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Brennan v. Deluxe Corp.

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 18, 2019

FREDERICK J. BRENNAN, Plaintiff,
v.
DELUXE CORPORATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Ellen L. Hollander United States District Judge

         This employment discrimination case is brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), codified, as amended, at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Plaintiff Frederick J. Brennan has sued his former employer, Deluxe Corporation (“Deluxe”), alleging that he was disciplined and then terminated from his job because of discrimination based on religion. ECF 1-4 (the “Complaint”).[1]

         The Complaint contains three counts: “Discrimination on the Basis of Plaintiff's Christian Religion” (Count One); “Failure to Accommodate Plaintiff's Christian Religious Belief” (Count Two); and “Failure to Engage in Interactive Process to Arrive at an Accommodation (Count Three). Id.[2] Brennan seeks reinstatement and damages in excess of $75, 000, including back pay, front pay, and recovery for “non-economic damages such as, but not limited to, emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, loss of enjoyment of life.” Id. ¶ 16. He also seeks attorney's fees and costs. Id.

         Deluxe has moved to dismiss the Complaint (ECF 9), supported by a memorandum of law (ECF 9-2) (collectively, the “Motion”) and exhibits. ECF 9-3 - ECF 9-6. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), [3] Deluxe argues that the Complaint fails to state claims of religious discrimination and failure to provide religious accommodation. See ECF 9-2 at 1. Brennan opposes the Motion (ECF 12, the “Opposition”) and has filed an exhibit. ECF 12-1. Deluxe has replied. ECF 15 (the “Reply”).

         No hearing is necessary to resolve the Motion. See Local Rule 105.6. For the reasons that follow, I shall grant the Motion in part and deny it in part.

         I. Factual Background

         On or about July 13, 2004, Brennan, a Christian, was hired by Payce, Inc. (“Payce”) as a Software Engineer. ECF 1-4, ¶ 1. Prior to 2017, Payce “became a subsidiary and an affiliate of” Deluxe. Id. ¶ 2. Deluxe then “took control of day to day operations” at Payce, “including the management of Payce employees.” Id. Corp. v. Jackson, 212 Md.App. 177, 200 n.8, 66 A.3d 1152, 1166 n.8 (2013). Md. 469, 914 A.2d 735 (2007)); see also Blakes v. City of Hyattsville, 909 F.Supp.2d 431, 444 (D. Md. 2012).

         Deluxe “is a Minnesota Corporation which, at all times relevant, conducted business in Maryland.” Id. ¶ 3. According to plaintiff, Deluxe “is a joint employer” with Payce, “because . . . it exercised control over [Brennan's] compensation, hours and terms of employment.” Id. ¶ 4. Among other things, Deluxe required Payce to follow “Deluxe's Code of Ethics and Business Conduct.” Id. ¶ 5.

         Of relevance here, Deluxe “required employees to take an online Ethics Compliance course, ” which “required” employees to respond to “multiple choice questions.” Id. ¶ 6. The course “was structured to accept only those responses acceptable to” Deluxe. Id. ¶ 7. “When a response was entered which [wa]s not acceptable to” Deluxe, “the Ethics Compliance course refused to allow the employee to continue to the next question.” Id. Nor could an employee “skip any questions.” Id.

         On or about March 24, 2017, Brennan “proceeded to take the Ethics Compliance Course.” Id. ¶ 8. “When Plaintiff entered his choices to [the] question labeled ‘Bad Behavior,' relating to transgender issues, the course did not agree with Plaintiff's choices.” Id. ¶ 9. As a result, “the course refused to allow the Plaintiff to continue, and did not allow Plaintiff to skip the question.” Id.

         Brennan avers that his “Christian religious beliefs did not allow him to choose the answers required by Defendant's Ethics Compliance course.” Id. ¶ 10. Thereafter, he “requested that he be excused from completing the Ethics Compliance course as an accommodation to his religious beliefs.” Id. ¶ 11. Deluxe denied Brennan's request. Id. ¶ 12.

         Moreover, on January 19, 2018, Deluxe “advised [Brennan] that he would receive a 1% salary reduction as a disciplinary action for failing to complete the Ethics Compliance course.” Id. Thereafter, on April 20, 2018, Deluxe “directed” Payce to “terminate the Plaintiff.” Id. ¶ 13.

         Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) on February 5, 2018. Id. ¶ 14. And, on February 28, 2018, “the EEOC issued a Dismissal and Notice of Suit Rights.” Id. ¶ 15.

         Additional facts are included in the Discussion.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. 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 Rule 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 defendant 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 contain 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) (“Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for ‘all civil actions' . . . .” (citation omitted)); 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.

         To be sure, 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). A complaint is insufficient if it provides no more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action.” 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 quotations 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. Maryland Transit Admin., 845 F.3d 564, 567 (4th Cir. 2017); Belmora, LLC v. Bayer Consumer Care AG, 819 F.3d 697, 705 (4th Cir. 2016); 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).

         In general, courts 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 v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 243 (4th Cir. 1999). The purpose of the rule is to ensure that defendants are “given adequate notice of the nature of a claim” made against them. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (2007). But, “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, 533 F.3d 334, 336 (4th Cir. 2009); see also U.S. ex rel. Oberg v. Penn. Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, 745 F.3d 131, 148 (4th Cir. 2014). However, 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).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint, relying on only well-pled factual allegations, must state a “plausible claim for relief.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). The “mere recital of elements of a cause of action, supported only by conclusory statements, is not sufficient to survive a motion made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012). To determine whether a complaint has crossed “the line from conceivable to plausible, ” a court must employ a context-specific inquiry, drawing on the court's “experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679-80.

         B. Exhibits

         Under limited circumstances, when resolving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider exhibits, without converting the motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment. Goldfarb v. Mayor & City Council of Balt., 791 F.3d 500, 508 (4th Cir. 2015). In particular, a court may consider documents that are “explicitly incorporated into the complaint by reference and those attached to the complaint as exhibits . . . .” Goines, 822 F.3d at 166 (citations omitted); see also U.S. ex rel. Oberg v. Pennsylvania Higher Educ. Assistance Agency, 745 F.3d 131, 136 (4th Cir. 2014); Anand v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 754 F.3d 195, 198 (4th Cir. 2014); Am. Chiropractic Ass'n v. Trigon Healthcare, Inc., 367 F.3d 212, 234 (4th Cir. 2004), cert. denied, 543 U.S. 979 (2004); Phillips v. LCI Int'l Inc., 190 F.3d 609, 618 (4th Cir. 1999). A court may also take judicial notice of matters of public record. Philips v. Pitt County Mem. Hosp., 572 F.3d 176, 180 (4th Cir. 2009).

         However, “before treating the contents of an attached or incorporated document as true, the district court should consider the nature of the document and why the plaintiff attached it.” Goines, 822 F.3d at 167 (citing N. Ind. Gun & Outdoor Shows, Inc. v. City of S. Bend, 163 F.3d 449, 455 (7th Cir. 1998)). “When the plaintiff attaches or incorporates a document upon which his claim is based, or when the complaint otherwise shows that the plaintiff has adopted the contents of the document, crediting the document over conflicting allegations in the complaint is proper.” Goines, 822 F.3d at 167. Conversely, “where the plaintiff attaches or incorporates a document for purposes other than the truthfulness of the document, it is inappropriate to treat the contents of that document as true.” Id.

         A court may also “consider a document submitted by the movant that was not attached to or expressly incorporated in a complaint, so long as the document was integral to the complaint and there is no dispute about the document's authenticity.” Goines, 822 F.3d at 166 (citations omitted); see also Woods v. City of Greensboro, 855 F.3d 639, 642 (4th Cir. 2017), petition for cert. filed, No. 17-492 (Oct. 3, 2017); Kensington Volunteer Fire Dep't. v. Montgomery Cty., 684 F.3d 462, 467 (4th Cir. 2012). To be “integral, ” a document must be one “that by its ‘very existence, and not the mere information it contains, gives rise to the legal rights asserted.'” Chesapeake Bay Found., Inc. v. Severstal Sparrows Point, LLC, 794 F.Supp.2d 602, 611 (D. Md. 2011) (citation omitted) (emphasis in original).

         To its Motion, Deluxe appended plaintiff's Complaint (ECF 9-3) and several exhibits: the “Dismissal and Notice of Rights” issued by the EEOC on February 28, 2018 (ECF 9-4); the “Notice of Charge of Discrimination” filed by Brennan on February 5, 2018, and signed by EEOC Baltimore Field Office Director Rosemarie Rhodes on June 19, 2018 (ECF 9-5); an excerpt of Section 12 of the EEOC Compliance Manual (the “Manual”), dated July 22, 2008, titled “Religious Discrimination” (ECF ...


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