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Gilbert v. Milton Hershey School

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

August 30, 2017

KIERSTIN GILBERT, Plaintiff
v.
MILTON HERSHEY SCHOOL, Defendant

          MEMORANDUM

          Christopher C. Conner, Chief Judge.

         Plaintiff Kierstin Gilbert ("Gilbert") commenced this action against her employer asserting claims of race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17, and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"), 43 Pa. Stat, and Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 951-963. (See Doc. 12). Defendant Milton Hershey School ("Milton Hershey") moves to dismiss Gilbert's amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 14). For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.

         I. Factual Background & Procedural History

         Milton Hershey operates a hair salon to accommodate the needs of its students. (Doc. 12 ¶¶ 13-14). The salon is located on Milton Hershey's campus and is called the Spartan Styles Shop ("Spartan Styles" or "the salon"). (Id.) Gilbert was hired by Milton Hershey to work at the salon as a part-time hair stylist on or about April 4, 2012. (Id. ¶¶ 11-12). As a part-time stylist, Gilbert is permitted to work four days per week, for a maximum of twenty hours. (Id. ¶ 15). Gilbert is African American and her direct supervisor, Tiffany Renninger ("Renninger"), is Caucasian. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 18-19). Six other part-time stylists work at the salon and are supervised by Renninger-five are African American and one is Caucasian. (Id. ¶¶ 19-20, 40).

         Gilbert asserts that African American female students were "denied proper hair care services and hair care products" at Spartan Styles at the direction of Milton Hershey. (See id. ¶¶ 28-30). Gilbert further avers that this discrimination toward the students limited Gilbert's ability to perform her job and her access to materials. (Id.) Gilbert first discussed her concerns about the "disparate treatment" of African American female students with Renninger and Tiffany Guimond (Renninger's boss), but her concerns were ignored. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32, 36). In September 2013, Gilbert complained in writing about the issue to Elliott Robinson, Vice President of Administration at Milton Hershey. (Id. ¶¶ 36, 50).

         Gilbert avers that Milton Hershey took "adverse actions" against her after she complained about the inadequacy of services provided to African American female students at the salon. (Id. ¶¶ 39, 47). Specifically, Gilbert alleges that she was denied a promotion to "Designated Manager." (Id. ¶¶ 41, 47). Gilbert avers that she was fully qualified for the position, but Renninger promoted Danielle Linebaugh ("Linebaugh"), the only Caucasian part-time stylist. (Id. ¶¶ 45-46, 85-86). As "Designated Manager, " Linebaugh worked additional hours, received additional training, and had more duties at the salon. (Id. ¶¶ 42-44, 52-53). Gilbert argues that Linebaugh was the "least qualified" for this position but was promoted because she is Caucasian. (Id. ¶¶ 87-88).

         Gilbert and the other African American stylists met with Renninger on January 8, 2014, to discuss Linebaugh's promotion. (Id. ¶ 55). On January 30, 2014, Gilbert complained to Milton Hershey's human resources department about Linebaugh's promotion. (Id. ¶ 48). Approximately five weeks later, Gilbert received a performance evaluation with negative comments. (Id. ¶ 59). According to the allegata, Gilbert's evaluation included negative comments because she complained about "discriminatory policies." (Id. ¶ 60). In contrast, Gilbert's prior performance evaluation in August 2013 contained only positive comments. (Id. ¶ 61).

         Gilbert filed charges with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on August 6, 2014. (Docs. 14-2, 17-6). She dual-filed her charges with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ("PHRC"). (Doc. 14-2). The EEOC sent Gilbert a right-to-sue letter on May 23, 2016, (Doc. 14-1), which Gilbert received on June 1, 2016, (Doc. 12 ¶ 2). On August 29, 2016, Gilbert commenced the instant action. (Doc. 1). She subsequently filed an amended complaint alleging race discrimination and retaliation under Title VII and the PHRA. (Doc. 12). Milton Hershey moves to dismiss the amended complaint in its entirety under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (Doc. 14). The motion is fully briefed and ripe for disposition.[1]

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. Cty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings, Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)).

         Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide "the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (alteration in original) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint, the court conducts a three-step inquiry. See Santiago v. Warminster Twp., 629 F.3d 121, 130-31 (3d Cir. 2010). In the first step, "the court must 'tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim."' Id. at 130 (alteration in original) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675 (2009)). Next, the factual and legal elements of a claim must be separated; well-pleaded facts are accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Id. at 131-32; see Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the court isolates the well-pleaded factual allegations, it must determine whether they are sufficient to show a "plausible claim for relief." Iqbal 556 U.S. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts "that allow[] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal 556 U.S. at 678.

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(c) classifies a statute of limitations claim as an affirmative defense that must be pled in an answer to the complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c). Nevertheless, the court may dismiss a complaint as time-barred under Rule 12(b)(6) if "the time alleged in the statement of a claim shows that the cause of action has not been brought within the statute of limitations." Robinson v. Johnson, 313 F.3d 128, 135 (3d Cir. 2002); see Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.l (3d Cir. 1994). This deficiency must be apparent on the face of the pleading. See Rycoline Prods., Inc. v. C & W Unlimited, 109 F.3d 883, 886 (3d Cir. 1997).

         Courts should grant leave to amend before dismissing a curable pleading in civil rights actions. See Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contractors, Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007); Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp, 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002). Courts need not grant leave to amend sua sponte in dismissing non- civil rights claims pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Fletcher-Harlee Corp., 482 F.3d at 252- 53, but leave is broadly encouraged "when justice so requires, " Fed.R.Civ.P. 15(a)(2).

         III. Discussion

         Milton Hershey asserts two principal arguments in support of its motion to dismiss: first that Gilbert's amended complaint is time-barred, and second that Gilbert's allegations, even accepted as true, fail to ...


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