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Williams-Jefferies v. AARP

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 6, 2016

AARP, Defendant



         This is a discrimination case alleging violations of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq.; and D.C. common-law claims, including claims for intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress ("IIED" and "NIED"). Defendant AARP moves to dismiss Count III of the complaint, which alleges IIED and NIED, as time-barred, or, alternatively, for failure to state a claim. Dkt. 8. For the reasons stated below, the Court will grant the partial motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Because this case is before the Court on a motion to dismiss, the Court assumes the truth of the factual allegations in the complaint, from which the following details are drawn. Harris v. D.C. Water & Sewer Auth., 791 F.3d 65, 67 (D.C. Cir. 2015).[1]

         Plaintiff Darlene Williams-Jefferies worked at AARP, which was formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons, from 1980 to 2008. Dkt. 1-1 at 4 n.1. For much of that time, Williams-Jefferies, who is an African-American woman, worked as an "administrative associate." Id. at 4. In October 2006, she applied for a promotion to the position of Executive Secretary to the Director of the Office of Board Support. Id. In March 2007, her application was denied and the position was instead offered to a less experienced white male "contract employee" whom she had trained. See Id. at 25. In June 2007, Williams-Jefferies filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that she was denied the position because of her race. Id. at 4. In the ensuing investigation, AARP defended its decision not to select Williams-Jefferies for the position on the ground that the white employee was better qualified. Id. at 25-26.

         Williams-Jefferies alleges that, beginning after she filed her complaint with the EEOC and continuing through March 2008-when she was fired-she was subjected to hostility and mistreatment by her supervisors. Id. at 7. According to the complaint, shortly after she filed her EEOC complaint, Williams-Jefferies’s supervisor began to "bombard[]" her with tasks "with nearly impossible deadlines" and to prevent her from "seek[ing] assistance from colleagues." Id. at 10. In October 2007, several months after she filed the complaint, her supervisor brought her into his office, closed the door, and erupted, "burst[ing] into a shouting fit, " "slamm[ing] his fists repeatedly on his desk, turning red in the face, yelling, ‘It’s your job!’" Id. According to the complaint, Williams-Jefferies "felt physically threatened" by the incident. Id. at 14. In the wake of the October 2007 incident, Williams-Jefferies alleges, she met with AARP’s general counsel to discuss the incident and a possible transfer, but the general counsel told her that AARP could not accommodate her request. Id. at 10.

         AARP fired Williams-Jefferies in March 2008, citing her "continued poor performance and insubordination." Id. at 7, 27. The D.C. Office of Human Rights, to which the EEOC had referred Williams-Jefferies’s complaint, issued a report in February 2014, finding no probable cause to believe that she had been the victim of discrimination or retaliation. Id. at 36. The EEOC adopted the Office’s conclusions and issued Williams-Jefferies a right-to-sue letter in May 2015. Id. at 22. On August 6, 2015, Williams-Jefferies, then proceeding pro se, filed a complaint in D.C. Superior Court. Id. at 2. Construed liberally, the complaint appears to allege racial discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment in violation of Title VII and the D.C. Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. Id. at 3-17. It also appears to allege the common-law torts of wrongful discharge, IIED, and NIED. Id. AARP removed this action to federal court later that month. Dkt. 1 at 1.

         The matter is now before the Court on AARP’s partial motion to dismiss. Dkt. 8. The motion is opposed by Williams-Jefferies, who has now obtained counsel. Dkt. 14.


         A motion to dismiss brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is designed to "test the legal sufficiency of a complaint." Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court "must first ‘tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state [the] claim to relief, ’ and then determine whether the plaintiff has pleaded those elements with adequate factual support to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’" Blue v. District of Columbia, 811 F.3d 14, 20 (D.C. Cir. 2015) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 675, 678 (2009)). 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. 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.


         Although the complaint includes multiple claims, AARP moves to dismiss only Count III, which claims that AARP intentionally or negligently caused Williams-Jefferies emotional distress. See Dkt. 1-1 at 13-16. That Count alleges that Williams-Jefferies suffered acute emotional distress as a result of "the disparate treatment, the retaliation and wrongful termination" that she experienced-and, in particular, as a result of the October 2007 incident with her supervisor, in which he became "violently enraged, slamming his fists and yelling at her in such a way that the entire office could hear." Id. at 13-14. It further alleges that Williams-Jefferies felt "physically threatened and defensive" as a result of her supervisor’s conduct, and adds that she "can recall several other incidents where her supervisor was similarly or equally volatile toward her." Id. at 14.

         AARP makes three arguments why Count III should be dismissed. First, AARP argues that Williams-Jefferies’s IIED and NIED claims are both untimely, because under D.C. law the statute of limitations for an IIED or NIED claim is three years, and Williams-Jefferies did not bring suit until more than seven years after she was fired. Dkt. 8-1 at 4-5. Second, AARP argues that the allegations contained in Count III, even taken as true, do not state an IIED claim, because the conduct Williams-Jefferies describes is insufficiently "extreme and outrageous" to satisfy the high standard set by D.C. law for pleading IIED claims. Id. at 5-8. Finally, AARP argues that the relevant allegations also fail to state an NIED claim, because they do not show that she was in a "zone of physical danger, " as required under D.C. law. Id. at 8-10. The Court agrees that the claims are untimely.

         Absent the operation of some rule that would extend the accrual of Williams-Jefferies’s IIED and NIED claims, or alter or toll the statute of limitations, it is clear that the claims are untimely. The D.C. Code specifies different statutes of limitations for different common-law causes of action. See D.C. Code § 12-301. Although the Code does not provide a specific limitations period for IIED and NIED claims, it includes a "residual" statute of limitations of three years for causes of action "not otherwise specifically prescribed." Id. § 12-301(8). The D.C. Court of Appeals has confirmed that this three-year statute applies to IIED claims, see Saunders v. Nemati, 580 A.2d 660, 661 (D.C. 1990), and the parties agree that, at least in the usual course, it applies to NIED claims as well. Here, Williams-Jefferies’s IIED and NIED claims arise out of events that took place during her employment at AARP, which ended in March 2008. She did not file ...

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