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Baylets-Holsinger v. The Pennsylvania State University

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 2, 2018


          Brann, Judge.


          Martin C. Carlson, United States Magistrate Judge.


         Antoinette A. Baylets-Holsinger, proceeding pro se, initiated this civil action against her former employer, The Pennsylvania State University, by filing a complaint on January 9, 2018. (Doc. 1.) In that complaint, she alleges that Penn State subjected her to unlawful gender-based discrimination, retaliated and harassed her either because she was a whistle blower or because she had a disability, and perhaps interfered with her right to avail herself of her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act. It does not appear that Penn State fired the plaintiff after a lengthy tenure at the university; rather, the plaintiff seems to allege that the conditions of her employment became unbearable for a number of reasons, and eventually compelled her to resign involuntarily. She seeks an array of damages for the defendant's alleged treatment of her.

         Just what Penn State or its agents are alleged to have done is, however, unclear from the plaintiff's allegations, which are laid out over 18 pages of single-spaced, unnumbered paragraphs. The plaintiff's complaint suffers because it seems to assume a degree of knowledge by the Court regarding a number of relevant facts, as the complaint will frequently make sweeping charges of “discrimination” or “retaliation” or some other kind of mistreatment that is sometimes referred to simply as “the situation, ” (Compl. at 2), without ever providing relevant and specific factual allegations to explain just what it is the plaintiff is complaining about.

         Much of the problems with the complaint also stem from its construction. By any measure the complaint fails to comport with basic pleading requirements prescribed by the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Instead, the complaint presents as an unwieldy and somewhat inscrutable collection of grievances and legal conclusions unsupported by an intelligible, straightforward factual narrative explaining exactly why the plaintiff believes she is entitled to relief under any of the various legal theories pled.

         On March 19, 2018, Penn State filed a timely motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Rules 8, 10, and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (Doc. 14.) The defendant further moves to have the complaint stricken pursuant to Rule 12(f). (Id.) On April 2, 2018, Penn State filed a brief in support of its motion in which it highlights the myriad defects in the plaintiff's pleading. (Doc. 15.) The plaintiff has neglected to respond to the motion in any fashion, and her deadline for responding has long since passed. For the reasons that follow, it will be recommended that the motion be granted, but that the plaintiff be permitted to file an amended complaint that addresses the pleading defects identified and discussed in this report.


         At the outset, we emphasize the plaintiff's factual narrative offered in support of her complaint is especially difficult to follow. The complaint begins by reciting an array of federal civil rights statutes that the plaintiff claims the defendant violated, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000 et seq. (“Title VII”), the Americans With Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12201 et seq., and the Family Medical Leave Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. The plaintiff describes her claims generally as regarding “Violations of Federal Laws on the basis of Discrimination, Harassment, Sexual Harassment, and Retaliation.” (Compl, ¶ 1.) This generality of description is due in large measure to the fact that the plaintiff assumes that much of the factual background relevant to her claims is somehow tacitly conveyed elsewhere in the complaint. Despite the opaque quality of many of the plaintiff's allegations, and the conclusory assertions that make up much of the pleading, will endeavor to summarize the complaint to the extent possible.

         The plaintiff began working for Penn State in August of 1990. (Doc. 1-1, p. 1.) Although it is not clear what her position was at that time, from 2000 until 2016, the plaintiff worked in the Software Licensing Group within Information Technology Services (ITS). In or around 2009, the plaintiff was promoted to Senior Contract Administrator. (Id.)

         It appears that the plaintiff's complaints regarding her treatment at work begin in 2013 or 2014, around the time there were new administrators or supervisors hired in her work area. (Id., p. 2.) The plaintiff does not explain what it was that these supervisors may have done in particular, but it seems that she found her work environment to be stressful, and increasingly so through 2015 and into 2016 when she claims she went on medical leave for stress and anxiety in September of that year. (Id.) The plaintiff alleges that during this time she had a higher workload than a male colleague, and she began reporting complaints allegedly made by other female employees that a male co-worker had engaged in sexually harassing behavior. Around the same time, she claims she was passed over for a job outside of her work area that she had sought, and she claims she also reported improper spending by supervisors, including an overspend of $1 million. (Id., pp. 3-5.) It appears that the plaintiff believes she was retaliated for this report, and was placed on a performance improvement plan (PIP) and was also subjected to certain disciplinary process. (Id., pp. 4-5.)

         Much of the complaint indicates that the plaintiff complained through University channels regarding what she viewed as mistreatment, but she contends that nothing was done in response. (Id., pp. 3-7.) She alleges that this period of time was particularly stressful, contributed to or caused a spike in her anxiety levels, and resulted in her going on medical leave on September 16, 2016. (Id., p. 8.) She then alleges that she availed herself of leave time, apparently under both the FMLA and Penn State's own policies. (Id., pp. 8-11.) During much of this time the plaintiff was being paid while on leave, drawing on sick and vacation days that she had accumulated, as well as vacation days that her co-workers donated for her. (Id.)

         It appears that while she was on leave, the plaintiff was endeavoring to secure a different placement at Penn State. (Id.) In response to her lobbying, she alleges that she was presented with three options, including returning to employment in a different, non-exempt position within ITS; returning to her prior job, pending resolution of her pending disciplinary process; or separating from Penn State under a severance agreement that would have also released all claims. (Id., pp. 9-10.) Finding none of these options suitable, on January 6, 2017, the plaintiff resigned from Penn State. She thereafter filed a grievance with the EEOC, and upon completion of that administrative process received a right-to-sue letter (Doc. 1-1, pp. 9-11; Doc. 1-2.) This litigation followed.


         Penn State advances several arguments in favor of its motion to dismiss. Acknowledging that the plaintiff is pro se, and therefore to be afforded some leniency with respect to her pleading, Penn State nevertheless argues that the complaint is so irregular, and so substantially fails to allege facts and claims that it prejudices Penn State's ability to understand and fairly respond to the allegations being made.

         After arguing that the pleading fails to meet the most basic requirements prescribed by Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Penn State takes aim at the plaintiff's substantive claims, and argues that the complaint contains inadequate factual allegations that could support a claim under any theory, making dismissal appropriate pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

         Lastly, Penn State argues that many of the allegations in the complaint are immaterial and improper, and should be stricken pursuant to Rule 12(f). For the reasons discussed below, we find that the complaint violates several basic rules governing pleadings in federal court, and otherwise fails to state a claim. Accordingly, it will be recommended that the complaint be dismissed, but with leave granted for the plaintiff to file an amended complaint to address the deficiencies identified.

         A. The Complaint Violates Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure

         In general it is true that in federal court, pro se pleadings are to be “liberally construed, ” and “a pro se complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Rule 8, which governs the form of pleadings in federal court, also underscores one of the animating principles of the Federal Rules by providing that “[a]ll pleadings shall be so construed as to do substantial justice.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(f). However, there are limits to the liberality that may be afforded to pro se complaints, and such pleadings still must be presented in a fashion that permits a defendant to understand the nature of the plaintiff's claims, and to respond to the allegations. Upon consideration, we find that the plaintiff's pleading fails to meet this minimal requirement, and thus should be dismissed, for several reasons.

         Rule 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain a “short and plain” statement of the claim showing that the plaintiff is entitled to relief. Rule 8 further provides that each allegation should be simple, concise and direct. Rule 10 prescribes additional requirements, providing that a plaintiff should state her claim in numbered paragraphs, with each limited as far as practicable to a single set of circumstances. In this case, the plaintiff's complaint simply fails to adhere to any of these requirements, even under a relaxed standard. The complaint, which begins initially in numbered paragraph form, quickly devolves into a string of single-spaced paragraphs that go on and on, page after page, yet which amount to only a generalized collection of allegations that are long on legal conclusions but short on facts. Furthermore, many of the allegations seem to have no relation to the legal claims being asserted - most notably, a common theme running throughout the complaint that the plaintiff has been punished for whistle-blowing, yet the complaint contains no claim relating to such activity.

         When a complaint is “illegible or incomprehensible, ” or when a complaint “is also largely unintelligible, ” Stephanatos v. Cohen, 236 Fed.Appx. 785, 787 (3d Cir. 2007), an order dismissing a complaint under Rule 8 is appropriate. See, e.g., Mincy v. Klem, 303 Fed.Appx. 106 (3d Cir. 2008); Rhett v. N.J. State Superior Court, 260 Fed.Appx. 513 (3d Cir. 2008). Furthermore, dismissal under Rule 8 is proper when a complaint leaves “the defendants having to guess at what of the many things discuss constituted [a cause of action];” Binsack v. Lackawanna County Prison, 438 Fed.Appx. 158 (3d Cir. 2011), or when the complaint is so “rambling and unclear” as to defy response. Tillio v. Spiess, 441 Fed.Appx. 109, 110 (3d Cir. Aug. 4, 2011). Typically, dismissal of a complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8 is “'reserved for those cases in which the complaint is so confused, ambiguous, vague, or otherwise unintelligible that its true substance, if any, is well disguised.'” Id. (quoting Simmons v. Abruzzo, 49 F.3d 83, 86 (2d Cir. 1995)). Furthermore, even where a court finds that a pro se complaint is “rambling and unclear” and otherwise fails to comport with the guidelines prescribed by Rule 8, “district courts generally must allow plaintiffs leave to amend deficient complaints prior to dismissal unless doing so would be futile.” Id.; cf. Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002).

         Turning to the plaintiff's complaint, we are constrained to find that it plainly violates Rule 8 in ways that are substantial and genuinely preclude the defendant from answering the allegations fairly. Unlike some complaints, which are actually illegible or are so profoundly difficult to read or interpret, it appears that the plaintiff has endeavored to craft a narrative of her many grievances against her former employer in a manner that makes sense to her, but in so doing assumes facts that are nowhere alleged, and presents a series of allegations that jump from conclusion to conclusion without having any apparent factual predicate. The complaint also frequently assumes an understanding on the part of the reader that is, in the end, unwarranted and ultimately defies any meaningful response. After initially making an attempt to present the allegations in reasonable format, the plaintiff quickly abandons any semblance of order and launches into a 13-page single-spaced “timeline” that provides all manner of allegations that span times and events that do not appear to be a basis for the plaintiff's actual claims alleged, and are riddled with unnecessary details that often are unclear.

         Aside from the unwieldy format in which the allegations are presented in “timeline” format, the complaint is filled with numerous matters that appear to be irrelevant except insofar as they give the impression that the employment relationship became increasingly contentious and difficult for the plaintiff to endure. For example, one animating theme that threads through the complaint's timeline is that the plaintiff believes she was retaliated against for engaging in whistle-blowing activity regarding misuse of funds on a contract. (Doc. 1-1, p. 5.) Yet, upon review of the entire complaint, it is clear that the plaintiff has made no claim at all regarding whistle-blowing activity. She also includes, in painstaking and often confusing fashion, recitations regarding the dates and contents of emails and phone conversations with numerous parties, and gets into granular detail regarding whether or not a meeting was listed on a supervisor's calendar, whether her name happened to be visible on a computer, and whether the rooms in her office building have glass doors and walls. (Id., pp. 6-7.) It is impossible to understand what relevance these allegations have to the plaintiff's actual claims, which seem to relate to allegations of disability discrimination and retaliation, and gender discrimination.

         We submit that the defects in the format of the plaintiff's complaint, including its failure to adhere to basic requirements that the allegations be set forth in a short and plain style, in paragraph format that enables a meaningful answer or other response, and the inclusion of factual allegations that have no apparent relevance to the legal claims actually asserted, warrants dismissal of the complaint without prejudice to the plaintiff being permitted to file an amended complaint in a concise and direct fashion in accordance with Rules 8 and 10 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

         B. The Complaint Fails to State a Claim

         1. Rule 12(b)(6) - ...

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