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Burns v. Brennan

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

September 13, 2019




          Karen L. Hayes, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Before the undersigned magistrate judge on reference from the District Court is a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment [doc. # 16] filed by defendant, Megan J. Brennan, Postmaster General of the United States. The motion is opposed. For reasons assigned below, it is recommended that the Rule 12(b)(6) motion be DENIED, but that the alternative motion for summary judgment be GRANTED.


         On July 31, 2018, Sharon K. Burns filed the instant pro se suit for “hostile work environment violence in the workplace.” (Compl.). Burns, who is a postal worker, alleged in her complaint that her supervisor violently charged at her on the workroom floor while shouting and screaming at her. Id. She added that this “person” had been involved in several encounters, and therefore, she was in danger from this “person.” Id. Her requested relief includes the return of four months of sick leave, all medical expenses, plus an award of compensatory and punitive damages for the PTSD that she suffered. Id.

         Burns attached to her complaint a copy of a decision issued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which documented that Burns had filed an EEO complaint alleging that the Postal Service had “discriminated against her on the bases of sex (female), and reprisal when (1) on March 14, 2015, a supervisor yelled at her and shook her hamper of mail; and (2) beginning March 21, 2015, she has been denied overtime.” (May 10, 2018, EEOC Decision on Request for Reconsideration; Compl., Exh.). The EEOC denied the request for reconsideration and advised Burns that she had ninety (90) days to file a civil action in the appropriate United States District Court. Id. The instant suit followed.

         On June 25, 2019, following lengthy delays for service and then for extensions of time to answer, defendant Megan Brennan, Post Master General of the United States Postal Service (the “Postal Service”) filed the instant Rule 12(b)(6) motion, or in the alternative, motion for summary judgment. The Postal Service seeks dismissal of plaintiff's complaint on several grounds. First, the Post Service contends that plaintiff's complaint fails to comply with Rule 8's pleading standard because it does not place defendant on notice of plaintiff's claims. Second, plaintiff's hostile work environment claim should be dismissed because she did not exhaust administrative remedies through the EEO process before filing suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Third, plaintiff's hostile work environment claim fails on the merits because she cannot satisfy the elements of the claim. Finally, insofar as plaintiff intended or attempted to assert a retaliation claim, she is unable to establish a prima facie case of retaliation.

         On July 16, 2019, plaintiff filed her opposition to the hybrid motion whereby she maintained that she felt threatened by “Mr. Wilkerson, ” and that defendant had retaliated against her by failing to assign her all of the overtime hours that she was eligible for. [doc. # 18]. On July 23, 2019, the Postal Service filed its reply brief. [doc. # 19]. The matter is ripe.

         Rule 12(b)(6) Motion

         I. Standard of Review

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure sanction dismissal where the plaintiff fails “to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A pleading states a claim for relief when, inter alia, it contains a “short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief . . .” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2).

         To withstand a motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when it contains sufficient factual content for the court “to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. Plausibility does not equate to possibility or probability; it lies somewhere in between. See Iqbal, supra. Plausibility simply calls for enough factual allegations to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence to support the elements of the claim. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965. Assessing whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, supra (citation omitted). A well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes the court that actual proof of the asserted facts is improbable, and that recovery is unlikely. Twombly,

         Although the court must accept as true all factual allegations set forth in the complaint, the same presumption does not extend to legal conclusions. Iqbal, supra. A pleading comprised of “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” does not satisfy Rule 8. Id. Moreover, courts are compelled to dismiss claims grounded upon invalid legal theories even though they might otherwise be well-pleaded. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 109 S.Ct. 1827 (1989).

         Nevertheless, “[t]he notice pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 and case law do not require an inordinate amount of detail or precision.” Gilbert v. Outback Steakhouse of Florida Inc., 295 Fed.Appx. 710, 713 (5th Cir. 2008) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Further, “a complaint need not pin plaintiff's claim for relief to a precise legal theory. Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure generally requires only a plausible ‘short and plain' statement of the plaintiff's claim, not an exposition of [her] legal argument.” Skinner v. Switzer, 562 U.S. 521, 131 S.Ct. 1289, 1296 (2011). Indeed, “[c]ourts must focus on the substance of the relief sought and the allegations pleaded, not on the label used.” Gearlds v. Entergy Servs., Inc., 709 F.3d 448, 452 (5th Cir. 2013) (citations omitted). “Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Erickson v. Pardus, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) (quoting Bell Atl., 127 S.Ct. at 1958).

         When considering a motion to dismiss, courts generally are limited to the complaint and its proper attachments. Dorsey v. Portfolio Equities, Inc., 540 F.3d 333, 338 (5th Cir. 2008) (citation omitted). However, courts may rely upon “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference, and matters of which a court may take judicial notice” - including public records. Dorsey, supra; Norris v. Hearst Trust, 500 F.3d 454, 461 n9 (5th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted) (proper to take judicial notice of matters of public record). Furthermore, “[d]ocuments that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff''s complaint and are central to [her] claim.” Collins v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, 224 F.3d 496, 498-499 (5th Cir. 2000) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         II. Discussion

         The Postal Service seeks dismissal of plaintiff's claims for hostile work environment and retaliation, in part, because of plaintiff's inability to establish a prima facie case to support these claims. However, in Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, the Supreme Court held that “an employment discrimination plaintiff need not plead a prima facie case of discrimination” to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, 534 U.S. 506, 511, 122 S.Ct. 992, 997 (2002). The Court explained that the McDonnell Douglas framework “is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading requirement.” Id. at 510.[1] Accordingly, plaintiff's complaint need only comply with Rule 8, which requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8; Swierkiewicz, 423 U.S. at 515.[2]

         While the court certainly agrees that plaintiff's complaint is quite threadbare, plaintiff is not writing on a blank slate. The Postal Service is well aware of plaintiff's charges and allegations because of the various layers of administrative proceedings that plaintiff pursued before filing suit. In fact, defendant adduced copies of these decisions in support of its motion for summary judgment. See discussion, infra. Under these rather uncommon circumstances, the court finds that plaintiff's complaint meets the “simple requirements of Rule 8(a), ” sufficient to provide the Postal Service with fair notice of her claims such that it is able frame a responsive pleading. See Swierkiewicz, supra. Indeed, defendant's alternative motion for summary judgment and the voluminous attachments thereto, belie the Postal Service's argument to the contrary.

         Furthermore, while the Postal Service also sought dismissal of one or more of plaintiff's claims under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, and on the merits, defendant's arguments rely on extrinsic evidence. Of course, if evidence outside of the pleadings is presented to the court and used in deciding a 12(b)(6) motion, the court must convert the matter to a motion for summary judgment. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d); Knighton v. Merscorp Inc., 304 Fed.Appx. 285, 287 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Fernandez-Montes v. Allied Pilots Ass'n, 987 F.2d 278, 283 (5th Cir.1993)).

         In the event of conversion, Rule 12(d) requires that all parties be afforded a reasonable opportunity to present all material pertinent to a motion for summary judgment. Id. Specifically, the notice and hearing requirements of Rules 12(b) and 56(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure must be adhered to. Mackey v. Owens, 1999 WL 423077 (5th Cir. June 2, 1999) (unpubl.).

         The court, however, need not give a party “express notice” that a motion to dismiss will be treated as a motion for summary judgment:

given [Rule 12(d)]'s express declaration that a motion to dismiss shall be treated as a motion for summary judgment where matters outside the pleadings are presented to and not excluded by the court, the simple act of placing matters outside the pleadings before the court provides adequate notice ...

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