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Starnes v. Court of Common Pleas of Butler County

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

July 26, 2018




         I. MEMORANDUM

         Pending before the Court is Defendant Court of Common Pleas of Butler County's ("Court of Common Pleas") and Defendant Thomas Holman's ("Holman" collectively with Court of Common Pleas, "Court Defendants") Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 22) and Defendant Thomas Doerr's ("Judge Doerr" or "Doerr," with Court Defendants, "Defendants") Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 25).

         For the following reasons, Defendants' Motions to Dismiss will be GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Plaintiffs Fourteenth Amendment Gender Discrimination claim will be dismissed without prejudice to the extent that Plaintiff claims that Doerr's discrete discriminatory acts form the basis of it; Plaintiffs Procedural Due Process claim will be dismissed with prejudice. Defendants' Motions to Dismiss will be DENIED as to all remaining claims.


         Plaintiff brings this § 1983 action against the Court of Common Pleas and Judge Doerr and Holman in their individual capacity. See generally, Second Amended Complaint ("SAC") (Doc. 20). In relevant part, Plaintiff alleges the following, which, for the purposes of the Motions to Dismiss, are accepted as true: Since 2005, Plaintiff has worked as a probation officer for the Court of Common Pleas. Id., at ¶ 9. In December 2004, Plaintiff met Doerr at a Christmas party. Li, at ¶ 10. At the Christmas party, Doerr flirted with Plaintiff, commented on her attractiveness and suggested that they should stay in touch. Id., at ¶ 13. Doerr and Plaintiff eventually exchanged cell phone numbers. Id. Doerr called Plaintiff numerous times after the party requesting that they meet. Id., at ¶ 14. He invited Plaintiff to "visit him or meet him at his chambers." Li Initially, Plaintiff declined Doerr's invitations. Li In February 2005, however, Doerr finally persuaded Plaintiff to meet him in his chambers. Li, at ¶ 15. After Plaintiff entered Doerr's chambers, Doerr began kissing Plaintiff and insisted that they engage in sexual intercourse. Id. Although Plaintiff insists that the sexual intercourse was not welcome, she did engage in sexual intercourse with him. Id., at ¶ 16. Following the intercourse, Doerr commented that their sexual interactions would be a "business relationship." Id., at ¶ 16-17.

         In the summer of 2005, a job became available in the probation office at the court. Id., at ¶ 19. "Doerr took complete control of the hiring process and ensured that Plaintiff was hired." Id. After starting the new job, Doerr began to summon Plaintiff to his chambers for sexual relations. Id., at ¶ 21. Additionally, Doerr often would share pornography with Plaintiff and discuss sex on the telephone. Id., at ¶ 23. The sexual relationship continued for approximately four years after the probation office hired Plaintiff. Id., at ¶ 24. After the sexual relationship ended, Doerr continued to influence and control Plaintiff. Id., at ¶ 26. Among other things, Doerr's conduct-after the sexual relationship ended-included:

• Requesting that Plaintiff film herself performing sexual acts, Id., at ¶ 26;
• Demanding that that the two interact in a normal manner, despite their previous sexual relationship, Id., at ¶ 31;
• Using his position to force Plaintiffs continued interaction with him by assigning her duties that required her to be in his court, Id;
• Telling Plaintiff that judges were unhappy with her using a standardized order despite Plaintiff never receiving a complaint regarding her use of this order, Id., at ¶ 36;
• Making Plaintiff feel uncomfortable, forcing social interactions, singling her out and "looking her over," Id., at ¶ 40;
• Loudly announcing Plaintiffs presence in court and coyly waiving at her from behind his computer while on the bench, Id;
• Holding Plaintiff s hand while explaining that he could help her return to her previous job, Id., at¶44; and
• Interrupting Plaintiff while she was speaking with male staff, Id., at ¶ 70.

         In 2010-after the sexual relationship concluded-Plaintiff began dating her now husband. Id., at ¶ 33. Doerr and the administration for the Court of Common Pleas subjected Plaintiffs husband to harassment, which caused Plaintiffs husband to develop anxiety and eventually retire from his job after an extended paid leave. Id., at ¶ 34.

         In 2014, Plaintiff asked Doerr to transfer her to the Butler County Domestic Relations Office, and he obliged. Id., at ¶ 41. Plaintiff quickly regretted her decision and "advised the administration that she wished to return to the Probation Office." Id at ¶ 42. Butler County personnel policies allow employees to return to their previous position as a matter of right within 30 days. Id., at ¶ 43. But Holman told Plaintiff that she could not return to her previous position and that Doerr would not allow her to return. Id., at ¶ 44. Holman stated that Plaintiff would "have to sue the Judge" to get her previous job back. Id. In the end, Doerr agreed to allow Plaintiff to return, but insisted that Plaintiff sign a general release waiving all claims against the Court of Common Pleas. Id., at ¶ 46, 49. Plaintiff was represented by counsel during the release's execution. Id., at ¶ 47.

         After executing the release, Plaintiff returned to work as a probation officer in domestic relations. Id., at ¶ 55. Upon her return, Plaintiff was not treated the same as other employees in the domestic relations unit: Plaintiff was denied her own office; she was physically isolated from other probation officers and e-mails of general circulation were not provided to her; she was given a different allotment of uniforms; she was fingerprinted multiple times without explanation; she was restricted from going out in the field to supervise probation officers; and she did not earn overtime or "comp time." Id., at ¶ 56, 57.

         Plaintiff claims that her relationship with Doerr spurred the differential treatment she received at work. To substantiate her theory, Plaintiff submitted numerous right-to- know requests. Id., at ¶ 59. Her rejection from on-call duty, along with the information she learned from the right-to-know requests, made Plaintiff believe that her employer was discriminating and retaliating against her. Id., at ¶ 60-61. Subsequently, Plaintiff contacted the EEOC and indicated her intent to file a discrimination charge in February 2016 and advised her supervisors of the same. Id., at ¶ 62, 63. After advising her supervisors of her intent to file a discrimination charge, Plaintiff was placed on a performance improvement plan. Id., at ¶ 64. Further, to cover their discriminatory conduct, Holman and Doerr created a policy that precluded probation officers assigned to the domestic relations office from being eligible for on-call duty. Id., at ¶ 65. They then backdated this policy to make it look like the policy took effect in 2013. Id. On these facts, Plaintiff asserts claims under Title VII, alleging discrimination, hostile work environment and retaliation. See Count I. Plaintiff also alleges claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendment, alleging violations of the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Clause and the First Amendment. See Counts II-V.

         ANALYSIS [1]

         I. Contractual Waiver of Rights/ Release

         As an initial matter, the Court finds Defendants' argument-that Plaintiff contracted away her right to bring suit-premature. A "[r]elease is an affirmative defense." PPG Indus, v. Generon IGS, Inc., 760 F.Supp.2d 520, 525 (W.D. Pa. 2011). "[T]he law of this Circuit (the so-called 'Third Circuit Rule') permits an affirmative defense to be raised by a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) in certain circumstances." PPG Indus., 760 F.Supp.2d at 525. Generally, a district court ruling on a motion to dismiss may not consider matters extraneous to the pleadings, unless the document is "undisputedly authentic" and "integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint." In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

         Plaintiff argues that the Court should not consider the release because Plaintiff did not attach it to her Complaint. Doc. 34 at 16. Plaintiff, however, relied upon the release in the SAC (See e.g., Compl. at ¶ 46); accordingly, the Court may consider it for the purposes of deciding a motion to dismiss.[2]

         Although the Court may consider the release at this juncture, the Court finds that it does not preclude Plaintiffs claims. Whether Plaintiff waived her claims through a release requires the Court to inquire into the "totality of the circumstances" surrounding the agreement's execution to determine if Plaintiff knowingly and willingly executed the release. Coventry v. United States Steel Corp., 856 F.2d 514, 522-524 (3d Cir. 1988), superseded by statute on other grounds. This inquiry considers the following factors:

1) the plaintiffs education and business experience, 2) the amount of the time the plaintiff had possession of or access to the agreement before signing it, 3) the role of plaintiff in deciding the terms of the agreement, 4) the clarity of the agreement, 5) whether the plaintiff was represented by or consulted with an attorney, and 6) whether the consideration given in exchange for ...

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