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Muro v. Board of Supervisors of Louisiana State University

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

November 7, 2019

CYNTHIA GOLDIN MURO
v.
BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY AND AGRICULTURAL AND MECHANICAL COLLEGE

         SECTION “R” (4)

          ORDER AND REASONS

          SARAH S. VANCE UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is defendant Louisiana State University's motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim.[1] Plaintiff's complaint contains adequate facts to state a claim under Title IX for denial of medically necessary maternity leave. As to that claim, the Court denies the motion. Plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim for unlawful termination from the dental program because of pregnancy. The Court grants the motion with respect to that claim, with leave to amend.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This Title IX case arises out of the alleged wrongful termination of a dental resident at LSU. The complaint contains the following factual allegations. The plaintiff, Cynthia Goldin Muro, was a resident in LSU's School of Dentistry Prosthodontics Graduate Program.[2] In the fall of 2017, Muro became pregnant.[3] At four months into her pregnancy, in late January or early Feburary 2018, she reached out to the interim program director and the department chair concerning her rights to maternity leave.[4] She was told that LSU did not have a student maternity leave policy.[5] In June 2018, LSU informed Muro that she was to register for classes beginning in mid-August and should keep up remotely in the meantime.[6]

         Muro gave birth during the summer of 2018.[7] On August 16, 2018, the program director emailed Muro and stated: “Extenuating medical circumstances aside, our agreement in June was that you would return as a full-time student for one-half of the Summer semester, while completing didactic assignments at home[.]”[8] The director also advised Muro that she was to return as a full-time student on August 27, 2018, or she would have the option of withdrawal or dismissal from the program.[9]

         Muro returned to the program as a full-time student on August 27, 2018, while suffering from post-partum depression.[10] In September, she informed the program director that she was diagnosed with and struggling with post-partum depression.[11] Around October 12, 2019, the interim program director referred Muro to the Campus Assistance Program. In her written referral to the Campus Assistance Program, the program director stated that Muro “has difficulty completing assignments, appears very tired, and reports post-partum depression.”[12] Muro underwent a Fitness for Duty evaluation and was cleared on October 29, 2018.[13] Six months later, in April 2019, LSU terminated Muro from the program.[14]

         Muro sued LSU, arguing the school violated Title IX by failing to provide her with medically necessary maternity leave and ultimately terminating her from the program.[15] The plaintiff requests declarative and injunctive relief, including an order reinstating her as a student in LSU's Dentistry Program.[16] LSU moved to dismiss Muro's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Muro did not plead sufficient facts to support the elements of her prima facie case.[17]

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         When considering a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Baker v. Putnal, 75 F.3d 190, 196 (5th Cir. 1996). The Court must resolve doubts as to the sufficiency of the claim in the plaintiff's favor. Vulcan Materials Co. v. City of Tehuacana, 238 F.3d 382, 387 (5th Cir. 2001). But to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a party must plead “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, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The claim must be dismissed if there are insufficient factual allegations to raise the right to relief above the speculative level, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, or if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there is an insuperable bar to relief, Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007). The Court is not bound to accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court must limit its review to the contents of the pleadings, including attachments thereto. Brand Coupon Network, L.L.C. v. Catalina Mktg. Corp., 748 F.3d 631, 635 (5th Cir. 2014). The Court may also consider documents attached to a motion to dismiss or an opposition to that motion when the documents are referred to in the pleadings and are central to a plaintiff's claims. Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         The parties debate what Muro must plead at this stage to avoid dismissal for failure to state a claim. As both parties recognize, courts analyze sex discrimination cases under Title IX by looking to the body of law developed under Title VII. See, e.g., Canutillo Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Leija, 101 F.3d 393, 404 (5th Cir. 1996) (“In reviewing claims of sexual discrimination brought under Title IX, whether by students or employees, courts have generally adopted the same legal standards that are applied to such claims under Title VII.”). The defendant urges that the Court apply the McDonnell Douglas framework here, which requires showing (1) that the plaintiff is a member of a protected class, (2) that the plaintiff suffered an adverse action, and (3) that discrimination was a substantial or motivating factor for the defendant's actions.[18] See McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). But as Muro properly points out, the Supreme Court has held that in Title VII cases, a plaintiff need not plead facts sufficient to establish a prima facie case under the McDonnell Douglas framework to survive a motion to dismiss. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002) (“This Court has never indicated that the requirements for establishing a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas also apply to the pleading standard that plaintiffs must satisfy in order to survive a motion to dismiss.”).

         But a plaintiff must do more than merely provide notice of his or her claim, as Muro suggests. The case Muro relies upon for this proposition, Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. 506, was decided before the Supreme Court clarified the pleading standard in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 505 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Although Swierkiewicz's primary holding-that a plaintiff need not establish a prima facie case under McDonnell Douglas at the pleading stage-is still good law, a plaintiff must still plead facts sufficient to raise the right of relief above a speculative level. See Twombly, 505 U.S. at 555.

         In interpreting Swierkiewicz's holding post-Twombly and Iqbal, the Fifth Circuit has held that a plaintiff must still “plead sufficient facts on all of the ultimate elements of a disparate treatment claim to make [her] case plausible.” Chhim v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin, 836 F.3d 467, 470 (5th Cir. 2016) (emphasis added) (citing Raj v. La. State Univ., 714 F.3d 322 331 (5th Cir. 2013)). The Fifth Circuit has held that the two ultimate elements a plaintiff must plausibly plead to support a disparate treatment claim are “(1) an adverse employment action, (2) taken against plaintiff because of her protected status.” Cicalese v. Univ. of Tex. Med. Branch, 924 F.3d 762, 767 (5th Cir. 2019) (internal quotations omitted).

         With limited exceptions not applicable here, Title IX bars sex discrimination by universities accepting federal funds. See 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a) (“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance . . . .”). Courts have held that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX. See, e.g., Conley v. Nw. Fla. State Coll., 145 F.Supp.3d 1073, 1076-79 (N.D. Fla. 2015); Bakewell v. Stephen F. Austin State Uni., 975 F.Supp. 858, 887 n.39 (E.D. Tex. 1996). Put another way, an adverse action taken against a student on the basis of pregnancy or pregnancy-related conditions is taken because of her sex.

         Indeed, the Code of Federal Regulations directly addresses the issue of pregnancy discrimination under Title IX. “A recipient shall not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from its education program . . . on the basis of such student's pregnancy . . . or recovery therefrom.” 34 C.F.R. § 106.40(b)(1). Moreover, when a school does not have a leave policy for its students, the school “shall treat pregnancy . . . and recovery therefrom as a justification for a leave of absence for so long a period of time as is deemed medically necessary by the student's physician, at the conclusion of which the student shall be reinstated to the status which she held when the leave began.” Id. § 106.40(b)(5). Courts have also found that “protections against pregnancy discrimination do not end with the pregnancy itself; pregnancy discrimination also can be based on medical conditions related to pregnancy.” See ...


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