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Blackston v. New Jersey Transit Corp.

October 27, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dalzell, J.


Plaintiff Anthony Blackston sues defendants, New Jersey Transit Corporation ("NJT") and three of its employees, George Wiseman, Andrew Pawlik, and William McErlane, alleging violations of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1981, and 2000E et seq., as well as the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"). NJT, together with Wiseman and Pawlik, filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c), and McErlane later filed his own Rule 12(c) motion. Both motions assert plaintiff's failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. For the reasons set forth below, we will grant the motions.

I. Factual Background

In the posture of Rule 12(c) motions, we essentially proceed as we would on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. As our Court of Appeals has instructed, "[w]hen a Rule 12(c) motion alleges plaintiff's failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as here, we analyze the motion under the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss." Ober v. Brown, 105 Fed. Appx. 345, 346 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Turbe v. Gov't of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991).

In ruling on a motion to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), we must "accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true and give the pleader the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be fairly drawn therefrom." Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). Moreover, courts may "consider [not] only allegations in the complaint, [but] exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and documents that form the basis of a claim." Brown v. Daniels, 128 Fed. Appx. 910, 913 (3d Cir. 2005) (quoting Lum v. Bank of America, 361 F.3d 217, 222 n.3 (3d Cir. 2004)) (internal quotation marks omitted). A document forms the basis of a claim if it is "integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint." Id. (quoting In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997)) (emphasis omitted).

Blackston alleges in his amended complaint that he is a black male who began employment with NJT as an electrician in August of 2005. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 11-13. At about 10:30 pm on the evening of August 4, 2008, Blackston alleges that he was sitting with a co-worker in the cafeteria of the Morrisville, Pennsylvania NJT railyard, awaiting his nightly assignment. Id. ¶¶ 14-15. On the table before them was a newspaper, opened to page 6, revealing "an attractive female model in an advertisement." Id. ¶ 16.

At this point, defendant McErlane, a white male, approached Blackston's table on his way to his own table and "deliberately" walked behind Blackston. Id. ¶¶ 3, 17-18. As he did so, Blackston felt someone make contact with his back. Id. ¶ 19. Blackston turned and beheld "McErlane imitating inappropriate sexual gestures consisting of but not limited to humping, grinding, and rubbing his penis and genitals against his back mimicking sexual acts," all the while mimicking "sexual sounds." Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Blackston demanded an explanation of McErlane's conduct, and McErlane told him "that looking at the picture of the model on page six of the Trentonian Newspaper made him react as he did." Id. ¶ 22. McErlane then "continued to smile and grin maliciously at the Plaintiff as he took his seat." Id. ¶ 24.

According to Blackston, he immediately sought the foreman on site -- defendant Pawlik, a white male -- to report McErlane's behavior, and to request that Pawlik meet with McErlane and him. Id. ¶¶ 4, 26-27. At the ensuing meeting --which Blackston, Pawlik, McErlane, and another foreman, Mike Belmont, attended -- Blackston explained that McErlane had engaged in "inappropriate conduct" to which Blackston objected. Id. ¶ 31. Later, Blackston also notified Leroy Cooper (a black general foreman at the Morrisville railyard) as well as defendant Wiseman (the white assistant manager of the Morrisville railyard) regarding McErlane's behavior. Id. ¶ 5-6, 30-32. Blackston alleges that neither of these supervisors took disciplinary action against McErlane and that Wiseman failed to report McErlane's behavior to the Equal Employment Opportunity ("EEO") office of NJT, as NJT's policies and procedures allegedly required. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. This led Blackston to realize "that New Jersey Transit Corporation's management team was not going to properly investigate this matter." Id. ¶ 33. In fact, according to Blackston, "claims made by black employees are generally ignored and investigations are not followed through with." Id. ¶ 37. Consequently, Blackston "sent a letter to the Governor of the State of New Jersey requesting that this matter be properly investigated," and contacted NJT's EEO office to provide a statement and file an internal complaint against McErlane. Id. ¶¶ 33-35.

Blackston admits that a "charge . . . was finally filed against Defendant McErlane" -- leaving unclear whether it was filed before Blackston contacted the Governor of New Jersey and NJT's EEO office -- but alleges that NJT never resolved the charge or explored it further at a hearing "to address [McErlane's] inappropriate and illegal sexual behavior toward Plaintiff." Id. ¶ 38. Blackston also claims that after notifying the Governor and the NJT EEO office, "he began to experience retaliatory treatment by Defendants." Id. ¶ 36. Specifically, NJT allegedly filed a charge against Blackston for his reaction to McErlane's behavior, and asked Blackston to provide a recertification of his entitlement to leave under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") five months after Blackston furnished his initial medical certification and before Blackston had exhausted his allowable days under the FMLA. Id. ¶¶ 39-41.

According to Blackston, "[d]ue to all Defendants [sic] failure to address Defendant McErlane's sexual harassment against Plaintiff, and the subsequent racial discrimination and retaliation that Plaintiff was being subjected to," Blackston filed claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRA). Id. ¶ 43. The EEOC issued a "notice of right to sue within 90 days" against NJT on November 25, 2009. Id. ¶ 45; Ex. to Am. Compl. Plaintiff filed this action on March 2, 2010.

II. Analysis

As noted, we analyze a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings under the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Ober, 105 Fed. Appx. at 346. "[O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss," giving rise to a "context-specific" inquiry that "requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). In the course of such an inquiry, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), though plaintiffs need only "nudge[] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." Id. at 570. In essence, a plaintiff must provide "enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Moreover, the Supreme Court teaches that a pleading may not simply offer "labels and conclusions," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

Blackston alleges violations (1) by McErlane, of Blackston's Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; (2) by NJT and Wiseman,*fn1 of Blackston's rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1981; (3) by NJT, Wiseman, Pawlik, and McErlane, of 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000E et seq. ("Title VII") based on race, sex, harassment, and retaliation; and (4) by NJT, Wiseman, Pawlik, and McErlane, of the PHRA. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 48-67. Defendants move for dismissal of all of these claims under Rule 12(c), and we will consider each claim in turn.

A. Jurisdiction

Blackston asserts jurisdiction founded on diversity of citizenship under 28 U.S.C. § 1332 and federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. While defendants' Rule 12(c) motions do not explicitly challenge the jurisdictional basis of Blackston's complaint, "[a] federal court has the obligation to address a question of subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte." Meritcare v. St. Paul Mercury Ins., 166 F.3d 214, 217 (3d Cir. 1999), abrogated on other grounds by Exxon Mobil Corp. v. Allapattah, 545 U.S. 546 (2005).

To invoke diversity jurisdiction, a plaintiff is "required to plead that he is a citizen of a particular state and that the defendants are citizens of a different state or states." Johnson v. New York, 315 Fed. Appx. 394, 395 (3d Cir. 2009). Blackston fails to meet this requirement, alleging only that:

The Plaintiff is a citizen of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Defendant, New Jersey Transit Corporation maintains their principal offices in the State of New Jersey. The remaining defendants conduct their business on behalf of Defendant New Jersey Transit Corporation through the Morrisville, Pennsylvania railyard located at 15 My Lane, Morrisville, PA 19057.

Am. Compl. ΒΆ 7. Because this allegation does not negate the possibility that one of "[t]he remaining defendants" is a citizen of Pennsylvania, thus eliminating complete diversity between the parties, Blackston has not established ...

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