Mathews v. Johns Hopkins Health System, Corp. et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION. Signed by Judge Paula Xinis on 7/13/2017. (jf3s, Deputy Clerk)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF MARYLAND
WILLIAM E. MATHEWS, JR.,
Civil Action No. PX 16-4013
JOHNS HOPKINS HEALTH SYSTEM,
CORP. and SUBURBAN HOSPITAL, INC.,
Pending in this employment discrimination case is a partial motion to dismiss filed by
Defendants Johns Hopkins Health System, Corp. (“Johns Hopkins”) and Suburban Hospital, Inc.
(“Suburban”) (collectively, “Defendants”). ECF No. 5. The issues are fully briefed, and the
Court now rules pursuant to Local Rule 105.6 because no hearing is necessary. For the reasons
stated below, the motion is granted.
Plaintiff William E. Mathews, Jr. (“Mathews”) was employed by Suburban for over
twenty years, serving the last eleven years as a manager in the Maintenance Department. ECF
No. 1 at 2–4. In April of 2009, Johns Hopkins acquired Suburban and, according to Mathews,
“became the ultimate decision maker regarding the affairs of Suburban Hospital.” Id. at 3.
On December 21, 2015, two Maintenance Department staff members brought to
Mathews’ attention documents that had been printed by another employee in the Department. Id.
These facts are derived from Plaintiff’s Complaint and are accepted as true for purposes of assessing the
sufficiency of his claim.
at 4. The documents related to hate groups, extremist groups, and terrorism. Id. Pursuant to
Suburban’s Code of Conduct, Mathews brought this information to the attention of Suburban’s
Vice President of Operations who then met with Mathews’ supervisor. Id. at 4–5.
On December 23, 2015, Mathews’ supervisor informed him that two investigators from
Johns Hopkins had taken the employee to a conference room to discuss the matter. Id. at 5. The
supervisor also informed Matthews that Suburban would likely turn over the investigation to the
Federal Bureau of Investigations. Id. The employee was removed from the premises that day,
and then the Johns Hopkins investigators turned their attention to Mathews. Id. at 6. The
investigators, as well as Suburban’s Vice President of Human Resources, met with Mathews and
questioned his motives for reporting the employee. Id. They suspected that Mathews used the
incident as an excuse to facilitate the employee’s termination, who was no stranger to
disciplinary action. Id.
The next day, December 24, 2015, Mathews began his winter vacation. Id. at 7. Upon
returning to work on January 4, 2016, Mathews was summoned to a meeting with Wayne
Stockbridge, Suburban’s Director of Human Resources, and Jackie Schultz, then-acting CEO and
Vice President of Nursing for Suburban. Id. At this meeting, Stockbridge terminated the then 61year-old Mathews without explanation and absent any prior disciplinary action taken against
him, which ran counter to Suburban’s graduated disciplinary system. Id. at 7–8. Suburban then
filled Mathews’ position with a “younger and less costly” employee. Id. at 9–10.
Matthews alleges that “[b]ased upon [his] best information and belief, Defendants
formed an alliance and cooperated in the disparate treatment that resulted” in his termination. Id.
at 10. Mathews further alleges that his termination is one of a series of age-based terminations
that have occurred since Johns Hopkins’ acquired Suburban. Id. at 9–10. Consequently, Mathews
filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On September 19, 2016,
Matthews received his right to sue letter as to Suburban, and on October 26, 2016, he received
his right-to-sue letter as to Johns Hopkins. Id. at 3.
On December 16, 2016, Mathews filed in this Court a three-count complaint against the
Defendants. ECF No. 1. In Count I, Mathews alleges that the Defendants subjected him to
disparate treatment and terminated his employment because of his age in violation of the Age
Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq. In Count II, Mathews
alleges that Suburban and Johns Hopkins conspired to violate the ADEA. In Count III, Mathews
alleges that the Defendants violated the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”),
29 U.S.C. § 1140, by unlawfully terminating him five years prior to his retirement pension
vesting. On March 2, 2017, Defendants filed a partial motion to dismiss arguing that Count II
fails to allege a viable conspiracy claim. ECF No. 5.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the sufficiency of the
complaint. Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted). When ruling on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must
“accept the well-pled allegations of the complaint as true,” and “construe the facts and
reasonable inferences derived therefrom in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ibarra v.
United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). “The mere recital of elements of a cause of
action, supported only by conclusory statements, is not sufficient to survive a motion made
pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) (citing
Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)).
“Even though the requirements for pleading a proper complaint are substantially aimed at
assuring that the defendant be given adequate notice of the nature of a claim being made against
him, they also provide criteria for defining issues for trial and for early disposition of
inappropriate complaints.” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009). To survive
a motion to dismiss, a complaint’s factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief
above the speculative level on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true
(even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (internal
citations omitted). “To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not ‘forecast’ evidence sufficient to
prove the elements of the claim. However, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish
those elements.” Walters, 684 F.3d at 439 (citation omitted). “Thus, while a plaintiff does not
need to demonstrate in a complaint that the right to relief is ‘probable,’ the complaint must
advance the plaintiff’s claim ‘across the line from conceivable to plausible.’” Id. (quoting
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).
In Count II, Mathews alleges that Suburban and Johns Hopkins conspired to violate the
ADEA in that they “formed an alliance or understanding to speak as one regarding the discipline
of Mr. Mathews.” ECF No. 1 at 12. At the outset, it bears noting that Mathews’ claim, as
pleaded, is not actionable. Count II is titled “conspiracy to violate the ADEA.” Id. The ADEA,
however, does not include a cause of action for conspiring to discriminate against an employee
on account of age. Compare 29 U.S.C. § 623, with 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (prohibiting, inter alia,
“two or more persons . . . [from] conspir[ing] . . . for the purpose of depriving, either directly or
indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws”). See also White v.
Lincoln Plating Co., 955 F. Supp. 98, 100 (D. Colo. 1997) (“The ADEA contains no provisions
concerning conspiracies.” (citing McCann v. Texas City Ref., Inc., 984 F.2d 667, 674 n.7 (5th
Cir. 1993))). Accordingly, the only way to give effect to Mathews’ claimed cause of action is to
construe it as one brought pursuant to the general conspiracy statute, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3), to
violate the ADEA.
Defendants argue that Mathews’ conspiracy claim brought via 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) fails
as a matter of law because the ADEA is the exclusive statutory vehicle by which to bring agediscrimination claims.2 Defendants are correct. In Zombro v. Baltimore City Police Dep’t, 868
F.2d 1364 (4th Cir. 1989), the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that the
ADEA provides a singular avenue for asserting age-based discrimination claims. Id. The Fourth
Circuit explained that Congress created a comprehensive statutory scheme when it enacted the
ADEA, which is “structured to facilitate and encourage compliance through an informal process
of conciliation and mediation.” Id. at 1366. “If a violation of substantive rights under the ADEA
could be asserted by way of a § 1983 action,” the Fourth Circuit opined, the aggrieved party
could bypass this comprehensive remedial scheme, thereby thwarting the ADEA’s purpose. Id. at
This Court has interpreted Zombro’s holding to apply with equal force to ADEA claims
brought pursuant to §1985(3) and for good reason. Section 1985(3) is closely analogous to §
1983 in that both provide a cause of action against state actors for violations of federal statutes or
constitutional rights. Causey v. Balog, 929 F. Supp. 900, 912 n.8 (D. Md. 1996); Taylor v.
Brown, 928 F. Supp. 568, 573 n.1 (D. Md. 1995) (“The breadth of the Zombro analysis,
Defendants also argue that Mathews’ conspiracy claim should be dismissed based on the intra-corporate
conspiracy doctrine first recognized in Copperweld Corp. v. Indep. Tube Corp., 467 U.S. 752 (1984). Simply put,
the doctrine stands for the proposition that a corporation cannot conspire with itself. However, whether two entities
are functionally the same to satisfy the intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine is a fact-intensive inquiry, making it
particularly inappropriate for resolution at the motion to dismiss stage. See, e.g., Ins. Co. of N. Am. v. Sec. Mgmt.
Corp., 72 F.3d 127 (4th Cir. 1995) (“[T]he critical inquiry in determining whether one corporation is a subsidiary of
another under Maryland law—absent any particular definition set by the parties or the General Assembly—turns on
the ownership of a majority of the putative subsidiary’s shares.”).
moreover, clearly indicates that a plaintiff is just as unable to circumvent the ADEA by using §
1985(3) as he is unable to do so using § 1983.”). Accordingly, applying Zombro to the instant
case compels dismissal of Count II.
Mathews counters that he is bringing a “civil conspiracy” claim, which suggests that he is
attempting to rely on Maryland common law and not 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3). See ECF No. 6 at 2.
Even if Count II is read as Matthews now urges, the claim fails for the same reason. Although
the Fourth Circuit has yet to address this issue directly, other courts have dismissed state-law
civil conspiracy claims, applying the rationale of Zombro. To hold otherwise would “permit
plaintiffs to make an ‘end run’ around” the ADEA, which provides a comprehensive “statutory
structure for age discrimination suits.” Nance v. Maxwell Fed. Credit Union (MAX), 186 F.3d
1338, 1342–43 (11th Cir. 1999) (holding that the “enforcement of rights secured through the
ADEA must be pursued in the manner specified in the ADEA, not through alternative state-law
mechanisms”); see also Fairfax v. Sch. Dist. of Philadelphia, No. 03-4777, 2004 WL 887416, at
*5 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 26, 2004) (dismissing plaintiff’s claims of state civil conspiracy founded upon
an ADEA violation); Bennett v. Indep. Blue Cross, No. 92-4249, 1993 WL 65812, at *2 (E.D.
Pa. Mar. 12, 1993) (granting summary judgment against plaintiff’s civil conspiracy claim based
on ADEA violation). Accordingly, Count II must be dismissed.
For the reasons stated above, Defendant’s partial motion to dismiss Count II is granted. A
separate Order follows.
United States District Judge
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