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Webster v. Stackley

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 27, 2018

RICHARD V. SPENCER, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Navy, et al., Defendants.



         Before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss filed by three of the defendants in this case. Dkt. 13. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion and direct that this case proceed against the remaining defendant.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Pro se plaintiff Katrina Webster is an employee of Strategic Systems Programs (SSP), a division within the Department of the Navy. See Compl. ¶¶ 9, 18, 25-26, Dkt. 1. Her complaint names four defendants: (1) Richard Spencer, the Secretary of the Navy, in his official capacity;[1](2) Kevin Keefe, Associate General Counsel for SSP, in his individual capacity;[2] (3) James Lee, Deputy General Counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, in his individual capacity; and (4) Jack Rickert, Assistant General Counsel of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, in his individual capacity. Id. at 1, ¶¶ 8-12.[3]

         In general, Webster alleges that the defendants discriminated against her due to her race and retaliated against her for filing numerous EEOC complaints. See Id. ¶¶ 15, 308-16. More specifically, she alleges that she has not been promoted since the early 2000s because the defendants colluded to deny her promotion, training, and bonuses. Id. ¶¶ 18-21, 25-26, 309. And in doing so, the defendants allegedly intended to subject Webster to so much financial hardship that her security clearance would be revoked. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 18-21, 312. Based on these allegations of discrimination and retaliation, the complaint asserts three claims under Title VII, id. ¶¶ 308-10 (Count I); 42 U.S.C. § 1983, id. ¶¶ 311-12 (Count II); and 42 U.S.C. § 1981, id. ¶¶ 313-16 (Count III).

         On January 12, 2018, the Secretary of the Navy answered the complaint on behalf of himself, the Department of the Navy, and SSP, Dkt. 12, but the other three defendants-Keefe, Lee, and Rickert-moved to dismiss the claims against them, Dkt. 13. The Court then issued an order pursuant to Fox v. Strickland, 837 F.2d 507 (D.C. Cir. 1988), directing Webster to respond to the partial motion to dismiss. Dkt. 14. Webster filed an opposition brief on January 31, 2018, Dkt. 15, then an “amendment” to the brief one week later, Dkt. 17. The motion to dismiss is now fully briefed.


         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows a defendant to move to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a complaint must contain factual matter sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A facially plausible claim is one that “allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). This standard does not amount to a specific probability requirement, but it does require “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”). A complaint alleging facts that are “merely consistent with a defendant's liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal quotation marks omitted).

         Well-pleaded factual allegations are “entitled to [an] assumption of truth, ” id. at 679, and the court construes 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). Although a pro se complaint is generally entitled to a liberal construction, see Washington v. Geren, 675 F.Supp.2d 26, 31 (D.D.C. 2009), the assumption of truth does not apply to a “legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quotation marks omitted). An “unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation” is not credited; likewise, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. When deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court may consider only the complaint itself, documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, and judicially noticeable materials. EEOC v. St. Francis Xavier Parochial Sch., 117 F.3d 621, 624 (D.C. Cir. 1997). Finally, a 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

         Webster's complaint asserts claims under Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983. See Compl. ¶¶ 308-16; see also Id. ¶ 1 (“This is an action . . . seeking redress for violations [of] 42 U.S.C. § 1981, § 1983, and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.”). With respect to Keefe, Lee, and Rickert, the complaint fails to state claims upon which relief can be granted. And to the extent that the complaint can be read to assert an Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) claim and a Bivens claim, those claims fail also.

         A. Title VII

         Keefe, Lee, and Rickert move to dismiss the Title VII claims against them. See Defs.' Mot. at 9-11, Dkt. 13. Title VII protects federal employees from workplace discrimination by providing a cause of action against “the head of the [federal] department, agency, or unit, as appropriate.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c). Indeed, “the only proper defendant in a Title VII suit is the head of the department, agency, or unit in which the allegedly discriminatory acts transpired.” Webster v. Mattis, 279 F.Supp.3d 14, 18 (D.D.C. 2017) (alterations omitted and emphasis added) (quoting Hackley v. Roudebush, 520 F.2d 108, 115 n.17 (D.C. Cir. 1975)); accord Davis v. Califano, 613 F.2d 957, 958 n.1 (D.C. Cir. 1979). “Title VII does not impose liability on individuals in their personal capacities.” Coulibaly v. Kerry, 213 F.Supp.3d 93, 135 (D.D.C. 2016); see also Gary v. Long, 59 F.3d 1391, 1399 (D.C. Cir. 1995). In this case, therefore, the only appropriate Title VII defendant is the Secretary of the Navy in his official capacity. Keefe, Lee, and Rickert are not proper Title VII defendants because they are sued in their individual capacities and they do not head any department, agency, or unit in which discrimination allegedly occurred: Keefe is an Associate General Counsel for SSP; Lee is Deputy General Counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and Rickert is an Assistant General Counsel for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. Compl. at 1, ¶¶ 8- 12. Count I thus fails to state a Title VII claim against Keefe, Lee, and Rickert. See Webster, 279 F.Supp.3d at 18 (dismissing Title VII claims brought by Webster's husband against nonhead federal employees, including Lee and Rickert).[4]

         B. 42 U.S.C. ...

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