Sinkfield v. University of Texas Medical Branch
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER granting in part and denying in part 5 MOTION to Dismiss Complaint. The Court dismisses Plaintiff's claim under the ADA and her Title VII claim alleging discrimination based on her disability. The Court denies Defendant 39;s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Title VII claim of race discrimination. It is further ORDERED that, if Plaintiff elects to amend her pleadings, she must file her amended complaint on or before February 21, 2017. A separate Docket Control Order will issue. (Signed by Judge Nancy F Atlas) Parties notified. (wbostic, 4)
United States District Court
Southern District of Texas
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS MEDICAL §
January 25, 2017
David J. Bradley, Clerk
CIVIL ACTION NO. 4:16-03395
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
Plaintiff Marie Sinkfield, who proceeds pro se, brings this suit alleging
employment discrimination. On December 12, 2016, Defendant University of Texas
Medical Branch (“UTMB”) filed a Motion to Dismiss [Doc. # 5], to which Plaintiff
filed a timely Response [Doc. # 8]. Defendant did not file a reply. The Court held
a pretrial conference on January 18, 2017, see Telephone Hearing Minutes and Order
[Doc. # 14], at which the Court asked Plaintiff questions in order to get necessary
clarifications of her claims and theories.
The Court deems Plaintiff’s oral
explanations part of her complaint for purposes of the pending Motion. The Motion
is now ripe for consideration. Having considered the parties’ submissions, all matters
of record, and applicable legal authorities, the Court determines that Defendant’s
Motion to Dismiss should be granted in part and denied in part.
Plaintiff previously was employed as a Correctional Clinical Associate by
Defendant UTMB, a job Plaintiff describes as primarily administrative. Plaintiff
alleges that she has a chronic back condition and that, on March 15, 2014, she was
injured in the workplace while pushing a supply cart. Plaintiff describes the supply
cart task as a “back up” duty for her administrative position, rather than a primary
responsibility. She states that her injury causes “extreme pain when pushing or
pulling a supply cart or lifting heavy items.” Response, at 1.
From September 2014 through February 2015, as a result of the injury,
Plaintiff’s job duties were temporarily restricted to “light duty.”
Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services (“DARS”) assisted with
Plaintiff’s rehabilitation. Plaintiff supplies an October 2014 letter from a DARS
counselor that appears to indicate that, as of that time, Plaintiff was in need of
rehabilitation to maintain her employment.1
In February 2015, UTMB informed Plaintiff that her temporary light duty
restrictions had been exhausted. Plaintiff sent an email to UTMB’s human resources
See Doc. # 1, at 10 (Letter from Melba Haynes, dated Oct. 30, 2014) (“I certify that
this individual has a disability, which results in a substantial impediment to
employment. It is presumed that this individual is capable of achieving an
employment outcome. Vocation Rehabilitation Services are required to obtain and/or
department requesting a permanent accommodation but, on March 16, 2015, Senior
Personnel Manager Debbie Dansbe denied her request. Plaintiff then filed a Charge
of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”).
See EEOC Charge of Discrimination, filed Mar. 29, 2015, [Doc. # 1], at 6-9.
At the pretrial conference, Plaintiff stated that her back pain is “ongoing” and
“chronic,” and that two doctors have told her that she should avoid pushing because
of arthritis and a bulging disc. She also stated that Janet Benich, a white co-worker
who held the same position at UTMB and had knee problems, was not forced to
perform supply cart duties, but rather was permitted to have someone else perform the
duties for her.
On April 7, 2015, Plaintiff submitted her resignation in writing.2 She alleges
that, because she was denied a permanent accommodation and required to continue
with supply cart duties, she effectively was forced out of her position at UTMB.3
Plaintiff informed the Court at the pretrial conference that she is currently employed,
Plaintiff has not yet supplied the Court with the resignation letter.
Response, at 1-2 (“A meeting was held at Human Resources when I was placed on
Administrative Leave and I was given a formal letter of denial for my request for an
accommodation. I asked if I experienced pain and could not perform the duty should
I proceed. I was told by Ms. Lela Lockett that ‘I should stay home if unable to
perform the supply cart duties.’ I was also told if I was unable to perform or for any
reason I did not perform the duty, my manager, Susan Dostal, was instructed to call
the Human Resources Office at once. I felt threatened, overwhelmed, fearful for my
safety, health and livelihood. I felt as if UTMB was trying to harm me and
intentionally force me out of my position I held for two years.”)
started her new position immediately after her resignation from UTMB, and is earning
more money than she made at UTMB. However, she is requesting re-employment
from UTMB because the retirement benefits and the job hours were preferable.
Plaintiff filed her Complaint in this Court on November 15, 2016, after
receiving a notice from the EEOC of her right to sue.4 She contends that Defendant
UTMB discriminated against her on the basis of her race and disability when it failed
to provide a “reasonable accommodation,” even after she provided medical
documentation of her injury, and that UTMB constructively discharged her.
Defendant moves to dismiss the Complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure
12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6).
RULE 12(b)(6) STANDARDS
Traditionally, courts view with disfavor a motion to dismiss for failure to state
a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Turner v. Pleasant, 663 F.3d
770, 775 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Harrington v. State Farm Fire & Cas. Co., 563 F.3d
141, 147 (5th Cir. 2009)); Lormand v. US Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 232 (5th Cir.
2009); Test Masters Educ. Servs., Inc. v. Singh, 428 F.3d 559, 570 (5th Cir. 2005).
The Supreme Court has explained that in considering a motion to dismiss under Rule
12(b)(6), a complaint must be liberally construed in favor of the plaintiff and all well4
Defendant reserves right to contest the timeliness of Plaintiff’s Complaint at a later
stage of this litigation. Motion, at 2 n.2.
pleaded facts taken as true. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Erickson
v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
555–56 (2007); Harrington, 563 F.3d at 147. However, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the
elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not
suffice.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The complaint
must contain “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that
is plausible on its face.’” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); Patrick v. WalMart, Inc., 681 F.3d 614, 617 (5th Cir. 2012). When there are well-pleaded factual
allegations, a court should presume they are true, even if doubtful, and then determine
whether they plausibly give rise to a claim to relief. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. This
determination of plausibility is a context-specific task that requires the court to draw
on its judicial experience and common sense. Id.
In considering a motion to dismiss, a court ordinarily must limit itself to the
contents of the pleadings and attachments thereto. Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean
Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498 (5th Cir. 2000) (citing FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6)).
Documents “that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are [also] considered part
of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff’s complaint and are central to
her claim.” Id. at 498-99 (quoting Venture Assocs. Corp. v. Zenith Data Sys. Corp.,
987 F.2d 429, 431 (7th Cir. 1993)); see Kane Enters. v. MacGregor (USA), Inc., 322
F.3d 371, 374 (5th Cir. 2003). “In so attaching, the defendant merely assists the
plaintiff in establishing the basis of the suit, and the court in making the elementary
determination of whether a claim has been stated.” Collins, 224 F.3d at 499. These
presumably are documents whose authenticity no party questions. See Walch v.
Adjutant General’s Dep’t of Tex., 533 F.3d 289, 294 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing 5B
CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT & ARTHUR R. MILLER, FEDERAL PRACTICE AND PROCEDURE
§ 1357 (3d ed. 2004)).
A document filed by a pro se party must be “liberally construed” and “a pro se
complaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than
formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007)
(internal quotation marks and citations omitted). See FED. R. CIV. P. 8(e) (“Pleadings
must be construed so as to do justice”); Hood v. Pope, 627 F. App’x 295, 299 n.7 (5th
To the extent Plaintiff intends to bring a claim against UTMB under Title I of
the ADA, she has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.5 UTMB is
Title I of the ADA prohibits an employer from “discriminat[ing] against a qualified
individual on the basis of disability in regard to job application procedures, the hiring,
an agency of the State of Texas and enjoys the same Eleventh Amendment immunity
as the State itself. Sampson v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 500 S.W.3d 380, 384 (Tex.
2016). The Supreme Court has held that, in enacting Title I of the ADA, Congress did
not validly abrogate the states’ immunity from suit by private individuals. Bd. of
Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 374 & n.9 (2001) (explaining that
Title I’s standards can be enforced against the states by the United States in an action
for money damages, or by private suits seeking injunctive relief, but not by private
individuals suing the state for money damages) (citing Ex Parte Young, 209 U.S. 124
(1908)). See Amsel v. Tex. Water Dev’t Bd., 464 F. App’x 395, 402 n.1 (5th Cir.
2012). UTMB therefore enjoys Eleventh Amendment immunity from Plaintiff’s claim
advancement, or discharge of employees, employee compensation, job training, and
other terms, conditions, and privileges of employment.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). As
with Title VII cases, an ADA plaintiff who claims employment discrimination may
either present direct evidence of discrimination or may proceed under the McDonnellDouglas burden-shifting framework. E.E.O.C. v. LHC Group, Inc., 773 F.3d 688, 694
(5th Cir. 2014). Under this framework, if the plaintiff shows a prima facie case of
discrimination, the burden shifts to the defendant to articulate a legitimate,
nondiscriminatory reason for its actions; if the defendant does so, the plaintiff then
bears the burden to show that the defendant’s proffered reason is pretextual. Id. To
establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must prove
(1) that she has a disability; (2) that she was qualified for the position; and (3) that she
was subject to an adverse employment decision on account of her disability. Id. at
Title II of ADA, which does not apply in the employment context but rather pertains
to access to government services, see Taylor v. City of Shreveport, 798 F.3d 276, 28283 (5th Cir. 2015), is not relevant in this case.
for money damages under the ADA. Plaintiff’s claim is dismissed for failure to state
a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6).
Plaintiff apparently seeks injunctive relief, because she stated at the pretrial
conference that she would like UTMB to re-employ her in her previous position, with
accommodation for her back injury. However, any request by Plaintiff for injunctive
relief is barred because Plaintiff has sued only UTMB, and not individual state
officials. The Eleventh Amendment bars suits for injunctive relief against state
agencies. Raj v. La. St. Univ., 714 F.3d 322, 328 (5th Cir. 2013) (holding that the
plaintiff could not overcome sovereign immunity under Ex Parte Young because he
had named as defendants only Louisiana State University (“LSU”), LSU Health, and
the LSU Board, and not individual officials). The Ex Parte Young exception, which
permits “suits for injunctive or declaratory relief against individual state officials
acting in violation of federal law,” does not apply when the plaintiff sues the state or
its agencies. Id. (emphasis added).
Plaintiff’s ADA claim is dismissed because UTMB is immune from the claims
she asserts. However, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(a), Plaintiff
may file an amended complaint if she can make allegations that overcome the legal
doctrines explained in this Memorandum.6 If Plaintiff elects to file an amended
pleading, she must do so on or before February 21, 2017.
Title VII Claim Regarding Disability
To the extent Plaintiff intends to assert a claim under Title VII for
discrimination on the basis of a disability, the claim is dismissed for failure to state a
claim upon which relief can be granted.
Title VII prohibits employers from
discriminating on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” but does
not protect against discrimination based on disability. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a);
Washburn v. Harvey, 504 F.3d 505, 509 (5th Cir. 2007).
Title VII Claim Regarding Race
Plaintiff brings a claim for race discrimination under Title VII. A Title VII
plaintiff can establish a prima facie case based on circumstantial evidence, as Plaintiff
seeks to do in this case, by demonstrating that he or she: (1) is a member of a
protected class; (2) was qualified for the position in question; (3) was the subject of
an adverse employment action; and (4) was treated less favorably than similarly
Rule 15(a) provides that a court “should freely give leave [to amend] when justice so
requires.” FED. R. CIV. P. 15(a)(2). See Stem v. Gomez, 813 F.3d 205, 215 (5th Cir.
2016); United States ex rel. Marcy v. Rowan Companies, Inc., 520 F.3d 384, 392 (5th
Cir. 2008). The Fifth Circuit has concluded that Rule 15(a) “evinces a bias in favor
of granting leave to amend.” Carroll v. Fort James Corp., 470 F.3d 1171, 1175 (5th
Cir. 2006) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).
situated persons who were not members of the protected class. McDonnell Douglas
Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973); Lee v. Kansas City S. Ry. Co., 574 F.3d
253, 259 (5th Cir. 2009); Okoye v. Univ. of Tex. Houston Health Sci. Ctr., 245 F.3d
507, 512-13 (5th Cir. 2001).7 The ultimate question is whether the defendant took an
adverse employment action “because of” the plaintiff’s race. Raj, 714 F.3d at 331.
At the pleading stage, Plaintiff is not required to show each prong of the prima facie
case, but rather must state a claim under the pleading standards of Twombly and Iqbal.
In her Complaint, Response, and/or her oral statements at the pretrial
conference, Plaintiff makes allegations pertaining to each of the four prima facie
A plaintiff’s prima facie case creates an inference of intentional discrimination that
shifts the burden back to the defendant to articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory
reason for the adverse employment action. McDonnell Douglas, 411 U.S. at 802;
Lee, 574 F.3d at 259. The defendant’s burden at this stage is a burden of production,
not persuasion, and “‘can involve no credibility assessment.’” Reeves v. Sanderson
Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 142 (2000) (quoting St. Mary’s Honor Center
v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 513 (1993)). If the employer provides such an explanation,
the inference created by the prima facie case drops out, and the plaintiff bears the
burden to establish discrimination by offering evidence that the employer’s stated
explanation is a pretext for racial bias. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 143; Lee, 574 F.3d at 259;
Russell v. McKinney Hosp. Venture, 235 F.3d 219, 222 (5th Cir. 2000). A plaintiff’s
prima facie case, combined with the factfinder’s disbelief of the defendant’s proffered
reasons, may suffice to show intentional discrimination. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 147
(citing St. Mary’s Honor Center, 509 U.S. at 511). Despite this intermediate burden
shifting, the plaintiff at all times bears the ultimate burden to demonstrate that the
defendant intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. Reeves, 530 U.S. at 143;
Lee, 574 F.3d at 259 n. 13 (citing Tex. Dep’t of Cmty. Affairs v. Burdine, 450 U.S.
248, 253 (1981)).
elements. She states that she is African-American, and thus a member of a protected
class, satisfying the first prong. She further claims that she was qualified for her
position at UTMB and had held the position for two years, which suffices at this stage
for the second prima facie prong.
Regarding an “adverse employment action,” Plaintiff contends that UTMB
constructively discharged her. For Title VII claims in the Fifth Circuit, “adverse
employment actions consist of ‘ultimate employment decisions’ such as hiring, firing,
demoting, promoting, granting leave, and compensating.” Thompson v. City of Waco,
Texas, 764 F.3d 500, 503 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing McCoy v. City of Shreveport, 492
F.3d 551, 560 (5th Cir. 2007); Alvarado v. Tex. Rangers, 492 F.3d 605, 612 (5th Cir.
2007); Pegram v. Honeywell, 361 F.3d 272, 282 (5th Cir. 2004)). “An employment
action that does not affect job duties, compensation, or benefits is not an adverse
employment action.” Id. (internal quotation marks, citation, and alteration omitted).
Plaintiff’s claim that she was constructively discharged adequately alleges an adverse
To the extent Plaintiff argues that UTMB’s denial of her requested accommodation
separately qualifies as an adverse employment action based on her race, the Court is
aware of no Fifth Circuit authority supporting this position. See Loulseged v. Akzo
Nobel, Inc., 178 F.3d 731, 734 (5th Cir. 1999) (declining to reach the question of
whether a plaintiff may bring a claim under the ADA when the only adverse
employment action alleged is a failure to accommodate the plaintiff’s disability); Tran
As for the fourth prong, Plaintiff has alleged that someone outside the protected
class received more favorable treatment. Plaintiff alleges that Janet Benich, a white
woman who held the same position as Plaintiff, was relieved of back-up supply cart
duties because of her knee problems. At this stage of the case, Plaintiff’s allegations
Defendant’s motion to dismiss Plaintiff’s race discrimination claim under Title
VII is denied.
For the foregoing reasons, it is hereby
ORDERED that Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss [Doc. # 5] is GRANTED in
part and DENIED in part. The Court dismisses Plaintiff’s claim under the ADA
and her Title VII claim alleging discrimination based on her disability. The Court
denies Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Title VII claim of race
discrimination. It is further
v. Pflugerville Indep. Sch. Dist., 2014 WL 12160774, at *5 (W.D. Tex. May 23, 2014)
(Austin, M.J.) (considering a claim of discrimination under the ADA and holding that
the denial of certain accommodations did not qualify as adverse employment actions).
Moreover, Defendant argued at the pretrial conference that the supply cart
responsibilities assigned to Plaintiff were within her medical restrictions, and
therefore in fact accommodated her disability. Because, as held above, Plaintiff’s
claim that she was constructively discharged adequately alleges an adverse
employment action, the Court need not address the accommodation issue at this time.
ORDERED that, if Plaintiff elects to amend her pleadings, she must file her
amended complaint on or before February 21, 2017.
A separate Docket Control Order will issue.
SIGNED at Houston, Texas, this 25th day of January, 2017.
NAN Y F. ATLAS
STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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