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Santos v. Lynch

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 20, 2016

VIRNA L. SANTOS, Plaintiff,
v.
LORETTA LYNCH, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          AMY BERMAN JACKSON United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Virna L. Santos has brought this action against defendant Loretta Lynch, in her official capacity as Attorney General of the United States, alleging that her former employer, the Department of Justice, violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), when it retaliated against her and terminated her from her employment for engaging in protected activity. Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. Defendant has moved to dismiss this matter pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), on the grounds that plaintiff filed her civil action prematurely, prior to the expiration of the 180-day waiting period imposed by 29 C.F.R § 1614.407(d). Def's Mot. to Dismiss [Dkt. # 17] ("Def.'s Mot."). Because the Court finds that defendant is correct that plaintiff initiated this civil action before exhausting her administrative remedies, defendant's motion will be granted, and this case will be dismissed without prejudice.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff is an attorney and was formerly employed by the United States Department of Justice, Criminal Division, Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training. Compl. ¶ 4. From March 2011 until December 2013, she was the Regional Director of Latin America and the Caribbean, and from December 2013 until September 2014, she was the Regional Director of the Judicial Studies Institute. Id.

         Plaintiff claims that she engaged in protected activity when she reported alleged instances of misconduct by Kevin Sundwall, a Senior Resident Legal Assistant ("RLA"), to the Director and Deputy Director of her office, and when she later objected to what she perceived to be retaliation by those Directors against the employees who had complained to plaintiff about Sundwall. Compl. ¶ 6. She reported both issues to the Directors' supervisor, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General. Id. Plaintiff states that she was told in February 2013 that she had "exposed" her office's "leadership to the front office" by reporting the misconduct, and that "her continued tenure would not be guaranteed" as a result. Id. ¶ 7. She also alleges that she complained that one of her subordinates "touched her inappropriately" in July 2013, and that she was demoted shortly thereafter. Id. ¶ 8. Plaintiff claims that she was eventually terminated "based on false grounds of a lack of funding." Id. ¶ 9.

         Plaintiff filed an administrative complaint with the Department of Justice against her former office on August 25, 2014. Compl. ¶ 3; Compl. of Discrimination, Ex. A to Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. On December 15, 2015, the agency issued its final decision in her case, and plaintiff received the final decision, through counsel, on December 21, 2015. Compl.¶3. Plaintiff appealed the final agency decision to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on January 11, 2016. PL's Opp. to Def.'s Mot. [&] Related Req. for Interim Stay [Dkt. # 20] ("PL's Opp") at 1; see also Notice of Appeal/Pet., Ex. 2 to Def.'s Mot. [Dkt. # 17-2].

         While that appeal was pending, plaintiff initiated this civil action in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California on March 14, 2016. Compl. On May 27, 2016, the parties jointly stipulated to the transfer of the case to this District, see Stipulation & Proposed Order Re: Def.'s Mot. for Dismissal or Transfer [Dkt. # 13], and the case was assigned to this Court on June 2, 2016. Order Granting Stipulation Re: Def's Mot. for Dismissal or Transfer [Dkt. # 14]. On June 7, 2016, defendant moved pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss plaintiffs claims as untimely filed. Def.'s Mot.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         "To survive a [Rule 12(b)(6)] motion to dismiss, 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 Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible when the pleaded factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id., citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement, ' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. A pleading must offer more than "labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, " id., quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id., citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court is bound to construe a complaint liberally in the plaintiffs favor, and it should grant the plaintiff "the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged." Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). Nevertheless, the Court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if those inferences are unsupported by facts alleged in the complaint, nor must the Court accept plaintiffs legal conclusions. See id.; Browning v. Clinton, 292 F.3d 235, 242 (D.C. Cir. 2002). In ruling upon a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, a court may ordinarily consider only "the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached as exhibits or incorporated by reference in the complaint, and matters about which the Court may take judicial notice." Gustave-Schmidt v. Chao, 226 F.Supp.2d 191, 196 (D.D.C. 2002), citing EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117F.3d 621, 624-25 (D.C. Cir. 1997).

         ANALYSIS

         Defendant has moved to dismiss this case in its entirety without prejudice, on the grounds that plaintiff failed to comply with the requirements imposed by 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407. Def's Mot. Specifically, defendant maintains that because plaintiff appealed the agency's December 2015 final decision, she was required to wait to file a civil action in federal court until after receiving the EEOC's final decision on her appeal or 180 days after filing the appeal if no final decision was rendered. Def's Mot. at 3, citing 29 C.F.R. § 1614.407(c)-(d). Because the Court agrees that plaintiff failed to comply with those requirements, it will grant defendant's motion.[1]

         Under Title VII, a plaintiff "must timely exhaust [her] administrative remedies before bringing [her] claims to court." Payne v. Salazar, 619 F.3d 56, 65 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). While the time limits for filing imposed by Title VII and the related EEOC regulations are "not a jurisdictional prerequisite to suit in federal court" and are therefore "subject to waiver, estoppel, and equitable tolling, " they nevertheless operate "like a statute of limitations" that can bar a claim that is untimely filed. See Martini v. Fed. Nat'l Mortg. Ass'n, 178 F.3d 1336, 1348 (D.C. Cir. 1999); see also, e.g., Koch v. White, 967 F.Supp.2d 326, 332 (D.D.C. 2013) (observing that "[t]he ninety-day time limit" in 29 C.F.R § 1614.407(c) "functions like a statute of limitations"), quoting Mack v. WP Co., 923 F.Supp.2d 294, 298 (D.D.C. 2013).

         As part of that exhaustion process and pursuant to regulations promulgated by the EEOC, "[a] complainant who has filed an individual complaint... is authorized under [TJitle VII... to file a civil action in an appropriate United States ...


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