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McCaskill v. Gallaudet Univ.

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

April 14, 2014


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For Angela Mccaskilll, Plaintiff: Raouf Muhammad Abdullah, RAOUF M. ABDULLAH & ASSOCIATES, LLC, Upper Marlboro, MD USA; Jon Wyndal Gordon, THE LAW OFFICE OF J. WYNDAL GORDON, P.A., Baltimore, MD USA.

For Gallaudet University, Defendant: Christopher E. Hassell, LEAD ATTORNEY, BONNER KIERNAN TREBACH & CROCIATA, LLP, Washington , DC USA.

For Martina Bienvenu, Kendra Smith, Defendants: Justin Michael Flint, LEAD ATTORNEY, ECCLESTON & WOLF, Washington, DC USA.

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JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

As Gallaudet University's Chief Diversity Officer, Plaintiff Angela McCaskill was tasked with promoting a diverse and inclusive college community. In October 2012, several of McCaskill's coworkers learned that she had signed a petition to place Maryland's Proposition 6 -- a state constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage -- on the ballot. When this fact became more widely known on campus, Gallaudet administrators decided that McCaskill's ability to advocate for her constituents -- in particular the university's gay community -- had been compromised. As a result of that decision -- or, as Plaintiff tells it, because of her race, religion, marital status, sexual orientation, and political affiliation -- Gallaudet placed her on administrative leave and, ultimately, demoted her. When the university failed to restore McCaskill to her position after the furor had died down, she brought this diversity action alleging that the university had violated the D.C. Human Rights Act's prohibitions against various forms of discrimination and had intentionally or negligently caused her emotional distress. She asserts, moreover, that after she signed the petition, the university -- acting through two of its employees -- defamed her and placed her in a false light.

Gallaudet has now responded by filing two Motions to Dismiss. The first argues that those two employees, whom Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed by filing an Amended Complaint, are indispensable parties; as their joinder would destroy diversity, the motion asserts, the suit cannot proceed. The second contends that McCaskill has not sufficiently pled facts to support any of her claims. Convinced by Defendant's substantive arguments, the Court will grant its second Motion and dismiss this case.

I. Background

According to Plaintiff's Complaint, which the Court must presume to be true for the purpose of these Motions, McCaskill was employed at Gallaudet at all times relevant to this case, and at least since 2012. See Compl., ¶ 7. As Deputy to the President of the university, Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, and Chief Diversity Officer, she was responsible for " foster[ing] and advanc[ing] a strategic and integrated approach to diversity priorities in all aspects of University life" and " establishing diversity priorities and enforc[ing] guidelines for the University that ensure[] equity, inclusion, and social justice." Id., ¶ 8.

On October 3, 2012, McCaskill received an e-mail from a co-worker, Dr. Martina Bienvenu, in which Bienvenu asked for a meeting to discuss an issue related to same-sex marriage in Maryland. Id., ¶ 9. At the meeting, Plaintiff alleges, Bienvenu " confronted [her] in a very hostile manner" regarding Plaintiff's decision to sign a petition to place Proposition 6 on the ballot. Id., ¶ 10. Plaintiff responded, " Yes, I did sign the petition. . . . I signed the petition

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at church during a [worship] service last July." Id., ¶ 11. At that point, McCaskill complains, Bienvenu " responded in a very animated manner," exclaiming, " I am really disgusted with you!" and asking, " Are you still a member of that church?" before " criticiz[ing] Plaintiff's Christian faith and belittl[ing] her religious beliefs." Id., ¶ 13. The interaction concluded with Bienvenu's telling Plaintiff that the names and addresses of the people who signed the petition were a matter of public record, which Plaintiff took to imply " that harm could come to her home at the behest of Bienvenu." Id., ¶ 14.

Plaintiff believes, moreover, that Bienvenu did not leave things there. Instead, she alleges, Bienvenu and her partner, Kendra Smith, spoke anonymously to, telling the web site, among other things, that Plaintiff had signed an " anti-gay" marriage petition and that she supported overturning Maryland's same-sex-marriage legislation. See id., ¶ ¶ 99, 110.

" [G]reatly disturbed emotionally," id., ¶ 18, Plaintiff took the matter to the Gallaudet administration. Although the President of the university expressed " shock and dismay" at Bienvenu's actions, id., ¶ 19, no investigation was forthcoming, Bienvenu was not punished, see id., ¶ ¶ 21-25, and Plaintiff's mistreatment at the hands of the Gallaudet faculty continued. See id., ¶ 57. The university placed her on " administrative leave," see id., ¶ 41, and ultimately demoted her and cut her office's budget by 32 percent. See id., ¶ ¶ 52, 55. Despite several requests for redress, Plaintiff never got her old job back.

Feeling she had no other options, McCaskill filed this suit in September of 2013, asserting causes of action against Gallaudet for discriminatory treatment, disparate impact, retaliation, maintenance of a hostile work environment, and aiding and abetting discrimination, all in violation of the DCHRA (Count I); intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count V); and negligence (Count VI); and against both the university and Bienvenu and Smith for defamation and false-light invasion of privacy (Counts II-IV). In December, Plaintiff voluntarily dismissed Bienvenu and Smith, whose presence would have defeated diversity . See Mot. for Leave to File Amended Complaint, ¶ 1. Gallaudet has now moved to dismiss on the grounds that the two individual defendants are necessary parties under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and that Plaintiff has failed to adequately plead any of her claims.

II. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for 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, 342 U.S.App.D.C. 268 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (quoting Schuler v. United States, 617 F.2d 605, 608, 199 U.S.App.D.C. 23 (D.C. Cir. 1979)) (internal citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253, 365 U.S.App.D.C. 270 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The notice-pleading rules are " not meant to impose a great burden upon a plaintiff," Dura Pharms., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347, 125 S.Ct. 1627, 161 L.Ed.2d 577 (2005), and she must thus be granted every favorable inference that may be drawn from her allegations of fact. See Sparrow, 216 F.3d at 1114.

" [D]etailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007),

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but " 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, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Plaintiffs 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" or an inference unsupported by the facts set forth in the Complaint. Trudeau v. FTC, 456 F.3d 178, 193, 372 U.S.App.D.C. 335 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986)) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although a plaintiff may survive a 12(b)(6) motion even if " recovery is very remote and unlikely," Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (citing Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974)), the facts alleged in the complaint " must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. at 555.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(7) also outlines a standard for dismissal, in this case for " failure to join a [necessary] party under Rule 19." The burden is on the defendant to show that joinder is required, see Citadel Inv. Grp., LLC v. Citadel Capital Co., 699 F.Supp.2d 303, 317 (D.D.C. 2010), and courts have generally been reluctant to grant Rule 12(b)(7) motions, finding that " dismissal is warranted only when the defect is serious and cannot be cured." Direct Supply, Inc. v. Specialty Hosps. of Amer., LLC, 878 F.Supp.2d 13, 23 (D.D.C. 2012) (citation omitted). As with Rule 12(b)(6) motions, a court must accept the allegations contained in the plaintiff's complaint as true for the purpose of the Rule 12(b)(7) inquiry. See 16th & K Hotel, LP v. Commonwealth Land Title Ins. Co., 276 F.R.D. 8, 12 (D.D.C. 2011).

III. Analysis

Defendant argues that the Court must dismiss Plaintiff's suit in its entirety. Gallaudet begins by addressing the voluntary dismissal of former defendants Bienvenu and Smith, contending that because the two are necessary parties, the litigation may not proceed without them. If the Court reaches the merits, moreover, the university asserts that Plaintiff's claims all fall short. The Court will address each of these arguments in turn.

A. Indispensable Parties

Gallaudet first posits that this suit must be dismissed because Plaintiff has failed to join all indispensable parties -- namely, Bienvenu and Smith. Federal Rule 19 " establishes [the] procedure for determining whether an action must be dismissed because of the absence of a party needed for a just adjudication." Cherokee Nation of Okla. v. Babbitt, 117 F.3d 1489, 1495-96, 326 U.S.App.D.C. 139 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Rule 19 requires joinder of " [a] person who is subject to service of process and whose joinder will not deprive the court of subject-matter jurisdiction" if:

(A) in that person's absence, the court cannot accord complete relief among existing parties; or (B) that person claims an interest relating to the subject of the action and is so situated that disposing of the action in the person's absence may: (i) as a practical matter impair or impede the person's ability to protect the interest; or (ii) leave an existing party subject to a substantial risk of incurring double, multiple, or otherwise inconsistent obligations because of the interest.

If the Court finds that a " required" person has not been joined, it " must order that the person be made a party." ...

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