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Fidishin v. Gary Community School Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana

November 29, 2018




         The Plaintiff, Marianne Fidishin, is suing her former employer, Gary Community School Corporation [Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial, ECF No. 1], alleging that the Defendant unlawfully discriminated against her on the basis of her race (Caucasian) and sex (female), and created a hostile work environment based on her race, all in violation of Title VII, and also violated her rights under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 9] pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) asserting that the Court lacks jurisdiction over the case and that the Complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The Motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for ruling.


         A. Subject Matter Jurisdiction

         Rule 12(b)(1) provides that a party may assert the defense of lack of subject matter jurisdiction by motion. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). “Subject-matter jurisdiction is the first question in every case, and if the court concludes that it lacks jurisdiction it must proceed no further.” Illinois v. City of Chi., 137 F.3d 474, 478 (7th Cir. 1998). Where, as here, the defendant has made only a facial challenge to jurisdiction, the court looks only “to the complaint [to] see if the plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction.” Apex Digital, Inc. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 572 F.3d 440, 443 (7th Cir. 2009) (citing Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)).

         Here, the Plaintiff is pursuing remedies under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes it unlawful “for an employer . . . to discriminate, ” on the basis of race or sex. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). The statute contains a jurisdictional provision, which empowers federal courts to adjudicate civil actions “brought under” Title VII. § 2000e-5(f)(3). “Covering a broader field, the Judicial Code gives federal courts subject-matter jurisdiction over all civil actions ‘arising under' the laws of the United States.” Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 503 (2006) (citing 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (providing federal district courts with “original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States”)). “Title VII actions fit that description.” Id. Likewise, the FMLA provides for private causes of action to be brought in federal courts, see 29 U.S.C. § 2617(a)(2), and claims arising under the FMLA are subject to this Court's federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         Accordingly, the Defendant's request to dismiss the Complaint under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction is denied.

         B. Stating a Claim Under Title VII and the FMLA

          When reviewing a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court must accept the factual allegations as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The complaint need not contain detailed facts, but surviving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion “requires more than labels and conclusions . . . . Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). “A claim has facial plausibility when the pleaded factual content 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) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         To begin, the Court notes that much of the Defendant's Motion to Dismiss appears focused on the merits of the Plaintiff's complaint allegations. (See Mot. 1 (“Fidishin's complaint is without merit.”); id. at 8-10 (discussing burdens of proof and elements of a prima facie case).) But a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint, not the merits of the allegations. A plaintiff must include enough details about the subject matter of a case to present a story that holds together, but the proper question to ask is “could these things have happened, not did they happen.” Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 826-27 (7th Cir. 2014) (citing Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 404-05 (7th Cir. 2010)).

         To establish a Title VII disparate treatment claim, a plaintiff must allege that an employer took job-related action against her that was motivated by intentional discrimination. See Ernst v. City of Chi., 837 F.3d 788, 794 (7th Cir. 2016). As the Seventh Circuit explained in Tomayo v. Blagojevich, “to prevent dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint alleging sex discrimination need only aver that the employer instituted a (specified) adverse employment action against the plaintiff on the basis of her sex.” 526 F.3d 1074, 1084 (7th Cir. 2008). Although Tamayo specifically addressed sex discrimination, the same pleading standards apply to allegations of discrimination based on race. See id., 526 F.3d at 1084 (reaffirming the minimal pleading standard for simple claims of race or sex discrimination reasserted in EEOC v. Concentra Health Servs., Inc., 496 F.3d 773, 781-82 (7th Cir. 2007)). While “a complaint must contain something more than a general recitation of the elements of the claim, ” there is a “minimal pleading standard for simple claims of race and sex discrimination.” Tamayo, 526 F.3d at 1081 (citing Concentra Health Servs., 496 F.3d at 781-82). Therefore, a “plaintiff is not required to include allegations-such as the existence of a similarly-situated comparator-that would establish a prima facie case of discrimination under the ‘indirect' method of proof.” Carlson v. CSX Transp., Inc., 758 F.3d 819, 827 (7th Cir. 2014).

         Title VII is also violated “[w]hen the workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim's employment and create an abusive working environment.” Harris v. Forklift Sys., Inc., 510 U.S. 17, 21 (1993) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). To state a hostile work environment claim based on race, a plaintiff must allege that she was subject to unwelcome harassment based on her race, and that the harassment was severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of employment and create a hostile or abusive working environment. See Alamo v. Bliss, 864 F.3d 541, 549 (7th Cir. 2017). Additionally, there must be a basis for employer liability. See id.

         The FMLA prohibits employers from interfering with, restraining, or denying the exercise of a right under the FMLA. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(a)(1). An employer can violate the FMLA by failing to return an employee to her prior, or an equivalent, position. See 29 U.S.C. § 2614. The FMLA also makes it unlawful for an employer to retaliate against an employee who exercises her FMLA rights. Carter v. Chi. State Univ., 778 F.3d 651, 657 (7th Cir. 2015) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(2), (b)); see also Burnett v. LFW Inc., 472 F.3d 471, 477 (7th Cir. 2006) (“The FMLA makes it unlawful for an employer to interfere with an employee's attempt to exercise any FMLA rights. It also forbids an employer from retaliating against an employee who exercises FMLA rights.”). “The difference between a retaliation and interference theory is that the first requires proof of discriminatory or retaliatory intent while an interference theory requires only proof that the employer denied the employee his or her entitlements under the Act.” Goelzer v. Sheboygan Cty., Wis., 604 F.3d 987, 995 (7th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks and brackets omitted).

         The Plaintiff alleges that she was the only Caucasian in the Defendant's central administrative office where she worked. (Compl. ¶ 13.) The Complaint sets forth various actions that impacted the Plaintiff's employment, including the removal of duties that were then assigned to a less qualified African-American employee, despite meeting the Defendant's legitimate performance expectations. (Id. ¶¶ 11, 17.) The Plaintiff alleges that she went on FMLA leave and upon her return to work on October 26, 2016, she was informed that she would begin reporting to an employee who had been her peer before she took FMLA leave. (Id. ¶ 20.) The Complaint sets forth other details regarding the work environment, including being subject to a series of personnel and time keeping rules that did not apply to any other executive staff. (Id. ¶¶ 21-32.) The Plaintiff alleged that these requirements had never been applied to her previously, or to any other senior administrator during the Plaintiff's four-year tenure with the Defendant. (Id. ¶ 33.) Additionally, her responsibilities were further reduced in October 2016 (Id. ¶¶ 26-29), she was belittled in front of the entire leadership team (Id. ΒΆ 31), denied the ability to attend a professional ...

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