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Whitaker v. Ciena Corporation

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 27, 2018

DARYL WHITAKER, Plaintiff,
v.
CIENA CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Daryl Whitaker (“Plaintiff” or “Whitaker”) brings this action against his former employer Defendant Ciena Corporation (“Defendant” or “Ciena”) alleging race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 17-2.) Currently pending before this Court are Defendant's Motion to Dismiss the Original Complaint, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7) and Plaintiff's Motion for Leave to file an Amended Complaint (ECF No. 17). The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2016). For the following reasons, Plaintiff's Motion to Amend (ECF No. 17) is GRANTED[1] and Defendant's Motion (ECF No. 7) is DENIED. Specifically, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss the Original Complaint is DENIED AS MOOT and the Defendant's alternative Motion for Summary Judgment is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

         BACKGROUND

         In ruling on a motion to dismiss, this Court “accept[s] as true all well-pleaded facts in a complaint and construe[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Wikimedia Found. v. Nat'l Sec. Agency, 857 F.3d 193, 208 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc., 801 F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015)). In August of 2010, Plaintiff Daryl Whitaker, an African-American male, began working for Defendant Ciena Corporation as the Senior Director of Human Resources for the company's Global Field Operations division. (Am. Compl., ECF No. 17-2 at ¶¶ 4, 56.) As Senior Director, he reported to the Vice President who in turn reported to the Executive Vice President. (Id. at ¶ 55.) Whitaker asserts that when he was offered the position of Senior Director, he was promised that he would be promoted to Vice President “as soon as it became vacant” and in the interim would receive the salary of the Vice President position. (Id. at ¶¶ 51, 63, 64.) On these terms, Whitaker accepted the job with Ciena. (Id. at ¶¶ 64, 66.)

         Whitaker asserts that when he began working, he was the only minority on the Human Resources Leadership team and that Ciena's Executive Leadership team was comprised solely of Caucasian men.[2] (Id. at ¶¶ 67, 70.) Having observed “Ciena's ethnic composition, ” he decided to implement a diversity program which he believed was an “essential directive within the scope of his position.” (Id. at ¶¶ 73, 77.) He asserts, however, that this idea was quickly dismissed by leadership in Human Resources. (Id. at ¶ 79.)

         Two months after he proposed the diversity program, the Vice President position became vacant. (Id. at ¶ 80.) When Whitaker approached Harris about the position, Whitaker asserts that Harris responded by saying that “there are others at the company who want this job who have been here longer.” (Id. at ¶ 82.) Plaintiff asserts, however, that there were no other qualified candidates on the Human Resources Leadership team at that time. (Id. at ¶ 83.) When the position was still vacant in January of 2011, Plaintiff approached Harris again. (Id. at ¶¶ 92-94.) Harris then told him that the Vice President position had been eliminated, and Plaintiff would report directly to Harris. (Id. at ¶ 94.)

         Over a year and a half later in August of 2012, the then-current Executive Vice President David Rothenstein, who was also General Counsel for Ciena, approached Plaintiff about transferring to a new position. (Id. at ¶¶ 103-07.) Specifically, Rothenstein asked Whitaker if he would become Senior Director of Ciena Learning Services in the sales department. (Id. at ¶¶ 108-09.) When Plaintiff expressed concerns about transferring to a new department, Rothenstein promised him that he would receive full sales commission for his first six months. (Id. at ¶ 112.) Whitaker further alleges that Rothenstein also agreed that in the event Plaintiff left the company, he would receive a severance package based on his former position as Senior Director of Human Resources for the company's Global Field Operations division. (Id. at ¶ 113.) Specifically, Whitaker would receive severance pay based on the Senior Director of Human Resources position and Ciena would verify that as Whitaker's title to future prospective employers. (Id. at ¶ 114.) Based on these terms, Whitaker “reluctantly accepted the new sales position.” (Id. at ¶ 118.) During this time, he also learned that Ms. Wagner, [3] a Caucasian female, would be taking his old position in Human Resources and agreed to train her. (Id. at ¶¶ 117, 119-21.)

         In November of 2012-three months after Whitaker took his new position and once he completed training Ms. Wagner-he was informed by Rosenstein that his new position as Senior Director of Ciena Learning Services was being eliminated for lack of funding. (Id. at ¶¶ 119-22.) He was not, however, officially terminated at that time. (Id. at ¶ 126.) He found a position in another department as an entry-level salesman or “Learning Specialist.” (Id. at ¶¶ 128-31, 135.) When he took the position, he alleges that he was again told that if this position was eliminated, Plaintiff would receive the same severance package as offered by Rothenstein relating to his former position as Senior Director of Human Resources. (Id. at ¶ 132.) He then began working in February of 2013 and became an “immediate star” and “received every commission, bonus, and restricted stock gift he was capable of earning.” (Id. at ¶¶ 137-39.) Nine months later in November of 2013, however, he was told that his position was being eliminated because his “role was not effective.” (Id. at ¶ 141.) None of the other four Learning Specialists, who were “mostly Caucasian males, ” were terminated. (Id. at ¶ 158.)

         On December 27, 2013, Plaintiff received a final termination letter.[4] (Id. at ¶ 143.) The letter indicated that his termination would not be effective until January 10, 2014, and he would receive twelve weeks of “regular base salary” severance pay and that Ciena would verify his “title” to perspective employers. (Id. at ¶¶ 147, 160.) From the letter, he could not determine whether the company was honoring the severance agreement relating to his former position as Senior Director of Human Resources for the company's Global Field Operations division. (Id. at ¶¶ 146-47.) Whitaker attempted to ask Human Resources, which did not respond to Whitaker until January 10, 2014. (Id. at ¶¶ 149-51.) On January 10, 2014, an individual from Human Resources contacted Whitaker and told him that he would receive his severance pay based on his Learning Specialist position, not Senior Director of Human Resources as he believed he was promised. (Id. at ¶ 153.) Further, Ciena would not verify to prospective employers that his last position with Ciena was Senior Director of Human Resources because “it was impossible for Ciena's system to verify a previous job title.” (Id. at ¶ 154.) After Plaintiff was terminated, Ms. Wagner-the Caucasian female he had trained to take his Senior Director position-was promoted to Vice President. (Id. at ¶ 159.)

         On January 4, 2018, Plaintiff filed this action against Ciena alleging race discrimination in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) Subsequently, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss, or in the Alternative, Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 7), arguing that all of Plaintiff's claims are time-barred by the applicable § 1981 statute of limitations. (ECF No. 7.) On March 26, 2018, Plaintiff filed a Motion for Leave to File an Amended Complaint. (ECF No. 17.)

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A plaintiff may amend his or her complaint once “as a matter of course at any time before a responsive pleading is served” or “by leave of court or by written consent of the adverse party.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a). Rule 15(a) requires that leave “shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has held that Rule 15 “gives effect to the federal policy in favor of resolving cases on their merits instead of disposing of them on technicalities.” Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 426 (4th Cir. 2006) (citing Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 48, 78 S.Ct. 99 (1957)). A district court may deny leave to amend, however, “when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, the moving party has acted in bad faith, or the amendment would be futile.” Equal Rights Center v. Niles Bolton Assocs., 602 F.3d 597, 603 (4th Cir. 2010). An amendment is futile “when the proposed amendment is clearly insufficient or frivolous on its face.” Anand v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 754 F.3d 195, 200 (4th Cir. 2014) (quoting Johnson v. Oroweat Foods Co., 785 F.2d 503, 510 (4th Cir. 1986)).

         ANALYSIS

         I. ...


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