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Stephens v. Mnuchin

United States District Court, District of Columbia

July 17, 2018

LISA STEPHENS, Plaintiff,
v.
STEVEN MNUCHIN, Secretary, U.S. Department of the Treasury, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          DABNEY L. FRIEDRICH, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Lisa Stephens brings this Title VII action against her former employer, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, asserting that it discriminated against her based on race and gender, subjected her to a hostile work environment, and retaliated against her for engaging in protected activity. Before the Court is Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's Partial Motion to Dismiss. Dkt. 9. For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, a bureau within the Treasury Department, hired Stephens as a Bank Examiner and Shared National Credit Program Manager on July 1, 2012. Compl ¶ 6; Dkt. 9-1 at 5. Stephens worked for the Treasury Department for nearly one year. Compl. ¶ 35. During that time, Stephens' supervisor was Vance Price, the Deputy Comptroller for Large Bank Supervision. Id. ¶ 7. According to the complaint, Price did not adequately explain Stephens' managerial duties, and he did not provide Stephens with necessary training, documents, performance plans, assistance, and feedback. Id. ¶¶ 7-11, 25, 29, 32. Also, Stephens “was forced to supervise” Jamie-Jo Perry, “an insubordinate and disgruntled employee.” Id. ¶¶ 7, 13, 21-22. The Treasury Department failed to address the insubordination, id. ¶ 13, and Price undermined Stephens' authority over Perry when, for example, he granted Perry's leave request without consulting Stephens and when he reassigned tasks to Perry that Stephens had previously removed from Perry, id. ¶¶ 16, 24.

         On June 5, 2013, Stephens received a negative performance review, id. ¶ 33, and on June 12-shortly before her one-year probationary period ended-Stephens received a notice of termination, id. ¶ 34. Stephens then resigned in lieu of termination on June 28, the day before her termination would have taken effect. Id. ¶¶ 34-35. On July 16, Stephens initiated contact with an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Counselor. The Counselor ultimately issued a Report of Counseling. Dkt. 9-1; see also Compl. ¶ 2. On August 26, 2013, Stephens submitted an individual complaint to the Treasury Department. Dkt. 9-2; see also Compl. ¶ 2. After the Treasury Department completed an investigation, Stephens opted for a hearing before an administrative judge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). The administrative judge conducted an initial teleconference that discussed the nature of Stephens' claims, then issued an order identifying the issues to be adjudicated and setting a schedule for discovery and dispositive motions. See Dkt. 9-4. After discovery was completed and after the Treasury Department's motion for a decision had been pending before the administrative judge for approximately one year, Stephens withdrew her individual complaint. See Dkt. 9-5.

         Stephens then filed this case, asserting three claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: disparate-treatment discrimination based on race and gender, hostile work environment, and retaliation. Compl. ¶¶ 36-54. The Treasury Department answered the complaint, see Dkt. 4, but in the parties' ensuing meet and confer statement, the Department stated that it “intend[ed] to file a dispositive motion on [Stephens'] failure to exhaust administrative remedies as to at least one of her claims.” Dkt. 6 at 2. Because exhaustion is a question that can be resolved on the pleadings and the administrative record, the Court permitted the Treasury Department to file a dispositive motion as to exhaustion of administrative remedies. Dkt. 7 at 2; Dkt. 8 at 1. But because the motion would not dispose of the entire case, the Court also permitted initial discovery to begin while specifying that further discovery was stayed pending resolution of the exhaustion motion. Dkt. 7 at 2; Dkt. 8 at 1-2.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         A motion to dismiss Title VII claims for failure to exhaust administrative remedies is properly analyzed under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Jones v. Bush, 160 F.Supp.3d 325, 337 (D.D.C. 2016), aff'd, No. 16-5103, 2017 WL 2332595 (D.C. Cir. Feb. 21, 2017); Mount v. Johnson, 36 F.Supp.3d 74, 80 (D.D.C. 2014). Rule 12(b)(6) 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. A complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but alleging facts that are “merely consistent with a defendant's liability . . . stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         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). Relevant here, the Court may consider Stephens' EEO documents. See Bowden v. United States, 106 F.3d 433, 437 (D.C. Cir. 1997) (considering “the pleadings and undisputed documents in the record” while reaching the merits on a motion to dismiss); Vasser v. McDonald, 228 F.Supp.3d 1, 11 (D.D.C. 2016) (taking judicial notice of informal and formal administrative complaints on a motion to dismiss); Williams v. Chu, 641 F.Supp.2d 31, 35 (D.D.C. 2009) (“A plaintiff's EEOC charge and the agency's determination are both public records, of which this Court may take judicial notice.” (quotation marks and alteration 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

         “Title VII complainants must timely exhaust their administrative remedies before bringing their claims to court.” Payne v. Salazar, 619 F.3d 56, 65 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted); see also 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(c). The exhaustion requirement “serves the important purposes of giving the charged party notice of the claim and narrowing the issues for prompt adjudication and decision, ” Park v. Howard Univ., 71 F.3d 904, 907 (D.C. Cir. 1995) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted), and it “ensure[s] that the federal courts are burdened only when reasonably necessary, ” Brown v. Marsh, 777 F.2d 8, 14 (D.C. Cir. 1985). In the Title VII context, failure to exhaust is an affirmative defense, and thus “the defendant bears the burden of pleading and proving it.” Bowden v. United States, 106 F.3d 433, 437 (D.C. Cir. 1997); see also Smith-Haynie v. District of Columbia, 155 F.3d 575, 578 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (“[A]n affirmative defense may be raised by pre-answer motion under Rule 12(b) when the facts that give rise to the defense are clear from the face of the complaint.”).

         Pursuant to Title VII, the EEOC has promulgated detailed procedures for the administrative resolution of employment discrimination claims against federal agencies. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16(b); 29 C.F.R. § 1614.105. The relevant procedures are as follows:

[E]mployees who believe they have been discriminated against must first consult an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Counselor within 45 days of the alleged discriminatory acts. 29 C.F.R. § 1614.105(a)(1). Should the employee and the Counselor fail to resolve the discrimination claim within 30 days, the Counselor sends the employee a notice explaining the administrative complaint procedure. Id. § 1614.105(d). The employee then has 15 days to file an individual and/or class complaint with the employing agency. Id. § 1614.106 (regulations governing individual complaints); id. § 1614.204 (regulations governing class complaints); see also Id. § 1614.103 (noting types of complaints governed by agency processing procedures outlined in regulations).

In re James, 444 F.3d 643, 644 (D.C. Cir. 2006); accord Panarello v. Zinke, 254 F.Supp.3d 85, 96 ...


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