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Coon v. Richland Parish Tax Commission

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Monroe Division

June 4, 2019





         Before the Court is a motion to dismiss filed by Defendants Richland Parish Tax Commission (the “Commission”), Richland Parish (the “Parish”), and Debra Cooper (“Cooper”) (collectively, “Defendants”). [Record Document 21]. For the reasons given below, the motion is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. The motion is DENIED as to Plaintiff's claims against the Commission raised under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), but GRANTED as to all other claims.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Thelma Coon (“Coon”) worked for the Commission as a bookkeeper; Cooper, the Commission's administrator, supervised Coon. [Record Documents 1 at 1, 4-5 and 1-2 at 4]. In 2015, Coon was injured in an accident at her jobsite; she ultimately required bilateral knee replacement. [Record Document 1 at 3]. She initially received workers' compensation benefits, but these were stopped in March 2016. [Id.]. Coon alleges that she was then demoted to part-time status, resulting in the loss of her health insurance benefits. [Id. at 2]. At the same time, a new employee was hired to take over some of the duties that she was unable to perform in her reduced hours. [Id. at 4-5]. After losing her benefits, Coon retired. [Record Document 1-2 at 6]. She alleges that she was discriminated against based on race in violation of Title VII, age in violation of the ADEA, and disability in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). [Record Document 1 at 1]. Specifically, she alleges that she was subjected to “retaliation [and] harassment” and ultimately forced into early retirement. [Id. at 1, 6]. After the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) issued a right to sue letter, [Record Document 1-2 at 6], Coon filed the instant suit, [Record Document 1].

         In their motion, Defendants argue that Coon was never employed by the Parish, that the Commission had too few employees to be subject to Title VII, the ADEA, or the ADA, and that none of these statutes provide a cause of action against an individual supervisor. [Record Document 21]. They further argue that Coon failed to establish a prima facie case under any of these statutes. [Record Document 21-1 at 5-7]. Coon did not file an opposition within the time allotted. After reviewing the materials attached to Defendants' motion, this Court determined that to grant the motion on grounds related to the number of employees would require considering materials outside of the pleadings. [Record Document 23]. To facilitate this process, the Court noticed its intention to convert Defendants' 12(b)(6) motion to a motion for summary judgment on two issues: the identity of Coon's employer and the number of employees at the Commission. [Id.]. The Court then granted Coon additional time to file an opposition. [Id.].

         In her opposition, Coon points out that the Commission is run by a board composed of nine members, each representing one political subdivision located within Richland Parish. [Record Documents 24 at 3 and 24-1 at 1-2]. She argues that this structure means that employees of the Commission are also employees of each of these political subdivisions. [Record Document 24 at 5]. Coon also asserts in a conclusory fashion that Cooper is individually liable because she was the Commission's administrator and that Coon does not have to establish a prima facie case at the motion-to-dismiss stage. [Id. at 5-8]. Defendants have filed a reply. [Record Document 25].

         II. Motion to Dismiss

         A. Standard of Review

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (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 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim, a court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, see In re Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., 624 F.3d 201, 210 (5th Cir. 2010), and accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations, see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2009). 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). Thus, this Court does not have to accept as true “conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions.” Plotkin v. IP Axess Inc., 407 F.3d 690, 696 (5th Cir. 2005) (citing Southland Sec. Corp. v. INSpire Ins. Sols, Inc., 365 F.3d 353, 361 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         B. Application [1]

         Under the ADEA, it is “unlawful for an employer . . . to discharge any individual or otherwise discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's age.” 29 U.S.C. § 623(a)(1). To prevail, a plaintiff must establish “that age was the ‘but-for' cause of the challenged employer decision.” Moss v. BMC Software, Inc., 610 F.3d 917, 922 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Gross v. FBL Fin. Servs., Inc., 557 U.S. 167, 178 (2009)). A plaintiff's evidence may be direct or circumstantial. Jackson v. Cal-Western Packaging Corp., 602 F.3d 374, 377 (5th Cir. 2010) (citing Sandstad v. CB Richard Ellis, Inc., 309 F.3d 893, 896 (5th Cir. 2002)).

         To survive summary judgment in a circumstantial-evidence case, an ADEA plaintiff must, at minimum, establish a prima facie case under the familiar McDonnell Douglas framework. Id. at 378; see McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802-05 (1973). This framework is not mandatory at the motion-to-dismiss stage. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 515 (2002). Nevertheless, “[a]llegations related to that prima facie inquiry may . . . be helpful in satisfying the general Iqbal plausibility standard.” Haskett v. Cont'l Land Res., LLC, 668 Fed.Appx. 133, 134 (5th Cir. 2016) (per curiam) (citing Leal v. McHugh, 731 F.3d 405, 413 (5th Cir. 2013); Flores v. Select Energy Servs., LLC, 486 Fed.Appx. 429, 432 (5th Cir. 2012)). The prima facie case in the ADEA context requires a plaintiff alleging unlawful termination to

show that “(1) [s]he was discharged; (2) [s]he was qualified for the position; (3) [s]he was within the protected class at the time of discharge; and (4) [s]he was either i) replaced by someone outside the protected class, ii) replaced by someone younger, or iii) otherwise discharged because of h[er] age.”

Rachid v. Jack In The Box, Inc., 376 F.3d 305, 309 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Palasota v. Haggar Clothing Co., 342 F.3d 569, 576 (5th Cir. 2003)). An employee's resignation may satisfy the discharge requirement if she was constructively discharged-i.e., “the employer made the employee's working conditions so intolerable that a reasonable employee would [have] fe[lt] compelled to resign.” Brown v. Bunge Corp., 207 F.3d 776, 782 (5th Cir. 2000) (quoting Barrow v. New Orleans Steamship Ass'n, 10 F.3d 292, 297 (5th Cir. 1994)). To survive summary judgment on a hostile work environment claim, a plaintiff must show that

1) [s]he was over the age of 40; (2) [she] was subjected to harassment, either through words or actions, based on age; (3) the nature of the harassment was such that it created an objectively intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment; and (4) there exists some basis for liability on the part of the employer.

Dediol v. Best Chevrolet, Inc., 655 F.3d 435, 441 (5th Cir. 2011) (citing Crawford v. Medina Gen. Hosp., 96 F.3d 830, 834-35 (6th Cir. 1996)). Finally, the prima facie case for retaliation requires a showing that “(1) that [the plaintiff] engaged in a protected activity, (2) that there was an adverse employment action, [. . .] (3) that a causal link existed between the protected activity and the adverse employment action;” and (4) that she was qualified for her position. Wooten v. McDonald Transit Assocs., Inc., 788 F.3d 490, 496-97 (5th Cir. 2015) (quoting Holtzclaw v. DSC Commc'ns Corp. 255 F.3d 254, 259 (5th Cir. 2001)).[2]

         Coon makes only two factual allegations related to age.[3] In her EEOC charge, Coon listed her age as 62. [Record Document 1-2 at 4]. In a letter to the EEOC investigator, she describes a meeting where the Commission's attorney stated that “he had a medial meniscus tear surgery, and he was back at work the next day.” [Record Document 1 at 4]. Coon then relates, “I took offense to that comment because Mr. Doughty is younger than I am, and I stated to him that we all don't heal the same way.” [Id.].

         Rule 8 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is only a “low threshold.” Wooten, 788 F.3d at 498. The most instructive precedent is Wooten v. McDonald ...

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