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Brown v. Whole Foods Market Group, Inc.

United States District Court, District Circuit

September 4, 2013

RANDY BROWN, Plaintiff,


JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

Pro se Plaintiff Randy Brown is a black man who allegedly suffers from a cognitive disability that can sometimes disorient him. His unpleasant interactions with the staff of his local supermarket precipitated this suit against Whole Foods Market Group, Inc., for discrimination on the basis of disability status and race in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Whole Foods has now filed a Motion to Dismiss Brown’s Complaint, contending that his claims are infirm under both laws. Agreeing, the Court will grant the Motion.

I. Background

According to Brown, whose allegations the Court must accept as true at this stage, Whole Foods employees repeatedly harassed him on account of his race and disability status as he attempted to shop at the grocery chain’s Foggy Bottom location. See Compl. at 1-2; Am. Compl. at 1-3. Brown’s disability is a cognitive one that can cause him to become disoriented and distracted on occasion. See Compl. at 1.

In his pleadings, Brown alleges several instances of abuse that he suffered at the hands of Whole Foods staff. In the first incident, on an unspecified date, a cashier asked him, “Wouldn’t your food stamps buy more at a less expensive store?” Am. Compl. at 1. Brown explained that he did not receive food stamps, but the cashier, in a voice loud enough to be heard by other shoppers, insisted that he had seen Brown use food stamps at the store before and ridiculed him for doing so. Id. Brown complained to the store’s management, and the cashier was reassigned to stocking shelves, thereafter displaying “open resentment and hostility” whenever he encountered Brown in the aisles. Id. at 2. Several other employees subsequently made similar disparaging remarks to Brown. See id.

Another time, in late January 2012, a Whole Foods employee allegedly refused to serve Brown a sample of deli meat because, he told Brown, he did not believe that he actually intended to buy the product. See Compl. at 1. The employee eventually offered Brown the meat, but he used his bare fingers to pass the morsel to him, dispensing with the gloves and napkins typically used for other customers. See id. When Brown declined to accept the food in such a manner, the employee shared the story with another staff member while both pointed at Brown and laughed. See id. at 2. A few days later, that second staff member followed Brown as he browsed the store, at one point falsely accusing him of stealing olives. See id.

Brown claims that he once again complained to store management about this treatment, notifying them of his disability, “explain[ing] that the harassment was causing confusion, ” and “ask[ing] that management be aware that [he] was susceptible to confusion in complicated situations.” Id. He also requested “an accommodation that would allow [him] to receive help from a manager in order to prevent future problems.” Id.

In the last alleged incident, on February 4, 2012, Brown returned to the Foggy Bottom Whole Foods and noticed that a store employee was following and taking pictures of him. See Am. Compl. at 3. When Brown asked the employee why he was photographing him, the employee accused Brown of being a thief, told him that he had called the police, and advised him to leave the Whole Foods and never return. See Compl. at 2. At this, Brown experienced a panic attack that rendered him incapable of responding. See id. When the police arrived, they arrested Brown for trespassing and theft, though both charges were ultimately dropped. See Id . at 3.

Brown’s allegations against Whole Foods are divided between two separate Complaints filed several months apart. The first, filed on February 8, 2013, alleges claims solely under the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq. See id. at 1-3. The second, an “Amended” Complaint, filed on June 17, focuses exclusively on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000a et seq. See Am. Compl. at 1-7. In the interim, Whole Foods filed a Motion to Dismiss on April 16 that addressed Brown’s ADA claims. See MTD Compl. Upon Brown’s filing of his Amended Complaint, the Court denied Whole Foods’s Motion without prejudice so that it could file a new motion to dismiss that would respond to Brown’s new allegations. See Minute Order, June 20, 2013. Whole Foods, justifiably confused as to whether Brown’s Amended Complaint was intended to supersede or supplement his original filing, inferred the former and thus addressed its second Motion to Dismiss solely to Brown’s Civil Rights Act claims. See MTD Am. Compl.

Because complaints filed by pro se litigants are “h[e]ld to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers, ” Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972), the Court will treat Brown’s Amended Complaint as supplemental to his first, thereby preserving his initial allegations under the ADA in addition to his new Civil Rights Act claims. In fairness to Whole Foods, however, the Court will also consider the challenges to Brown’s ADA claims contained in Whole Foods’s April 16 Motion to Dismiss. The Court notes that Brown previously filed a Response in Opposition to that Motion, see ECF No. 11 (June 17, 2013), as well as a very recent pleading in the nature of a surreply, see ECF No. 20 (Aug. 28, 2013, Supplemental Memorandum), both of which the Court will consider.

II. Legal Standard

Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a court must dismiss a claim for relief when the complaint “fail[s] to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” In evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must “treat the complaint’s factual allegations as true and must grant plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A court need not accept as true, however, “a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” nor an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the complaint. Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). This standard also governs the Court’s consideration of Rule 12(b)(1) motions to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974) (“in passing on a motion to dismiss, whether on the ground of lack of jurisdiction over the subject matter or for failure to state a cause of action, the allegations of the complaint should be construed favorably to the pleader”); Walker v. Jones, 733 F.2d 923, 926-26 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (same).

Although “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, [if] accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation omitted). A plaintiff may survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion even if “recovery is very remote and unlikely, ” but the facts alleged in the complaint “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56 (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)). Finally, although pro se complaints receive some leeway as compared to those composed by trained attorneys, see Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), they must still ‚Äúplead factual ...

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