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Pietrangelo v. Refresh Club, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 4, 2019

REFRESH CLUB, INC., et al., Defendants.



         Plaintiff James E. Pietrangelo, II, proceeding pro se, filed a complaint against Refresh Club, Inc. and The Wing DC, LLC (collectively, The Wing), seeking monetary, injunctive, and declaratory relief for alleged violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977 (DCHRA), D.C. Code §§ 2-1401.01 et seq. Dkt. 1. Before the Court is the defendants' Motion to Dismiss. Dkt. 11. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Wing is an emerging “network of work and community spaces” that offers its members a forum for meeting and working, as well as other amenities and programming. Defs.' Br. at 1, Dkt. 11. The company[1] was founded in 2016. Id. at 3. In addition to physical work and meeting space, The Wing provides its members with on-site dining, gym, and shower facilities, plus meditation rooms and library services. Compl. ¶ 11(1)(h).[2] In this way, The Wing resembles other co-working networks such as WeWork (one of The Wing's major investors). Id. ¶ 11(1)(c). Yet The Wing differs from more traditional co-working spaces in that it is specifically designed for and marketed to women. Defs.' Br. at 1-3. For example, The Wing offers screenings of female-directed films and presentations by prominent female politicians. Compl. ¶ 11(1)(h); Defs.' Br. at 3. And it sells tickets to public events such as “Friday Night Feminism.” Compl. ¶ 11(1)(w). The Wing also produces its own print magazine called No Man's Land. Id. ¶ 11(1)(x).

         At the time this action was filed, The Wing operated facilities in New York City and Washington, D.C., and had arrangements to open additional locations in the coming years. Id. ¶ 8. To gain admission to The Wing, aspiring members were required to answer a few questions in an online application[3] and pay between $215 and $250 per month. Id. ¶¶ 11(1)(k), (ll). As of September 2018, more than 26, 000 people had applied to become members. Gelman Decl. ¶ 4, Dkt. 11-3. As of the filing of the plaintiff's complaint, The Wing had over 1, 500 members across all its locations, and at least 349 of those members used the D.C. location. Compl. ¶¶ 11(1)(hh), (kk).

         Pietrangelo lives in D.C., where he spends his time writing. Id. ¶ 15. Finding his apartment complex an unsuitable venue for his work, Pietrangelo applied for membership at The Wing's D.C. location on June 4, 2018. Id. ¶¶ 16-18. The next day, he spoke over the phone with two employees of The Wing who informed him that his application would be permanently deferred because the company offered membership exclusively to women. Id. ¶¶ 21-23. To this day, Pietrangelo continues to be constructively denied membership through a permanent deferral of his application. Id. ¶ 23.

         On August 20, 2018, Pietrangelo brought this action for unlawful sex discrimination. Dkt. 1. He argues that The Wing is a “place of public accommodation” under the DCHRA and that it unlawfully discriminated against him on account of his gender. Compl. ¶¶ 9-11(2). Pietrangelo repeatedly urges that, at the time he submitted his application, it was both the practice and policy of The Wing to exclude men from its membership. See, e.g., id. ¶¶ 9, 11(2).

         The Wing denies that its discriminatory practice had any impact on Pietrangelo. At the time Pietrangelo applied, The Wing claims it evaluated applicants primarily based on their ostensible “commitment to The Wing's mission-i.e., the advancement of women.” Defs.' Br. at 4. Thus, according to The Wing, Pietrangelo would have been denied admission regardless of his gender because of his failure to demonstrate a sufficient commitment to the company's mission of female community and empowerment. Id. at 2, 7. As proof, The Wing offers Pietrangelo's membership application. Martinelli Decl. Ex. 1, Dkt. 15-2.[4] The Wing argues that because of its “highly selective” screening process-under which only eight percent of applicants are granted membership-Pietrangelo would have been denied admission even if The Wing had not considered his gender. See Defs.' Br. at 3-4, 10-14.

         The Wing concedes that its “practice” when Pietrangelo applied for membership was to admit “only women and non-binary individuals.” Id. at 5; see also Gelman Decl. ¶ 6. But in August 2018, shortly after this action was filed, The Wing adopted a formal written policy to govern its admissions practices. Gelman Decl. ¶ 7. The new policy “provides that all applicants will be evaluated based on their commitment to The Wing's mission, regardless of their perceived gender or gender identity.” Id. The Wing updated its website to reflect the new policy and made plans to begin training its employees to implement the policy in October 2018. Id. ¶¶ 8-9. Aside from these two steps, the extent to which the policy has actually been implemented or applied remains uncertain.

         On September 26, 2018, The Wing filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) in which it advances three arguments related to this Court's jurisdiction. First, The Wing asserts that Pietrangelo lacks standing because he failed to draw a causal connection between his injuries and the defendants' alleged exclusionary practice. Defs.' Br. at 10. Second, The Wing argues that Pietrangelo has failed to properly plead diversity jurisdiction because his claim for monetary damages does not satisfy the amount in controversy requirement. Id. at 14. Third, The Wing claims that its newly formulated membership policy renders Pietrangelo's claims moot. Id. At 18.[5]


         Under Rule 12(b)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, 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. of Am., 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 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) (internal quotation marks omitted). Those factual allegations, however, receive “closer scrutiny” than they would if the court were considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion for failure to state a claim. Id. Also, unlike in the Rule 12(b)(6) context, 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, at any point, 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).[6]

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Standing

         To establish standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) a concrete injury-in-fact that is (2) fairly traceable to the defendant's action and (3) redressable by a favorable judicial decision. Summers v. Earth Island Inst., 555 U.S. 488, 493 (2009). A court “has an independent obligation to assure that standing exists, regardless of whether it is challenged by any of the parties.” Id. at 499. If standing does not exist, the court may not “step[] where the Constitution forb[ids] it to tread” by addressing the merits. Hancock v. Urban Outfitters, Inc., 830 F.3d 511, 513 (D.C. Cir. 2016). When evaluating whether a plaintiff has standing, a court “must accept as true all material allegations of the complaint, and must construe the complaint in favor of the complaining party.” Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975).

         The Wing contends that Pietrangelo's claim fails at the second step-traceability- because he has not alleged but-for causation. In The Wing's words, Pietrangelo “has not properly pleaded that he would have been admitted [to The Wing] absent the alleged gender discrimination and thus has not pleaded that the allegedly discriminatory policy caused him any injury.” Defs.' Br. at 2. This argument fails for three reasons.

         First, the Complaint does allege that The Wing refused to admit Pietrangelo because of- and solely because of-his sex. Although the complaint does not use the familiar label “but-for” causation, it alleges that The Wing denied Pietrangelo access to The Wing “simply because he is a man, ” Compl. ¶¶ 25, 26 (emphasis added), and that “[t]here was no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason or basis” for its decision, id. ¶ 29; see also Id. ΒΆ 21 (alleging that a representative of The ...

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