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Leblanc v. The Hill School

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

January 12, 2015

YVONNE LeBLANC,
v.
THE HILL SCHOOL.

MEMORANDUM

JOHN R. PADOVA, District Judge.

Plaintiff brings this sex and age discrimination action against her former employer, The Hill School ("the School") pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., the Age Discrimination in Employment Act ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Stat. Ann. § 951 et seq. The School has moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. For the following reasons, we grant the Motion in part, and deny it in part.

I. BACKGROUND

The Amended Complaint alleges the following facts. Plaintiff is a sixty-four-year-old woman who was hired as a French Instructor by Defendant in 2000, when she was fifty years old. (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1-2, 24.) She has a master's degree and a Ph.D in French literature from New York University and has been an educator since 1977. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22.) She has taught French at both the secondary school and college levels. (Id. ¶ 23.) In addition to teaching, Plaintiff was a prolific presenter at international and national conferences, reviewer of articles on medieval and early-modern poetry, and a reader for the Advanced Placement ("AP") French exam. (Id. ¶ 26.) In 2011, the School gave Plaintiff a $10, 000.00 stipend so that she could spend the summer working and writing in France. (Id. ¶ 27.) Plaintiff was awarded this stipend based on her merit and tenure with the School. (Id.) In addition to Plaintiff's academic activities at the School, she also "immersed herself" in the School's community by, for example, living on campus and serving for nine years as a dorm parent, coaching intramural sports, managing students in the dining room, performing weekend duties, and working shifts at the campus library. (Id. ¶ 28.)

From Plaintiff's hiring in 2000 until February 2012, she never received a negative performance review from the School, nor was she ever otherwise notified that her performance was deficient in any way. (Id. ¶ 30.) Instead, Plaintiff "was often praised for her leadership skills, her creativity in the classroom, her willingness to incorporate new technologies into her teaching, the passage rates of her students on the AP French exam, and her value to the community." (Id. ¶ 31.) "For each academic year, until the 2014-2015 academic year, [Plaintiff's] yearly contract was renewed and she consistently received salary increases and many responsibilities on campus and within the Modern Language Department." (Id. ¶ 32.)

However, on February 24, 2012, when she was sixty-two years old, Plaintiff was notified by letter that she would be placed on probation for the upcoming academic year. (Id. ¶¶ 33-34, 38.) Despite all of Plaintiff's activities on campus, Plaintiff was "castigated in her probation letter for refusing to take on non-teaching assignments within the community." (Id. ¶ 36.) Plaintiff protested to the Headmaster of the School, David Dougherty, that the reasons for which she had been placed on probation were false, inaccurate, and biased, and she further complained that she felt singled out by Defendant on the basis of her sex and age. (Id. ¶¶ 35-37.)

On March 17, 2012, Plaintiff submitted a rebuttal letter to Headmaster Dougherty responding to each point raised in the probation letter. (Id. ¶ 38.) In her letter, Plaintiff stated that she felt targeted because of her sex and age and provided several examples showing why she believed Defendant was discriminating against her: (1) "for the 2011-2012 academic year, the AP French course that she had taught for years had been taken away from her and given to a younger, male teacher with less experience" who had not asked to teach the course; (2) Plaintiff "was the only member of the Modern Language Department [to have] been involuntarily removed from a course previously taught;" and (3) "the male Chinese teacher who has taught the AP Chinese course since its inception has never been removed from his course, despite the fact that there was a female Chinese teacher qualified to teach [it]." (Id. ¶¶ 37-41, Ex. 1 at 2.) Nonetheless, Plaintiff accepted her new teaching assignments. (Id. ¶ 42.) As of July 7, 2012, Plaintiff was "one of the oldest" of the eight teachers in her department and the only one with a doctorate. (Id., Ex. 1 at 1-2.)

Plaintiff also asserted in her letter that she had been wrongly criticized in the probation letter for teaching fewer students than other teachers in the Department, since she in fact taught more students than Blair Barnes, a younger, male teacher in the Department. (Id. ¶ 43.) She also complained in her letter that the Department held male and female faculty members to different standards. (Id. ¶ 44.) Finally, Plaintiff described an incident involving the Dean of the Faculty, Thomas Johnson, which had occurred several months before. (Id. ¶ 45.) She stated that Mr. Johnson, who was only thirty-three years old at the time, called Plaintiff into his office and asked her about her health and age; after Plaintiff responded that she was sixty-two years old, Mr. Johnson replied that she "looked good for her age." (Id.) Plaintiff complained to Headmaster Dougherty, both in person and in writing, that she felt humiliated and embarrassed by Mr. Johnson's questions and comment. (Id. ¶ 46.) The Headmaster took no action in response to Plaintiff's complaints about Mr. Johnson's comment. (Id. ¶ 47.)

Headmaster Dougherty told Plaintiff that he would consider withdrawing her probation, but on April 5, 2012 told Plaintiff that he would not rescind her probationary status for the 2012-2013 academic year. (Id. ¶¶ 48-49, Ex. 1 at 2-3.) Headmaster Dougherty also informed Plaintiff that "he did not see any discrimination in her situation." (Id., Ex. 1 at 3.) Because Plaintiff had been placed on probation, she was ineligible for a 3% raise when her contract was renewed for the 2012-2013 academic year. (Id. ¶ 50.)

In June 2012, Headmaster Dougherty was replaced by Zachary Lehman, a forty-year-old man. (Id. ¶ 51.) On July 10, 2012, Plaintiff filed her first Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") in which she complained that Defendant's acts constituted sex and age discrimination. (Id. ¶ 52.) At some point after Plaintiff filed her Charge, but before August 12, 2012, Defendant "unilaterally imposed on [Plaintiff] additional teaching and extra-curricular responsibilities for the 2012-2013 school year, " despite the fact that Plaintiff's contract required such additional responsibilities to be mutually agreed upon. (Id., Ex. 2 at 2.) Defendant "met [its] contractual obligations with regard to other faculty members who [did] not file[] [C]harges of [D]iscrimination." (Id.)

On July 28, 2012, Plaintiff received an email from Headmaster Lehman, in which he noted that although Plaintiff "already had a contract for the 2012-2013 school year, her employment was at-will, " and that if she "did not respond to [the] email by 5:00 pm on July 31, 2012, she would be considered to have abandoned her employment and would potentially be in breach of her contract." (Id. ¶¶ 53-54.) Headmaster Lehman also stated in the email that the School would waive its breach of contract claim only if Plaintiff withdrew her EEOC claims. (Id. ¶ 56.) Headmaster Lehman did not remind any other School employees that their respective employments were at-will, and no other employee was threatened with a breach of contract claim. (Id. ¶ 57.) On August 8, 2012, Plaintiff filed an amended second Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC in which she complained that Defendant "was retaliating against and bullying her for complaining of age and sex discrimination." (Id. ¶ 58.)

Plaintiff returned to the School for the 2012-2013 academic year and was taken off probation in December 2012. (Id. ¶ 60.) During this school year, Plaintiff "was never informed that her behavior or conduct did not meet the [S]chool's expectations or requirements." (Id. ¶ 61.)

On March 22, 2013, when Plaintiff was sixty-three years old, Headmaster Lehman offered Plaintiff an early retirement package. (Id. ¶ 62.) Headmaster Lehman informed Plaintiff that he wanted her to retire because he had recently hired the wife of a current teacher, who was thirty-eight years old, and because he wanted to hire an additional language teacher, a man in his late twenties. (Id. ¶ 63.) Headmaster Lehman further explained to Plaintiff that he could not hire the younger male teacher if she remained with the School in accordance with her 2013-2014 contract, which had been renewed in January 2013. (Id.) Headmaster Lehman also told Plaintiff "that these two younger teachers represented the future of the school' and that [Plaintiff] was in the way.'" (Id. ¶ 64.) Plaintiff declined the early retirement package, and notified Defendant "that she intended to return for the 2013-2014 academic year per her contract." (Id. ¶ 65.) Plaintiff also informed Headmaster Lehman, in person and in writing, "that she felt pressured and bullied with respect to the early retirement package and Headmaster Lehman's statements that [she]... was in the way' and [was] not the future of the school.'" (Id. ¶ 66.)

On April 4, 2013, Defendant notified Plaintiff that its administrative and departmental personnel no longer wished to communicate with her directly and instructed Plaintiff that all communications must take place through the School's Human Resources Department. (Id. ¶ 67.) No other employee of the School had ever received such a directive. (Id. ¶ 68.) On April 26, 2013, Plaintiff filed a third Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC. (Id. ¶ 69.) On January 22, 2014, Defendant informed Plaintiff that it was not renewing her employment contract for the 2014-2015 academic year. (Id. ¶ 71.) At that time, Plaintiff was sixty-four years old and had been employed by Defendant for fourteen years. (Id. ¶ 72.)

Between March 17 and March 24, 2014, the EEOC issued Notices of Right to Sue for each of Plaintiff's three EEOC Charges that she had filed before she was notified that her contract would not be renewed. (Id., Ex. 4-6.) Plaintiff filed a Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC in connection with the non-renewal of her contract on June 19, 2014, after she commenced this action. (See Pl.'s Mem. at 16 n.3, Ex. E.)

Count I of the Amended Complaint asserts claims that Plaintiff was subjected to sex discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in violation of Title VII. Count II asserts claims that Plaintiff was subjected to age discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in violation of the ADEA. Count III asserts claims that Plaintiff was subjected to sex and age discrimination, retaliation, and harassment in violation of the PHRA. Defendant seeks dismissal of all claims asserted in Counts I, II, and III.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), we "consider only the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, [and] matters of public record, as well as undisputedly authentic documents if the complainant's claims are based upon these documents." Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). We take the factual allegations of the complaint as true and "construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." DelRio-Mocci v. Connolly Props., Inc., 672 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Warren Gen. Hosp. v. Amgen, Inc., 643 F.3d 77, 84 (3d Cir. 2011)). Legal conclusions, however, receive no deference, as we are "not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Wood v. Moss, 134 S.Ct. 2056, 2065 n.5 (2014) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).

A plaintiff's pleading obligation is to set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), which gives the defendant "fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (alteration in original) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). The complaint must contain "sufficient factual matter to show that the claim is facially plausible, ' thus enabling the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for [the] misconduct alleged.'" Warren Gen. Hosp., 643 F.3d at 84 (quoting Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009)). "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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In the end, we will grant a motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) if the factual allegations in the complaint are not sufficient "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" W. Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat'l Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

III. DISCUSSION

Defendant argues that Plaintiff's claims regarding the non-renewal of her employment contract for the 2014-2015 academic year should be dismissed because she has not exhausted her administrative remedies as to these claims. Defendant also argues that the Amended Complaint should be dismissed because it fails to state the essential elements of a discrimination, retaliation, or hostile work environment claim in violation of Title VII, the ADEA, or the PHRA.

A. Exhaustion

Before commencing a Title VII, ADEA, or PHRA action in federal court, a plaintiff must exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a timely Charge of Discrimination with the EEOC[1] and receiving a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC after it investigates the Charge. 29 U.S.C. § 626(d)(1); Barzanty v. Verizon Pa., Inc., 361 F.App'x 411, 413 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(b), (e)(1), and (f)(1)); Burgh v. Borough Council, 251 F.3d 465, 469-70 (3d Cir. 2001) (Title VII and PHRA); Watson v. Bd. of Dirs., Civ. A. No. 05-5760, 2006 WL 2506359, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 29, 2006) ("To properly file a civil action in district court pursuant to the ADEA... [p]laintiffs generally must exhaust their administrative remedies and receive a right-to-sue letter from the administrative agency that investigated the complaint." (citing Seredinski v. Clifton Precision Prods. Co., 776 F.2d 56 (3d Cir. 1985); and Hornsby v. United States Postal Serv., 787 F.2d 87, 90 (3d Cir. 1986))). The exhaustion requirement both encourages the settlement of "disputes through conference, conciliation, and persuasion, avoiding unnecessary action in court, " Antol v. Perry, 82 F.3d 1291, 1296 (3d Cir. 1996), and puts the employer "on notice of the claims that are likely to be filed against it." Barzanty, 361 F.App'x at 414 (citing 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-5(b), (e)(1)).

"[T]he 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 [C]harge of [D]iscrimination.'" Webb v. City of Philadelphia, 562 F.3d 256, 263 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Ostapowicz v. Johnson Bronze Co., 541 F.2d 394, 398-99 (3d Cir. 1976)). This "includ[es] new acts which occurred during the pendency of proceedings before the Commission." Ostapowicz, 541 F.2d at 399 (citation omitted). While we interpret "the preliminary requirements for a Title VII action... in a nontechnical fashion, '" we must be careful not to permit the plaintiff "to bypass the administrative process.'" Webb, 562 F.3d at 262-63 (quoting Ostapowicz, 541 F.2d at 398). Accordingly, discrete discriminatory acts, such as termination, must be timely exhausted through the EEOC process.[2] Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 113-14 (2002). Thus, a plaintiff who has filed a Charge of ...


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