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Perkins v. WCS Construction, LLC

United States District Court, District of Columbia

November 5, 2018

JACQUELINE C. PERKINS, Plaintiff,
v.
WCS CONSTRUCTION, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION DENYING DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         I. INTRODUCTION

         In this wrongful termination case, Plaintiff Jacqueline C. Perkins (“Perkins”) brought suit alleging that Defendants WCS Construction LLC (“WCS Construction”), WCS Construction Development LLC (“WCS Development”), William C. Smith & Co., Inc. (WCS Inc.), and W. Christopher Smith (“Smith”) wrongfully discharged her from her employment after she reported threats made by another WCS Construction employee. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). For the reasons stated below, the motion to dismiss is denied.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         Perkins was hired as an assistant project manager at WCS Construction on February 19, 2016. See Compl. ¶ 13, ECF No. 1. At some point in the next year, she was promoted to assistant to the president of WCS Construction, Jim Anglemyer (“Anglemyer”). See Id. Perkins worked “in a professional office setting” at WCS Construction's main offices at 3303 Stanton Road SE, Washington, D.C. 20020. Id. ¶ 13.

         On June 15, 2017, Perkins attended a meeting with Anglemyer, Michael Christopher (“Christopher”), the CFO of WCS Construction, and Christopher Shaw (“Shaw”), the Vice President of WCS Construction. See Id. ¶ 17. The meeting concerned the finances of a WCS Construction project with the Federal Realty Investment Trust, a client based in Rockville, Maryland. See Id. After Anglemyer left early due to a scheduling conflict, Perkins alleges that Shaw “began making specific, violent threats against John Davies of the Federal Realty Investment Trust.” Id. According to Perkins, Shaw first said he would “drive down to Mr. Davies' office, take out his gun, and shoot himself in the head.” Id. After Perkins asked Shaw if he was serious, Shaw replied that he would kill himself “only after I shoot John [Davies] first.” Id. Shaw repeated that he would kill himself after shooting John Davies, after which the meeting ended. Id.

         Following the meeting, Perkins consulted WCS Construction's employee handbook, which suggested that employees could anonymously report actual or threatened violence, and that employees would not be disciplined or retaliated against for raising good faith concerns. See Id. ¶ 18. Relying on the handbook, Perkins delivered a letter to Christopher the next Monday, on June 19, 2017. See Id. In the letter, she stated that at an “unofficial meeting in [Anglemyer's] office regarding FRIT” on June 15, 2018, Shaw had said he “felt like driving down to the FRIT office and taking his gun and shooting himself in the head.” June 19, 2017 Perkins Letter, Ex. A, ECF No. 1-1. Perkins said when she questioned Shaw, he stated that ‘“after I shoot him first,' referring to John Davis, . . . ‘I'll kill myself in front of the building.'” Id. She concluded that she felt she needed to document the incident because she could not live with herself if the threats materialized. See id.

         When Perkins delivered the letter, Christopher told her to throw it away. See Compl. ¶ 18. When she insisted, he told her that he did not want to deal with it and to discuss it with Anglemyer. See Id. Perkins gave Anglemyer the letter and stated that she was going to call the police, following which, at Anglemyer's direction, she also submitted it to the office manager for WCS Construction. See Id. ¶ 19-20. The letter was ultimately forwarded to WCS Inc.'s human resources department, which also handled HR issues for WCS Construction. See Id. ¶ 19, 22. As part of the following investigation, Shaw was contacted by WCS Inc. HR. See Id. ¶ 23.

         On June 29, 2017, Federal Realty Investment Trust asked that Shaw no longer work on any of its projects. See Id. ¶ 25. The same day, Smith had an angry conversation with Anglemyer regarding the incident, with Anglemyer pointing out that Smith was “sweeping this under the rug” and that Perkins was involving the police. Id. Anglemyer was asked to take a two-week leave of absence the same day, while Perkins was directed to temporarily relocate from her office to a trailer on a work site at 800 New Jersey Avenue SW “until things ‘cool down.'” Id. ¶ 26. On July 2, 2017, after Christopher told her in a meeting that she “should have shredded her letter . . . instead of pushing the issue forward[, ]” id. ¶ 28, Perkins was permanently reassigned from WCS Construction's main offices to the trailer at 800 New Jersey Avenue SW, see Id. ¶ 29.

         On July 10, 2017, Perkins had a “very uncomfortable encounter” with Shaw at WCS Construction's main office. Id. ¶ 30. She expressed concerns to WCS Construction's office manager, who communicated those concerns to Smith and WCS Construction's new president, D. Scott Vossler (“Vossler”). See Id. ¶ 31. On July 14, 2017, Perkins attended a meeting with Vossler, who informed her that she would now be a “field employee[, ]” on call 24/7 for construction emergencies. Id. ¶ 32. On July 21, 2017, Shaw reported to the trailer where Perkins was working and asked all employees to leave the trailer. See Id. ¶ 35. Perkins again contacted, and later attended a meeting with, WCS Construction's office manager, where she complained that she was being retaliated against following her complaint about Shaw. See Id. On August 8, 2017, Perkins called the Metropolitan Police Department about the June 15, 2017 incident with Shaw. See Id. ¶ 36. On August 22, 2017, she was terminated. See Id. ¶ 37.

         Perkins filed a complaint in this case on April 3, 2018, alleging that she was wrongfully discharged and seeking compensatory damages, back pay, and punitive damages. See Id. at 11- 12. Defendants jointly filed a motion to dismiss on May 25, 2018. See Defs.' Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 7. Plaintiff filed her opposition on June 8, 2018, see Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n Mot. Dismiss, ECF No. 8, and Defendants filed their reply on June 22, 2018, see Defs.' Reply to Opp'n, ECF No. 10.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         To prevail on a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a plaintiff need only provide a “short and plain statement of [her] claim showing that [she is] entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), that “give[s] the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests[, ]” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (per curiam) (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) does not test a plaintiff's ultimate likelihood of success on the merits; rather, it tests whether a plaintiff has properly stated a claim. See Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974). In considering such a motion, the “complaint is construed liberally in the plaintiff['s] favor, and [the Court] grant[s] plaintiff[ ] the benefit of all inferences that can be derived from the facts alleged.” Kowal v. MCI Commc'ns Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C. Cir. 1994). It is not necessary for the plaintiff to plead all elements of her prima facie case in the complaint to prevail on the motion. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511-14 (2002); Bryant v. Pepco, 730 F.Supp.2d 25, 28-29 (D.D.C. 2010).

         Nevertheless, “[t]o 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)). This means that a plaintiff's factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007) (citations omitted). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, ” are therefore insufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. A court need not accept a plaintiff's legal conclusions as true, see id., nor must a court presume the veracity of the legal conclusions that are couched as factual allegations. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         In their motion to dismiss, Defendants argue that Perkins's complaint does not state a claim upon which relief can be granted because her claim for wrongful discharge does not fall within a public policy exception to the at-will employment doctrine, which generally allows an employer to terminate an employee for any reason or no reason at all. See Defs.' Mem. Supp. Mot. Dismiss at 1-2, ECF No. 7-1. Perkins argues that she has identified specific public policies that Defendants violated by terminating her. See Pl.'s Mem. Opp'n at 2-3. Ultimately, the Complaint alleges that Perkins reported Shaw's conduct internally and to the police, and clearly identifies criminal statutes that either Shaw's or Defendants' conduct allegedly violated. The allegations in the Complaint also reasonably suggest a causal connection between Perkins's internal report and her firing. Because the Complaint sufficiently alleges that, although Perkins is an at-will employee, the at-will doctrine does not apply to her termination because she falls under a public policy exception, the Court denies the motion to dismiss.

         Under the at-will employment doctrine, the general rule in the District of Columbia is that at-will employees like Perkins “may be discharged ‘at any time and for any reason, or for no reason at all.'” Clay v. Howard Univ., 128 F.Supp.3d 22, 27 (D.D.C. 2015) (quoting Adams v. George W. Cochran & Co., 597 A.2d 28, 30 (D.C. 1991)). While the parties devote a significant portion of their briefs to discussing the principles of wrongful discharge claims and the public exception to the at-will employment doctrine recognized in the District of Columbia, they appear to be in agreement as to the elements of a claim brought under such an exception.

         Under the initial, narrow public policy exception recognized in Adams, an at-will employee can bring a claim for wrongful termination against her employer when the employee was discharged for refusing to violate the law. See 597 A.2d at 34. And under the expanded public policy exception later developed in Carl v. Children's Hosp., 702 A.2d 159 (D.C. 1997), an at-will employee can also bring a wrongful termination claim when she “acted in furtherance of a public policy ‘solidly based on a statute or regulation . . ., or (if appropriate) on a constitutional provision concretely applicable to the defendant's conduct[, ]'” Myers v. Alutiiq Int'l Solutions, LLC, 811 F.Supp.2d 261, 266-67 (D.D.C. 2011) (quoting Carl, 702 A.2d at 163 (Terry, J., concurring)), [2] and was terminated as a result. The employee must both 1) identify in the Complaint ‘“some identifiable policy that has been officially declared in a statute or municipal regulation, or in the Constitution, ”' and 2) show that there is “a ‘close fit between' the policy ‘and the conduct at issue in the allegedly wrongful termination.”' Clay, 128 F.Supp.3d at 27 (quoting Davis v. Cmty. Alternatives of Washington, D.C., 74 A.3d 707, 709-10 (D.C. 2013)). Implied in the “close fit” analysis is the notion that “[the] protected activity was the predominant cause of [the] ...


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