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Ellis v. Georgetown University Hospital

July 6, 2009

LAKEISHA ELLIS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY HOSPITAL, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Lakeisha Ellis brings this action against her former employer, Georgetown University Hospital ("Georgetown" or the "Hospital"), alleging disability discrimination and retaliation in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA").Now before the Court are Georgetown's motion for partial dismissal of plaintiff's amended complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment and Ellis's motion for leave to file a second amended complaint.*fn1 In its motion, Georgetown contends that Ellis's retaliation claims should be dismissed because she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies. Georgetown also asserts that Ellis's retaliation claim under the DCHRA is barred by the relevant statute of limitations. Ellis opposes Georgetown's motion, arguing that her retaliation claims are not defective and should be allowed to proceed. With respect to her own motion, Ellis portrays her proposed second amended complaint as simply a clarification of her existing claims.

Georgetown views it quite differently, however, arguing that Ellis is attempting to allege new claims and legal theories, which should be rejected at this stage of the litigation because discovery is closed and summary judgment briefing is set to begin. For the reasons discussed below, the Court will deny Georgetown's motion and it will grant Ellis's motion.

BACKGROUND

Ellis was employed by the Hospital as a patient financial associate from approximately May 11, 2006 until she was terminated on August 2, 2006. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 14, 25. On October 17, 2006, Ellis wrote a letter to Tracy L. Smalls of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") detailing the events surrounding her termination. Pl.'s Ex. 2 (Oct. 17, 2006 letter from Ellis to EEOC). Soon thereafter, Ellis completed an EEOC Intake Questionnaire, which was accompanied by a copy of her October 17 letter. Pl.'s Ex. 1 (Oct. 25, 2006 EEOC Intake Questionnaire); Pl.'s Mem. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. for Partial Dismissal of Pl.'s Am. Compl. or, in the Alternative, for Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 5. In responding to the questionnaire, Ellis checked the box indicating her belief that she had been discriminated against because of her disability. Pl.'s Ex. 1 at 3. She did not, however, check the box indicating that she had been subject to retaliation. Id. On December 13, 2006, Ellis filed a formal Charge of Discrimination against the Hospital with the EEOC. Pl.'s Ex. 3 (Dec. 13, 2006 EEOC Charge of Discrimination). Once again, Ellis marked the box alleging that the Hospital had discriminated against her based on her disability, but she did not mark the box alleging that she had been the victim of retaliation. Id. Although not explicitly mentioned in her EEOC charge, Ellis has asthma, and it is this condition that she identifies as her putative disability. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 16, 31-32, 41-42, 53, 57.

In her formal charge, Ellis describes the particulars of her termination as follows. On July 25, 2006, Ellis was asked by her supervisor, Fannice Beckett, to work temporarily in the Emergency Department ("ED") for training purposes. Pl.'s Ex. 3. While working in the ED, Ellis "began to experience a sudden onset of symptoms that brought about complications with" her asthma. Id. After being examined by a physician in the ED and her primary care physician, she was informed that she "would no longer be able to work in the [ED] because of" her asthma and her doctor provided a note to that effect. Id. Ellis provided this information to Beckett and several days later, on July 31, 2006, she met with Beckett and the Department Director, Cindy Hecker, "to discuss if they had chosen to make accommodations" with respect to her asthma and her request to work outside of the ED. Id. Hecker then told Ellis "that the company could keep [her] or let [her] go based on the restrictions outlined by [her] primary care physician." Id. On August 2, 2006, just two days after her conversation with Beckett and Hecker, Ellis's employment was terminated. Id.

At the conclusion of its investigation of her formal charge, the EEOC issued a Right to Sue Letter on April 4, 2008 and this action followed on July 7, 2008. In November 2008, Ellis moved for leave to amend her complaint, which was granted by the Court on December 11, 2008. Several weeks later, defendant filed its motion for partial dismissal of the amended complaint or, in the alternative, for summary judgment.*fn2 While that motion was pending, the parties proceeded with discovery and on May 14, 2009, one day before the close of discovery, Ellis filed her motion for leave to file a second amended complaint.

LEGAL STANDARD

All that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of a complaint is that it contain "'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)); accord Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56; see also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986). "To survive 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. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570); Atherton v. District of Columbia Office of the Mayor, --- F.3d ---, 2009 WL 1515373, at *6 (D.C. Cir. 2009). A complaint is plausible on its face "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. This amounts to a "two-pronged approach" under which a court first identifies the factual allegations entitled to an assumption of truth and then determines "whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 1950-51.

The notice pleading rules are not meant to impose a great burden on a plaintiff. Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 512-13 (2002). When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged by a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's factual allegations must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in his or her favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C. Cir. 1979); see also Erickson, 551 U.S. at 94 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56). The plaintiff must be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974); Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000). However, "the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Nor does the court accept "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," or "naked assertions [of unlawful misconduct] devoid of further factual enhancement." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949-50 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Aktieselskabet AF 21. November 21 v. Fame Jeans Inc., 525 F.3d 8, 17 n.4 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (explaining that the court has "never accepted legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations").

ANALYSIS

I. Georgetown's Motion to Dismiss Ellis's Retaliation Claims

A. Exhaustion of Administrative Remedies

Before bringing suit in federal court, ADA and Rehabilitation Act plaintiffs, like those under Title VII, must exhaust their administrative remedies by filing an EEOC charge and giving that agency a chance to act on it. 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a); Marshall v. Fed. Express Corp., 130 F. 3d 1095, 1098 (D.C. Cir. 1997); Johnson v. District of Columbia, 572 F. Supp. 2d 94, 102 (D.D.C. 2008). This requirement also applies to retaliation claims brought under those provisions. Johnson, 572 F. Supp. 2d at 102. An aggrieved party must file a charge with the EEOC alleging that his or her employer has engaged in an unlawful employment practice. The claimant must then proceed through the administrative process. "The employee may commence a civil action against her employer if, and only if, the EEOC has dismissed the administrative complaint or has itself failed to begin a civil action within 180 days of the original EEOC filing." Jorge v. Rumsfeld, 404 F.3d 556, 564 (1st Cir. 2005) (citing 42 U.S.C. ยง 2000e-5(f)(1)). "A vague or circumscribed EEOC charge will not satisfy the exhaustion requirement for claims it does not fairly embrace" because that would "circumvent the EEOC's investigatory and conciliatory role, as well as deprive the charged party of notice of the charge." Marshall, 130 F. 3d at 1098 ...


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