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Hewitt v. Chugach Government Services, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

December 5, 2016

GLENFORD HEWITT, Plaintiff,
v.
CHUGACH GOVERNMENT SERVICES, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Glenford Hewitt worked for six years as a Facility Maintenance Technician for Defendant Chugach Government Services, Inc., here in Washington. In the summer of 2016, Chugach fired him for allegedly sleeping on the job. He responded with this suit for wrongful termination, which Defendant now moves to dismiss. As Chugach correctly points out, Hewitt has not demonstrated that his claim falls within the public-policy exception to the doctrine that bars at-will employees from suing for wrongful discharge. The Court will thus grant Defendant's Motion.

         I. Background

         According to Plaintiff's Complaint, which must be presumed true for purposes of this Motion, he “was employed on an at-will basis as a Facility Maintenance Technician by Defendant through Potomac Job Corps Center, Washington, District of Columbia, [] since March 22, 2010.” ECF No. 1-1, Attach. B (Complaint), ¶ 2. “On or about June 22, 2016[, ] Defendant alleged that Plaintiff was ‘sleeping' on the job and as proof thereof, the Human Resources Manager alleged in writing that it [sic] ‘received a picture' of Plaintiff sleeping on the job” that day. Id., ¶ 5. Although Plaintiff denied such somnolence, the company nonetheless relieved him of his position in early July. Id., ¶¶ 6-7. Hewitt alleges that Defendant subsequently admitted that no photographic proof existed. Id., ¶ 10.

         The Complaint sets out no specific causes of action. Given that it is entitled “Complaint for Wrongful Termination of Employment, ” id. at 1, however, the Court assumes this is the sole count asserted. Plaintiff initially filed in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, but Defendant removed the matter here on the basis of diversity jurisdiction on November 2, 2016. See ECF No. 1. In setting out his claim, Hewitt alleges that his termination contravened the District's public policy set forth in “D.C. Code, Title 51-110(b)(1)(2) [sic], ” Compl., ¶ 11, a code section related to unemployment benefits. More particularly, he alleges that, in responding to his application for unemployment compensation, “the District of Columbia Department of Employment Services concluded that Defendant has not established gross misconduct for the discharge of Plaintiff from his employment.” Id., ¶ 9. Hewitt also claims to have “reasonably relied on the provisions of the personnel manual regarding the cause for which employees could be terminated and the procedures set forth for such termination, ” which procedures, he believes, were not followed. Id., ¶ 8.

         Defendant has now moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 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 Defendants' 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)) (citation omitted); see also Jerome Stevens Pharms., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1250 (D.C. Cir. 2005). The 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. Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 238 (1974).

         Although “detailed factual allegations” are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), “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)). For a plaintiff to survive a 12(b)(6) motion even if “‘recovery is very remote and unlikely, '” moreover, 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 (citing Rhodes, 416 U.S. at 236).

         III. Analysis

         Plaintiff's claim here is that Chugach improperly sacked him. His principal hurdle, therefore, is his concession that he was merely an at-will employee. See Compl., ¶ 2. Such status is not necessarily fatal to a wrongful-termination suit, however, as the Court explained in a similar case:

The general law “in the District of Columbia [is] that an employer may discharge an at-will employee at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.” Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., Inc., 597 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1991) (citations omitted). In Adams, the D.C. Court of Appeals held that “there is a very narrow exception to the at-will doctrine under which a discharged at-will employee may sue his or her former employer for wrongful discharge when the sole reason for the discharge is the employee's refusal to violate the law, as expressed in a statute or municipal regulation.” Id. at 34.
The DCCA then expanded this exception six years later in its en banc decision in Carl v. Children's Hospital, 702 A.2d 159 (D.C. 1997). The plaintiff in Carl was a nurse who was terminated after she testified in the City Council against the hospital's interests and also as an expert witness for plaintiffs in malpractice cases. Id. at 160. The majority of the DCCA - as constituted by those joining Judge Terry's concurrence and Judge Steadman's dissent - held that Adams's exception was not the only possible one, but that “the recognition of any such [future public-policy] exception must be firmly anchored either in the Constitution or in a statute or regulation which clearly reflects the particular ‘public policy' being relied upon.” Id. at 162 (Terry, J., concurring). In addition, “[t]his court should consider seriously only those arguments that reflect a clear mandate of public policy - i.e., those that make a clear showing, based on some identifiable policy that has been ‘officially declared' in a statute or ...

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