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Churchill v. Prince George's County Public Schools

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 1, 2017

JIRA CHURCHILL, Plaintiff,
v.
PRINCE GEORGE'S COUNTY PUBLIC SCHOOLS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Paul W. Grimm United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Jira Churchill, who identifies as a lesbian and has an autoimmune disorder, began working for Defendant Prince George's County Public Schools (“School System”) in August 2014. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 21-24, ECF No. 11-1. Churchill believes that she was harassed and discriminated against by her supervisors, colleagues, and students based on her sexual orientation and nonconformity with gender stereotypes, and that she was retaliated against for having filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and Prince George's County Human Relations Commission (“HRC”). Id. ¶¶ 30-73. Ultimately, Churchill's contract with the School System was not renewed, id. ¶ 73, and she filed this litigation. ECF No. 1. She alleges discrimination (in the form of both a hostile work environment and termination) based on sexual orientation and gender stereotypes, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Maryland Fair Employment Practices Act (“MFEPA”), Md. Code Ann., State Gov't § 20-601 et seq., as well as retaliation in violation of Title VII, the MFEPA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 100-59.

         The School System has filed a motion to dismiss Churchill's Title VII and MFEPA discrimination claims in Counts I-IV (with the exception of her MFEPA hostile work environment claim based on her sexual orientation in Count I) for failure to state a claim, and her retaliation claims based on wage withholding (Count VII) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Def.'s Mot., ECF No. 13.[1] The School System's motion is granted in part, as Title VII does not entertain a cause of action for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and Churchill fails to state a claim for discriminatory termination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender stereotypes.[2] It is denied in part as Churchill has stated a claim for hostile work environment based on gender stereotypes and she has exhausted her administrative remedies with regard to her claim for retaliation in the form of wage withholding. Thus, Counts III and IV, as well as the Title VII claim in Count I are dismissed; and the MFEPA claim in Count I, as well as the claims in Counts II, V, VI, and VII remain. Churchill may file a second amended complaint by December 22, 2017, and the School System must supplement its Answer no later than January 12, 2018.

         Background [3]

         Churchill began working for the School System at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in August 2014. Am. Compl. ¶ 21. On September 19, 2014, Churchill was reassigned to DuVal High School where she worked under Principal Mark Covington and Assistant Principal Shanay Wheeler. Id. ¶¶ 22-24. The principal of Thurgood Marshall Middle School was aware of Churchill's sexual orientation and informed Covington and Wheeler, who informed Churchill's students. Id. ¶¶ 25-27. Churchill informed teachers at her new school about her sexual orientation, who in turn also informed students. Id. ¶¶ 28-29.

         In October 2014, Churchill found “the homophobic slur ‘FAG' written on her chalkboard along with other derogatory remarks.” Id. ¶ 30. Churchill informed Wheeler by sending her a picture of the chalkboard, but no action was taken. Id. ¶ 31. Throughout 2014, students repeatedly referred to Churchill as “Mister Churchill” and “mocked her sexual orientation by referencing how much she must like rainbows” as well as at least one student calling Churchill a “fag” directly. Id. ¶¶ 33-35.

         At DuVal High School, the teachers were praised for allowing their students to eat lunch in their classrooms; however, when Wheeler noticed the majority of students in Churchill's classroom for lunch were female, Wheeler told Churchill “‘the school [can't] have [the female students] being in [Ms. Churchill's classroom].'” Id. ¶¶ 36-38. Churchill alleges that this was due to her sexual orientation. Id. ¶ 38.

         Additionally, Churchill requested accommodations for her autoimmune disorder. Id. ¶ 47. On December 10, 2014, Churchill filed a charge (“December 2014 Charge”) of disability discrimination and retaliation before the EEOC and the HRC. Id. ¶¶ 9, 50; Dec. 2014 Charge, ECF No. 13-2. Churchill also filed seven administrative complaints between December 2014 and April 2015, alleging harassment and retaliation. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 52-54.

         Thereafter, on February 5, 2015, Churchill “was issued a Letter of Reprimand for failing to appear to [sic] at two parent conferences which Ms. Wheeler scheduled without consulting Ms. Churchill.” Id. ¶ 55. Churchill received a second Letter of Reprimand on February 10, 2015 and was notified on March 4, 2015 that a review panel recommended that her contract not be renewed. Id. ¶¶ 56-57.

         On April 4, 2015, in a meeting with Churchill and her union representative, Covington informed Churchill that “she was to be removed from the classroom and banned from teaching students.” Id. ¶ 58.[4] Covington also referred to Churchill as being “‘aggressive, '” which Covington said was “an attribute of ‘her people, '”-comments Churchill understood as references to her sexual orientation because Churchill and Covington are the same race-and Covington “stated that she was removed because she was too much of an influence in the classroom.” Id. ¶¶ 59-62.

         Also during April 2015, Churchill intervened when a student was harassing another student who is homosexual. Id. ¶ 39. Churchill recommended disciplinary action to Covington, but no action was taken. Id. ¶¶ 39-41. Additionally, her newly assigned supervisor, Ms. Price, told Churchill that “she was handy with tools like her husband” as Churchill was fixing a fax machine and that “‘[her] people are handy.'” Id. ¶¶ 64-67. Churchill understood this to mean she “was not stereotypically” female based on a “gender stereotype . . . that men are more skillful with tools than women.” Id. Lastly during April 2015, Covington instituted procedures to have Churchill terminated before the end of her contract, but he was unsuccessful. Id. ¶¶ 70-71. Churchill was terminated at the end of her contract on June 30, 2015. Id. ¶ 73.

         From January until June of 2015, Churchill had wages withheld in the amount of $6, 624.58; she alleges that they were withheld in retaliation for her filing an EEOC charge. Id. ¶¶ 74-91.

         On September 23, 2015, Churchill filed a second charge with the EEOC alleging discrimination and retaliation. Sept. 2015 Charge, ECF No. 13-3. Churchill received her right to sue notice on the September 2015 Charge on February 24, 2017 and on the December 2014 Charge on April 13, 2017. Id. ¶ 9(a)-(e). Churchill filed this litigation on April 10, 2017. Compl., ECF No. 1. Churchill alleges seven counts: (I) hostile work environment on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of Title VII and the MFEPA; (II) hostile work environment on the basis of gender stereotypes in violation of Title VII and the MFEPA; (III) discriminatory termination on the basis of sexual orientation in violation of Title VII and the MFEPA; (IV) discriminatory termination on the basis of gender stereotypes in violation of Title VII and the MFEPA; (V) retaliation in violation of Title VII and the MFEPA; (VI) retaliation in violation of the ADA; (VII) withholding wages in retaliation for protected activities in violation of Title VII, the MFEPA, and the ADA. Am. Compl.

         Standards of Review

         “[F]ederal courts lack subject matter jurisdiction over Title VII claims for which a plaintiff has failed to exhaust administrative remedies.” Murphy v. Adams, No. DKC-12-1975, 2014 WL 3845804, at *7 (D. Md. Aug. 4, 2014) (quoting Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Indus., Inc., 711 F.3d 401, 406 (4th Cir. 2013)). On this basis, Defendant moves to dismiss Count VII, Churchill's claim of retaliation in the form of wage withholding, under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). In considering Defendant's motion, “the Court may . . . consider matters beyond the allegations in the complaint” because Defendant assert that “the jurisdictional allegations in the complaint are not true.” Fontell v. MCGEO UFCW Local 1994, No. AW-09-2526, 2010 WL 3086498, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 6, 2010); see Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). The Court “regard[s] the pleadings' allegations as mere evidence on the issue, ” and its consideration of additional evidence does not “convert[] the proceeding to one for summary judgment.” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Ry. v. United States, 945 F.2d 765, 768 (4th Cir. 1991); see Adams, 697 F.2d at 1219 (“A trial court may consider evidence by affidavit, depositions or live testimony without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment.”).

         The School System also moves to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), which 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). Similarly, “unsupported legal allegations need not be accepted.” Nam v. 2012 Inc., No. DKC-15-1931, 2016 WL 107198, at *3 (D. Md. Jan. 11, 2016) (citing Revene v. Charles Cty. Comm'rs, 882 F.2d 870, 873 (4th Cir. 1989)).

         In an employment discrimination case such as this, the plaintiff “is not required to plead facts that constitute a prima facie case in order to survive a motion to dismiss, ” but “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Nam, 2016 WL 107198, at *3 (quoting Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010)); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510-15 (2002). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual ...


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