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Pueschel v. Chao

United States District Court, District of Columbia

September 13, 2018

ELAINE CHAO, in her Official Capacity as Secretary, Department of Transportation, et al, Defendants.



         Deborah Pueschel engaged in a long string of employment-related disputes with her employer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and began receiving full-time disability benefits for work-related injuries from the Office of Worker Compensation (OWCP) in 1998. She later decided to run for Congress. When FAA found out, it contacted OWCP and said Pueschel's campaign activities demonstrated an ability to work that was inconsistent with the full-time disability benefits she was receiving. OWCP reduced Pueschel's benefits accordingly and cleared her for full-time work. Pueschel then wrote FAA to request a job, but never received one. Now, she brings these Title VII and Rehabilitation Act claims against FAA for retaliation and disability discrimination, asserting that FAA retaliated against her by encouraging OWCP to reduce her benefits and that FAA discriminated against her by not giving her a job. Pueschel also brings First Amendment claims against both FAA and OWCP, asserting that they violated her "right to run for Congress without penalty" by taking her campaign activities into account in reducing her benefits. Compl. ¶ 52, Dkt. 1 at 10. Before the Court is defendants' joint Motion to Dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dkt. 15-1 (redacted). For the reasons that follow, the Court will grant the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         Pueschel began working for FAA as an Air Traffic Controller in 1974. Compl. ¶ 6. In 1980, she filed an EEO complaint alleging a pattern of sexual harassment by her male colleagues. Id. ¶ 10. In 1981, her disputes with FAA began to intensify. First, she was injured at work and filed a claim for worker compensation with OWCP. Id. ¶ 12. Next, she filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and reprisal. Id. ¶ 14. After that, she called in sick due to back pain on the same day as an illegal air traffic controllers' strike. Id. ¶ 16. FAA assumed that Pueschel had participated in the strike, so it fired her and challenged her OWCP claim. Id.

         Pueschel lost her first round of sexual-harassment litigation in federal court but obtained a reversal from the Fourth Circuit in 1983. Id. ¶¶ 18, 19.[2] Three months later, she convinced the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board to reverse her termination. Id. ¶ 20. Things between Pueschel and FAA went smoothly for the next seven years. But Pueschel filed additional EEO complaints against FAA in 1990, 1992, 1997, and 2001. Id. ¶ 21. Meanwhile, Pueschel suffered an anxiety attack on the job in 1994 and never returned to work. Id. ¶ 22. She requested disability benefits for work-related anxiety and physical injuries arising from the incident, which OWCP granted in 1998. Id. ¶ 23. In 1999, FAA terminated Pueschel again-this time because she was no longer able to work as an air traffic controller. Id. ¶ 24. She unsuccessfully appealed her termination. Id.

         In 2000, Pueschel set her sights on Congress. Id. ¶ 27. She ran for the House of Representatives in 2000-2004 and again in 2012-2016. Id. Sometime in 2012, FAA began questioning whether Pueschel's campaign activities demonstrated an ability to work that was inconsistent with the full-time OWCP benefits she was still receiving. Id. ¶ 28. On October 9, 2015, FAA sent a letter to OWCP stating that Pueschel "demonstrated, and continues to demonstrate, the ability to run for elective office" and that her campaigning activities "disprove[d]" the conclusion that she was "permanently disabled" and likely not "able to work in any capacity." Id. ¶ 30. In January 2016, OWCP reduced Pueschel's disability benefits on the grounds she was then capable of working full time as a "customer service representative." Id. ¶ 31. In March 2016, Pueschel complained to an EEO counselor about what she considered FAA's "efforts to deprive her of her disability benefits." Id. ¶ 32.

         In April 2016, Pueschel sent a letter to FAA-specifically, to Margaret Gilligan, the Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety, Pl.'s Opp'n Ex. 4, Dkt. 21-4 at l[3]-explaining that she had been cleared for full-time work and was requesting a position in the FAA Historian's office, Compl. ¶ 33. Gilligan wrote back that she was "unable to respond to [Pueschel's] request as this is a matter to be addressed by the Air Traffic Organization and the Office of Human Resources." PL Opp'n Ex. 4, at 3; see also Compl. ¶ 34. Pueschel never heard from FAA again regarding her request. Compl. ¶ 34.

         On July 29, 2016, Pueschel initiated the EEO complaint process against FAA, which culminated in a final EEOC decision rejecting her claims on April 3, 2017. Id. ¶¶ 35-42. She timely filed this suit within 90 days of receiving that decision. Id. ¶ 43; see also 42 U.S.C. §2000e-16(c).

         Pueschel brings count I against FAA[4] for reprisal under the Rehabilitation Act and Title VII. Compl. ¶¶ 44-46. She brings count II against FAA for disability discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Id. ¶¶ 47-49. And she brings count III against both FAA and OWCP[5] for violating her right to run for Congress without penalty under the First Amendment. Id. ¶¶ 50-52.

         For relief, Pueschel seeks: findings consistent with all three Counts; $300, 000 in compensatory damages; a position with FAA retroactive to her April 9, 2016 request for employment; a remand of OWCP's decision reducing her disability benefits with instructions to recalculate them without regard for her candidacy for the House of Representatives; and reasonable attorneys' fees and expenses. Id. at 11. In response to plaintiffs complaint, defendants filed this joint Motion to Dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.


         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), a party may move to dismiss an action or claim when 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, "the plaintiff bears the burden of establishing jurisdiction by a preponderance of the evidence." Moran v. U.S. Capitol Police Bd., 820 F.Supp.2d 48, 53 (D.D.C. 2011) (citing 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 plaintiffs 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). Those factual allegations, however, receive "closer scrutiny" than they would in the Rule 12(b)(6) context. Id. 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).

         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 555 ("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). The assumption of truth does not apply, however, to a "legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (internal 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.

         III. ...

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