40.) “Lewis determined that he . . . no longer wished to work for the City of Baltimore, and resigned his position in February 2016.” (Id. ¶ 41.)

         Lewis's counterclaim has nine counts:

• Count I for Malicious Use of Process
• Count II for Tortious Interference in a Contractual Relationship
• Count III for Fraud
• Count IV for Defamation
• Count V for Wrongful Interference in a Contractual Relationship
• Count VI for Intentional Infliction of Emotional ...

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