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Feliciano v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

December 13, 2017

IRIS FELICIANO, Plaintiff,
v.
COCA-COLA REFRESHMENTS USA, INC., d/b/a, COCA-COLA REFRESHMENTS, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Rufe, J.

         Plaintiff Iris Feliciano brought suit against her employer, Defendant Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., alleging employment discrimination and retaliation on the basis of gender and disability as well as violations of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). Defendant moves to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim. For the reasons discussed below, Defendant's motion will be granted with respect to Plaintiffs claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), the retaliation provision of the FMLA, and the Pennsylvania Human Rights Act ("PHRA"), but denied with respect to Plaintiffs gender discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and interference claim under the FMLA.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Complaint alleges the following facts, which are assumed to be true for purposes of the Motion to Dismiss unless otherwise stated.

         At all relevant times, Plaintiff worked as a shipping and receiving clerk at Coca-Cola. In late 2015, she complained to human resources and to the manager of the distribution center, Barry Schraeder, that her manager, Scott Levitt, was making "reports" against her which she believed were unfair and harassing. Human resources personnel responded by telling her that she was not being harassed. Mr. Schraeder went a step further: he explained to Plaintiff that Mr. Levitt's "problem with her at work" was that he was "intimidated" by her intelligence and perceived aggressiveness and advised Plaintiff to "bring her confidence level down" so Mr. Levitt would not be intimidated.

         Two days after Plaintiffs meeting with Mr. Schraeder, Mr. Levitt called Plaintiff and three other employees into his office, and instructed Plaintiff to move her desk and belongings from a room she shared with her supervisors to a "cold and dirty" storage room, which "union drivers used to change out of their clothes." Plaintiff resisted the move, and after some argument, Mr. Levitt allowed Plaintiff to instead move her belongings to the inventory analyst room attached to the storage room.[1]

         Over the next few months, Mr. Levitt repeatedly complained about alleged issues with Plaintiffs work and conduct. In January 2016, Mr. Levitt directed Plaintiff to attend a mandatory conference that Plaintiff had already attended multiple times. When Plaintiff protested, Mr. Levitt told her that her reply was "unacceptable and disrespectful" and then discussed the incident with others. Later, in February, Mr. Levitt accused Plaintiff of slamming her door. Plaintiff alleges that her male colleagues were not held to the same standards of conduct.

         Plaintiff alleges that despite having a heavier work load than her male coworkers, she was paid less. Moreover, while another male employee with less seniority was permitted to change his own shift schedule without penalty, Plaintiff was denied permission, without explanation, to change her shift to accommodate her medical appointments. Plaintiff also alleges that at least one of her colleagues was told by his supervisors not to speak with her while she was in the office.

         In late June 2016, Plaintiff sent emails to Mr. Levitt regarding "unacceptable and offensive treatment" from other employees. The next month, she filed an internal discrimination complaint with Defendant's human resources team. On August 3, 2016, Plaintiff took formal FMLA leave, and was approved for short-term disability in September 2016. After receiving no response to her internal complaint, she cross-filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in October 2016. After receiving a Right to Sue Letter from the EEOC, she timely filed her Complaint in this case on March 1, 2017, asserting claims of 1) sex discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII (Count I); disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of the ADA (Count II); discrimination in violation of the PHRA (Count III); and FMLA interference and retaliation (Count IV).

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted is appropriate where a plaintiffs "plain statement" lacks enough substance to show that he is entitled to relief.[2] In determining whether a motion to dismiss should be granted, the court must consider only those facts alleged in the complaint, accepting the allegations as true and drawing all logical inferences in favor of the non-moving party.[3] Courts are not, however, bound to accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations.[4] Something more than a mere possibility of a claim must be alleged; a plaintiff must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face."[5] The complaint must set forth "direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain recovery under some viable legal theory."[6] In deciding a motion to dismiss, courts generally may consider "only the allegations in the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and documents that form the basis of a claim."[7]

         III. DISCUSSION

         1. Sex Discrimination and Retaliation (Count I)

         Title VII provides that "[i]t shall be 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 ... sex . . ."[8] A discrimination claim may be established by either direct or indirect evidence of discrimination. When a plaintiff relies on indirect evidence, she must adequately plead a prima facie case of discrimination by sufficiently alleging that 1) she is a member of a protected class; 2) she was qualified for the position at issue; 3) she suffered an adverse employment action; and 4) the circumstances surrounding the adverse employment action support a plausible inference of illegal discrimination.[9]

         Here, Plaintiff has alleged specific statements made by the distribution center manager, Mr. Schraeder, that her supervisor, Mr. Levitt, "had a problem ... with her at work" because he was "intimidated by Plaintiffs intelligence" and "aggressive [ness]" and that she should "bring her confidence level down."[10] She further alleges incidents in which Mr. Levitt reprimanded her for challenging his instruction and for slamming her door, while male colleagues were not held to the same standards. Moreover, while her male colleague was permitted to unilaterally change his shift time, Plaintiff was denied permission to change her shift time to meet her medical appointments, and despite having a heavier work load than her male colleagues, she alleges that she was paid less. These allegations are insufficient to support a plausible claim of discrimination on the basis of sex.

         First, "Title VII prohibits discrimination against women for failing to conform to a traditionally feminine demeanor and appearance, " and an employer discriminates on the basis of sex when it "acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be."[11] At this stage of the proceedings, it can be reasonably inferred from Mr. Schraeder's statements that Plaintiff was reprimanded by her supervisor because of stereotypes regarding inappropriate behavior for her gender. Her allegations that her male colleagues were not held to the same standards of conduct in the workplace for which she was reprimanded further support her claim. Moreover, her allegations that her male colleagues were given more flexibility in their schedules and higher pay for less work give rise to a plausible inference of disparate treatment motivated by intentional discrimination.[12]

         Plaintiffs allegations also sufficiently state a claim of gender-based retaliation. To plead a prima facie case of retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must allege facts that show (1) she engaged in activity protected by Title VII, (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against her, and (3) there was a causal connection between her participation in the protected activity and the adverse employment action.[13] In the retaliation context, unlike in the discrimination context, a Plaintiff alleging an adverse action need not show that the action affected the "conditions of employment, " as long as the action "might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination."[14]

         Here, the Complaint states that two days after Plaintiff met with Mr. Schraeder to complain that Mr. Levitt's reports against her were unfair and harassing, Mr. Levitt directed her to move out of the room she shared with her supervisors to a storage room which he knew was being used by union drivers to change their clothes. Plaintiff further alleged that in the following months, Mr. Levitt reprimanded her for allegedly disrespectful conduct and her male colleague was told not to speak with her while in the office.

         Contrary to Defendant's contentions, the Court finds that these instances of alleged antagonism may reasonably dissuade a worker from engaging in protected conduct, and therefore, Plaintiff has adequately pleaded an adverse employment action. Plaintiff also has adequately pleaded that her meeting with Mr. Schraeder was protected under Title VII, and that Mr. Levitt's subsequent actions were related to that meeting. Although Plaintiff does not specifically allege that she discussed gender discrimination during her meeting with Mr. Schraeder, one can plausibly infer from Mr. Schraeder's statements in response that he understood her concerns regarding Mr. Levitt to be related to her gender.[15] Moreover, the "temporal proximity" between Plaintiffs meeting with Mr. Schraeder and Mr. ...


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