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Arije v. Pointcross Life Sciences

United States District Court, D. Maryland

February 15, 2019



          James K. Bredar Chief Judge

         Pro se plaintiff Oluwaseun Arije ("Plaintiff) filed suit alleging that his former employer, Pointcross Life Sciences ("Defendant"), discriminated against him based on his race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a). Now before the Court is the Defendant's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Mot Dismiss, ECF No. 18.) No hearing is required. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2018). For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's Motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         On September 22, 2017, Arije filed &pro se complaint[1] against Pointcross Life Services in the District Court for the District of Columbia. (Compl., ECF No. 1.) The single-paragraph complaint accused the Defendant of "violat[ing] the Plaintiffs civil rights by discriminating against African-American employees with false written evaluations [, ] . . . leading to hostile conditions and the end of employment." (Id. at 2.) Arije alleged that, contrary to the evaluations, he had "performed-well [sic]," and that performance on projects was "often, if not always," evaluated "in front of other employees at meetings," suggesting that employees were aware of one another's progress and quality of work. (Id.) He also alleged that his name was frequently mispronounced "by the Defendant" in a way that was "reminiscent of a racial slur."[2] (Id.) Arije claimed loss of employment opportunities, damage to his reputation, and emotional distress. (Id.)

         The Defendant moved to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction, improper venue, and failure to state a claim. (ECF No. 5.) Construing Arije's opposition as a motion to transfer, the court denied the motion to dismiss and ordered the case transferred to the District of Maryland. (Order at 2, ECF No. 12.) After transfer, the Defendant again moved to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim, (Mot. Dismiss at 1.)

         In his response, Arije advanced no legal arguments and, instead, put forth facts about his employment history with the Defendant that were not included in the original Complaint. (Opp'n Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 22.) Allegations included in the response brief are summarized below.

         Arije is African American. (Id. at 1.) He was hired by Pointcross Life Sciences in May of 2014 on a one-year contract as a "Non-Clinical Subject Matter Expert." (Id. at 2, 3.) In that role, Arije was a member of the "data standardization team" (id at 3), and his duties related to "informatics knowledge, triaging toxicology datasets, ... data extraction... and identifying [and resolving] data discrepancies." (Id. at 2.) Kristi Johnson was the "Team Lead Subject Matter." (Id.) She reported to Shree Nath, a Vice President. (Id.) The data standardization team included other subject matter experts, as well as a toxicologist, and an individual assigned to technical support. (Id.) One of Arije's fellow subject matter experts and the technical support person are both African American, but most of his peers and supervisors-including Johnson and Nath-are not. (Id. at 2, 4.)

         For most of his tenure, Arije received generally positive feedback on his performance. (See Id. at 2 ("I was informed numerous times by my superiors and coworkers that my work was engaged and productive."); id. at 3 ("I received essentially positive feedback during the three-month probationary period of my contract. . . .").) When "evaluated in person in front of other peers[, ] [his] work was shown to have no or very few errors." (Id. at 4.) By contrast, "[o]thers employed doing data standardization [produced] work that contained more errors than [Arije's work]." (Id. at 3.)

         At some point, management assigned Arije to a three-person team responsible for developing a "guide on data standardization and implementation" that would "outlin[e] intermediate instructions, helpful tips, and formulas on data standardization ... for future use." (Id. at 3-4.) The nature of this guide was such that "[o]nly someone who knows what they are doing [and] is proficient in the matter would be asked to create [it]." (Id. at 4.)

         Johnson and Nath "expressed hatred towards [Arije]" that he believed was "due to racist predispositions unrelated to work quality." (Id. at 2.) Johnson also engaged in other forms of "unprofessional behavior," including "unnecessarily yelling at employees," habitually arriving late, and gesturing during meetings with "only her middle finger raised." (Id. at 3-4.)

         In late October 2014, Arije received a negative performance review by email, contrary to the performance-based feedback he had received up until that point. (Id. at 3.) The negative review "relied greatly on Johnson's evaluations," because, unlike other supervisors, she was co-located with Arije in Maryland. (Id. at 3.) Arije "vigorously defended [himself]" against the negative review and eventually complained to the project manager that he believed the review was inaccurate and "dishonest," but his grievance was not addressed. (Id. at 4.) At some point either before or after the negative review, an employee in human resources and a senior member of the data standardization team left Pointcross, which Arije believed "facilitated" the "dishonest" evaluations of his work. (Id.) Arije was terminated on December 19, 2014. (Id.) On the same day, Morie Alpha, another African-American subject matter expert, was also terminated. (Id.)

         II. Legal Standard for a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)

         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 the mere possibility of misconduct is not sufficient to support a plausible claim. Id. at 679. Courts must "accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true, ... constru[ing] the facts and reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). Nevertheless, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or . . . 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement'" will not suffice. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (alteration in original) (citation omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557). Courts need not accept legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         Pro se plaintiffs are held to a "less stringent standard" than lawyers, and courts construe their pleadings liberally, no matter how "inartfully" pled. Erickson v. Pardus,551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Liberal construction is especially appropriate where a. pro se plaintiff alleges civil rights violations. Brown v. N.C. Dep't of Corrections,612 F.3d 720, 724 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Loe v. Armistead,582 F.2d 1291, 1295 (4th Cir. 1978)). Nonetheless, a pro se complaint must still meet the "minimum threshold of plausibility" under Twombly and Iqbal. Robb v. Md. Aviation Admin., Civ. No. JKB-14-1421, 2014 WL 4056030, at *3 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2014) (citing O'Neil v. Ponzi, F. App'x 795, 796 (2d Cir. 2010)). "While pro se complaints may represent the work of an untutored hand requiring special judicial solicitude, a district court is not required to recognize obscure or extravagant claims defying the most concerted efforts to ...

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