Richie v. Mitchell et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION and ORDER that defendants' motion to dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part; All of plaintiff's claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 are DISMISSED; All claims against defendants Gene Mitchell and Mike Agee in their individual capacities also are DISMISSED; The parties are ORDERED to proceed to discovery on all remaining claims pursuant to the Uniform Initial Order as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 6/9/2015. (AHI)
2015 Jun-09 PM 02:18
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
GENE MITCHELL, et al.,
Civil Action No. 5:14-CV-2329-CLS
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Plaintiff, Shannon Richie, filed this case on December 3, 2014, asserting claims
for a gender-based hostile work environment and retaliation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §
1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended,
42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., against her former employer, Gene Mitchell, the Sheriff of
Lawrence County, Alabama, and Mike Agee, a Lieutenant in the Sheriff’s office and
plaintiff’s former supervisor.1 The case currently is before the court on defendants’
motion, filed May 5, 2015, to dismiss the complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil
Plaintiff originally was ordered to respond to defendants’ motion by May 19,
See doc. no. 1 (Complaint). Plaintiff sued Sheriff Mitchell in both his official and
individual capacities. She appears to assert claims against Agee only in his individual capacity.
Doc. no. 8.
2015.3 Plaintiff’s attorney subsequently filed two motions to extend that response
deadline, citing his heavy case load and recent transition in administrative staff.4
Both motions were granted, extending the deadline first to May 26, 2015,5 and then
to May 29, 2015.6 As of this date, plaintiff still has not filed a response to
defendants’ motion to dismiss, nor has she filed any other motions to extend the
I. STANDARD OF REVIEW
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b) permits a party to move to dismiss a
complaint for, among other reasons, “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be
granted.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). This rule must be read together with Rule 8(a),
which requires that a pleading contain only a “short and plain statement of the claim
showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). While that
pleading standard does not require “detailed factual allegations,” Bell Atlantic Corp.
v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 550 (2007), it does demand “more than an unadorned,
the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662,
678 (2009) (citations omitted). As the Supreme Court stated in Iqbal:
See doc. no. 9.
Doc. no. 10 & doc. no. 14.
Doc. no. 11.
Doc. no. 15.
A pleading that offers “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” [Twombly,
550 U.S., at 555]. Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders “naked
assertion[s]” devoid of “further factual enhancement.” Id., at 557.
To survive a motion to dismiss founded upon Federal Rule of
Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), [for failure to state a claim upon which relief
can be granted], a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter,
accepted as true, to “state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.”
Id., at 570. A claim has facial plausibility 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., at 556. The
plausibility standard is not akin to a “probability requirement,” but it
asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted
unlawfully. Ibid. Where a complaint pleads facts that are “merely
consistent with” a defendant’s liability, it “stops short of the line
between possibility and plausibility of ‘entitlement to relief.’” Id., at
557 (brackets omitted).
Two working principles underlie our decision in Twombly. First,
the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained
in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals
of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory
statements, do not suffice. Id., at 555 (Although for the purposes of a
motion to dismiss we must take all of the factual allegations in the
complaint as true, we “are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion
couched as a factual allegation” (internal quotation marks omitted)).
Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical,
code-pleading regime of a prior era, but it does not unlock the doors of
discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions.
Second, only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives
a motion to dismiss. Id., at 556. Determining whether a complaint
states a plausible claim for relief will, as the Court of Appeals observed,
be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on
its judicial experience and common sense. 490 F.3d, at 157-158. But
where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than
the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged — but it
has not “show[n]” — “that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. Rule
Civ. Proc. 8(a)(2).
In keeping with these principles a court considering a motion to
dismiss can choose to begin by identifying pleadings that, because they
are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth.
While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they
must be supported by factual allegations. When there are well-pleaded
factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then
determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (emphasis added).
II. RELEVANT ALLEGATIONS OF PLAINTIFF’S COMPLAINT
Plaintiff, Shannon Ritchie, was employed as a Correctional Officer at the
Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office from July 3, 2012, until her employment was
terminated on February 21, 2013.7 She asserts that:
There exists a sexually hostile work environment at the Lawrence
County Sheriff’s Office which affected Plaintiff Richie and other
females. Evidence of this hostile environment includes, but is not
limited to, the failure to promote qualified female Correctional Officers;
a workplace filled with sexually insensitive and derogatory remarks
made by the supervisors and other employees; disparate treatment with
respect to discipline for female employees or employees who engage in
protected activities; the steering of female applicants to corrections
positions; the sheriff’s office’s refusal to investigate or to appropriately
take corrective action when complaints are made concerning gender
discrimination; retaliation against females who opposed and or
participated in protected activities with respect to 42 U.S.C. § 1981and
Title VII. Systematic discrimination exists at the Lawrence County
Sheriff’s Office with respect to females as a result of the policies,
customs and procedures implemented by Defendant Sheriff Mitchell
Doc. no. 1 (Complaint) ¶ 9.
during his employment with the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Office.8
More specifically, plaintiff alleges that two male co-workers made sexually
explicit comments like “look at that ass” while she was trying on her uniform during
July of 2012. Plaintiff complained to her then-supervisor “Colonel Mitchell”9 and
defendant Sheriff Gene Mitchell. “The only remedial measure taken was that the two
co-workers were re-assigned to another shift, but they were neither suspended nor
terminated.”10 Despite that action, plaintiff was reassigned back to a shift with one
of the offending co-workers after defendant Lieutenant Mike Agee became plaintiff’s
immediate supervisor in October of 2012.11
Plaintiff’s employment was terminated on February 21, 2013, under the
On February 4, 2013, Defendant Lt. Agee again changed Plaintiff
Richie’s shift and assigned her to work with an inexperienced
correctional officer. On that same night, inmate Stacy Curtis hugged the
Plaintiff, an act which was not at the Plaintiff’s request. Plaintiff Richie
was accused by Defendant Lt. Agee of “fraternization.” The Plaintiff
did not engage in any misconduct. Plaintiff Richie simply did not
discipline the inmate who hugged her. Plaintiff Richie was notified on
February 21st, 2014, that she was terminated, and she was told it was for
fraternization which was a pretext.12
Id. ¶ 7.
Plaintiff does not state “Colonel Mitchell’s” first name.
Doc. no. 1 (Complaint) ¶ 10.
Id. ¶ 11.
Id. ¶ 13.
Plaintiff asserts that unidentified male correctional officers had engaged in
misconduct that was more serious than that in which she allegedly engaged, but were
not terminated or otherwise disciplined as a result.13
She contends that the
termination was in retaliation for her complaints of gender-based harassment.14
Defendants assert several grounds for the dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint.
Failure To Serve
This court entered an order on April 10, 2015, requiring plaintiff to show cause
why her claims should not be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
4(m) for failure to effect service of process on defendants.15 Plaintiff’s attorney
responded to the show cause order, blaming the delay in service on his case load and
his poor financial situation.16 Plaintiff accomplished service on both defendants on
April 16, 2015.17 The court concludes that the delay in service — which did extend
far beyond the initial 120-day period — is excusable, has been cured, and does not
constitute grounds for dismissal.
Id. ¶ 15.
Id. ¶ 15(2). Plaintiff’s complaint contains two paragraphs numbered “15.” This citation
refers to the second of those paragraphs.
Doc. no. 4.
Doc. no. 7.
See doc. no. 6 (Return of Service).
Dismissal of Claims Under 42 U.S.C. § 1981
Defendants next contend that plaintiff’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 should
be dismissed because that statute only covers claims for race discrimination, and all
of plaintiff’s claims are based on gender. Defendants are correct. See Little v. United
Technologies, Carrier Transicold Div., 103 F.3d 956, 961 (11th Cir. 1997) (“It is
well-established that § 1981 is concerned with racial discrimination in the making
and enforcement of contracts.”) (emphasis in original) (citing Johnson v. Railway
Express Agency, Inc., 421 U.S. 454, 459 (1975); Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., 392
U.S. 409, 436 (1968)). Accordingly, all of plaintiff’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981
will be dismissed.
Timeliness of Hostile Work Environment Claim
Defendants also assert that plaintiff’s hostile work environment claims were
not timely filed.
The statute of limitations on any claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 filed in an
Alabama federal court is two years. Baker v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ., 531 F.3d
1336, 1337 (11th Cir. 2008). Plaintiff’s complaint was filed on December 3, 2014.
Accordingly, her § 1983 claim cannot be based upon any actions that occurred before
December 3, 2012.
With regard to plaintiff’s Title VII claim, she was required to satisfy all
administrative prerequisites before filing suit.
Foremost among these is the
requirement that a charge of discrimination be submitted to the EEOC within 180
days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e5(e)(1). Plaintiff filed her EEOC charge on February 26, 2013. Accordingly, her
Title VII claims ordinarily would have to be based entirely on events occurring within
180 days of that date, or after August 30, 2012.
In hostile work environment cases, however, the claim can be timely even if
the first instance of harassment “occurred” more than 180 days before the charge was
filed. The Supreme Court has recognized that a hostile work environment claim
based upon racial or sexual harassment “is composed of a series of separate acts that
collectively constitute one ‘unlawful employment practice.’” National Railroad
Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 117 (2002) (quoting 42 U.S.C. § 2000e5(e)(1)). For that reason, “[a] charge alleging a hostile work environment claim . . .
will not be time barred so long as all acts which constitute the claim are part of the
same unlawful employment practice and at least one act falls within the [180 day]
time period.” Id. at 122 (alterations supplied).
Hostile environment claims are different in kind from discrete
acts. Their very nature involves repeated conduct. See 1 B. Lindemann
& P. Grossman, Employment Discrimination Law 348-349 (3d ed.1996)
(hereinafter Lindemann) (“The repeated nature of the harassment or its
intensity constitutes evidence that management knew or should have
known of its existence”). The “unlawful employment practice”
therefore cannot be said to occur on any particular day. It occurs over
a series of days or perhaps years and, in direct contrast to discrete acts,
a single act of harassment may not be actionable on its own. See Harris
v. Forklift Systems, Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (“As we pointed out in
Meritor [Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67 (1986),] ‘mere
utterance of an . . . epithet which engenders offensive feelings in a[n]
employee,’ ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted), does not sufficiently
affect the conditions of employment to implicate Title VII”). Such
claims are based on the cumulative effect of individual acts.
In determining whether an actionable hostile work environment
claim exists, we look to “all the circumstances,” including “the
frequency of the discriminatory conduct; its severity; whether it is
physically threatening or humiliating, or a mere offensive utterance; and
whether it unreasonably interferes with an employee’s work
performance.” [Harris, 510 U.S.] at 23, 114 S. Ct. 367. To assess
whether a court may, for the purposes of determining liability, review all
such conduct, including those acts that occur outside the filing period,
we again look to the statute. It provides that a charge must be filed
within 180 or 300 days “after the alleged unlawful employment practice
occurred.” A hostile work environment claim is composed of a series
of separate acts that collectively constitute one “unlawful employment
practice.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1). The timely filing provision only
requires that a Title VII plaintiff file a charge within a certain number
of days after the unlawful practice happened. It does not matter, for
purposes of the statute, that some of the component acts of the hostile
work environment fall outside the statutory time period. Provided that
an act contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, the entire
time period of the hostile environment may be considered by a court for
the purposes of determining liability.
It is precisely because the entire hostile work environment
encompasses a single unlawful employment practice that we do not hold
. . . that the plaintiff may not base a suit on individual acts that occurred
outside the statute of limitations unless it would have been unreasonable
to expect the plaintiff to sue before the statute ran on such conduct. The
statute does not separate individual acts that are part of the hostile
environment claim from the whole for the purposes of timely filing and
liability. And the statute does not contain a requirement that the
employee file a charge prior to 180 or 300 days “after” the single
unlawful practice “occurred.” Given, therefore, that the incidents
constituting a hostile work environment are part of one unlawful
employment practice, the employer may be liable for all acts that are part
of this single claim. In order for the charge to be timely, the employee
need only file a charge within 180 or 300 days of any act that is part of
the hostile work environment.
Morgan, 536 U.S. at 115-18 (footnotes omitted) (all alterations in first paragraph in
original, other alterations and ellipses supplied). See also Watson v. Blue Circle, Inc.,
324 F.3d 1252, 1258 (11th Cir. 2003) (recognizing that, in Morgan, “the Supreme
Court simplified the limitations inquiry in hostile work environment cases. The Court
instructed that a hostile work environment, although comprised of a series of separate
acts, constitutes one ‘unlawful employment practice,’ and so long as one act
contributing to the claim occurs within the filing period, ‘the entire time period of the
hostile environment may be considered by a court for the purposes of determining
liability.’”) (quoting Morgan, 536 U.S. at 117).
The determinative question for the statute of limitations inquiry under both
Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the last date on which the events supporting
plaintiff’s claim occurred. The only sexually offensive comment to which plaintiff
claims she was subjected was uttered sometime during July of 2012. If that were the
only fact relevant to the statute of limitations inquiry, plaintiff would have been
required to file her § 1983 claim by July of 2014 (or, within two years), and she
would have been required to file an EEOC charge by the end of January 2013 (or,
within 180 days), at the latest. She did neither thing. Even so, a liberal reading of
plaintiff’s complaint reveals other facts upon which she relies to support her hostile
work environment claim, including being forced, in November of 2012, to work with
one of the men who had previously uttered the offensive comments, and being
wrongfully accused of fraternizing with an inmate on February 4, 2013. Plaintiff filed
her EEOC charge within 180 days of both of those events, and she filed her § 1983
complaint within two years of the final event. Thus, if all of the events are considered
as a whole to form the basis of plaintiff’s hostile work environment claim, then the
claim is timely.
Failure to State a Claim for Hostile Work Environment
A hostile work environment claim requires proof that: (1) she belongs to a
group protected by Title VII; (2) she was subjected to unwelcome harassment; (3) the
harassment was based upon her sex; (4) the harassment was sufficiently severe or
pervasive as to alter the terms and conditions of her employment; and (5) there is a
basis for holding defendants responsible under a theory of either vicarious or direct
liability. See, e.g., Faragher v. City of Boca Raton, 524 U.S. 775, 786 (1998);
Ellerth, 524 U.S. at 751; Johnson v. Booker T. Washington Broadcasting Service,
Inc., 234 F.3d 501, 508 (11th Cir. 2000).
Defendants assert that plaintiff has not made any allegations in her complaint
to support the fourth and fifth elements. The court agrees that the “look at that ass”
comment would not be sufficient, standing alone, to demonstrate a severe and
pervasive sexually hostile work environment. Even so, as discussed in the previous
section, that comment is not the only basis for plaintiff’s hostile work environment
claim. Moreover, the court concludes that plaintiff has stated sufficient facts, at the
pleading stage, to provide a basis for holding defendants liable. Accordingly, her
hostile work environment claim will not be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon
which relief can be granted.
Failure to State a Claim for Retaliation
A plaintiff generally must prove three elements to establish a prima facie case
of retaliation: (1) she engaged in statutorily protected expression; (2) she suffered an
adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal linkage between the protected
conduct and the adverse employment action. See, e.g., Shannon v. BellSouth
Telecommunications, Inc., 292 F.3d 712, 715 (11th Cir. 2002). Defendants assert that
plaintiff’s retaliation claim in this case should be dismissed because she has not stated
sufficient facts to support a causal linkage between her protected activity and the
termination of her employment. Plaintiff complained about her co-workers’ sexually
offensive comments during July of 2012, but her employment was not terminated
until February 21, 2013, approximately six months later.
It is true that, when a plaintiff attempts to satisfy the causal connection element
through the use of temporal proximity evidence alone, the temporal gap between the
protected activity and the adverse action must be very close. Thomas v. Cooper
Lighting, Inc., 506 F.3d 1361, 1364 (11th Cir. 2007) (“But mere temporal proximity,
without more, must be ‘very close.’”) (quoting Clark County School District v.
Breeden, 532 U.S. 268, 273 (2001)). “A three to four month disparity between the
statutorily protected expression and the adverse employment action is not [close]
enough.” Id. (citing Breeden, 532 U.S. at 273) (alteration supplied). Here, if plaintiff
were relying solely upon the temporal proximity between her complaint and her
subsequent termination, the connection would be too tenuous to satisfy her prima
facie case. However, some of the other facts alleged by plaintiff — like her
reassignment to the same shift as one of her alleged harassers and the alleged
fabrication of fraternization charges against her — could also be considered as other
evidence of retaliation. The court concludes that the retaliation claim should not be
dismissed at the pleading state, and that plaintiff should be provided the opportunity
to pursue discovery on the claim.
Individual Capacity Claims Under Title VII
Finally, defendants assert that any Title VII claims against them in their
individual capacities must be dismissed. The court agrees. As the Eleventh Circuit
has held, “‘The relief granted under Title VII is against the employer, not individual
employees whose actions would constitute a violation of the Act.’” Hinson v. Clinch
County, Georgia Bd. of Educ., 231 F.3d 821, 82 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting Busby v.
City of Orlando, 931 F.2d 764, 772 (11th Cir. 1991)).
IV. CONCLUSION AND ORDERS
In accordance with the foregoing, defendants’ motion to dismiss is GRANTED
in part and DENIED in part. All of plaintiff’s claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1981 are
DISMISSED. All claims against defendants Gene Mitchell and Mike Agee in their
individual capacities also are DISMISSED. The parties are ORDERED to proceed
to discovery on all remaining claims pursuant to the Uniform Initial Order.
DONE this 9th day of June, 2015.
United States District Judge
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