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Lamar R. Thomas v. Pocono Mountain School District and Dwight R. Pfennig

June 21, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Caputo


Lamar R. Thomas, Sr., worked as a non-teaching assistant for the Pocono Mountain School District from 1995 until he left on September 7, 2010. He then filed this complaint against the District and Superintendent Dwight Pfennig. He alleges that he was discriminated against on account of his age and race. Additionally, he alleges retaliation because of his complaints of discriminatory treatment and exercising his First Amendment rights, and deprivation of equal protection. The defendants move to dismiss, (Doc. 5.), arguing that Thomas failed to exhaust his administrative remedies and lacks sufficient factual allegations to show he is entitled to relief. For the reasons explained below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part. Thomas will be given to amend his complaint to correct the deficiencies in his factual allegations.

I. Background*fn1

Lamar Thomas, an African-American over forty years old, was employed by the Pocono Mountain School District as a non-teaching assistant from 1995 until he quit on September 7, 2010. At all times, Thomas performed his duties well and received positive performance reviews. Thomas alleges that on account of his race and age he was placed at the lowest end of the pay scale for his job classification; he was subjected to offensive racial and age-based comments by co-workers; he was subjected to racially-motivated, meritless criticism; unlike similarly-situated white employees or similarly-situated younger employees, he was excluded from discussions and proceedings about his job classification and was denied legal representation in proceedings regarding his job classification; beginning June 2008 his job was classified in such a way that he lost pay and benefits; and "his role, authority, and ability to do his job" was diminished. He was removed from his position category eighteen months before his retirement rights would have fully vested, so he lost many benefits. Additionally, he was subjected to a lower pay range and more limited hours. Thomas objected to this treatment, but the District failed to investigate his complaints or otherwise alleviate the discrimination. Thomas alleges that solely because of the discrimination he faced, he quit his job years before he would have had he not been subjected to discrimination.

After Thomas complained about being discriminated against because of race and age, he was effectively demoted and suffered lost pay, benefits, and authority. He was ostracized from other employees. Additionally, two of the programs Thomas had created and run for the District were removed from his authority, and his supervisory authority was removed and his role diminished. He was further subjected to increased scrutiny and his wife, who also worked for the District, had her employment conditions altered.

Superintendent Dwight R. Pfennig removed Thomas from a salaried position and instead made him a member of the bus-drivers' union, removed his supervisory authority, removed several programs from Thomas's oversight, closely scrutinized him, isolated Thomas from other employees, did not adequately handle Thomas's discrimination complaints, and changed Thomas's wife's employment situation so that she was replaced with another contract employee.

Thomas brings claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981 and 1983 (equal protection and First Amendment); Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, codified at 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, codified at 29 U.S.C. § 621et seq.; and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

The defendants move to dismiss the complaint in its entirety for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). They argue that his claims fail because of inadequate allegations and failure to exhaust.

II. Discussion

A. Legal Standard on a Motion to Dismiss

"A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). However, mere conclusory statements will not do; "a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 211. Instead, a complaint must "show" this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009).

"[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. "When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 1950.

When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining whether a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of her claims. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. See Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Id.

B. Title VII, ADEA, and PHRA Claims

Thomas brings claims of hostile work environment, constructive discharge, and retaliation under Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 makes it an "unlawful employment practice" for an employer to "discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's . . . race. . . ." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The ADEA prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals in hiring, termination, compensation or conditions of employment on the basis of age, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1), and protects those who are at least forty years old, 29 U.S.C. § 631(a). The PHRA, 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 951 et seq., mirrors the requirements of Title VII and applies to, inter alia, race and age discrimination. The defendants urge dismissal of these claims at Counts I-VI of the compliant. They argue that these claims were not timely filed, that Thomas failed to exhaust his administrative remedies, and that his allegations fail to state a claim under Rule 8(a).

1. Timeliness and Failure to Exhaust

The defendants argue that Thomas's claims should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction because his claims are untimely and he failed to exhaust. Filing a timely charge of discrimination with the EEOC "is not a jurisdictional prerequisite to filing suit under Title VIII or the ADEA. Rather, it is a requirement more in the nature of a statute of limitations . . . ." Hammer v. Vardio Med. Products, Inc., 131 F. App'x 829, 831 (citing Courtney v. La Salle Univ., 124 F.3d 499, 505 (3d Cir. 1997). A complaint may be dismissed for failing to state a claim on statute of limitations grounds when it is clear from the face of the complaint that its claims are time-barred. See Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.1 (3d Cir. 1994).

Under Title VII, a claimant in a deferral state, such as Pennsylvania, must first file a complaint with the EEOC within 300 days of the alleged unlawful employment practice before pursuing remedies in federal court. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e--5(e)(1); Watson v. Eastman Kodak Co., 235 F.3d 851, 854 (3d Cir. 2000). Failure to exhaust the claim within the 300-day period deprives a federal court of jurisdiction over the claim. See Noel v. The Boeing Co., 622 F.3d 266, 270 (3d Cir. 2010). "This statute of limitations applies to discrete employment actions, including promotion decisions." Id. (citing Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 114 (2002)).

Thus, "discrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges." Morgan, 536 U.S. at 113. However, "[h]ostile environment are different in kind from discrete acts" because "[t]heir very nature involves repeated conduct." Id. at 115 (internal citations omitted). Thus, the unlawful employment practice "cannot be said to occur on any particular day." Id. In keeping with the statute's requirement that a charge be filed within 300 days "after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred," 42 U.S.C. § 2000e--5(e)(1), a charge alleging a hostile work environment claim "will not be time barred so long as all acts which constitute the claim are part of the same unlawful employment practice and at least one act falls within the time period," Morgan, 536 U.S. at 122.

Here, although the plaintiff has not specifically alleged discriminatory action occurring within 300 days of filing his EEOC charge, it is also not clear from the face of his complaint or his EEOC charge that it is time-barred. Discrete actions happening before the limitations period will be time-barred. The same reasoning applies to the plaintiff's PHRA claims. Under the PHRA, "[a]ny complaint filed pursuant to this section must be so filed within one hundred eighty days after the alleged act of discrimination, unless otherwise required by the Fair Housing Act." 43 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 959(h). Here, it is not certain from the face of the complaint that the plaintiff's claims are time-barred.

The defendants also argue that Thomas's constructive discharge claim must fail because the action occurred after the EEOC charge was filed on September 18, 2008 and is therefore outside the limitations period (Thomas resigned on September 7, 2010). Thus, they raise a failure-to-exhaust defense. Additionally, they assert that the discrimination and retaliation claims are outside the scope of his EEOC charge and thus must be dismissed as unexhausted.

As the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has explained, "the parameters of the civil action in the district court are defined by the scope of the EEOC investigation which can reasonably be expected to grow out of the charge of discrimination . . . ." Ostapowics v. Johnson Bronze Co., 541 F.2d 394, 398--99 (3d Cir. 1976). The civil action is limited to claims within the scope of the original EEOC charge. Antol v. Perry, 82 F.3d ...

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