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Laster v. NAI

United States District Court, D. Maryland

July 16, 2019

LISA LASTER, Plaintiff,



         Plaintiff Lisa Laster, a former employee of Defendant NAI, The Michael Companies ("NAI"), has filed a civil action alleging employment discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213 (2012). Pending before the Court is NAI's Motion to Dismiss Count III of Laster's Complaint, a claim for retaliation, on the ground that she has failed to exhaust administrative remedies relating to this claim. Having reviewed the submitted materials, the Court finds no hearing necessary. See D. Md. Local R. 105.6. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is DENIED.


         On December 17, 2007, NAI hired Laster as a property accountant. While employed with NAI, Laster suffered injuries to her shoulder, which limited her lifting ability. Laster notified NAI that she planned to have surgery on October 23, 2044 to repair her shoulder, and NAI approved leave until January 5, 2015 under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601-2654 (2012); 5 U.S.C. §§ 6381-6387 (2012). On December 30, 2014, Laster's physicians notified NAI that Laster would require several workplace accommodations and that she would not be able to return to work until January 26, 205. On January 13, 2015, Laster's physicians extended the date of her return to work by another week, anticipating her return on February 2, 2015. On January 27, 2015, NAI notified Laster that her FMLA leave had expired and terminated her effective January 29, 2015, four days before her anticipated return. In its letter notifying Laster of her termination, NAI stated that it was "essential that this position is occupied." Compl. ¶ 31, ECF No. 1. NAI had not contacted Laster or her physicians to discuss the possibility of an earlier or modified return date.

         On July 28, 2015, Laster filed Charges of Discrimination against NAI with the Prince George's County Human Relations Commission ("PGHRC") and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). On the Charge of Discrimination form ("the Charge"), Laster checked the box alleging discrimination based on disability, but she left the box for retaliation blank. Laster asserted that the discrimination occurred between October 21, 2014 and January 29, 2015. In the narrative section of the EEOC form, Laster alleged that NAI "discriminated against [her] on the basis of [her] disability," and that NAI "failed to provide . . . .requested reasonable accommodation[s]." Charge at 1, Mot. Dismiss Ex. 1, ECF No. 17-1. The narrative described NAI's initial approval of FMLA leave, the two subsequent requests Laster's physician made to extend the leave and for duty modification,, and NAI's letter terminating her employment because of the expiration of her FMLA leave. The narrative concluded, "I believe that the Respondent failed to provide me with the reasonable accommodation requests made by my doctor and terminated my position because of my disability." Id. at 2.

         On August 13, 2015, PGHRC notified NAI of the discrimination charge under the ADA. On October 21, 2016, the PGHRC concluded its investigation by finding insufficient evidence to support Laster's allegation. PGHRC's letter described Laster's allegation as that NAI had "ended her employment because of her disability" but did not refer to a retaliation claim. PGHRC Letter of Determination at 2, Mot. Dismiss Ex. 4, ECF No. 17-4.

         Following PGHRC's determination, Laster pursued her claims with the EEOC. In contrast to the PGHRC, the EEOC concluded after investigation that NAI had "denied [Laster] a reasonable accommodation" and that the reason given for Laster's "discharge was pretext and violated the ADA." EEOC Letter of Determination at 2, Mot. Dismiss Ex. 5, ECF No. 17-5. On April 19, 2018, the EEOC notified the parties of its determination that NAI had discriminated against Laster based on disability, without reference to a retaliation claim.

         On July 13, 2018, the EEOC sent Laster a Notice of Right to Sue upon the failure of the conciliation process. On October 15, 2018, Laster filed the instant suit alleging three counts under the ADA: (1) wrongful termination; (2) denial of reasonable accommodation; and (3) retaliation. NAI has moved to dismiss the retaliation count.


         NAI moves to dismiss Laster's ADA retaliation claim on the grounds that Laster has not exhausted her administrative remedies as to this claim because she failed to check the box for retaliation on her Charge of Discrimination form filed with the PGHRC and the EEOC. Laster concedes that she failed to do so, but argues that exhaustion was accomplished because the retaliation claim is "reasonably related" to the Charge such that her retaliation claim could "be expected to follow from a reasonable administrative investigation" into the Charge claims. Sydnor v. Fairfax Cty., 681 F.3d 591, 594 (4th Cir. 2012).

         I. Legal Standard

         Although NAI seeks dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, since the filing of the Motion, the United States Supreme Court has held that the exhaustion requirement under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17, is "a processing rule, albeit a mandatory one, not a jurisdictional prescription delineating the adjudicatory authority of courts." Fort Bend Cly. v Davis, 139 S.Ct. 1843, 1851 (2019). The Court therefore construes NAI's Motion as seeking dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

         Unlike on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1), a court ordinarily may not consider evidence outside the pleadings on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). Here, the Motion is premised on documents outside the Complaint, including the Charge and written correspondence and findings issued by the PGHRC and the EEOC. Although consideration of these documents requires treatment of the Motion as seeking summary judgment, see id, the Court finds that such treatment is appropriate here. First, the parties were on notice, based on the original filing of the Motion under Rule 12(b)(1), that the Court would consider the documents attached to the Motion. Following the ruling in Davis, the Court provided the parties with the opportunity to submit supplemental briefs to address the impact of that ruling on the Motion, and Laster did not assert that the Court should not consider the attached documents. Finally, the Court finds that discovery is not required to resolve the issue of exhaustion of administrative remedies, as the issue can be resolved on the papers attached to NAI's Motion. See Gay v. Wall, 761 F.2d 175, 177 (4th Cir. 1985) (finding that "(w]hen a party is aware that material outside the pleadings is before the court, the party is on notice that a Rule 12(b)(6) motion may be treated as a motion for summary judgment," and the court may convert the motion to one for summary judgment where the parties have been "given a reasonable opportunity to present all material made pertinent to such a motion."). The Court will therefore treat NAI's Motion as one seeking summary judgment.

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the Court grants summary judgment if the moving party demonstrates that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact, and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In assessing a motion, the Court must believe the evidence of the non-moving party, view the facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, and draw all justifiable inferences in its favor. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc.,477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). "A material fact is one that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass,242 F.3d 179, 183 (4th Cir. 2001) (quoting Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248). A dispute of ...

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