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Lewis v. Association of Flight Attendants-CWA

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

November 3, 2014

STEPHANI LEWIS CONNER,
v.
ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS-CWA and COMMUNICATIONS WORKERS OF AMERICA

For STEPHANI LEWIS CONNER, Plaintiff: ROBERT T. VANCE, JR., LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICES OF ROBERT T. VANCE, JR., PHILADELPHIA, PA.

For ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS-CWA, COMMUNICATION WORKERS OF AMERICA, Defendants: JENNIFER R. SIMON, SALLY M. TEDROW, LEAD ATTORNEYS, PRO HAC VICE, O'DONOGHUE & O'DONOGHUE LLP, WASHINGTON, DC; ROBERT P. CURLEY, LEAD ATTORNEY, O'DONOGHUE & O'DONOGHUE, PHILADELPHIA, PA.

REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

RICHARD A. LLORET, United States Magistrate Judge.

Before me is the Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Association of Flight Attendants and Communications Workers of America (" AFA/CWA") filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The parties have briefed the matter, and on October 8, 2014, I heard oral argument on Defendants' motion. For the reasons set forth below, I recommend that the Defendants' motion be granted.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Defendant AFA/CWA is a labor organization that represents among many other workers, approximately 55, 000 flight attendants. See Amend. Compl. ¶ ¶ 2, 3. In 1996, Conner was hired as a Staff Attorney with the AFA. Id. ¶ 8. In July 2009, Conner was promoted to Associate General Counsel. Id. ¶ 8. She remained in that position until her termination on September 21, 2011. Id. In her role as Associate General Counsel, Conner supervised nine other attorneys in their handling of arbitrations, interfaced with union Master Executive Councils, and managed her own caseload, among other duties. Id. ¶ 12. Connor was the only African American attorney at AFA. Id.

In September 2010, Conner filed suit against AFA/CWA alleging race discrimination and retaliation. Id. ¶ 13. After the filing of an amended complaint, the parties conducted discovery between May and July 2011. Id. ¶ 14. During discovery, AFA/CWA had an outside attorney review all of the emails that Conner had sent or received during her tenure at AFA/CWA. As the result of this review, AFA/CWA was apprised by the outside attorney, via a September 19, 2011 letter, that Conner allegedly committed violations of the Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct. Id. ¶ 15. Conner contends that " [p]rior to the lawsuit, defendants had never performed a comprehensive review of emails of any staff member for any purpose." Id. ¶ 16. On September 21, 2011, AFA mailed a letter to Conner notifying her of her termination and " purport[ing] to state the basis for Conner's termination." Id. ¶ 17. Conner believes that the sole reason for her termination was not the ethics violations, but " the filing and prosecution of the [2010 discrimination] lawsuit." Id.

The parties engaged in settlement discussions on September 21, 2011. Id. ¶ 18. Conner alleges that at the time of these settlement discussions, " defendants distributed to a substantial number of their employees, most of whom did not report to Conner, an email announcing that Conner had been fired, implying misconduct by Conner and directing that no one speak to her." Id. ¶ 19. Conner then applied for and was granted unemployment compensation benefits. Id. ¶ 20. AFA/CWA told Plaintiff that they would not appeal the grant of benefits if she would sign a general release of all claims against AFA/CWA. Id. ¶ 21. Conner refused to sign the release and AFA/CWA appealed the grant of benefits. Id. In January 2012, Conner participated in the referee's hearing on the appeal of the award of benefits. Id. ¶ 25.

In October 2011, Conner voluntarily dismissed with prejudice the federal discrimination claims in her lawsuit, and she agreed to proceed on the remaining state claims through arbitration. Id. ¶ ¶ 22, 23. On December 22, 2011, the arbitration panel hearing her state claims ruled against her. Id. ¶ 24. At some point in early 2012, a disciplinary complaint, based on the violations described in the September 19, 2011 letter by AFA/CWA's outside attorney, was filed with the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Id. ¶ 26.

Conner alleges that prior to her case, AFA/CWA " had never investigated any employee for alleged ethical violations or misuse of the company email system, and had terminated employees only because of performance issues." [1] Id. ¶ 28. Conner also contends that at the time of her termination, she had no performance issues, had not used the email system in a manner different from any other employee, and had not been found by an " independent body" to have committed any ethical violations. Id.[2] In light of all of this, Conner contends that her " filing and prosecution" of the September 2010 discrimination lawsuit was the " sole reason" for her termination. Id.

II. LEGAL STANDARDS

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint. To survive a motion to dismiss, Conner must plead in the amended complaint " factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (citing Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007).[3] " Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements will not suffice." Id. " The question is not whether the claimant 'will ultimately prevail . . . but whether [her] complaint [is] sufficient to cross the federal court's threshold.'" Blocker v. Community Ed. Centers, Inc., 2014 WL 1348959 *2 (E.D. Pa. April 7, 2014) (Pratter, J.) (citing Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 1296, 179 L.Ed.2d 233 (2011)). " Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on judicial experience and common sense." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

In Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009), the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit further explained:

[A]fter Ibqal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a " plausible claim for relief." In other words, a ...

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