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Williams-Raynor v. Arkansas Department of Health

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

March 15, 2017

ARKANSAS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH; ABBY HOLT, Section Chief/Health Statistics Division, in her individual and official capacities; LYNDA LEHING, Branch Chief/Health Statistics Division, in her individual and official capacities; and SUSAN WILEY, Associate Director for Management and Operations, in her individual and official capacities DEFENDANTS



         Lois Williams-Raynor commenced this action against the Arkansas Department of Health and Abby Holt, Lynda Lehing, and Susan Wiley, in their individual and official capacities, alleging employment discrimination and retaliation. She seeks relief under Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Williams-Raynor alleges that she was discriminated against because of her race[1] and that she was discharged for complaining of disparate treatment. She seeks injunctive relief, in addition to money damages. The defendants have filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6). For the following reasons, the motion to dismiss is granted in part and denied in part.


         The following facts are taken from the amended complaint. Document #12. Williams-Raynor worked at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences from 1988 through 2016, starting as a records clerk and after various promotions, finishing as the Cancer Registry Supervisor/Director. She began working for the Health Department in the Health Statistics Division on January 31, 2016. Her amended complaint does not identify her position at the Health Department, but the EEOC charge, which is attached to the amended complaint, says that she was “a Health Program Specialist III/Cancer Registry Supervisor.” Document #12 at 16. Sometime in April of that year, Branch Chief Lynda Lehing asked Williams-Raynor to evaluate an employee under William-Raynor’s direct supervision who had been placed on probation due to a poor performance review. This employee was black. Lehing explained that the employee was a problem and needed to go.

         Williams-Raynor evaluated the employee’s progress pursuant to a Performance Improvement Plan and found that the employee had improved. But when she told Lehing and Abby Holt[2]-Section Chief-Director-the results of the evaluation, they were dissatisfied. They sought a second opinion from Quality Assurance Specialist John Guire. He conducted another review of the employee on May 13 and found that she had made no improvement. Lehing and Holt did not meet with Williams-Raynor and Guire to discuss the opposing evaluations. The employee was ultimately discharged on June 24. In the meantime, Williams-Raynor met with Lehing and Holt. She voiced certain concerns: (1) Guire was supervising a white employee[3] who was supposed to be under Williams-Raynor’s supervision; (2) The white employee was treated differently from the black employees who remained under Williams-Raynor’s supervision; and (3) Guire should not have been directed to re-evaluate the black employee’s performance.

         Soon after the meeting, Susan Wiley-Associate Director of Management and Operation-stated to Williams-Raynor: “I am making this short and sweet, you are not working out and you are still on probation, therefore, we are terminating your employment.” Document #12 at 10, ¶ 25. The defendants did not provide reasons for the termination and failed to follow the Health Department’s policy, which requires the provision of a counseling statement to the employee prior to termination. Williams-Raynor did not find out until after her termination that three counseling statements had been placed in her employee file.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) allows a party to move for dismissal based upon a lack of subject matter jurisdiction. To prevail on a motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the challenging party must successfully attack the complaint, either on its face or on the factual truthfulness of its averments. Titus v. Sullivan, 4 F.3d 590, 593 (8th Cir. 1993); Osborn v. United States, 918 F.2d 724, 729 n. 6 (8th Cir. 1990). “In a facial challenge to jurisdiction, all of the factual allegations, as contained in the non-moving party’s pleadings, which concern the jurisdictional issue, are presumed to be true and, therefore, the non-moving party receives the same protections that it would receive if it were defending against a Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Hoeffner v. Univ. of Minnesota, 948 F. Supp. 1380, 1384 (D. Minn. 1996). If a plaintiff fails to allege an element necessary for a finding of subject matter jurisdiction, the complaint should be dismissed. Titus, 4 F.3d at 593.

         To survive a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). Although detailed factual allegations are not required, the complaint must set forth “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). “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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009). The Court accepts as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party. Gorog v. Best Buy Co., Inc., 760 F.3d 787, 792 (8th Cir. 2014). The complaint must contain more than labels, conclusions, or a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, which means that the court is “not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S. Ct. at 1965.

         In Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., the Supreme Court held that, in the employment discrimination context, a plaintiff’s complaint does not need to allege specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 93 S. Ct. 1817, 36 L. Ed. 2d 668 (1973) because a prima facie case under that framework is an evidentiary standard. 534 U.S. 506, 508, 122 S. Ct. 992, 995, 2 L. Ed. 2d');">152 L. Ed. 2d 1 (2002). Instead, the Court recited Rule 8(a), which provides that a complaint must contain only a short and plain statement showing that the pleader is entitled to relief. Id. (citing Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). When Swierkiewicz was decided, the Conley v. Gibson interpretation of Rule 8(a), establishing a notice-pleading[4] standard was good law. Id. at 512, 122 S. Ct. at 998. The Court explained that “this simplified notice pleading standard relies on liberal discovery rules and summary judgment motions to define disputed facts and issues and to dispose of unmeritorious claims.” Id.

         Since Twombly and Iqbal refined[5] the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Rule 8(a) and held that plausibility is the pleading standard, whether Swierkiewicz is still good law has been a matter of debate. See Charles A. Sullivan, Plausibly Pleading Emp’t. Discrimination, 52 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1613, 1619-21 (2011). See also McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Dept. of Transp., 780 F.3d 582, 587 (4th Cir. 2015) (“Swierkiewicz in any event applied a more lenient pleading standard than the plausible-claim standard now required by Twombly and Iqbal.”); Littlejohn v. City of New York, 795 F.3d 297, 309 (2nd Cir. 2015) (contemplating whether the Iqbal requirements apply to Title VII complaints); Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1084 (7th Cir. 2008) (holding that plaintiff’s complaint included enough facts in support of a claim of employment discrimination, stating that a plaintiff “need only aver that the employer instituted a (specified) adverse employment action against the plaintiff on the basis of her sex[, race, etc.].”). Neither in Twombly nor Iqbal did the Supreme Court expressly overrule Swierkiewicz.

         The Eighth Circuit has relied on Swierkiewicz insofar as it held that a plaintiff does not have to plead specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the McDonnel Douglas burden-shifting framework. See Blomker v. Jewell, 831 F.3d 1051, 1056 (8th Cir. 2016) (applying the plausibility standard but acknowledging that in Swierkiewicz “the Supreme Court negated any need to plead a prima facie case in the discrimination context.”). A recent Eighth Circuit opinion suggests that a more lenient pleading standard applies in the employment discrimination context. See LaKeysia Wilson v. Ark. Dept. of Human Servs. 2017 WL 780869 at *3, __ F.3d (8th Cir. March 1, 2017). The court explained that “[u]nder the ‘simplified notice pleading standard’ that governs McDonnell Douglas retaliation claims, summary judgment motions-not motions to dismiss-should dispose of most unmeritorious claims.” Id. The Eighth Circuit quoted Johnson v. City of Shelby, a case in which the Supreme Court cited Swierkiewicz approvingly, in support of this proposition: “The provisions for discovery are so flexible and the provisions for pretrial procedure and summary judgment so effective, that attempted surprise in federal practice is aborted very easily, synthetic issues detected, and the gravamen of the dispute brought frankly into the open for the inspection of the court.” 135 S. Ct. 346, 347, 190 L. Ed. 2d 309 (2014) (per curiam).

         The defendants argue: (1) the Court does not have jurisdiction over the section 1981 and 1983 official capacity claims because they are barred by sovereign immunity; (2) Williams-Raynor failed to file a charge of discrimination alleging retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and (3) the complaint fails to allege a claim upon which relief may be granted for race discrimination or retaliation.


         The Eleventh Amendment states that “[t]he Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. It has been interpreted to bar suits brought against a State in federal courts by her own citizens, as well as those of another State. Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 662-63, 94 S. Ct. 1347, 1355, 39 L. Ed. 2d 662 (1974). The Eleventh Amendment generally bars any suit brought in federal court against a state, state agency, or state officials acting in their official capacities. See Seminole Tribe v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 74, 116 S. Ct. 1114, 1132, 134 L. Ed. 2d 252 (1996); Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100, 104 S. Ct. 900, 908, 79 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1984); Edleman, 415 U.S. at 663, 94 S. Ct. at 1355. Suits against a state, state agency, or state officials may be allowed under three circumstances: (1) Congress may abrogate the States’ immunity; (2) a state may waive its immunity; or (3) under the Ex parte Young doctrine, a plaintiff may file suit against state officials acting in their official capacities seeking prospective injunctive relief for ongoing violations of federal law. Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 74, 116 S. Ct. at 1132.

         Williams-Raynor does not contend that the State has consented to suit in federal court or waived its immunity; rather, she contends that the Ex parte Young exception ...

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