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Pitts v. Howard University

United States District Court, District Circuit

January 9, 2014

TYRONE PITTS, Plaintiff,


JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge

Plaintiff Tyrone Pitts has worked at Defendant Howard University for over fifteen years in a variety of finance-related roles. His lawsuit alleges that in 2011, after he asserted concerns about tax issues and a possible fraud on Howard, the university transferred him to a lesser position with significantly diminished responsibilities. He complains that such transfer was also occasioned by his race (black) and in retaliation for his filing of an internal complaint. These facts, he alleges, support causes of action under the False Claims Act, Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Human Rights Act.

Howard has now responded by filing a Motion to Dismiss, which argues that Pitts has sufficiently pled neither a “protected activity” under the FCA nor an “adverse employment action” under the discrimination and retaliation counts. Unconvinced by Defendant’s contentions, the Court will deny its Motion.

I. Background

According to Plaintiff’s Complaint, which the Court must presume true for purposes of this Motion, Pitts has been employed at Howard since November 1998. See Compl., ¶ 1. After beginning as a Section Chief in the Office of the Controller, he moved in March 1999 to Director of Cash Management, then in 2007 to Senior Treasurer Director, and in January 2010 to Assistant Treasurer. See id., ¶ 9. In March 2010, Plaintiff raised his concerns about unspecified tax issues, which involved financial mismanagement and a possible fraud on the university, to the Deputy Chief Financial Officer, a “Ms. Sarikas, ” who “told [him] to form a task force to determine the full scope of the problem.” Compl., ¶¶ 24, 34. After he did so and offered a recommendation, things began heading south. The recommendation was rejected “without review, ” and Pitts was informed that “he was to have no further involvement in tax issues.” Id. More alarming, Sarikas thereafter began to refer to blacks on her staff as “you people, ” to exclude Plaintiff from meetings, and to unfairly blame him for problems. See id.

On October 7, 2010, Pitts filed an official internal complaint alleging a pattern of race discrimination against blacks and a hostile work environment directed against him because of his race, see id., ¶¶ 10, 25, and he followed this up less than three weeks later with a formal charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Office of Human Rights, alleging discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. See id., ¶ 11. He also complained to the EEOC that Sarikas did not provide him with a performance appraisal, which could have made him eligible for a raise. See id., ¶ 30. As a result of his complaint, he was removed from his Assistant Treasurer position on March 22, 2011, and placed in the position of Payroll and Budget Officer. See id., ¶ 12. This meant that Pitts went from a position that supervised 26 direct reports to one that supervised only four. See id., ¶ 19. He also lost a number of responsibilities in the demotion. See id., ¶ 20. His annual salary of $140, 000 remained constant. See id., ¶ 23.

Pitts further alleges that the Howard University EEO office that conducted an investigation of his internal discrimination complaint recommended counseling for Plaintiff’s supervisors. See id., ¶ 27. The chronology of the Complaint, however, becomes confused here. Plaintiff alleges that Howard, through its Deputy General Counsel, also informed him in November 2011 that he would be reassigned to the Office of Human Resources to function as its Director of Payroll. See id., ¶ 28. Yet, Plaintiff then says he signed the reassignment letter on May 22, 2011, which is six months earlier. See id., ¶ 29. It is also unclear whether “May 22, 2011” in ¶ 29 is the same as “March 22, 2011” in ¶ 12 or how the November 2011 letter in ¶ 28 precedes either of these, even though the timeline of incidents implies it did.

In any event, in July 2012, Plaintiff was moved back to the CFO’s office, albeit in a lesser position than Assistant Treasurer, which move was ostensibly “in retaliation for [his] threat that he would possibly engage in whistleblowing regarding the financial mismanagement he had observed.” Id., ¶ 31.

He filed this suit on September 13, 2013, asserting causes of action for Retaliation in Violation of the False Claims Act (Count I), Race Discrimination in Violation of Title VII (Count II), 42 U.S.C. § 1981 (Count III), and the D.C. Human Rights Act (Count IV), and Retaliation for Filing an EEOC Charge in Violation of Title VII (Count V). Defendant has now moved to dismiss.

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.” In evaluating Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, 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) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (internal citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The notice-pleading rules are “not meant to impose a great burden upon a plaintiff, ” Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005), and he must thus be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 584 (2007).

Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, id. at 555, “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. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). 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 556.

III. Analysis

In seeking dismissal, Howard offers two principal arguments: first, that Plaintiff’s False Claims Act count cannot succeed because he did not engage in a protected activity; and second, that Pitts’s remaining discrimination and retaliation claims are deficient in that they ...

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