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Harness v. Seton Hill University

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 30, 2019

WHITNEY HARNESS, Plaintiff,
v.
SETON HILL UNIVERSITY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER ECF NO. 14

          MAUREEN P. KELLY, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Whitney Harness ("Harness") has filed a First Amended Complaint, ECF No. 12, against her former employer, Defendant Seton Hill University, ("Seton Hill"), alleging violations of her rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. ("Title VII"), Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681, et seq. ("Title IX"), the Americans with Disabilities Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. ("ADA"), the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, 43 P.S. §§ 951, et seq., ("PHRA"), and the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.

         Harness alleges that Seton Hill subjected her to discrimination, harassment, and a hostile work environment based on her gender, race, and her association with a disabled son, interfered with her right to take FMLA leave to care for her son, and retaliated against her by firing her when she complained about discrimination and a hostile work environment.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Counts VII and X and Part of Count VIII of Plaintiffs First Amended Complaint, ECF No. 14. For the reasons that follow, the Motion to Dismiss is denied.[1]

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Beginning in March 2008 and until February 27, 2017, Seton Hill employed Harness, an African-American woman, as its field hockey coach.[2] During her tenure as head coach, Harness gave birth to a son who suffers from epilepsy with 20 to 30 seizures per day, and who requires . constant monitoring and medication. In November 2016, doctors recommended that he undergo brain surgery to treat his condition.

         Plaintiff alleges that Seton Hill was aware of her son's medical condition, and that Chris Snyder, Seton Hill's Athletic Director (the "Athletic Director"), indicated that his condition affected Harness's job performance. At one point, the Athletic Director questioned her professional motivation, and asked, '[i]f it weren't for [your son], would you still be coaching?" ECF No. 12 ¶ 48. Harness assured him that her dedication for her job went beyond a need for healthcare. Id. ¶ 49. Harness alleges that this conversation occurred after she had been complaining for months regarding disparate treatment she experienced as one of three female head coaches and the only female African-American coach at Seton Hill, and the hostile work environment. Id. ¶¶ 11, 34-36, 44.

         As examples of disparate treatment, Harness alleges that beginning in 2013, Seton Hill administrators interfered with coaching decisions regarding playing time, team discipline issues, and parent conduct. Id. ¶¶ 16-22. In 2013, two field hockey players sued Harness, Seton Hill and certain of its administrators, alleging that Harness's coaching style was abusive and her training methods were too hard. Seton Hill denied the allegations, and an internal investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing. Seton Hill later settled the case without admitting wrongdoing; however, after the case was resolved, Seton Hill suspended Harness for one week without pay, sent her to conflict resolution training, and placed her on a Performance Improvement Plan. Id. ¶¶ 23-27. After her suspension, Seton Hill further restricted Harness's authority over her team, and required administrative approval of team discipline decisions.. Harness alleges that she complained to the Athletic Director and Compliance Director that white and male coaches who engaged in similar coaching methods were not subjected to discipline, and that they received significantly more support from university administrators. Id. ¶¶ 34, 37.

         After the birth of her son in November 2016, administrators made comments to Harness about how his health affected her job performance. Id. ¶ 45. The Athletic Director suggested that Seton Hill might be able to find Harness a different, less stressful position, and encouraged her to apply for a position assisting the men's football team. Harness declined the opening, but expressed interest in a new position. Id. ¶¶ 50-53. In early 2017, Harness learned that her son needed surgery and discussed with the Athletic Director her need for a leave of absence of four weeks to care for her son. Id. ¶¶ 54-55. Harness opted to schedule the surgery in the summer when coaching obligations were less demanding. Id. ¶¶ 55-56. The Athletic Director told her he would pass on the information to Seton Hill's President, and would continue to look for a "less stressful" position for Harness. Id. ¶ 58. Despite her request for a leave of absence to care for her ailing son, Seton Hill failed to inform Harness of her right to request leave under the FMLA. Id. ¶ 59. Six weeks later, Harness was fired. Id. ¶ 60.

         Seton Hill's termination of Harness occurred after video surfaced of team players and high school recruits appearing intoxicated. Id. ¶ 61. When the incident was investigated, team players told Seton Hill officials that Harness instructed them to lie and report that the underage students were "friends, not recruits." Id. ¶ 62. Harness states she told the players to tell the truth, and that despite the availability of a witness who corroborated Harness's version of events, the Athletic Director terminated Harness's employment. Id. ¶¶ 64-67. Plaintiff was replaced by a white female. Id. ¶ 71.

         Harness claims that her termination and treatment under these circumstances constitutes, in relevant part, a violation of her rights under the ADA and PHRA based upon her association as the parent of a disabled child, and wrongful retaliation for challenging Seton Hill's treatment of her while she cared for him. Harness further claims that Seton Hill violated her rights under the FMLA, by failing to advise her of her right to FMLA leave to care for her son, and for retaliating against her by terminating her when she attempted to exercise her right to request and take leave.

         In the instant Motion to Dismiss, Seton Hill moves to dismiss Harness's claims of violation of the ADA - Retaliation (Count VII) and violation of the PHRA - Retaliation (part of Count VIII). Seton Hill also moves to dismiss Harness's claim of violation of the FMLA (Count X). Seton Hill argues that the factual allegations set forth in the First Amended Complaint fail to establish or infer a prima facie claim of disability retaliation under the ADA or the PHRA, and further fail to support her claims for FMLA interference or retaliation. ECF No. 15 at 5. The parties have submitted briefs in support and in opposition to the Motion to Dismiss, ECF Nos. 15, 19, and a reply, ECF No. 22. The Motion to Dismiss is now ripe for consideration.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A complaint must be dismissed under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), if it does not allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The plaintiff must aver "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009).

         "Though a complaint 'does not need detailed factual allegations, ... a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" DelRio-Mocci v. Connolly Prop. Inc., 672 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Twombly. 550 U.S. at 555). In other words, "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Covington v. Int'l Ass'n of Approved Basketball Officials. 710 F.3d 114, 118 (3d Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). A court "take[s] as true all the factual allegations in the Complaint and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those facts, but... disregard[s] legal conclusions and . threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ethvpharm SA. France v. Abbott Laboratories, 707 F.3d 223, 231, n.14 (3d Cir, 2013) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

Twombly and Iqbal require [a district court] to take the following three steps to determine the sufficiency of a complaint: First, the court must take note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, the court should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume ...

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