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Eure v. Friends' Central School Corp.

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

August 2, 2019

ARIEL CHRISTINA EURE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FRIENDS' CENTRAL SCHOOL CORP., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          Tucker J.

         Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (ECF No. 7), and Plaintiffs' Response in Opposition (ECF Nos. 11, 12). Upon careful consideration of the Parties' submissions, and for the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion is DENIED IN PART and GRANTED IN PART.

         I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs Ariel Eure and Layla Helwa (collectively “Plaintiffs”) bring this employment discrimination action against Defendants Friends' Central School Corporation (“FCS”), Craig Sellers (“Sellers”), Phillip Scott and Board Members John and Jane Does #1-29 (“Board”) (collectively “Defendants”) after Defendants wrongfully suspended then discharged them from their teaching positions at FCS. Compl. ¶ 2, ECF No. 1. On March 17, 2017, Plaintiffs filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”); the EEOC issued a right to sue letter on March 12, 2018. Compl. ¶ 10.

         Plaintiff Ariel Eure (“Eure”) is a gay African-American female; Plaintiff Layla Helwa (“Helwa”) is a gay female of Egyptian and Puerto Rican descent and a member of the Muslim faith. Compl. ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs taught at FCS for two years before being suspended and subsequently fired. Compl. ¶¶ 3-4. FCS is a Quaker-based day school located in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania with over 800 students. Compl. ¶ 5. Sellers is the FCS Head of School and Art Hall (“Hall”) was Plaintiffs' immediate supervisor. Compl. ¶¶ 6, 11.

         On May 4, 2016, three students asked to meet with Plaintiffs to discuss a potential “equal rights club” which would come to be known as the “Peace and Equality for Palestine” club (“Club”). Compl. ¶ 17. Helwa suggested that Dr. Sa'ed Atshan (“Dr. Atshan”), a Quaker professor at Swarthmore College, speak to the Club at FCS. Compl. ¶ 20. FCS approved of the speaker and Hall approved Eure's request to publicize the event. Compl. ¶ 21.

         After Plaintiffs alerted Dr. Atshan about concerns the Club received from students, parents, and faculty members who viewed discussions of Palestine to be anti-Semitic, Dr. Atshan assured Plaintiffs that he would be able to handle the topic in a “sensitive and nuanced manner.” Compl. ¶ 22. The event was to take place on February 10, 2017. Compl. ¶ 23. On February 6, 2017, the event was posted[1] and announced during homeroom. Compl. ¶ 25. Later that day, Hall told Eure that a number of parents had reached out to the school to voice their opposition to the event and instructed Eure to cancel it. Compl. ¶ 27.

         The next day, on February 7, 2017, Plaintiffs informed the Club that FCS had cancelled the event. Compl. ¶ 28. Club members told Plaintiffs they intended to stage a walk-out in protest of FCS' cancellation of the event the following day. Compl. ¶ 28. On February 8, 2017, Eure emailed Dr. Atshan to notify him of the cancellation, explaining that “prominent families” at FCS voiced their disapproval of the event. Compl. ¶ 29, ECF. No. 1. The walk-out occurred as planned on February 8, 2017 with approximately sixty-five students, Plaintiffs, and at least three other teachers in attendance. Compl. ¶ 30.

         Later that day, Plaintiffs met with Hall and Assistant Head of School and Diversity Officer, Mariama Richards (“Richards”), to inform them that students were planning to have a discussion during the time Dr. Atshan was originally set to speak. Compl. ¶ 31. Hall and Richards suggested that Plaintiffs not attend the discussion because it would be “bad” for them and further suggested that, “as teachers of color, ” Plaintiffs needed to trust Hall and Richards who had more experience in a private school setting than did Plaintiffs. Compl. ¶ 31. Plaintiffs informed Hall and Richards that they would attend the discussion because the student hosts invited them. Compl. ¶ 31.

         On February 10, 2017, the student-led discussion occurred and was attended by a dozen faculty members including Plaintiffs, Hall, and Richards. Compl. ¶ 34. Later that afternoon, Sellers asked to meet with Plaintiffs individually. Compl. ¶ 34. Sellers asked Plaintiffs the same questions, including why they failed to follow the directive from their supervisors instructing them not to attend the student-led discussion. Compl. ¶ 36. Plaintiffs responded that they had a duty to monitor the students. Compl. ¶ 36.

         On February 12, 2017, Plaintiffs received an email requesting that they meet with Sellers off-campus the following morning. Compl. ¶ 37. At the meeting, Sellers informed Plaintiffs that they were being placed on administrative leave, effective immediately, due to their “single-minded approach to a complicated issue.” Compl. ¶ 38. Plaintiffs were under the impression that Sellers would reinstate them within a week or so. Compl. ¶ 38. Hall informed Plaintiffs that they would be reinstated the following spring. Compl. ¶ 38.

         In accordance with FCS policies and procedures, Plaintiffs filed a complaint with Sellers himself and with the Board on February 14, 2017, after hearing rumors of why they were placed on leave. Compl. ¶ 42, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs requested that Sellers be disciplined for discrimination, but Plaintiffs never received a response to their complaint. Compl. ¶ 42. On February 16, 2017, Plaintiffs' counsel received a call from Margaret McCausland (“McCausland”), a neutral investigator appointed by FCS to investigate Plaintiffs' suspensions. Compl. ¶ 43. Plaintiffs never received a copy of McCausland's report. Compl. ¶ 44.

         On February 13, 2017, Sellers sent a message to FCS families informing parents that FCS had “very real concerns about the conduct of [Plaintiffs] for their disregard of [FCS'] guiding testimonies, [including] community peace and integrity” and communicating that Plaintiffs were on “indefinite paid administrative leave” while a review was under way. Compl. ¶ 50. On February 14, 2017, Sellers and the Board sent another message which explained “two teachers were given explicit directives which they ignored” and that the teachers had been placed on leave. Compl. ¶ 51. Plaintiffs reference over a dozen news articles that were published in February 2017 reprinting the language from both of these messages. Compl. ¶ 52. In March 2017, two local news organizations reported on Plaintiffs' claims with the EEOC. Compl. ¶ 55. In those reports, FCS gave official statements categorizing Plaintiffs as employees who failed to “follow explicit directives” who were then placed on leave due to “their stated intentions going forward.” Compl. ¶ 55.

         On April 7, 2017, the Board published a statement that the investigation into Plaintiffs' allegations of discrimination and harassment had been completed and that the allegations were unsubstantiated. Compl. ¶ 56. On May 9, 2017, Sellers sent termination letters to Plaintiffs which contained no specific reason for the termination. Compl. ¶ 58. That same day, Sellers published a public message informing FCS families that Plaintiffs would not be returning to the school. Compl. ¶ 59, ECF No. 1. Later that day, FCS extended an invitation for Dr. Atshan to speak at the school which Dr. Atshan declined. Compl. ¶ 61.

         On May 10, 2017, FCS released another public statement regarding Plaintiffs' termination, reiterating that their contracts would not be renewed. Compl. ¶ 62. This statement was again covered by the media. Compl. ¶ 63. On September 1, 2017, Sellers sent a notice to FCS Alumni notifying them that the school was to be named in a lawsuit “connected with an employment issue that took place last February.” Compl. ¶ 66.

         Plaintiffs accuse Defendants of creating an illegally discriminatory environment at FCS. Compl. ¶ 68. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants singled out Plaintiffs to participate in issues involving race relations at the school. Compl. ¶ 15. Plaintiffs also reference several instances where white co-workers ignored directives and had complaints lodged against them, but those white co-workers were never placed on leave or fired. Compl. ¶ 69. Plaintiffs argue they were placed on leave and then fired as a result of their race, color, and sex. Compl. ¶ 2. Helwa further contends she was also discriminated against based on her religion. Compl. ¶ 2. Plaintiffs claim that the extensive media coverage of their suspension and termination, as well as the multiple statements made by Defendants, lowered Plaintiffs' reputations in the community and, prevented Plaintiffs from securing gainful employment following their termination. Compl. ¶ 107.

         Plaintiffs seek to recover damages under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (“PHRA”), and under tort claims of negligent supervision, retaliation, and defamation. Compl. ¶ 2. Defendants seek dismissal of this Complaint for Lack of Subject Matter Jurisdiction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and Failure to State a Claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 7.[2]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A party may challenge subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) as either a facial or factual challenge. Davis v. Wells Fargo, 824 F.3d 333, 346 (3d Cir. 2016). Under a facial challenge, subject matter jurisdiction is challenged “without disputing the facts alleged in the complaint.” Id. The court therefore considers the allegations in the complaint “in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Constitution Party of Pa. v. Aichele, 757 F.3d 347, 358 (3d. Cir. 2014) (quoting In re Scherring Plough Corp., 678 F.3d 235, 243 (3d Cir. 2012)). By contrast, under a factual challenge, competing facts are presented to the court, allowing it to “consider evidence outside the pleadings” relating to subject matter jurisdiction. Davis, 824 F.3d at 346 (quoting Aichele, 757 F.3d at 358 (3d. Cir. 2014)). In a factual challenge, the plaintiff carries the burden of proving that subject matter jurisdiction exists and the plaintiff's allegations are not granted the presumption of truthfulness. Davis, 824 F.3d at 346.

         To prevail on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (internal quotation omitted). A claim is plausible when “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.; see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Inquiry into plausibility is context specific; therefore, the court must draw on its experience and common sense. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiffs Have Sufficiently Pled Title VII and PHRA Violations of Maintenance of a Hostile Work Environment, Discrimination, and Retaliation on the Bases of Race or Color, but Not on the Bases of Religion, Sex, or Sexual Orientation (Counts I and III)

         Title VII prohibits discrimination against employees “on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” Thompson v. N. Am. Stainless, LP, 562 U.S. 170, 173 (2011). The PHRA offers similar protections and additionally protects employees based on age, handicap, or disability. PHRA, 43 Pa. Stat. And Cons. Stat. Ann. § 952 (West 2019). PHRA violations are analyzed under the same framework as Title VII violations. Mandel v. M & Q Packaging Corp., 706 F.3d 157, 163 (3d Cir. 2013) (“Claims under the PHRA are interpreted coextensively with Title VII claims.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Counts I and III will, therefore, be addressed concurrently.

         Sexual orientation is not an explicitly protected class under Title VII or the PHRA. See Pagan v. Gonzalez, 430 Fed.Appx. 170, 171-72 (3d. Cir. 2011) (discrimination based on sexual orientation is not protected by Title VII); Manocchio v. Children's Serv. Ctr. of Wyo. Valley, No. 3:06cv710, 2007 WL 674590, at *3 n.3 (M.D. Pa. Feb. 28, 2007) (“[T]he PHRA does not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”); but see Guess v. Phila. Hous. Auth., 354 F.Supp.3d 596, 603 (E.D. Pa. 2019) (“[D]iscrimination against gays and lesbians is prohibited under Title VII insofar as it involves discrimination based on sex and gender stereotypes.”) (internal citation omitted). Accordingly, a plaintiff may not bring a Title VII or PHRA action on the basis of sexual orientation alone, but is entitled to protection if the discrimination suffered is “based on gender stereotypes [and is therefore considered] sex-based discrimination.” Semian v. Dep't of Military & Veterans' Affairs, No. 3:17-CV-1183, 2018 WL 4038116, at *5 (M.D. Pa. Aug. 23, 2018) (relying on Bibby v. Phila. Coca Cola Bottling Co., 260 F.3d 260, 262-64 (3d Cir. 2001)).

         1. Plaintiffs Have Sufficiently Pled a Hostile Work Environment Claim in Violation of Protections Based on Race or Color

         To state a claim of a hostile work environment under Title VII and the PHRA, the plaintiff must show that: (1) she suffered intentional discrimination because of her protected class, (2) the discrimination was severe or pervasive, (3) the discrimination detrimentally affected her, (4) the discrimination would detrimentally affect a reasonable person in like circumstances, and (5) respondeat superior liability exists. Mandel, 706 F.3d at 167. Only these prima facie elements of a hostile work environment claim need be established at the motion to dismiss stage “because it may be difficult for a plaintiff to prove discrimination before discovery has unearthed relevant facts and evidence.” Castleberry v. STI Group, 863 F.3d 259, 266 (3d Cir. 2017) (internal citation omitted). In their Complaint, Plaintiffs assert a hostile work environment claim based upon “[d]iscrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and/or sex.” Compl. ¶ 78, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs' pleadings have sufficiently satisfied all five elements of a hostile work environment claim to survive a motion to dismiss. However, Plaintiffs have successfully stated a hostile work environment claim on the bases of race or color only.

         i. Plaintiffs may have suffered intentional discrimination based on their race or color (Element One)

         Discrimination in the workplace can be overt or “facially neutral.” Mitchell v. Wachovia Corp., 556 F.Supp.2d 336, 349 (D. Del. 2008); see also Brown-Baumbach v. B&B Auto., Inc., 437 Fed.Appx. 129, 134 (3d Cir. 2011). Unlike an overt act of racial discrimination, such as the use of racial epithets, facially neutral claims require the plaintiff to show “surrounding circumstances that would expose the purportedly discriminatory nature of what is otherwise racially neutral conduct.” Mitchell, 556 F.Supp.2d at 349 (internal citation omitted). A plaintiff's mere speculation that an employer would have treated her differently if she were a different race does not sufficiently prove discrimination in the absence of evidence in the record. Id. at 350.

         In analyzing allegations of facially neutral discrimination, courts must examine the overall scenario as opposed to individual incidents because it is “often difficult to determine the motivations of an action” taken by an employer. Cardenas v. Massey, 269 F.3d 251, 261 (3d Cir. 2001) (internal citation omitted). Courts also have broad discretion in deciding whether evidence of discrimination against employees other than the plaintiff is relevant to the plaintiff's claim of discrimination. Mandel, 706 F.3d at 167-68 (citing Sprint/United Mgmt. Co. v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. 379, 388 (2008)).

         Plaintiffs claim that while white coworkers made transgressions such as ignoring directives, failing to attend mandatory staff meetings, and neglecting to turn in student grades in a timely manner, Defendants never punished those coworkers. Compl. ¶ 69, ECF No. 1. Plaintiffs further allege that after “the only black [male employee at FCS] . . . was placed on leave after a student made racial threats on his life, ” ...


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