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Thomas v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority

United States District Court, District of Columbia

April 9, 2018

ERNEST A. THOMAS, Plaintiff,
v.
WASHINGTON METROPOLITAN AREA TRANSIT AUTHORITY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH JUDGE

         Before the Court is the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) Motion to Dismiss. Dkt. 3. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In this action, pro se plaintiff Ernest A. Thomas asserts age- and national origin-based employment discrimination claims against his employer, WMATA, and against his direct supervisor Sachit Kakkar and senior WMATA managers Paul J. Weidefeld and John T. Kuo (collectively, the Individual Defendants). See Compl. at 2-4, Dkt. 1; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2000e-17; Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621-634. Thomas also asserts a retaliation claim. Compl. at 4.

         Thomas is a 62-year-old U.S. citizen of Liberian national origin. Id. ¶ 1. He currently works for WMATA, id, and he has a history of filing EEOC complaints against his employer for discrimination based on race, age, and national origin, and for retaliating against him because of those claims, see Id. ¶¶ 14, 20-24. The past complaints include at least three formal complaints to the EEOC during a span of about fifteen months beginning in early 2014. Id. ¶¶ 21-24.

         In February 2017, Thomas applied for a promotion to the open position of Deputy Chief Vehicle Engineer. Id. ¶ 3. The next month, WMATA rejected Thomas's application, purportedly because he lacked the requisite ten years of management experience in transit engineering, which was part of the job description. Id. ¶ 4. This case arises from WMATA's decision not to promote Thomas.

         Thomas asserts that his supervisor, Defendant Kakkar, made two revisions to the Deputy Chief Vehicle Engineer job requirements on January 11, 2017 before posting an opening for the job. Id. ¶ 2. Under the revisions, the Deputy Chief Vehicle Engineer position (1) now required ten years of transit-engineering-management experience, even though the more senior Chief Vehicle Engineer position required only five years; and (2) no longer required Professional Engineering qualifications. Id. ¶¶ 6, 11. Both changes allegedly disadvantaged Thomas, who has a Professional Engineering license but lacked ten years of experience. See Id. Citing Thomas's failure to meet the ten-years requirement, WMATA ultimately rejected Thomas's bid for the promotion. Id. ¶ 4. WMATA later hired Anthony Johnson, a man of unspecified national origin who is allegedly about fifteen years younger than Thomas. Id. ¶¶ 5, 37. WMATA indicated that Johnson had the required ten-years' experience, but Thomas alleges that Johnson did not meet this requirement. Id. ¶¶ 5, 8-9.

         On April 13, 2017, Thomas filed employment discrimination claims with the EEOC based on national origin and age, as well as a retaliation claim. Thomas received a Dismissal and Notice of Rights letter from the EEOC on April 28, 2017. See Dkt. 7 at 2. Thomas then filed his complaint on July 27, 2017, seeking monetary and punitive damages and injunctive relief. Compl. at 9. The case was reassigned to the undersigned judge on December 4, 2017.

         WMATA now moves for dismissal under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, arguing that (1) Thomas failed to exhaust administrative remedies under Title VII before bringing this action; (2) WMATA is immune from ADEA claims due to sovereign immunity; (3) the Individual Defendants must be dismissed because they acted in their official capacities; (4) Thomas failed to state a claim for national-origin discrimination under Title VII; and (5) WMATA is immune from punitive damages. See Mem. at 7-13, Dkt. 3.[1] The Court discusses each in turn.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         Under Rule 12(b)(1), a party may move to dismiss a claim over which the court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). A motion for dismissal under Rule 12(b)(1) “presents a threshold challenge to the court's jurisdiction.” Haase v. Sessions, 835 F.2d 902, 906 (D.C. Cir. 1987). Federal district courts are courts of limited jurisdiction, and it is “presumed that a cause lies outside this limited jurisdiction.” Kokkonen v. Guardian Life Ins. Co., 511 U.S. 375, 377 (1994). Thus, to survive a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the court has jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence. Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 561 (1992).

         “When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court must treat the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and afford the plaintiff the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Jeong Seon Han v. Lynch, 223 F.Supp.3d 95, 103 (D.D.C. 2016) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Because Rule 12(b)(1) concerns a court's ability to hear a particular claim, “the court must scrutinize the plaintiff's allegations more closely when considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) than it would under a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Schmidt v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd., 826 F.Supp.2d 59, 65 (D.D.C. 2011). Also, unlike when evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court may consider documents outside the pleadings to evaluate whether it has jurisdiction. See Jerome Stevens Pharm., Inc. v. FDA, 402 F.3d 1249, 1253 (D.C. Cir. 2005). If the court determines that it lacks jurisdiction, the court must dismiss the claim or action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1), 12(h)(3).

         Under Rule 12(b)(6), a party may move to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a 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 plausible claim allows the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. The standard does not amount to a “probability requirement, ” but it does require more than a “sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.

         When evaluating a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court “must construe the complaint in favor of the plaintiff, who must be granted the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Hettinga v. United States, 677 F.3d 471, 476 (D.C. Cir. 2012) (quotation marks omitted). While a “pro se complaint is entitled to liberal construction, ” Washington v. Geren, 675 F.Supp.2d 26, 31 (D.D.C. 2009) (citing Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)), “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements” are not sufficient to state a claim, Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “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) (internal quotation marks omitted). Finally, Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal for failure to state a claim “is a resolution on the merits and is ordinarily prejudicial.” Okusami v. Psychiatric Inst. of Wash., Inc., 959 F.2d 1062, 1066 (D.C. Cir. 1992).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Thomas properly exhausted administrative remedies.

         WMATA argues that Thomas failed to exhaust administrative remedies under Title VII before suing in federal court, see Mem. at 10, but the Court disagrees.

         Title VII provides that a plaintiff may bring a claim in federal court within ninety days of an EEOC dismissal. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1) (“If a charge filed with the [EEOC under Title VII] is dismissed by the Commission, . . . the Commission . . . shall so notify the person aggrieved and within ninety days after the giving of such notice a civil action may be brought against the respondent named in the charge . . . by the person claiming to be aggrieved.”). The EEOC issued Thomas a Dismissal and Notice of Rights letter on April 28, 2017. Dkt. 7 at 2. Thomas then filed his ...


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