Johnson v. Rapid Sheet Metal, LLC
///ORDER granting in part and denying in part 11 Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings. The motion is denied as to punitive damages and injunctive relief, but is granted, in part, as to plaintiff's retaliation claim. The retaliation claim is dismissed without prejudice, and plaintiff may file an amended complaint on or before November 19, 2020. So Ordered by Chief Judge Landya B. McCafferty. (gla)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE
John L. Johnson, Jr.
Civil No. 20-cv-160-LM
Opinion No. 2020 DNH 181 P
Rapid Sheet Metal, LLC
In this employment discrimination action, John L. Johnson, Jr. (“plaintiff”),
claims that his former employer, Rapid Sheet Metal, LLC (“defendant”) failed to
reasonably accommodate his disability and retaliated against him in violation of the
Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. Defendant moves
for judgment on the pleadings (doc. no. 11) as to: (1) plaintiff’s right to recover
punitive damages and certain forms of injunctive relief; and (2) plaintiff’s
retaliation claim. For the reasons below, the court denies defendant’s motion as to
punitive damages and injunctive relief and partially grants defendant’s motion as to
the retaliation claim. The retaliation claim is dismissed without prejudice, and
plaintiff may file an amended complaint on or before November 19, 2020, to correct
deficiencies in his allegations of retaliation.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
“Judgment on the pleadings is proper ‘only if the uncontested and properly
considered facts conclusively establish the movant’s entitlement to a favorable
judgment.’” Zipperer v. Raytheon Co., Inc., 493 F.3d 50, 53 (1st Cir. 2007) (quoting
Aponte-Torres v. Univ. of P.R., 445 F.3d 50, 54 (1st Cir. 2006)). “The standard of
review of a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil
Procedure 12(c) is the same as that for a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).”
Frappier v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 750 F.3d 91, 96 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting
Marrero-Gutierrez v. Molina, 491 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2007)); accord Petrello v. City of
Manchester, Civ. No. 16-cv-008-LM, 2017 WL 1080932, at *1 (D.N.H. Mar. 21,
Under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must accept the factual allegations in the
complaint as true, construe reasonable inferences in the plaintiff’s favor, and
“determine whether the factual allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint set forth a
plausible claim upon which relief may be granted.” Foley v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.,
772 F.3d 63, 71, 75 (1st Cir. 2014) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
A claim is facially 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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Where, as here, a
plaintiff proceeds pro se, “this standard of review must be applied with due regard
for plaintiff’s pro se status,” in recognition of the fact that pro se complaints are
liberally construed “to avoid inappropriately stringent rules and unnecessary
dismissals.” Bourne v. Arruda, Civ. No. 10-cv-393-LM, 2011 WL 2357504, at *3
(D.N.H. June 10, 2011).
In conducting a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis, “a court should employ a two-pronged
approach.” Id. at *2 (quoting Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12
(1st Cir. 2011)). First, the court must “isolate and ignore statements in the
complaint that simply offer legal labels and conclusions or merely rehash cause-ofaction elements.” Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm., 669 F.3d 50, 55
(1st Cir. 2012). Statements constituting “legal conclusions, labels, or naked
assertions, ‘devoid of . . . factual enhancement’” must not be credited. Bourne, 2011
WL 2357504, at *2 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). And “even a pro se plaintiff is
required to ‘set forth factual allegations’” in support of his claims. Tierney v. Town
of Framingham, 292 F. Supp. 3d 534, 541 (D. Mass. 2018) (italics omitted) (quoting
Wright v. Town of Southbridge, Civ. No. 07-40305-FDS, 2009 WL 415506, at *2 (D.
Mass. Jan. 15, 2009)).
Second, the court must “take the facts of the complaint as true, ‘drawing all
reasonable inferences in [plaintiff’s] favor, and see if they plausibly narrate a claim
for relief.’” Carrero-Ojeda v. Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, 755 F.3d 711, 718 (1st
Cir. 2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Schatz, 669 F.3d at 55). If the complaint’s
factual allegations, taken as true, allow the court “‘to draw the inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged,’ the claim has facial plausibility.”
Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). The First Circuit
has stated that “plausible,” in the Rule 12(b)(6) context, “means something more
than merely possible,” Schatz, 669 F.3d at 55, and a complaint that “pleads facts
that are ‘merely consistent with’ a defendant’s liability . . . ‘stops short of the line
between possibility and plausibility.” Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12 (quoting
Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678).
Where, as here, succeeding on a claim involves proving a prima facie case, the
elements of the prima facie case inform the court’s plausibility assessment. See
Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 718; Arroyo-Ruiz v. Triple-S Mgmt. Grp., 206 F. Supp.
3d 701, 710-11 (D.P.R. 2016). While the prima facie standard is an evidentiary
rather than a pleading standard, and the complaint need not set forth sufficient
facts to establish a prima facie case, “reference to the prima facie elements can help
a court determine whether the ‘cumulative effect of the complaint’s factual
allegations’ is a plausible claim for relief.” Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 718 (italics
omitted) (quoting Rodríguez-Reyes v. Molina-Rodríguez, 711 F.3d 49, 55 (1st Cir.
The following facts are drawn from plaintiff’s complaint. Plaintiff worked for
defendant from 2006 until 2015. During his time at the company, he repeatedly
requested that defendant provide him with an American Sign Language (“ASL”)
interpreter so that he could better understand and communicate with other
employees. The company ignored his requests. Without an interpreter, plaintiff had
difficulty understanding what was happening at company meetings and within the
company. This hindered plaintiff from advancing in his career.
Defendant terminated plaintiff’s employment in 2015. The complaint asserts
that plaintiff’s termination was in retaliation for his numerous requests for an ASL
interpreter. However, the complaint also alleges that plaintiff’s termination was the
result of a coworker’s false report. The complaint provides no details about this
On or about April 1, 2016, plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the
New Hampshire Commission for Human Rights (“the Commission”), alleging claims
of disability discrimination and retaliation under the ADA and New Hampshire’s
Law Against Discrimination. See RSA ch. 354-A. In 2019, after concluding its
investigation of the charge, the Commission found probable cause on claims of
failure to accommodate and retaliation.
Defendant thereafter requested that the Commission transfer plaintiff’s case
to New Hampshire Superior Court. See RSA 354-A:21-a, I (“Any party alleged to
have committed any practice made unlawful under this chapter may, in any case in
which a determination of probable cause has been made by the investigating
commissioner, remove said complaint to superior court for trial.”). Soon after the
case was transferred to Superior Court, defendant filed a notice of removal in this
court, premising jurisdiction on plaintiff’s ADA claims. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 12117(a),
Plaintiff thereafter filed a complaint,1 alleging that defendant violated ADA2
by failing to reasonably accommodate him with an ASL interpreter and by
terminating his employment in retaliation for his numerous requests. The
complaint seeks multiple forms of monetary and injunctive relief, including, as
relevant to defendant’s motion, an order directing defendant to fire the persons
responsible for plaintiff’s termination. Finally, while the complaint does not
specifically request punitive damages, it does state that it “is up to the court on
punishment [for] disrespecting the ADA.” Doc. no. 7-1 pg. 4.
Defendant moves for judgment on the pleadings as to: (1) plaintiff’s
entitlement to punitive damages; (2) the complaint’s request that the court order
defendant to terminate the employees responsible for plaintiff’s termination; and (3)
plaintiff’s retaliatory discharge claim. Because the first two arguments ultimately
turn on the same issue, the court addresses them together before analyzing whether
plaintiff has plausibly alleged a claim of retaliation.
Because of the unique procedural posture of this case, plaintiff had not filed
a complaint prior to removal.
The complaint does not allege that defendant’s actions violated New
Hampshire’s Law Against Discrimination. It is not clear that plaintiff intended to
abandon his state law claims, however. This court has the power to rule on a
plaintiff’s state law claims that involve the same case or controversy as his federal
claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a). In the event plaintiff files an amended complaint in
response to this order, he may address the state law claims at that time.
The Rule 12(b)(6) Standard is an Inappropriate Mechanism for Determining
the Relief to Which Plaintiff is Entitled
Defendant argues that plaintiff has failed to allege sufficient facts to recover
punitive damages. Under the ADA, a plaintiff may recover punitive damages if he
or she demonstrates that the defendant “engaged in a discriminatory practice . . .
with malice or reckless indifference to the [plaintiff’s] federally protected rights.” 42
U.S.C. § 1981a(a)(2), (b)(1). Defendant contends that, because plaintiff’s complaint
does not allege that defendant acted with malice or reckless indifference, defendant
is entitled to judgment on the pleadings as to any claim for punitive damages.
The court notes that plaintiff’s complaint does not specifically request
punitive damages. Plaintiff seeks multiple types of damages as well as several
forms of injunctive relief, but he does not request an award of punitive damages.
This raises a threshold question of whether defendant can seek judgment on the
pleadings as to a type of relief that has not been pled.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 54(c) provides that final judgments, except
for default judgments, “should grant the relief to which each party is entitled, even
if the party has not demanded that relief in its pleadings.” Thus, as a general
matter, “the court can award any relief to which the [plaintiff] is entitled,”
regardless of whether it is sought in the complaint. House of Flavors, Inc. v. TFG
Michigan, L.P., 643 F.3d 35, 39 (1st Cir. 2011). However, Rule 9(g) requires any
“item of special damage” to be specifically pled in the complaint. Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(g).
While it does not appear that the First Circuit has addressed whether punitive
damages constitute special damages under Rule 9(g), the Courts of Appeals that
have taken up the issue have held they do not. See Bowles v. Osmose Utils. Servs.,
Inc., 443 F.3d 671, 675 (8th Cir. 2006); Scutieri v. Paige, 808 F.2d 785, 792 (11th
Cir. 1987); Guillen v. Kuykendall, 470 F.2d 745, 748 (5th Cir. 1972); see also 5A
Arthur R. Miller et al., Federal Practice and Procedure § 1310 (4th ed.) (“Most
courts do not treat punitive damages as special damages under Rule 9(g) . . . .”); cf.
Soltys v. Costello, 520 F.3d 737, 742-43 (7th Cir. 2008) (suggesting that the Seventh
Circuit would conclude that punitive damages are not special damages). A small
minority of district courts, however, have applied Rule 9(g) to punitive damages.
See, e.g., Seirus Innovative Accessories, Inc. v. Cabela’s, Inc., No. 09-CV-102
H(WMC), 2011 WL 10968420, at *5-*6 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 5, 2011).
Courts that do not apply Rule 9(g) to punitive damages recognize that
punitive damages are based upon “entirely different public policy considerations”
than special damages. Dowdy v. Coleman Co., Inc., No. 1:11CV45DAK, 2011 WL
6151432, at *5 (N.D. Utah Dec. 12, 2011). Special damages aim to compensate the
plaintiff for the “natural, but not the necessary or usual, consequence of the
defendant’s conduct,” Miller et al., supra p.8, whereas punitive damages operate “to
punish [a wrongdoer] for his outrageous conduct and to deter him and others like
him from similar conduct in the future,” Pan Am Rys., Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t of Lab., 855
F.3d 29, 38 (1st Cir. 2017) (alteration in original) (quoting Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S.
30, 54 (1983)). Accord St. Pierre v. Maingot, No. Civ. A. 01-2281, 2002 WL
31655355, at *2 (E.D. La. Nov. 21, 2002).
Given the relative uniformity of the national case law on this issue, as well as
the persuasive reasoning supporting the majority rule, it is likely that the First
Circuit would join its sister circuits in holding that punitive damages need not be
specifically pled as special damages under Rule 9(g). Accordingly, the court proceeds
to analyze whether defendant is entitled to judgment on the pleadings as to
As noted, defendant argues that the complaint’s failure to allege that
defendant acted with malice or reckless indifference compels dismissal of any
“claim” for punitive damages. Doc. no. 11 ¶ 13. Defendant’s argument must fail.
“Typically, a Rule 12(b) motion tests the sufficiency of a claim and not a
prayer for relief.” Reininger v. Oklahoma, 292 F. Supp. 3d 1254, 1266 (W.D. Okla.
2017); see also Daniels v. Thomas, 225 F.2d 795, 797 (10th Cir. 1955) (“It is well
settled that the prayer for relief is [not] part of the cause of action . . . .”). “[T]he only
issue on a motion to dismiss is ‘whether the claim as stated would give the plaintiff
a right to any relief, rather than to the particular relief demanded.’” Douglas v.
Miller, 864 F. Supp. 2d 1205, 1220 (W.D. Okla. 2012) (quoting Cassidy v. Miller
Cas. Ins. Co. of Tex., 1 F. Supp. 2d 1200, 1214 (D. Colo. 1998)). In other words, so
long as the complaint “sets out facts sufficient to support a reasonable inference
that the plaintiff is entitled to any relief the court can grant,” that the complaint
does not demonstrate that plaintiff is entitled to a specific form of relief is not
grounds for dismissal. Charles v. Front Royal Vol. Fire and Rescue Dep’t, Inc., 21 F.
Supp. 3d 620, 629 (W.D. Va. 2014) (emphasis in original) (quoting 5 Miller et al.,
supra p.8, § 1255); accord Falk v. Levine, 60 F. Supp. 660, 663 (D. Mass. 1945); see
Dingxi Longhai Dairy, Ltd. v. Becwood Tech. Grp. L.L.C., 635 F.3d 1106, 1108-09
(8th Cir. 2011).
“[P]unitive damages are a form of relief and not a ‘claim’ that is subject to a
Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss.” Benedetto v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 917 F. Supp. 2d
976, 984 (D.S.D. 2013); accord, e.g., Douglas, 864 F. Supp. 2d at 1220; see also
Bontkowski v. Smith, 305 F.3d 757, 762 (7th Cir. 2002); Koufos v. U.S. Bank, N.A.,
939 F. Supp. 2d 40, 46 (D. Mass. 2013) (dismissing count in complaint captioned
“Injunctive Relief” because “[a]n injunction is not a cause of action, but a remedy”;
noting, however, that “injunctive relief may be available if [plaintiff] succeeds on
the merits of his remaining claims”). Indeed, a number of recent decisions have so
held. See Elias v. Navasartian, No. 1:15-cv-01567-LJO-GSA-PC, 2017 WL 1013122,
at *4 (E.D. Cal. Feb. 17, 2017) (collecting cases), report and recommendation
adopted by 2017 WL 977793, at *1 (E.D. Cal. Mar. 13, 2017). The court is persuaded
by the rationale behind these holdings. A Rule 12(b)6) analysis tests the plausibility
of claims, and remedies are not claims. See, e.g., Charles, 21 F. Supp. 3d at 1220.
Furthermore, as a practical matter, “[i]f a plaintiff need not even include a prayer
for punitive damages in his complaint to receive an award of punitive damages, . . .
it ‘makes little sense’ to require detailed factual allegations to support a demand for
punitive damages.” Jorgenson v. United States, No. 1:17-cv-00817-LJO-EPG (PC),
2019 WL 4318493, at *5 (E.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2019) (quoting Elias, 2017 WL
1013122, at *5), report and recommendation adopted by 2019 WL 4857576, at *1-*2
(E.D. Cal. Oct. 1, 2019).
Finally, it bears mention that an award of punitive damages is always at the
discretion of the factfinder, even where the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted
with malice or reckless indifference. See McKinnon v. Kwong Wah Rest., 83 F.3d
498, 507-08 (1st Cir. 1996). Punitive damages are never awarded as of right; rather,
they are awarded as a matter of public policy to deter and punish wrongdoing. See
id. at 508. The discretionary nature of punitive damages awards—and the fact that
they are awarded to benefit the public, not the plaintiff—supports the conclusion
that the availability of such awards should not depend upon how a plaintiff
structures his complaint.
Thus, because a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis cannot be used to determine a
plaintiff’s entitlement to a specific form of relief, defendant’s motion is denied as to
punitive damages. For that same reason, defendant’s motion is also denied as to
plaintiff’s request for an injunction ordering defendant to terminate certain
employees. Although plaintiff very well may not be entitled to such injunctive relief
under the ADA, that is not an issue to be resolved in a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis. See,
e.g., Charles, 21 F. Supp. 3d at 1220.
Plaintiff’s Complaint Fails to Plausibly Allege a Retaliation Claim
Defendant argues that plaintiff has inadequately alleged a claim of
retaliation under ADA. To make out a prima facie case of retaliation under the
ADA, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he or she engaged in conduct protected by the
ADA; (2) he or she was subject to an adverse employment action; and (3) there was
a causal connection between the protected conduct and the adverse employment
action. See D.B. ex rel. Elizabeth B. v. Esposito, 675 F.3d 26, 41 (1st Cir. 2012).
Defendant argues that plaintiff has not adequately pled a claim of retaliation
because he does not plausibly allege that there was a causal connection between
plaintiff’s requests for an interpreter and his subsequent termination.3 The court
Although, as discussed above, the plaintiff need not plead facts in the
complaint sufficient to make out a prima facie case, “the elements of a prima facie
case are useful ‘as a prism to shed light upon the plausibility of a plaintiff’s claim.’”
Defendant also contends that plaintiff has not plausibly alleged retaliation
because he alleges no facts which would rebut defendant’s showing that his
termination was for a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason. See Hess v. Rochester Sch.
Dist., 396 F. Supp. 2d 65, 77 (D.N.H. 2005) (if plaintiff proves prima facie case of
retaliation, burden shifts to employer to articulate a legitimate reason for the
adverse employment action). This argument is misplaced. Because proving a prima
facie case creates a presumption of retaliation, see St. Mary’s Honor Ctr. v. Hicks,
509 U.S. 502, 506 (1993) a complaint that alleges facts sufficient to make out a
prima facie case necessarily states a plausible claim for relief, see Gascard v.
Franklin Pierce Univ., No. 14-CV-220-JL, 2015 WL 1097485, at *4 (D.N.H. Mar. 11,
2015). See Corson v. Modula, Inc., Civ. No. 2:20-CV-104-DBH, 2020 WL 4194498, at
*5 (D. Me. July 21, 2020). The complaint need not rebut the reason for the
complained-of action given by the employer in order to state a plausible retaliation
claim. See id.
Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 719 (brackets and italics omitted) (quoting RodríguezReyes, 711 F.3d at 54). Thus, the inquiry is whether the plaintiff “has pleaded
enough facts . . . to make entitlement to relief plausible in light of the prima facie
standard that will pertain at trial.” Id. In conducting this inquiry, the court must
“isolate and ignore statements in the complaint that simply offer legal labels and
conclusions.” Schatz, 669 F.3d at 55.
The complaint alleges that defendant ignored plaintiff’s insistence that he
had a right to an interpreter, and that defendant “retaliated against [him],
terminating [him] after 9 years of service.” Doc. no. 7-1 pg. 5. However, the
assertion that plaintiff’s termination was retaliatory constitutes a legal conclusion
that the court must “isolate and ignore” in a Rule 12(b)(6) analysis. Id.; see also
Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 720 (“Calling [his] discharge [ADA] retaliation does not
make it so.”).
Once the complaint is shorn of legal conclusions, few factual allegations
remain. The complaint alleges that a coworker “falsely reported on plaintiff
resulting [in] loss of job.” Doc. no. 7-1 pg. 9. However, that plaintiff alleges a causal
connection between his termination and this false report—about which no details
are provided—detracts from the plausibility of his claim that he was fired in
retaliation for requesting an interpreter.
Plaintiff also alleges that defendant did not hire an ASL interpreter for him
during his nine years at the company despite his numerous complaints. While the
court can infer from this allegation that plaintiff engaged in the protected conduct of
requesting a reasonable accommodation, see Freadman v. Metro. Prop. and Cas.
Ins. Co., 484 F.3d 91, 106 (1st Cir. 2007), the complaint alleges no facts which
suggest that defendant considered plaintiff’s requests for an accommodation in
making its termination decision, see Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 720. For example,
the complaint does not allege any “negative comments, complaints, or expressions of
reluctance by her superiors or co-workers about” plaintiff’s requests for an
interpreter. Id. It does not allege that plaintiff’s requests were discussed in
performance reviews. Id. The complaint does not even state when plaintiff’s firing
occurred relative to his requests for an interpreter. See Germanowski v. Harris, 854
F.3d 68, 74 (1st Cir. 2017) (noting that, in some circumstances, close temporal
proximity between protected conduct and adverse employment action can make
causal connection plausible); Wright v. CompUSA, Inc., 352 F.3d 472, 478 (1st Cir.
2003) (reasonable juror could find causal connection between discharge and
accommodation request where plaintiff was “terminated immediately after
returning from medical leave and requesting accommodation of his ADD”). Simply
put, and despite conducting the Rule 12(b)(6) analysis “with due regard for
plaintiff’s pro se status,” Bourne, 2011 WL 2357504, at *3, the complaint does not
allege any facts connecting plaintiff’s protected conduct to his discharge.
Thus, against the backdrop of three-pronged prima facie standard that would
apply at trial, the complaint fails to plausibly allege a claim of ADA retaliation. See
Carrero-Ojeda, 755 F.3d at 719. However, “the First Circuit has held that the
district court should not dismiss a pro se complaint on essentially technical grounds
without affording the plaintiff some opportunity to replead.” Wanham v. Everett
Pub. Sch., 515 F. Supp. 2d 175, 178 (D. Mass. 2007) (citing Instituto de Educacion
Universal Corp. v. U.S. Dep’t of Educ., 209 F.3d 18, 23 (1st Cir. 2000)); see also
Niemic v. Maloney, 409 F. Supp. 2d 32, 36 (D. Mass. 2005) (court should not dismiss
pro se complaint unless it appears beyond doubt that plaintiff could prove no set of
facts entitling him to relief); 5B Miller et al., supra p.8, § 1357 (court should
generally afford leave to amend inadequately pled claim unless “it appears to a
certainty that plaintiff cannot state a claim”). Here, plaintiff has plausibly alleged
that he engaged in the protected conduct of requesting a reasonable
accommodation. He has also plausibly alleged that he suffered an adverse
employment action—termination. Although the complaint sets forth no facts from
which the court can infer a causal connection between his requests and his
termination, the court thinks it reasonably possible that he could plausibly allege
such facts if given an opportunity to amend his complaint. See Niemic, 409 F. Supp.
2d at 36; Germanowski, 854 F.3d at 74.
Accordingly, plaintiff’s retaliation claim is dismissed without prejudice. On or
before November 19, 2020, plaintiff may file an amended complaint. If the amended
complaint includes a claim for retaliation, the complaint must allege facts which
make it plausible that plaintiff’s termination was causally connected to his requests
for an interpreter.
Defendant’s motion (doc. no. 11) is denied as to punitive damages and
injunctive relief, but is granted, in part, as to plaintiff’s retaliation claim. The
retaliation claim is dismissed without prejudice, and plaintiff may file an amended
complaint on or before November 19, 2020.
United States District Judge
October 16, 2020
cc: John L. Johnson, Jr., pro se
Counsel of Record
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