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Scuffle v. Wheaton & Sons, Inc.

United States District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania

March 18, 2015

WHEATON & SONS, INC., Defendant.

Robert B. Woomer, Esquire.

David B. Chontos, Esquire.


David Stewart Cercone, United States District Judge.

Plaintiff commenced this employment action pursuant to Title VII seeking redress for alleged sexual harassment, gender discrimination and retaliation. Presently before the court is defendant's motion to dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, defendant's motion will be denied.

It is well-settled that in reviewing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) "the court [is required] to accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). Under Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 561 (2007), dismissal of a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is proper only where the averments of the complaint fail to raise plausibly, directly or inferentially, the material elements necessary to obtain relief under a viable legal theory of recovery. Id. at 544. In other words, the allegations of the complaint must be grounded in enough of a factual basis to move the claim from the realm of mere possibility to one that shows entitlement by presenting "a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. 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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). In contrast, pleading facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability is insufficient. Id. Similarly, tendering only "naked assertions” that are devoid of “further factual enhancement" falls short of presenting sufficient factual content to permit an inference that what has been presented is more than a mere possibility of misconduct. Id. at 1949–50. See also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563 n. 8 (factual averments must sufficiently raise a "'reasonably founded hope that the [discovery] process will reveal relevant evidence' to support the claim.") (quoting Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005) & Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U.S. 723, 741 (1975)).

This is not to be understood as imposing a probability standard at the pleading stage. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 ("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."); Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008) (same). Instead, "[t]he Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: 'stating ... a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest the required element ... [and that provides] enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element.'" Phillips, 515 F.3d at 235; see also Wilkerson v. New Media Technology Charter School Inc., 522 F.3d 315, 321 (3d Cir. 2008).

The facts read in the light most favorable to plaintiff are as follows. Defendant hired plaintiff as a full-time administrative assistant in January of 2008. Complaint at ¶ 6. Plaintiff avers that on multiple occasions defendant's "estimator" made harassing comments about her appearance. Id. at ¶ 7. Specifically, this employee repeatedly said that plaintiff should dress more provocatively in order to give the male employees something to look at and to please defendant's customers. Id. at ¶¶ 7, 15. Plaintiff requested the co-worker to stop, but he persisted. Id. This employee also told a customer that plaintiff "was off work because she was pregnant, which was untrue." Id. at ¶ 9. Plaintiff was subjected to similar forms of harassing conduct by other co-workers as well. Id. at ¶ 15.

Plaintiff repeatedly complained about the harassing comments to defendant's owner, Thomas Wheaton, who said he would handle the situation. Id. at ¶¶ 7, 9, 10, 16 19–20. Wheaton took no action. Id. at ¶¶ 11, 15–16, 20, 27–28.

During the fall of 2009, one or more co-workers accessed plaintiff's computer and "left pornography on it for her to view." Id. at ¶ 8. On or about December 8, 2009, plaintiff complained about being forced to view pornography to defendant's office manager, Nancy Kuhn. Id. at ¶ 8. Kuhn took no action, and plaintiff again was forced to view unwanted pornography in January of 2010. Id. Plaintiff addressed Kuhn about this offensive conduct on January 24, 2010 and reiterated that it was unwelcomed. Id. at ¶ 10. She also complained to Wheaton about the pornography at this time. Id. None of her complaints were addressed and no disciplinary investigation or action was taken as a result of her complaints. Id. at ¶ 11.

After repeatedly complaining about the offensive work environment, plaintiff was denied an annual salary increase and additional vacation time. Id. at ¶ 12. Plaintiff's comparable male counterparts received these benefits. Id.

Plaintiff initiated contact with the EEOC regarding the hostile environment at defendant's workplace. Id. at ¶ 13. Defendant then terminated plaintiff on March 19, 2010. Id.

Defendant advances a grocery list of reasons in support of its motion to dismiss. First, the complaint fails to establish that defendant is an "employer" under Title VII. Second, it does not plead that the identified sexual harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment. Third, there is no basis to believe that any adverse employment action was predicated on discriminatory animus. Fourth, plaintiff fails to identify events that will support an inference that retaliatory action was taken in response to prior protected activity. Fifth, plaintiff's charge with the EEOC did not specifically assert that she had been subjected to unjust scrutiny and isolation after complaining about the hostile environment. Finally, defendant asserts that its conduct was not sufficiently egregious to support a punitive damages award.

Plaintiff contends that her complaint sets forth sufficient facts to make a plausible showing of entitlement to relief and each of defendant's ...

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