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Abraham v. Burwell

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 8, 2015

GALA ABRAHAM, Plaintiff,
SYLVIA MATHEWS BURWELL, Secretary, U.S. Dep't of Health and Human Services, Defendant.


JAMES E. BOASBERG, District Judge.

Plaintiff Gala Abraham, a black woman over the age of 40, is a former employee of the Food and Drug Administration, a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services located in Maryland. She contends that, beginning in 2010, her supervisors improperly declined to select her for promotions and transfer and, ultimately, wrongfully terminated her employment.

Believing that such actions constitute discrimination on the basis of her race, sex, and color, as well as retaliation for engaging in protected activities, Plaintiff brought this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., against the Secretary of HHS. Defendant now moves to dismiss or, in the alternative, for transfer of venue under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(3). As HHS correctly points out that the case does not belong in the District of Columbia, the Court will grant the Motion and transfer the matter to Maryland.

I. Background

According to Plaintiff's Complaint, Abraham worked as a Management Specialist at the FDA beginning in 2003. See Compl., ¶¶ 4, 6. She was based at an FDA office in Rockville, Maryland, from 2003-07, and then subsequently in the agency's office in Silver Spring, Maryland, until her termination. See Mot., Att. 1 (Declaration of Michelle King), ¶ 3. Abraham alleges that her supervisors at the Maryland offices "participated in/or approved numerous actions which created workplace hostility and harm" that ultimately resulted in her termination in 2012. See Compl., ¶ 6.

Plaintiff first encountered the alleged discrimination in 2010 when her immediate supervisor informed her that she need not apply for a vacant position at a higher step level - a promotion with an increased salary - because she would not be selected. See Compl., ¶ 18. Following this incident, Abraham contacted an EEO counselor and filed complaints asserting that she had been discriminated against on the basis of race, color, sex, and age. See id., ¶ 48. She later filed additional complaints claiming retaliation and workplace hostility. See id.

Plaintiff was thereafter rejected for step-level promotions in September 2011 and January 2012 and denied permanent transfer to the Office of Compliance, even though she had a "fully successful" performance rating during a temporary detail to that office. See id., ¶¶ 10, 17-27. The Court takes judicial notice that the Office of Compliance is located in Silver Spring, Maryland. See MedicalProductsandTobacco/CDER/ucm081992.htm. Plaintiff also alleges that her EEO activity led the Office of Internal Affairs to include her in an investigation of an office affair between a coworker and a supervisor. See id., ¶ 11. During mandatory interviews, Plaintiff was given an "Administrative Warning" regarding her alleged involvement in the affair, see id., ¶¶ 13-14, although the import of such warnings is unclear. On one occasion, she was informed that she was suspected of distributing pornographic DVDs and sexually explicit letters to co-workers, id., ¶ 15, and in February 2012, the FDA suspended her for 12 days without pay for this conduct. See id., ¶ 29. Before she served the suspension, however, Abraham received a Notice of Proposed Removal. See id., ¶ 30.

Upon her termination, Plaintiff filed an appeal with the United States Merit Systems Protection Board. See id., ¶ 48. After failing to achieve success there, she brought this action. Defendant has now moved for dismissal or transfer of venue.

II. Legal Standard

When presented with a motion to dismiss or transfer for improper venue under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(3), the Court "accepts the plaintiff's well-pled factual allegations regarding venue as true, draws all reasonable inferences from those allegations in the plaintiff's favor, and resolves any factual conflicts in the plaintiff's favor." Pendleton v. Mukasey, 552 F.Supp.2d 14, 17 (D.D.C. 2008) (citing Darby v. Dep't of Energy, 231 F.Supp.2d 274, 276-77 (D.D.C. 2002)). The Court need not, however, accept the plaintiff's legal conclusions as true, Darby, 231 F.Supp.2d at 277, and may consider material outside of the pleadings. See Artis v. Greenspan, 223 F.Supp.2d 149, 152 (D.D.C. 2002) (citing Land v. Dollar, 330 U.S. 731, 735 n.4 (1947)). "Because it is the plaintiff's obligation to institute the action in a permissible forum, the plaintiff usually bears the burden of establishing that venue is proper." Freeman v. Fallin, 254 F.Supp.2d 52, 56 (D.D.C. 2003); 15 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 3826 (2d ed. 1986 & Supp. 2006) ("[W]hen an objection has been raised, the burden is on the plaintiff to establish that the district he or she has chosen is a proper venue."). To prevail on a motion to dismiss for improper venue, however, "the defendant must present facts that will defeat the plaintiff's assertion of venue." Khalil v. L-3 Commc'ns Titan Grp., 656 F.Supp.2d 134, 135 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing James v. Verizon Servs. Corp., 639 F.Supp.2d 9, 11 (D.D.C. 2009)). "Unless there are pertinent factual disputes to resolve, a challenge to venue presents a pure question of law." Williams v. GEICO Corp., 792 F.Supp.2d 58, 62 (D.D.C. 2011).

III. Analysis

Venue in Title VII cases is governed by statute. Such an action may be properly brought (1) "in any judicial district in the State in which the unlawful employment practice is alleged to have been committed, " (2) "in the judicial district in which the employment records relevant to such practice are maintained and administered, " or (3) "in the judicial district in which the aggrieved person would have worked but for the alleged unlawful employment practice...." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(3). The fourth prong of this test provides that "if the respondent is not found within any such district, such an action may be brought within the judicial district in which the respondent has his principal office." Id.

In moving for dismissal or transfer here, Defendant argues that the District of Columbia is an improper venue under this statute. More specifically, HHS contends that each of the first three prongs demonstrates that Maryland is the only appropriate venue, and that ...

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