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Derek A. Jones, Plaintiff v. District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority

May 6, 2013


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge


On February 13, 2013, this Court dismissed without prejudice Plaintiff Derek A. Jones's suit alleging that his employer, Defendant District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, unlawfully terminated him in violation of federal and D.C. law. Finding that Plaintiff had failed to sufficiently allege causation under either Title VII or Section 1981, the Court granted Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, but permitted Jones to amend his complaint if facts existed to support his federal claims. Now that Jones has augmented his pleadings to address this issue, WASA again moves to dismiss, this time challenging instead the common-law wrongful-termination cause of action. Because the Amended Complaint as pled does not support the public-policy exception to the at-will doctrine, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion as to this count, but will again permit Plaintiff an opportunity to remedy this latest deficiency.

I. Background

The procedural background of this case is largely set forth in Jones v. Dist. of Columbia Water and Sewer Auth., No. 12-1454, 2013 WL 518653 (D.D.C. Feb. 13, 2013) (Jones I), in which the Court previously granted WASA's Motion to Dismiss without prejudice and permitted Plaintiff to file an Amended Complaint. He did so on March 7, 2013. See Amended Complaint (ECF No. 21). The Amended Complaint addresses the causation issues raised in the Court's prior decision by incorporating additional allegations that support a causal link between his protected activity and his termination. See id.; Jones I, 2013 WL 518653, at *5.

In his Amended Complaint, Plaintiff continues to advance two causes of action: a common-law wrongful-termination claim (Count I), and combined claims that he was unlawfully terminated in retaliation for his concerns about racially discriminatory practices, in violation of both the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964, 42 U.S.C §§ 1981 and 2000e, et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 1-2501 et seq. (Count II). See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 40-47.

WASA has renewed its Motion to Dismiss, yet confined only to the wrongful-termination claim.

II. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of an action where a complaint fails to "state a claim upon which relief can be granted." When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged under Rule 12(b)(6), the factual allegations presented in it must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in the plaintiff's favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant Cnty. Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164 (1993). Although 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), and "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), "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, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (internal quotation omitted). Plaintiff must put forth "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The Court need not accept as true "a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation," nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. Fed. Trade Comm'n, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Though a plaintiff may survive a 12(b)(6) motion even if "recovery is very remote and unlikely," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)), the facts alleged in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555.

III. Analysis

In moving to dismiss the wrongful-termination cause of action, WASA contends that Jones's firing does not fit within the "narrow public policy exception to the well-established employment-at-will doctrine." Mot. at 2-3. Because the Court agrees that the allegations in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint do not suffice to invoke this exception, it will grant Defendant's Motion, but permit Plaintiff an opportunity to amend his pleadings if he can provide sufficient facts to support this exception. The Court will first discuss the scope of the public-policy exception, then apply it to the facts alleged in the Amended Complaint.

A. Public-Policy Exception

In considering Plaintiff's claim for wrongful termination, the Court starts with the general proposition that "in the District of Columbia . . . an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all." Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., Inc., 597 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1991) (citations omitted). In Adams, the D.C. Court of Appeals recognized a "very narrow exception to the at-will doctrine under which a discharged at-will employee may sue his or her former employer for wrongful discharge when the sole reason for the discharge is the employee's refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation." Id. at 34. Six years later, the DCCA expanded this exception in its en banc decision in Carl v. Children's Hosp., 702 A.2d 159, 160 (D.C. 1997).

The plaintiff in Carl was a nurse who was terminated after she had testified in the City Council against her hospital's interests and also as an expert witness for plaintiffs in malpractice cases. Id. at 160. The Court held that the "'very narrow exception' created in Adams should not be read in a manner that makes it impossible to recognize any additional public policy exceptions to the at-will doctrine that may warrant recognition." Id. A majority of the DCCA -- as constituted by those joining Judge Terry's concurrence and Judge Steadman's dissent -- held that "the recognition of any such [future public-policy] exception must be firmly anchored either in the Constitution or in a statute or regulation which clearly reflects the particular 'public policy' being relied upon." Id. at 162 (Terry, J., concurring). Additionally, the majority cautioned that "[t]his court should consider seriously only those arguments that reflect a clear mandate of public policy -- i.e., those that make a clear showing, based on some identifiable policy that has been 'officially declared' in a ...

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