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Holmes v. University of the District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 23, 2017

KASHAWNA HOLMES, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          RANDOLPH D. MOSS United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Kashawna Holmes worked for the University of the District of Columbia in what municipal regulations call a “sponsored program appointment.” See D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 8-B, § 1700.1. The University declined to renew her appointment while she was on job-protected medical leave for complications arising from her high-risk pregnancy. In response, Holmes brought this suit against the University for violations of the D.C. Family Medical Leave Act (“DCFMLA”), the D.C. Human Rights Act (“DCHRA”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”). The University now moves to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Dkt. 19.

         As alleged in the complaint, prior to her termination, Holmes had a number of “uncomfortable” interactions with the alleged decisionmaker, Elgoria Harrison, regarding her pregnancy, marital status, and use of pre-approved sick leave for pregnancy-related doctors' appointments. Not surprisingly, the parties paint very different pictures of those conversations. According to Holmes, the key takeaway is that Harrison conveyed her disapproval of Holmes's decisions to have a child out a wedlock and to take sick leave to attend to her pregnancy, and it was that disapproval that prompted her termination. The University, on the other hand, contends that Harrison's comments were entirely innocent and bear no relationship to its decision not to renew Holmes's employment.

         As explained below, this factual dispute is not suited for resolution on a motion to dismiss, nor does the University identify any other sound basis to challenge the legal sufficiency of the complaint. The Court will, accordingly, DENY the University's motion to dismiss.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In evaluating the University's motion to dismiss, the Court takes Holmes's factual allegations as true. See, e.g., Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 322 (2007). The Court also considers “documents incorporated into the complaint by reference” and “matters of which [it] may take judicial notice.” Id.

         A. Structure of Holmes's Employment

         Holmes began work as a Program Coordinator for the University on March 1, 2013. Am. Compl. ¶ 13. Her offer letter described her job as a “temporary sponsored program appointment, ” meaning the position's continued existence was contingent upon the availability of grant funding. Dkt. 20-1 at 2 (Offer Letter). “If funding for the position should no longer be available, ” the letter explained, “then the position must immediately end.” Id. But her appointment had “been established” (i.e., had received funding) through September 30, 2013. Id.

         Holmes's initial supervisor nonetheless assured her that her position “was permanent for all practical purposes.” Am. Compl. ¶ 16. “[T]he grant that funded the position had been continuously renewed for approximately 30 years, ” she said, and “the employees who worked under that grant routinely had their employment continued.” Id. For instance, the male employee who had most recently occupied the position had held it for five years before leaving voluntarily. Id. ¶ 17. The notice attached to Holmes's offer letter likewise explained that her position, “while not permanent, ” was “essentially [an] indefinite term appointment[].” Dkt. 20-1 at 4. But, it explained, because “[t]here is no automatic right to continued employment”-even if the position is re-funded-the documentation needed “to correctly reflect the actual term of appointment under the current grant.” Id. at 5 (emphasis added).

         When Holmes's appointment expired on October 1, 2013, her employment “simply continued.” Am. Compl. ¶ 18. On October 25, 2013, the University retroactively extended her appointment through September 30, 2014, Dkt. 20-1 at 9, apparently without needing to consult Holmes, see Am. Compl. ¶ 18. And Holmes later learned that the position had been funded through at least 2015. Am. Compl. ¶ 55.

         B. Holmes's High-Risk Pregnancy

         In November 2013, Elgoria Harrison became Holmes's new supervisor, id. ¶ 20, and two months later, in January 2014, Holmes learned that she was pregnant, id. ¶ 22. This was not the first time Holmes had been pregnant; she had suffered several miscarriages in the past. Id. ¶ 23. Doctors therefore considered her pregnancy “high risk.” Id. They advised her to consult a specialist, in addition to her regular obstetrician. Id. ¶ 30. And, given the risk that her pregnancy might end in another miscarriage, Holmes opted to keep the news to herself until later in her pregnancy. Id. ¶ 23.

         Harrison, however, soon outted Holmes's condition. At a staff meeting in early 2014, Harrison pointed at Holmes's stomach, asking her, “Is there something you need to tell me?” Id. ¶ 24. “Feeling pressured, ” Holmes “reluctantly confirmed that she was pregnant.” Id. ¶ 25. Harrison then “proceeded to pepper [her] with questions about her pregnancy, ” including “whether she was happy about [it].” Id. Holmes “felt extremely uncomfortable, ” as she “had only met . . . Harrison briefly before this meeting.” Id. ¶ 26. She “could not believe that . . .Harrison would put her on the spot to disclose her pregnancy in front of other employees like that.” Id. And she “worried about what would happen if she miscarried, ” as she would now be “forced to explain it to her coworkers.” Id.

         Several weeks later, Harrison overheard Holmes mention “her roommate” during a breakroom conversation with a coworker. Id. ¶ 27. Unprompted, Harrison interrupted to inform Holmes-in front of several other employees-that Harrison personally “would never have considered having a baby when she was living with a roommate or in her parents' home” and that, “by the time [Harrison] had a baby, she was married and she and her husband had a house together.” Id. Harrison knew at the time that Holmes was neither married to nor living with her child's father (who was then living overseas). Id. ¶ 28. Harrison's comments made Holmes feel “embarrassed, ” “self-conscious, ” and “ashamed.” Id. ¶ 29. “She believed that . . . Harrison had expressed that she was irresponsible for having a baby when she was not married.” Id.

         Tensions again arose in early April, when Holmes took a sick day to attend two doctors' appointments (one for her regular doctor, and one for her specialist). See Id. ¶¶ 30-31. “[A]s was standard procedure for [University] employees, ” Holmes requested leave in advance from the University's Human Resources Department, and “the director of the department” approved that request. Id. ¶ 31. As a courtesy, Holmes also emailed the employees with whom she worked, including Harrison, notifying them that she would be gone for the day. Id. ¶ 32.

         Two days after the appointments, Harrison responded to that email. Id. ¶ 33. “I'm curious, ” she wrote to Holmes, “[d]oes your doctor require an all day appointment? I have not know[n] doctor's appointments to be all day; however, you may have a special case.” Id. This inquiry, and its implication that Holmes had “somehow abus[ed] her sick leave, ” left Holmes feeling “upset and confused.” Id. ¶ 34. The director of human resources had already approved her leave. Id. ¶ 31. Harrison ordinarily played no role in such decisions. Id. Yet, after the fact, she was questioning whether Holmes had needed to take a full day of leave and was seeking personal medical information. Id. ¶¶ 31, 34. She accordingly went to see the director of human resources, where she confided that “she did not understand why . . . Harrison was asking these questions” and that “she thought . . . Harrison was trying to get rid of her.” Id. ¶ 35. The director of human resources instructed her to answer Harrison's questions. Id. ¶ 36.

         At that point, Holmes “felt that she had no choice” but to disclose to Harrison that her pregnancy was high-risk. Id. ¶ 37. When she did so, Harrison probed further: “What makes you high risk?” Id. Holmes asked why Harrison needed this personal information. Id. ¶ 38. Harrison responded that she needed to make sure Holmes was not “abusing her leave”- notwithstanding that Holmes was clearly pregnant and that the director of human resources had approved her request for leave to attend the two pregnancy-related doctors' appointments. Id. Harrison also encouraged Holmes to take “FMLA leave immediately, ” even though doing so would have exhausted Holmes's family leave before her due date, and even though Holmes “had never indicated that she was unable to perform the functions of her position.” Id. ¶ 39. “Fearing that she was being pushed out, ” Holmes responded that “it was unnecessary for her to begin taking FMLA immediately and that she was not interested in taking leave before the baby was born.” Id.

         Holmes again contacted the Human Resources Department, and this time spoke with a different official. Id. ¶ 40. The new official expressed “shock[]” at Harrison's “inappropriate questioning” and told Holmes “not to try to ‘explain' anything further” to Harrison. Id.

         C. Holmes's Medical Leave and Termination

         On July 3, 2014, Holmes was diagnosed with intrauterine fetal growth restriction and preterm labor. Id. ¶ 41. Her doctor placed her on “complete bed rest” due to the high risk of premature delivery. Id. ¶ 42. She accordingly requested FMLA medical leave for the period from July 7, 2014, to her expected delivery date on September 20, 2014. Id. ¶ 43; see Id. ¶ 68. The University approved her request. Id. ¶ 43. The University's human resources compliance officer explained to Holmes that, under the DCFMLA, her “job would be protected during the period of time that she took [DCFMLA] leave.” Id. ¶ 46.

         On August 27-while Holmes was on protected leave-she saw the University advertising her job online. Id. ¶ 45. She again reached out to the human resources compliance officer, who expressed concern and surprise. See Id. ¶¶ 46-47. A week later, the compliance officer still could not provide her any information. ¶ 48. Holmes was left in a state of “extreme stress and anxiety, ” “[n]ot knowing whether she would have a job to return to” after she gave birth. Id. ¶ 49. She developed high blood pressure and medical complications, and her doctor recommended inducing labor. Id.

         On September 2, 2014, Holmes gave birth to her child. Id. ¶ 50. Shortly thereafter, Holmes noticed an email from Harrison in her personal account, dated August 29. Id. ¶ 51. Harrison's email informed Holmes that the University “was not renewing her appointment” and that, accordingly, “her employment would end on September 30, 2014.” Id. Harrison gave no reason for the termination. Id. ¶ 53. Holmes alleges that “Harrison made, or was centrally involved in, the decision to terminate [her] employment.” Id. ¶ 52. Her position had not been defunded; the University had simply replaced her with a male employee. Id. ¶ 56.

         In light of the University's decision not to renew her appointment, Holmes applied for and received FMLA family leave for the period from September 20-the date on which her medical leave was set to expire-to September 30-the date on which her termination became effective. Id. ¶¶ 58-59. Had she not been terminated, she would have applied for approximately 14 additional weeks of family leave. Id. ¶ 59.

         D. The ...


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