Harris v. UBH of Oregon, LLC
OPINION AND ORDER: Plaintiff's IIED and First Amendment claims are dismissed for failure to state a claim. However, plaintiff's Amended Complaint appears to state a claim under Oregon's common law of defamation. Plaintiff must follow the instructions for service to the defendant as set out in the Court's Order to Proceed In Forma Pauperis, issued September 21, 2017 7 . A copy of that order will be mailed to plaintiff with this opinion. Signed on 12/3/2017 by Judge Ann L. Aiken. A copy of this Opinion and Order and Order to Proceed In Forma Pauperis was mailed to pro se plaintiff David B. Harris. (ck)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE DISTRICT OF OREGON
Case No. 3:17-cv-01296-AA
OPINION AND ORDER
UBH OF OREGON, LLC, dba Cedar Hills
Plaintiff David Harris filed the initial complaint in this diversity action on August 21,
2017, asserting claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress and defamation against his
fmmer employer, defendant UBH of Oregon, LLC ("UBH").
He simultaneously moved to
proceed in forma pauperis. Upon examination of plaintiffs affidavit, I found that plaintiff was
unable to afford the costs of this action and granted plaintiffs motion. However, after reviewing
the complaint under the standards set out in, 28 U.S.C. § 1915(e)(2)(B)(ii), I concluded that the
complaint did not contain enough factual content to support either of plaintiffs claims.
Page 1 - OPINION AND ORDER
dismissed but granted plaintiff leave to amend the complaint to include additional facts. I now
review the Amended Complaint in order to see if it states a claim for relief.
In federal court, a complaint must contain a "sho1t and plain statement of the claim
showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). That pleading standard
"does not require 'detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, thedefendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)
(quoting Bell At!. C017J. v. T.vombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To state a claim for relief, the
plaintiff must plead "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that
the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id.
Plaintiff foimerly worked as a therapist for UBH. He alleges that on August 18, 2015,
his clinical supervisor, Shanna Branham, placed him on administrative leave after a patient
accused plaintiff of "vague verbal misconduct ... during group therapy." Am. Comp!.
Branham sent plaintiff two text messages on August 20 telling him to return to work the next
day. When he returned to work, she fired him. Branham told plaintiff his termination was
based, at least in part, on his being "late to work too often[.]" Id.
It is not clear from the
Amended Complaint whether that was UBH' s only stated reason for the termination or whether
UBH also concluded that the patient's complaint was founded.
Plaintiff alleges that, while he was on administrative leave, Branham intentionally
published false defamatory statements about plaintiff "to the CEO of CHH as well as to other
senior administrative personnel and to human resources."
if 13. The only allegedly
defamatory statement plaintiff identifies with specificity is the statement that plaintiff was late
Page 2 - OPINION AND ORDER
for work too often. Plaintiff suggests that the other defamatory statements could be obtained
through the discovery process.
Plaintiff alleges that frivolous complaints against UBH employees were exceedingly
common; that Branham knew the complaint against plaintiff was frivolous because the
complaining patient was detoxing from drug use, had a mental illness, and suffered from severe
hearing loss; that a contemporaneous, much more serious complaint against another UBH
employee (that the employee had groped a patient) was never investigated; and that the same
UBH employee told plaintiff UBH had not placed a therapist on administrative leave in the
preceding six to seven years. He also denies that he had a punctuality problem. In response to
the statements regarding his tardiness, plaintiff asserts that he had been told during training that
salaried personnel could clock in at any time during the day; there was no requirement to clock
in upon an-ival at work.
Plaintiff posits an alternative theory for his termination. He says that UBH held weekly
meetings for therapists at noon on Tuesdays. Plaintiff told Branham when he began working at
UBH that he had duties as a lector at noon mass at St. Michael's Catholic Church on Tuesdays,
and that he could attend the meetings only once a month. Plaintiff alleges that Branham told him
the meetings were "more important than [his] religious obligations" and that the Catholic faith
was 'just a tradition." Id. 1) 7. Plaintiff alleges that Branham resented plaintiff for missing the
Tuesday meetings and was searching for an excuse to fire him; the patient complaint and his time
card records, he contends, provided that excuse.
Page 3 - OPINION AND ORDER
Intentional Infliction ofEmotional Distress
Plaintiffs first claim is for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Under Oregon
law, to state such a claim, a plaintiff "must plead that (1) the defendant intended to inflict severe
emotional distress on the plaintiff, (2) the defendant's acts were the cause of plaintiffs severe
emotional distress, and (3) the defendant's acts constituted an extraordinary transgression of the
bounds of socially tolerable conduct." 1\1cGanty v. Staudenraus, 901 P.2d 841, 849 (Or. 1995)
(citing Sheets v. Knight, 779 P.2d 1000, 1010 (Or. 1989)). The Oregon Court of Appeals has
explained that a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress requires "conduct that is
outrageous in the extreme. Conduct that is merely rude, boorish, tyrannical, churlish and mean
does not satisfy that standard, nor do insults, harsh or intimidating words, or rude behavior
ordinarily result in liability even when intended to cause distress." Watte v. Edgar Maeyens, .Jr.,
lvLD., P.C., 828 P.2d 479, 481 (Or. Ct. App. 1992) (citations and quotation marks omitted). The
conduct must be so severe "that no reasonable person in plaintiffs position could be expected to
endure it." Wilson v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc., 2004 WL 1381209, *4 (D. Or. June 21, 2004).
"Oregon cases that have allowed claims for IIED to proceed typically involve acts of
psychological and physical intimidation, racism, or sexual harassment." Id.
In the prior dismissal order, I concluded that the complaint met the first two requirements
by adequately alleging intent and causation, but failed to allege conduct amounting to an
"extraordinary transgression of the bounds of socially tolerable conduct." lvlcGanty, 901 P.2d at
The amendments to the complaint do not cure that deficiency.
Plaintiff asserts that
Branham sent the texts "not to be merely rude, but to inflict as much emotional distress upon
Plaintiff as she could for being Catholic and worshiping his faith." Am. Comp!.
Page 4 - OPINION AND ORDER
plaintiff does not allege that the text messages actually said anything about plaintiffs religion.
Even if they were part of a plot to fire plaintiff because he was Catholic, the two text messageswhich apparently only directed plaintiff to return to work-simply "do not sink to the actionable
level" with respect to a claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Watte, 828 P.2d at
481. Similarly, even if Branham lied to management about plaintiffs tardiness, those lies are not
so egregious as to extraordinarily transgress the bounds of socially tolerable conduct. Because
plaintiff has not alleged conduct that was "outrageous in the extreme," his IIED claim is
Plaintiffs second claim is for defamation. "The elements of a claim for defamation are:
(1) the making of a defamatory statement; (2) publication of the defamatory statement; and (3) a
resulting special harm, unless the statement is defamatory per se and therefore gives rise to
presumptive special harm." Nat'! Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh Pa. v. Starp/ex Corp., 188
P.3d 332, 347 (Or. Ct. App. 2008). Here, plaintiffs allegation that Branham publicized false
statements to UBH management and employees satisfies the publication requirement, because in
Oregon, unlike in many other jurisdictions, "a defamatory communication from one corporate
employee to another corporate employee concerning the job performance of a third employee is
'published' for the purpose of defamation claim.'' Wal/u/is v. Dymowski, 918 P.2d 755, 760 (Or.
1996). Thus, only the first and third prongs of the test are at issue.
I first consider whether plaintiff has alleged the making of a defamatory statement. "A
defamatory statement is one that would subject another to hatred, contempt or ridicule or tend to
diminish the esteem, respect, goodwill or confidence in which the other is held or to excite
adverse, derogatory or unpleasant feelings or opinions against the other." 1vfarleau v. Truck Ins.
Page 5 - OPINION AND ORDER
Exchange, 37 P.3d 148, 155 (2001) (quotation marks omitted and alterations n01malized). As a
threshold matter, whether a statement is capable of being defamatory is a question of law.
Reesman v. High.fill, 965 P.2d 1030, 1034 (Or. 1998). Once the court makes that threshold
dete1mination, whether the statement actually was defamatory is a question of fact for the jury.
Haas v. Painter, 662 P.2d 768, 770 (Or. Ct. App. 1983).
As noted above, the only statement specifically identified in the Amended Complaint is
Branham' s statement to UBH management and employees that plaintiff was late to work too
often. I conclude that a false statement that an individual is late to work so often he should be
fired may qualify as defamatory under Oregon law. A statement a person is habitually tardy is
relatively minor compared to the sort of allegations the case law generally endorses as potentially
defamatory. See, e.g., Nat'/ Union, 188 P.3d at 374 (racial epithets may be defamatory); Wright
v. American's Bulletin, 2010 WL 3292648, *I (D. Or. Aug. 16, 2010) (statement that an
individual has not paid a $94,000 debt may be defamatory). But problems with punctuality
nonetheless are sufficient to excite unpleasant feelings against the tardy person, pmticularly
because punctuality is generally regarded as an important attribute for employees. Although not
dispositive, cases from other states also suggest that alleging someone has problems with
tardiness can be defamatory. See, e.g., Gilliam v. Pikeville United M.ethodost Hosp. of Ky., Inc.,
215 S.W.3d 56, 61 (Ky. Ct. App. 2006); Kanjuka v. AJetroHea/th 1\Jed Ctr., 783 N.E.2d 920,
926 (Ohio Ct. App. 2002).
Next, I turn to whether the statement was defamatory per se or, in the alternative, whether
plaintiff has alleged special damages. In Oregon, spoken words qualify as slander per se only if
"they are words tending to injure the plaintiff in his or her profession or business, or if they
impute to the plaintiff the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude." 1vfar/ea11, 37 P.3d
Page 6 - OPINION AND ORDER
at 155. Tardiness is not a crime involving moral turpitude, so the statement about punctuality is
slander per se only if it would tend to injure the plaintiff in his profession as a therapist. I
conclude that a statement that an individual was late to work so often he should be terminated is
sufficiently related to profession to satisfy the slander per se standard. See Gilliam, 215 S.W.3d
at 61 (finding slander per se where statement involved habitual tardiness, which was
incompatible with profession as a radiology aide at a hospital). In the alternative, I conclude
plaintiff has adequately alleged special harm. Special harm is loss "of a pecuniary character, or
the loss of some substantial and material advantage specific to loss of reputation." L & D of Or.,
Inc. v. Am. States Ins. Co., 14 P.3d 617, 623 (Or. Ct. App. 2000) (internal quotation marks
omitted). Plaintiff alleges he was fired because of the defamatory statements and that he lost
wages, insurance coverage, and other benefits.
First Amendment Discrimination
Plaintiff cites his free exercise rights under the First Amendment to the United States
Constitution but does not separately enumerate a First Amendment claim. In view of plaintiffs
pro se status, I will address the First Amendment claim as though it were separately set out in the
Amended Complaint. The First Amendment applies only to governmental entities and not to
private employers like UBH. 1 See Florer v. Congregation Pidyon Shevuyim, N.A., 639 F.3d 916,
922 (9th Cir. 2011) (explaining that private actors are not liable for violations of the Free
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits private employers from terminating
employees on the basis of religion. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(l). But plaintiff has not asserted a
claim under Title VII, and any such claim would be subject to dismissal unless plaintiff also
alleged he had complied with the statute's administrative exhaustion requirements. See KarimPanahi v. L.A. Police Dep't, 839 F.2d 621, 626 (9th Cir. 1988) (explaining that, in order to
survive a motion to dismiss, a Title VII claim must be suppo1ied by allegations that the plaintiff
"file[d] a discrimination charge" with the federal or state agency charged with handling
complaints about employment discrimination "and receive[d] a right-to-sue letter from" that
Page 7 - OPINION AND ORDER
Exercise Clause unless they act under color of state law). Accordingly, any claim plaintiff
asserts under the First Amendment must be dismissed.
Plaintiffs IIED and First Amendment claims are dismissed for failure to state a claim.
However, plaintiffs Amended Complaint appears to state a claim under Oregon's common law
of defamation. Plaintiff must follow the instructions for service to the defendant as set out in the
Comi's Order to Proceed In Forma Pauperis, issued September 21, 2017 (doc. 7). A copy of that
order will be mailed to plaintiff with this opinion.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
this~ of December 2017.
United States District Judge
Page 8 - OPINION AND ORDER
Disclaimer: Justia Dockets & Filings provides public litigation records from the federal appellate and district courts. These filings and docket sheets should not be considered findings of fact or liability, nor do they necessarily reflect the view of Justia.
Why Is My Information Online?