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Lawson v. Sessions

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 22, 2017

SHEILA J. LAWSON, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS, U.S. Attorney General, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KETANJI BROWN JACKSON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         During the summer of 2006, pro se plaintiff Sheila Lawson resigned from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) following a nearly 11-year tenure as a Special Agent. (First Am. Compl. (“Compl.”), ECF No. 5, ¶¶ 10, 13.) Shortly after her resignation, Lawson had a change of heart, and between 2007 and 2010, she repeatedly asked to be reinstated to her former position. (See Id. ¶¶ 18, 24, 27, 30.) The FBI denied each of Lawson's four requests for reinstatement. (See Id. ¶¶ 20, 25, 28, 32.) In the instant lawsuit, Lawson alleges that the FBI's refusal to reinstate her as a Special Agent constitutes discrimination on the basis of her age, sex, and race, and was also retaliation for an Equal Employment Opportunity (“EEO”) complaint that Lawson had filed in 2006. (See Id. ¶ 1.) The instant complaint separately alleges that the FBI retaliated against Lawson by improperly processing another one of her EEO complaints; specifically, Lawson contends that an FBI employee interfered with the processing of an EEO complaint she filed in 2010 in order to retaliate against her for filing the 2006 EEO complaint. (See Id. ¶¶ 106-10, 147-51.)

         Notably, this legal action consists of seven separate discrimination or retaliation counts, and each of these counts has been brought under either Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (see Counts V-VII), or the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-34 (see Counts I-IV). Furthermore, each count relates either to the FBI's refusal to reinstate Lawson as an SA (Counts I, II, III, V, and VI (referred to herein, collectively, as the “failure-to-hire claims”)), or the alleged improper processing of Lawson's 2010 administrative complaint (Counts IV and VII (collectively, the “retaliatory interference claims”)).

         Before this Court at present is the motion to dismiss Lawson's complaint that the FBI, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), Attorney General Jefferson Sessions, and FBI Director Christopher Wray (collectively, “Defendants”) have filed. (See generally Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Mot”), ECF No. 9.)[1] Defendants argue that several of Lawson's failure-to-hire claims are unexhausted (see Id. at 13-15), that any exhausted claims were not timely presented to this Court (see Id. at 12-13), and that all of the claims in the complaint fail to state valid grounds for relief (see Id. at 15-21).[2] Defendants' arguments for dismissal generally treat the discrimination and retaliation claims that Lawson brings under Title VII as largely interchangeable with those that she brings under the ADEA; however, as explained below, there are critical differences between the procedures that a plaintiff must follow with respect to exhaustion and timeliness under those two statutes. Consequently, although the Court largely agrees with Defendants' exhaustion and timeliness arguments as they apply to Lawson's Title VII failure-to-hire claims (with an exception discussed below), the Court concludes that Defendants have not demonstrated that Lawson's ADEA failure-to-hire claims are unexhausted or untimely. The Court also concludes that the ADEA failure-to-hire counts state valid claims for discrimination and retaliation, because the complaint plausibly alleges both (1) that age was a factor in the FBI's refusal to reinstate Lawson, and (2) that the FBI's refusal was causally related to an EEO complaint that Lawson previously filed in 2006. Finally, the Court concludes that Lawson's retaliatory interference claims state valid grounds for relief, because Lawson has plausibly alleged that interference in the processing of her EEO complaint was a materially adverse action of the sort that can substantiate retaliation claims under both Title VII and the ADEA.

         Accordingly, Defendants' motion to dismiss will be GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART. Lawson's Title VII failure-to-hire claims (Counts V and VI) will be largely dismissed for failure to exhaust, while the corresponding ADEA failure-to-hire claims (Counts II and III), as well as her Title VII and ADEA retaliatory interference claims (Counts IV and VII), may proceed. With respect to the failure-to-hire allegations that Lawson makes in Count I, the Court will permit Lawson to amend her complaint to clarify the claim, and Lawson can also amend Counts V and VI to address deficiencies in the surviving portions of those claims, as outlined below. A separate Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion will follow.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts Pertaining To Lawson's Failure-To-Hire Claims[3]

         Sheila Lawson is an African-American woman who began her employment as a Special Agent (“SA”) with the FBI on October 15, 1995. (See Compl. ¶¶ 9-10.) At some unspecified point in 2006, Lawson “initiated the EEOC discrimination complaint process” (id. ¶ 12), and filed a formal complaint of discrimination (see Id. ¶ 90). The exact substance of Lawson's 2006 grievance is not apparent from her complaint in the instant case, although Lawson does allege that the EEO claims were brought “against [Robert Enriquez, her former supervisor] and other FBI employees[.]” (Id. ¶ 107.) On July 7, 2006, after serving nearly 11 years as an SA, Lawson resigned from her position (see Id. ¶ 13), and the following year, she withdrew the 2006 EEO complaint (see Id. ¶ 14).

         Following Lawson's resignation, the FBI Human Resources office sent Lawson an electronic communication that outlined the agency's reinstatement policy for former SAs. (See Id. ¶ 15.) This message “stated that if an individual took a refund of the retirement contributions made to the FERS pension account, that individual is prohibited by federal law from repaying that amount to get credit for their prior service and would, therefore, be ineligible for reinstatement if they are already older than age 37.” (Id. ¶ 16 (internal quotation marks omitted).)[4] Lawson received this message on March 20, 2007. (See Id. ¶¶ 15-16.) Ten days later-on March 30, 2007-Lawson requested reinstatement as an FBI SA. (See July 7, 2015 EEOC Decision (“Final EEOC Decision”), Ex. A to Compl., ECF No. 5-1, at 3.) And five days after the reinstatement request-on April 5, 2007-Lawson “took a refund of the retirement contributions in her FERS account.” (Compl. ¶ 17.)

         According to Lawson, on at least four different occasions between May 31, 2007, and March 26, 2010, the FBI denied her formal requests for reinstatement, and Lawson alleges that the FBI refused to rehire her because of her age, sex, and race, and also in retaliation for her filing of the 2006 EEO complaint. The first denial occurred on May 31, 2007, when the Chief of Human Resources allegedly “denied [Lawson] the FBI SA position because she was 41 years old” (id. ¶ 20), and therefore could not accumulate 20 years of service before the FBI's mandatory-retirement age of 57 (see Id. ¶ 22; see also supra note 4). Undaunted, Lawson again requested reinstatement, and enclosed with her reinstatement request was a letter that she addressed to the Director of the FBI and that asked for an age waiver. (See Id. ¶ 24.)[5] In correspondence dated September 2, 2008, the FBI again denied Lawson's request, explaining that “the FBI Director could give ‘no further consideration' because the FBI Director could only grant age waivers up to age 60” (id. ¶ 25), and as a 41-year-old requester, Lawson could not accumulate 20 years of service before that cutoff.

         Lawson subsequently submitted two more reconsideration requests, both of which the agency swiftly denied in a letter dated January 7, 2009. (See Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) In this denial letter-the agency's third in less than two years-the agency purportedly advised Lawson “that she had ‘reached the age' where she could no longer be reinstated in the FBI SA position” (id. ¶ 28), and further instructed her to direct age waiver requests to the Attorney General (see Id. ¶ 29). Lawson followed this instruction approximately four months later by sending “a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. requesting a decision regarding her application for reinstatement in the FBI SA position.” (Id. ¶ 30.) This request was subsequently forwarded to the FBI's Human Resources office, and in a letter dated March 26, 2010, the agency, for the fourth time, declined to reinstate Lawson. (See Id. ¶¶ 31-32.)

         B. Facts Pertaining To Lawson's Retaliatory Interference Claims

         At some point in 2010, Lawson “contacted an EEO counselor” and “initiated the informal discrimination complaint counseling phase[.]” (Id. ¶ 106.) On July 10, 2010, Lawson filed a formal complaint with the EEOC in which she claimed that the FBI had discriminated against her on the basis of sex and age, and had retaliated against her for . . . [and] situations where tentative selectees for law enforcement positions have passed the maximum entry age due to unavoidable or unexpectedly lengthy clearance or processing requirements[.]” (Compl. ¶ 37 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting HR Order-DOJ 100.1, Chap. 1-6, Maximum Entry Age And Mandatory Retirement of Law Enforcement Officers, found at https://www.justice.gov/jmd/hr-order-doj12001-part-1-employment-1).) prior protected activity, when it refused to grant her reinstatement requests between May 23, 2007 and March 26, 2010. (See Final EEOC Decision at 1.) Lawson alleges that while she was “participat[ing] in the EEOC formal discrimination complaint process[, ]” Robert Enriquez-Lawson's former FBI Unit Chief, “who knew [Lawson had] filed a prior discrimination complaint against him in 2006” (Compl. ¶ 48)-got involved with Lawson's EEO case and purportedly “interfered” with her administrative complaint “through improper complaint processing, an incomplete investigation of Plaintiff's claims of discrimination, and the omission of any investigation of Plaintiff's claims of retaliation.” (Id. ¶ 49; see also Id. ¶ 48.) Enriquez's actions allegedly prompted Lawson to file “a spin-off EEOC complaint” regarding Enriquez's conduct during the administrative proceedings for Lawson's July 2010 complaint. (Id. ¶ 50.) The instant complaint provides no additional details regarding the timing, content, or disposition of Lawson's “spin-off” administrative complaint.

         On July 7, 2015, the EEOC issued its final decision dismissing Lawson's July 2010 complaint. (See generally Final EEOC Decision.) At the end of its decision letter, the Commission informed Lawson that she had the right to file a civil action in federal court “within ninety (90) calendar days from the date that” she received its decision, and further explained that, “[f]or timeliness purposes, the Commission will presume that this decision was received within five (5) calendar days after it was mailed.” (Id. at 6, 8.)

         C. Procedural History

         Lawson initiated the instant lawsuit on October 19, 2015-104 days after the EEOC issued its decision of July 7, 2015. Lawson subsequently filed an amended complaint, which is the current operative complaint in this matter, asserting seven separate causes of action that, as explained above, arise from two distinct categories of acts. (See generally Compl.)

         The claims in the first category, which this Court calls the “failure-to-hire claims, ” challenge the FBI's repeated refusal to reinstate Lawson as an SA. Lawson alleges that the agency's four denial letters constitute disparate treatment due to age, race, and sex under the ADEA (Count II) and Title VII (Count V), respectively (see Id. ¶¶ 71-85, 116-27), and Lawson also contends that the agency refused to reinstate her on these occasions in retaliation for her prior EEO activity, in violation of the ADEA (Count III) and Title VII (Count VI) (see Id. ¶¶ 86-99, 128-40). Lawson's first failure-to-hire claim (Count I) is more difficult to characterize. This cause of action-which is brought under the ADEA and is captioned, “Unlawful Discrimination Because of Age in FBI Reinstatement Policy”-at times appears to challenge the FBI's reinstatement policy as facially discriminatory (see Id. ¶ 67 (“The hiring policy . . . unlawfully excluded Plaintiff because of age.”)), and at other times appears to raise a disparate treatment claim (see Id. ¶ 65 (alleging that the “discriminatory age-based policy was not applied to every over age 37 reinstatement applicant who depleted the FERS pension account but was applied to disadvantage Plaintiff because of her age”)).

         The second category of claims in Lawson's complaint, which the Court refers to as the “retaliatory interference claims, ” challenges Enriquez's purported interference with, and improper processing of, Lawson's EEO complaint. (See Id. ¶¶ 100-15, 141- 55.) The complaint contends that Enriquez's conduct amounted to retaliation in violation of the ADEA (Count IV) and Title VII (Count VII).

         On June 15, 2016, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Lawson's complaint. (See generally Defs.' Mot.) Largely without differentiating between Lawson's various claims and the asserted legal bases for them, Defendants argue that Lawson's “case” should be dismissed as untimely because Lawson filed the complaint more than 90 days after receiving her EEOC right-to-sue letter (see Id. at 12-13), and because Lawson failed to exhaust any claims that are based on acts that occurred prior to November 17, 2009 (see Id. at 15). Defendants also contend that none of Lawson's disparate treatment or retaliation allegations state a valid claim for discrimination or retaliation in violation of Title VII or the ADEA. (See Id. at 15-21.) For her part, Lawson responds that she timely filed her complaint within 90 days of receiving the right-to-sue letter (see Pl.'s Suppl. Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Pl.'s Opp'n”), ECF No. 15-1, at 10-12), and Lawson also insists that she has exhausted all available administrative remedies (see Id. at 13-14).[6] Lawson further maintains that the complaint adequately alleges discriminatory treatment and retaliation in violation of the law. (See Id. at 14-23.)

         Defendants' motion to dismiss is now ripe for this Court's review. (See Defs.' Mot; Pl.'s Opp'n; Defs.' Reply in Supp. of Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss (“Defs.' Reply”), ECF No. 16.)

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) challenges the adequacy of the complaint on its face, testing whether the pleading “state[s] a claim upon which relief can be granted[.]” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Although a complaint does not require detailed factual allegations, it must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “[M]ere conclusory statements” are not enough to make out a cause of action against a defendant, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); instead, the facts alleged “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “In determining whether a complaint states a claim, the court may consider the facts alleged in the complaint, documents attached thereto or incorporated therein, and matters of which it may take judicial notice.” Abhe & Svoboda, Inc. v. Chao, 508 F.3d 1052, 1059 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

         Of course, this Court is mindful that Lawson is proceeding in this matter pro se, and that the pleadings of pro se parties are to be “liberally construed” and “held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers[.]” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). “This benefit is not, however, a license to ignore the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure[, ]” Sturdza v. United Arab Emirates, 658 F.Supp.2d 135, 137 (D.D.C. 2009), and “even a pro se plaintiff must meet his burden of stating a claim for relief[, ]” Horsey v. Dep't of State, 170 F.Supp.3d 256, 263-64 (D.D.C. 2016).

         III. ...


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