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Johnson v. Blount County

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

March 27, 2017

BLOUNT COUNTY, et al., Defendants.



         On July 25, 2016, Plaintiff Percy Johnson (“Johnson” or “Plaintiff) initiated this action, alleging a count for employment discrimination by Defendants on the basis of his age in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), a count for constructive discharge from his employment, and a count for violation of his civil rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983. (Doc. 1). Defendants responded with a motion to dismiss portions of Johnson's first count and the entirety of his second and third counts. (Doc. 6). Johnson filed a response in opposition on September 6, 2016. (Doc. 8). Defendants did not file a reply. For the reasons stated more fully below, the motion to dismiss is GRANTED.

         I. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007)). Mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 550 U.S. at 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955). Additionally, “[i]n alleging fraud or mistake, a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. “To 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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). A complaint states a facially plausible claim for relief “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted). The complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.”). Ultimately, this inquiry is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. at 1950.

         The court accepts all factual allegations as true on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). See, e.g., Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000). However, legal conclusions unsupported by factual allegations are not entitled to that assumption of truth. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1950.

         IT. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         Johnson, now 57, was hired by the Blount County Commission (the “BCC”) on March 31, 2010, and last employed by Blount County as a Motor Grader Operator/Heavy Equipment Operator III, grade 8. (Doc. 1 at 4-5). Johnson made $13.48 per hour and was the only employee at his location with this role. (Id. at 5). At some point, the BCC hired a 32-year-old named Jeff, for a “Truck Driver” position. (Id.). Jeff was not qualified for the Operator III position but nevertheless was placed in it and received the same pay as Johnson. (Id.). In December 2015, the BCC hired another younger employer, 32-year-old Colby McAnally, for a “Truck Driver” position; McAnally was also placed in the Operator III position and received higher pay than Johnson. (Id. at 5-6). Neither McAnally nor Jeff were hired, paid, or placed through a vote by all the commissioners of the BCC, as required by its policy. (Id.).

         One of the county commissioners, Carthal Self, told Johnson he was being discriminated against because of his age, as McAnally made more money than Johnson despite having less experience. (Id. at 6). Johnson raised this issue with the county commissioners and requested a raise, but, although two commissioners supported Johnson's efforts, Defendants Chris Green (the county commission chair) and Dean Calvert (a county commissioner) told him he could not have a raise. Calvert justified this by stating a raise for Johnson would require an across-the-board raise. (Id. at 7). Calvert offered to reclassify Johnson as a mechanic, which would indirectly give Johnson a raise; Johnson would not be required to do the actual work of a mechanic, but would simply get a different title and higher pay. (Id. at 7-8). Johnson refused, stating it was against policy and unethical. (Id. at 8). Calvert then denied to Self he had offered Johnson the mechanic title; Self relayed that denial to Johnson. (Id.). Johnson's complaints about this to the human resources department were met with the statement the “rule book was dead.” (Id.). Johnson suffered “stress, embarrassment, humiliation, shame, high blood pressure, and low self-esteem” and resigned, whereupon he was replaced by a younger employee. (Id.).

         III. Analysis

         Defendants have moved for partial dismissal of Johnson's claims. Specifically, they seek to dismiss any claims using “Jeff as a comparator, Johnson's claims of constructive discharge, and Johnson's § 1983 claim.

         A. Count I - ADEA Claims Related to “Jeff

         Defendants first move to dismiss Johnson's claims of age discrimination founded on the comparison of himself and Jeff, the employee Johnson alleges was paid the same as him despite being less qualified. (Doc. 6 at 1). Defendants state Johnson has failed to make out a prima facie case of discrimination with respect to Jeff because Jeff did not receive a higher wage than Johnson. (Id. at 1-2). Johnson acknowledges he and Jeff made the same wage but states Jeff was not qualified for that wage. (Doc. 8 at 5). He additionally responds he has alleged other facts supporting a claim of age discrimination: that McAnally received a higher wage and that Johnson was replaced by a younger employee after being constructively discharged. (Id. at 5-6).

         First, Defendants misstate Johnson's burden at the motion to dismiss stage. Defendants argue Johnson's claims using Jeff as a comparator fail to establish a prima facie case of age discrimination under the burden-shifting framework of McDonnell Douglas. However, both the Supreme Court and the Eleventh Circuit have expressly refused to treat the evidentiary standard of McDonnell Douglas as a pleading standard for an employment discrimination plaintiff's complaint. See Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A.,534 U.S. 506, 515, 122 S.Ct. 992, 999 (2002) (“[A]n employment discrimination plaintiff need not plead a prima facie case of discrimination . . . to survive [a] motion to dismiss.”); Davis v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consol., 516 F.3d 955, 974 (11th Cir. 2008) (Title VII complaint not required to make out McDonnell Douglas prima facie case); Jackson v. BellSouth Telecomms., 372 F.3d 1250, 1270-71 (11th Cir. 2004) (“McDonnell Douglas [is] an evidentiary rather than a pleading ...

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