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Van Story v. Washington County Health Dept.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

November 7, 2018



          Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge

         In this employment discrimination case, plaintiff Patricia Van Story, D.D.S., has sued her former employer, the Washington County Health Department (“WCHD”), as well as the Maryland Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (the “Department”)[1] and Governor Larry Hogan, alleging retaliation, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and 42 U.S.C. § 1981. ECF 1 (“Complaint”). She seeks “compensatory and economic” damages as well as unspecified equitable and declaratory relief. Id. at 6.

         Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint (ECF 7), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 7-1) (collectively, the “Motion”). Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), defendants seek dismissal on the ground that suit is barred under the Eleventh Amendment, based on sovereign immunity. ECF 7-1 at 4-5. In the alternative, defendants argue, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), that § 1981 does not provide an independent cause of action against state actors. Further, they maintain that even if § 1981 does provide a cause of action, the Complaint fails to state a claim of retaliation. Id. at 5-10.

         Van Story opposes the Motion (ECF 10) (“Opposition”). The defendants have replied. ECF 11 (“Reply”).

         No oral argument is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, I shall grant the Motion, with leave to amend.

         I. Factual Background[2]

         The WCHD is one of twenty-four statutorily created county health departments in Maryland. Md. Code (2015 Repl. Vol., 2017 Supp.), § 3-301(a) of the Health-General Article (“H.G.”). Each county has a county health officer, who appoints the staff of the county's health department. H.G. § 3-306(b)(2).

         Van Story, a dentist, began her employment with WCHD on December 7, 2007. ECF 1, 9. During the relevant time period, she served as the “Dental Director/Program Manager.” Id. ¶ 10.

         In November 2012, Van Story filed a complaint against her supervisor, Rod MacRae.[3]Id. ¶ 11. Thereafter, Susan Parks replaced MacRae as Van Story's supervisor. Id. Van Story alleges that after she filed “her complaint against Mr. [MacRae], WCHD retaliated against her in the form of continued harassment and discrimination” on at least three occasions. Id. ¶ 12; see also Id. ¶¶ 13-17.

         First, on September 4, 2014, Van Story learned that “even though [she] was the Dental Director, . . . WCHD had previously applied for a dental grant without her knowledge and without her input.” Id. ¶ 13. Instead, Parks, her supervisor, prepared the application. Id. ¶ 14. Second, on September 24, 2014, WCHD “informed Dr. Van Story that an employee complaint had been filed against her and that she was to appear at a hearing for said complaint” later that day. Id. ¶ 16. Third, Van Story's “name was omitted from the Department's staff directory while the Department's Medical Director Dr. Mark Jameson was included.” Id. ¶ 15.

         On April 9, 2015, “Van Story was terminated from her position at WCHD.” Id. ¶ 17. She alleges that she filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), based on race (African American), gender (female), and age (65), as well as retaliation, under “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, ” the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. ECF 1, ¶¶ 5-6, ¶ 5 n.1. However, the Complaint does not specify the date of filing of the charge. Id. ¶ 5 (citing EEOC Charge 531-2014-02518).

         On or about June 12, 2015, the EEOC “concluded that the evidence ‘obtained during the course of the investigation fails to support [Dr. Van Story's] allegations.'” Id. ¶ 8 (quoting EEOC) (alteration in original). Van Story did not file this suit until December 4, 2017.[4]

         II. Standard of Review

         A. 12(b)(1)

         As noted, defendants have moved to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, asserting that plaintiff's claims are barred by sovereign immunity. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), plaintiff bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of evidence, the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. See Demetres v. East West Const., Inc., 776 F.3d 271, 272 (4th Cir. 2015); see also The Piney Run Preservation Ass'n v. Cty. Comm'rs of Carroll Cty., 523 F.3d 453, 459 (4th Cir. 2008); Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999).

         The Fourth Circuit recently reiterated that the defense of sovereign immunity is a jurisdictional bar, stating that “‘sovereign immunity deprives federal courts of jurisdiction to hear claims, and a court finding that a party is entitled to sovereign immunity must dismiss the action for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.'” Cunningham v. Gen. Dynamics Info. Tech., Inc., 888 F.3d 640, 649 (4th Cir. 2018) (quoting Ackerson v. Bean Dredging LLC, 589 F.3d 196, 207 (5th Cir. 2009)). But, the defendant “bears the burden of demonstrating” sovereign immunity because it is “akin to an affirmative defense.” Hutto v. S.C. Ret. Sys., 773 F.3d 536, 543 (4th Cir. 2014).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         A defendant may test the legal sufficiency of a complaint by way of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). In re Birmingham, 846 F.3d 88, 92 (4th Cir. 2017); Goines v. Valley Cmty. Servs. Bd., 822 F.3d 159, 165-66 (4th Cir. 2016); McBurney v. Cuccinelli, 616 F.3d 393, 408 (4th Cir. 2010), aff'd sub nom., McBurney v. Young, 569 U.S. 221 (2013); Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion constitutes an assertion by a defendant that, even if the facts alleged by a plaintiff are true, the complaint fails as a matter of law “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”

         Whether a complaint states a claim for relief is assessed by reference to the pleading requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). That rule provides that a complaint must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” The purpose of the rule is to provide the defendants with “fair notice” of the claims and the “grounds” for entitlement to relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007).

         To survive a motion under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must set forth facts sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570; see Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 684 (2009) (citation omitted) (“Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for ‘all civil actions' . . . .”); see also Willner v. Dimon, 849 F.3d 93, 112 (4th Cir. 2017). But, a plaintiff need not include “detailed factual allegations” in order to satisfy Rule 8(a)(2). Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Moreover, federal pleading rules “do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, Miss., 574 U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 346, 346 (2014) (per curiam).

         Nevertheless, the rule demands more than bald accusations or mere speculation. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see Painter's Mill Grille, LLC v. Brown, 716 F.3d 342, 350 (4th Cir. 2013). If a complaint provides no more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, ” it is insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Rather, to satisfy the minimal requirements of Rule 8(a)(2), the complaint must set forth “enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest” a cognizable cause of action, “even if . . . [the] actual proof of those facts is improbable and . . . recovery is very remote and unlikely.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court “must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint” and must “draw all reasonable inferences [from those facts] in favor of the plaintiff.” E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. v. Kolon Indus., Inc., 637 F.3d 435, 440 (4th Cir. 2011) (citations omitted); see Semenova v. MTA, 845 F.3d 564, 567 (4th Cir. 2017); Houck v. Substitute Tr. Servs., Inc., 791 F.3d 473, 484 (4th Cir. 2015); Kendall v. Balcerzak, 650 F.3d 515, 522 (4th Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 565 U.S. 943 (2011). But, a court is not required to accept legal conclusions drawn from the facts. See Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). “A court decides whether [the pleading] standard is met by separating the legal conclusions from the factual allegations, assuming the truth of only the factual allegations, and then determining whether those allegations allow the court to reasonably infer” that the plaintiff is entitled to the legal remedy sought. A Society Without a Name v. Virginia, 655 F.3d 342, 346 (4th. Cir. 2011), cert. denied, 566 U.S. 937 (2012).

         Courts generally do not “‘resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses'” through a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Edwards, 178 F.3d at 243 (quoting Republican Party v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992)). However, “in the relatively rare circumstances where facts sufficient to rule on an affirmative defense are alleged in the complaint, the defense may be reached by a motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6).” Goodman v. Praxair, Inc., 494 F.3d 458, 464 (4th Cir. 2007) (en banc); accord Pressley v. Tupperware Long Term Disability Plan, 553 F.3d 334, 336 (4th Cir. 2009). Because Rule 12(b)(6) “is intended [only] to test the legal adequacy of the complaint, ” Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac R.R. Co. v. Forst, 4 F.3d 244, 250 (4th Cir. 1993), “[t]his principle only applies . . . if all facts necessary to the affirmative defense ‘clearly appear[ ] on the face of the complaint.'” Goodman, 494 F.3d at 464 (quoting Forst, 4 F.3d at 250) (emphasis added in Goodman ).

         III. ...

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