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Williams v. Chu

August 13, 2009

CAROLYN E. WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
STEVEN CHU, SECRETARY OF ENERGY, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reggie B. Walton United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Carolyn E. Williams, a former employee of the United States Department of Energy (the "DOE") and the pro se plaintiff in this civil lawsuit, seeks compensatory damages and injunctive relief against Steven Chu, the Secretary of the DOE, in his official capacity,*fn1 along with Stephen F. Durbin, the Director of the Office of Resource Management at the Energy Information Administration, and Andre Fordham, "formerly of the Office of Labor Relations, DOE," under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e--2000e-17 (2006). Compl. at 2. This action was initiated by the plaintiff based upon the defendants' alleged "discrimina[to]ry threat to [the plaintiff's] federal career because of her protected Equal Employment Opportunity [] activity, denial of a promotion, [and] place[ment] on a Performance Improvement Plan[] after being ordered out of her job for over six months and having her building access terminated." Id. Currently before the Court is the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(6), and 12(f). Defendants' Motion to Dismiss at 1. After carefully considering the plaintiff's complaint, the defendants' motion, and all memoranda of law and exhibits relating to that motion,*fn2 the Court concludes that it must grant the defendants' motion in part and deny it in part for the reasons that follow.

As an initial matter, the Court agrees with the defendants that Counts Two and Three of the plaintiff's complaint should be stricken as redundant pursuant to Rule 12(f). As the defendants accurately state, these claims "are verbatim recitations of Count One," compare Compl. at 30--31 (reciting Count One of the complaint) with id. at 31--32 (repeating the exact same language in Count Two of the complaint) and id. at 33--34 (repeating the exact same language in Count Three of the complaint), and thus constitutes "a needless repetition of other averments in a pleading" subject to striking under Rule 12(f), Cobell v. Norton, 224 F.R.D. 1, 3 (D.D.C. 2004). Further, under the plain language of Title VII, only the "head" of a department or agency may be sued, and only in his official capacity, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c); see also Jarrell v. U.S. Postal Serv., 753 F.2d 1088, 1091 (D.C. Cir. 1985) ("[T]he head of the agency is the only proper defendant in a Title VII action . . . ."), a position the plaintiff does not contest, see Pl.'s Opp'n at 11 (stating only that, with respect to this issue, "[the p]laintiff seeks to proceed as the Court deems legal in this civil action"). The Court will therefore dismiss all of the defendants named in the plaintiff's complaint other than Secretary Chu.

That leaves the defendants' motion to dismiss the balance of the plaintiff's complaint under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) on the ground that the plaintiff's lawsuit is untimely. Defs.' Mem. at 7--10. This Court has previously explained that a governmental defendant's reliance on a federal statute of limitations is an affirmative defense that, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the text of the statute itself, does not implicate the Court's subject-matter jurisdiction. See Smith v. United States, 518 F. Supp. 2d 139, 147--48 (D.D.C. 2007) (Walton, J.) ("Contrary to the government's assertions, '[a] statute of limitations defense . . . is not "jurisdictional"' in nature." (quoting Day v. McDonough, 547 U.S. 198, 205 (2006)); see also Norman v. United States, 467 F.3d 773, 775 (D.C. Cir. 2006) ("[F]ederal statutes of limitations are not jurisdictional."). This Court has also held, albeit in the related context of an exhaustion of administrative remedies defense, that the provision of Title VII containing the statute of limitations at issue here, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c), does not contain language of the kind necessary to deprive the Court of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Hamilton v. Geithner, 616 F. Supp. 2d 49, 61--62 (D.D.C. 2009) (Walton, J.) (noting that § 2000e-16(c) provides only that a plaintiff "may file a civil action" if the requirements of the statute are met). Thus, the defendants cannot invoke Rule 12(b)(1), which pertains only to dismissals for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. "Instead, the only possible procedural mechanism for considering [the defendants'] statute of limitations argument at this stage of the proceedings is Rule 12(b)(6)." Smith, 518 F. Supp. 2d at 149.

However, "[i]n determining whether a complaint fails to state a claim" under Rule 12(b)(6), the trial court may consider not only "the facts alleged in the complaint," but also "any documents either attached to or incorporated [by reference] in the complaint and matters [subject to] judicial notice." EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). The plaintiff has attached to her complaint the decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (the "EEOC" or the "Commission") denying her request for reconsideration of the EEOC's denial of her initial appeal of her discrimination complaints. Compl., Ex. 1 (Memorandum Decision of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission dated February 8, 2007 (the "EEOC Decision")).*fn3 That decision contains all of the information necessary to adjudicate the merits of the defendants' statute of limitations argument. See id. at 1 (setting forth the date of the EEOC's underlying order denying the plaintiff's appeal from the dismissal of her discrimination complaints and establishing that the plaintiff filed her request for reconsideration in a timely manner). Accordingly, the Court can take judicial notice of the dates established in that order and address the defendants' argument on its merits. See Muhammad v. N.Y.C. Transit Auth., 450 F. Supp. 2d 198, 204--205 (E.D.N.Y. 2006) (holding that "[a] plaintiff's EEOC charge and the agency's determination are both public records, of which this Court may take judicial notice").

This argument may be summarized as follows. Pursuant to § 2000e-16(c) and the agency regulation implementing that statute, 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407,*fn4 a plaintiff must file a complaint arising from a denial of a claim before the EEOC "within [ninety] days of receipt of notice of final action taken by . . . the [EEOC]." Defs.' Mem. at 8. According to the defendants, the EEOC took "final action" with respect to the plaintiff's complaints when it denied her appeal on April 5, 2006. Id. at 9. Yet, the plaintiff did not file her complaint in this Court until May 14, 2007, well after the ninety-day statute of limitations. Id. Therefore, the plaintiff's complaint is, from the defendants' perspective, untimely and must be dismissed. Id.

The plaintiff disputes this proposition in only one respect. She argues that the relevant date from which the statute of limitations began to run was not the date on which the EEOC denied her appeal, but rather the date on which she received notice of the agency's denial of her request for reconsideration. Pl.'s Opp'n at 11. That date-February 14, 2007-is less than ninety days prior to the date on which the plaintiff filed her complaint. The plaintiff argues in the alternative that even if her filing was "technically late," the statute of limitations "should be equitably tolled" from the date of the denial of her appeal until the date on which she was notified of the EEOC's denial of her request for reconsideration. Id.

The defendants counter that the plaintiff's reading of § 2000e-16(c) is inconsistent with 29 C.F.R. § 1614.405(b), the agency regulation interpreting the term "final action" for purposes of § 1614.407. Section 1614.405(b) states:

A decision issued under paragraph (a) of this section is final within the meaning of § 1614.407 unless the Commission reconsiders the case. A party may request reconsideration within 30 days of receipt of a decision of the Commission, which the Commission in its discretion may grant, if the party demonstrates that:

(1) The appellate decision involved a clearly erroneous interpretation of material fact or law; or

(2) The decision will have a substantial impact on the policies, practices[,] or operations of the agency.

29 C.F.R. § 1614.405(b) (2006). The defendants interpret this regulation to mean that "a decision by the EEOC is final . . . unless the EEOC grants a motion for reconsideration," Defs.' Reply at 4 (emphasis in original), which the EEOC did not do in this case, see EEOC Decision at 2--3 ("After reconsidering the previous decision and the entire record, the Commission finds that the requests fail to meet the criteria of 29 C.F.R. § 1614.405(b), and it is the decision of the Commission to deny the requests.").

The Court's resolution of this dispute is guided in large part by the District of Columbia Circuit's ruling in Nordell v. Heckler, 749 F.2d 47 (D.C. Cir. 1984). That case, like this one, "concern[ed] the filing deadline for Title VII suits brought against the government." Id. at 48. The plaintiff, "Karen Nordell, filed her suit against the Secretary of Health and Human Services more than eight months after the EEOC rejected several of her claims, but within thirty days following the EEOC's denial of her [timely] request for reconsideration." Id. A former member of this Court "dismissed Nordell's suit as untimely." Id.

On appeal from that ruling, the circuit court considered "whether [Nordell's] request for reconsideration rendered the EEOC's initial decision no longer 'final' for purposes of the statutory filing deadline." Id. After establishing that "Congress intended to honor the internal rules established by individual administrative agencies regarding when their decisions become final," the court examined the relevant agency regulation then in effect, 29 C.F.R. § 1613.235, and the notice appended to the EEOC's initial decision denying Nordell's appeal to determine whether the agency had "publicly articulated" a position on the effect of a request for reconsideration for purposes of finality to which "[d]eference [would be] due." Id. Finding § 1613.235 silent on this point and the notice provided by the EEOC ambiguous, the court held that "the most sensible view is that a request for reconsideration of an EEOC opinion, if ...


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