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Jones v. District of Columbia Water & Sewer Authority

United States District Court, District Circuit

August 28, 2013

DEREK A. JONES, Plaintiff,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA WATER AND SEWER AUTHORITY, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

On May 6, 2013, this Court dismissed without prejudice Plaintiff Derek A. Jones’s wrongful-termination claim against Defendant District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, finding that Plaintiff’s allegations were insufficient to invoke the public-policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine. While granting Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, the Court permitted Plaintiff to amend his Complaint if he could allege sufficient facts to support the exception. Plaintiff then filed a Second Amended Complaint in an attempt to shore up this count, and WASA now moves once again to dismiss on the ground that the augmented Complaint still fails to state a viable claim for wrongful termination. Agreeing, the Court will grant Defendant’s Motion. Plaintiff may thus proceed only on his count for unlawful discrimination.

I. Background

The factual 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 first Motion to Dismiss without prejudice – in relation to Plaintiff’s federal discrimination claim – and permitted Jones to file an Amended Complaint. He did so on March 7, 2013, see Amended Complaint (ECF No. 21), and therein sufficiently alleged the causation that had been missing from his original Complaint in relation to that count. See id.; Jones I, 2013 WL 518653, at *5.

Defendant then filed a second Motion to Dismiss, this time challenging only the common-law wrongful-termination cause of action. See Motion to Dismiss (ECF 24). As Jones was an at-will employee, the Court granted Defendant’s Motion because Plaintiff had failed to include facts that could support the public-policy exception to the at-will doctrine. See Jones v. Dist. of Columbia Water and Sewer Auth., No. 12-1454, 2013 WL 1869175, at *1 (D.D.C. May 6, 2013) (Jones II). Plaintiff was ordered to allege facts showing why the exception applied and identify “the specific statute or municipal regulation he was instructed to violate” and “a clear mandate of public policy” that is not “otherwise protected by an existing statute or regulation.” Id. at *5 (emphasis in original).

Plaintiff consequently filed a Second Amended Complaint to address these issues, see Second Amended Complaint (SAC), ¶¶ 16-52. Specifically, he alleges that he was terminated for refusing to schedule an employee for a test for which there was no vacancy, in contravention of the collective-bargaining agreement and the labor protections of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, see id., ¶¶ 29-32, and refusing to process the hiring papers for an individual whose credentials had not yet been verified, in contravention of WASA and D.C. Municipal Regulations. See id., ¶¶ 18-22. WASA has again moved to dismiss the wrongful-termination count, contending it is still infirm.

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 Atl. 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

“It has long been settled in the District of Columbia that 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., 597 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1991). District of Columbia courts, however, recognize a “public policy exception” for cases in which “the employee’s termination offends some ‘mandate of public policy’ that is ‘firmly anchored in either the Constitution or in a statute or regulation which clearly reflects the particular public policy being relied upon.’” Bilal-Edwards v. United Planning Org., 896 F.Supp.2d 88, 93-94 (D.D.C. 2012) (quoting Carson v. Sim, 778 F.Supp.2d 85, 97 (D.D.C. 2011)).

In Jones II, the Court discussed the two predominant theories under which the exception may be invoked: the Adams refusal-to-perform-illegal-acts theory and the retaliation-for-reporting theory set forth in Carl v. Children’s Hosp., 702 A.2d 159 (D.C. 1997). See 2013 WL 1869175, at *4-6. In amending his pleadings, Plaintiff has elected to proceed under the former. See SAC, ¶ 52 (alleging WASA’s termination of his employment “violated the public policy of the District of Columbia that individuals shall not be discharged from their employment because they refuse to perform acts that are illegal under the laws and regulations of the District of Columbia”) (emphasis added). Specifically, Plaintiff contends that he was terminated for refusing to perform acts (1) “which were in violation of the union contracts between WASA and its employees”; and (2) “which would violate the provisions of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, D.C. Code § 1-617.4, and the WASA Regulations applicable to the CMPA, DCRM [sic] §§ 5201.6-7.” SAC, ¶ 51. Neither allegation shoulders Plaintiff’s pleading burden.

Jones first contends that he was terminated for “refus[ing] to perform acts which were in violation of the union contracts between WASA and its employees.” SAC, ¶ 51. These acts include informing his supervisor “that he could not schedule [an applicant] for the test, . . . because to do so would be a violation of Article 21 of the AFGE union contract for the employee to be given a test for which there was no vacant position.” Id., ¶ 31.

The protections afforded employees pursuant to a union contract – a private agreement – are not the sort of “‘fundamental public policy’” that can support the narrow exception. Bilal-Edwards, 896 F.Supp. at 94 (quoting Chisholm v. Dist. of Columbia, 666 F.Supp.2d 96, 117 (D.D.C. 2009)); see also Robinson v. Securitas Serv., Inc., 819 F.Supp.2d 18, 21-22 (D.D.C. 2011) (rejecting plaintiff’s claim that contract between city and defendant embodied public policy sufficient to support narrow exception). Plaintiff has cited no authority in which a court has recognized a sufficient public-policy interest based on the violation of a private labor agreement, and the extensive authority restricting the reach of this exception persuades the Court that its extension would be unwise. See, e.g., Myers v. Alutiiq Int’l Solutions, LLC, 811 F.Supp.2d 261, 266 (D.D.C. 2011) (discussing “very narrow” public-policy exception recognized in Adams).

Second, Jones alleges that he was terminated for “refusing to perform acts . . . which . . . would violate the provisions of the District of Columbia Comprehensive Merit Personnel Act, D.C. Code § 1-617.4 [presumably 1-617.04], and the WASA Regulations applicable to the CMPA, DCRM [sic] ยงยง ...


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