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Phillips v. State

United States District Court, D. Maryland

December 11, 2019

STATE OF MARYLAND, et al, Defendants.


          Paula Xinis United States District Judge

         Pending before the Court is Defendants State of Maryland and the Maryland Department of Health's motion to dismiss, (ECF No. 3) and Plaintiff Hilary Phillips' motion for leave to file an amended complaint which Defendants oppose. ECF Nos. 8, 9. The issues are fully briefed, and no hearing is necessary. See Loc. R. 105.6. For the following reasons, the Court grants Phillips' Motion to Amend but nonetheless dismisses the Amended Complaint for failure to state a legally sufficient hostile work environment claim.

         I. Background [1]

         This case arises from Phillips' conflict with her former first line supervisor, Cynthia Petion. ECF No. 8-2 ¶¶ 12, 16. Between March 2017 and July 2018, Phillips worked as the Director of the Office of Planning for Maryland's Behavioral Health Administration (“BHA”). Id. ¶¶ 1, 11, 35. During this time, Phillips avers that Petion “repeatedly singled out Ms. Phillips, made her feel unsafe in the workplace by consistently raising her voice, by making derogatory, threatening, and hostile comments, excluding her from meetings, openly criticizing work-related efforts and by sabotaging her work performance with excessively controlling behavior.” Id. ¶ 16. Phillips alleges that this behavior was motivated by Petion's belief that Phillips suffered from a disability. Id. ¶ 44.

         Phillips complained about Petion's behavior to several persons within the BHA. First, in June 2017, Phillips complained to Human Resources (“HR”). ECF No. 8-2 ¶ 17. HR told her to “look for another job.” Id. Next, Phillips reported Petion's behavior to Phillips' second-line supervisor, Dr. Barbara Bazron, as well as to Anna Barefoot, the Chief of Staff for the BHA, and Dr. Kimberly Cuthrell, a newly-hired second line supervisor. Id. ¶¶ 18-19. Phillips admits that Dr. Cuthrell “took measure[s] to address the bullying.” Id. ¶ 20.

         In early 2018, Phillips again complained to HR about Petion. ECF No. 8-2 ¶ 22. HR and Dr. Bazron began investigating Petion's “bullying” of Phillips. Id. ¶¶ 21, 25. On February 14, 2018, Petion “was removed from the building” pending investigation. Id. ¶ 24. However, in March 2018, it was determined that Phillips' allegations were “insufficient of actionable bullying” and Petion resumed her role as Phillips' supervisor. Id. ¶¶ 26-27.

         Petion again resumed similar behavior toward Phillips. ECF No. 8-2 ¶ 28. Dr. Cuthrell attempted to stand up to Petion on behalf of Phillips but was fired for doing so in May 2018. Id. ¶ 30. Petion thereafter reported to Dr. Bazron that Phillips was “questioning [her] leadership, ” resulting in Dr. Bazron discussing the situation with Phillips. Id. ¶¶ 32-33. HR also told Petion that they “did not want to be in the middle of this anymore.” Id. ¶ 31. Also, on a single occasion between March and May 2018, Petion referred to Phillips as bipolar and suffering from split personality disorder during a meeting with Dr. Bazron. Id. ¶ 29.

         In July 2018, Phillips took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act and then resigned. ECF No. 8-2 ¶ 34. At the first staff meeting after Phillips' departure, Petion told Phillips' former employees that Phillips resigned “because of her mental health problems.” Id. ¶ 36.

         Phillips brought suit against the State of Maryland and the Maryland Department of Health for employment discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act, contending that Petion's behavior subjected her to a hostile work environment and was motivated by Phillips' perceived mental health problems. ECF No. 1. On April 3, 2019, Defendants moved to dismiss Phillips' complaint. ECF No. 3. Phillips, in response, sought leave to amend her Complaint. ECF No. 8. The proposed Amended Complaint removes the Maryland Department of Health as a party, clarifies that Petion's harassment was “because of” as opposed to “based in part on” Phillips' perceived disability, and adds that the Defendant State of Maryland “perceived that [Phillips] was seriously limited in one or more major life activities.” ECF No. 8-1 ¶¶ 3-5, 7, 10, 48. Phillips also makes clear that she is not pursuing a constructive discharge claim. ECF No. 8 at 1-3. Thus, the sole count before this Court as pleaded in the Amended Complaint is the hostile work environment claim against the State of Maryland.

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of the complaint. Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court accepts “the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true, ” and construes all facts and reasonable inferences most favorably to the plaintiff. See Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint's factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citations omitted).

         A plaintiff may amend pleadings once without leave of court when the amended complaint is timely filed under Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Fed. R. Civ. P.15(a). Otherwise, Courts should treat motions for leave to amend liberally, granting leave “freely . . . when justice so requires.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2). Leave may be denied, however, when allowing amendment would “be prejudicial to the opposing party, when the moving party has acted in bad faith or with a dilatory motive, or when the amendment would be futile.” Arora v. James, 689 Fed.Appx. 190, 190 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 426 (4th Cir. 2006)) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A claim is futile when it is “clearly insufficient or frivolous” and thus cannot survive a motion to dismiss. Whitaker v. Ciena Corp., No. RDB-18-0044, 2018 WL 3608777, at *3 (D. Md. July 27, 2018). In assessing whether a claim is futile, the Court reviews the claim for sufficiency pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure as articulated above. Kerrigan v. Bd. of Educ. of Carroll Cty., No. JKB-14-3153, 2016 WL 470827, at *3 (D. Md. Feb. 8, 2016).

         III. ...

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