United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania
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.
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.
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,
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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.
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.
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)
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
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)).
Plaintiffs Have Sufficiently Pled a Hostile Work Environment
Claim in Violation of Protections Based on Race or Color
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.
Plaintiffs may have suffered intentional discrimination based
on their race or color (Element One)
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.
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)).
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, ” ...