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Gaines v. Cooper

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

December 5, 2017

JOHN R. COOPER and GARY SMITH, Defendants.



         Timothy Gaines brings this civil rights action via 42 U.S.C. § 1983, against his supervisors in the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT), John Cooper and Gary Smith (collectively the Defendants). Gaines seeks declaratory and injunctive relief as well as money damages against the Defendants in their official and individual capacities on the basis of unlawful racial discrimination and retaliation in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1981 and the Fourteenth Amendment. The Defendants have now moved to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Doc. 10. That motion is now adequately briefed, docs. 10; and 16, and ripe for decision. After carefully reviewing the complaint and the parties' respective briefs, the court concludes the Defendants' motion is due to be denied in part and granted in part.


         Typically, immunity issues are construed as challenges to the subject-matter jurisdiction of a federal court properly raised under Rule 12(b)(1), at least where, as here, the motion does not implicate the underlying merits of the case. See Garrett v. Talladega Cty. Drug & Violent Crime Task Force, 983 F.Supp.2d 1369, 1373 (N.D. Ala. 2013); Harris v. Bd. of Trs. Univ. of Ala., 846 F.Supp.2d 1223, 1231 (N.D. Ala. 2012). A 12(b)(1) challenge may take the form of a facial or factual attack on the complaint. See McElmurray v. Consol. Gov't of Augusta-Richmond Cty., 501 F.3d 1244, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007). A facial attack “‘require[s] the court merely to look and see if [the] plaintiff has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction, and the allegations in [her] complaint are taken as true for the purposes of the motion.'” Id. (quoting Lawrence v. Dunbar, 919 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1990)). On the other hand, a factual attack challenges “‘the existence of subject matter jurisdiction in fact, irrespective of the pleadings, and matters outside the pleadings . . . are considered.'” Id. (quoting Lawrence, 919 F.2d at 1529. In such an instance, the court may hear conflicting evidence and decide the factual issues bearing on jurisdiction. Colonial Pipeline Co. v. Collins, 921 F.2d 1237, 1243 (11th Cir. 1991). Here, the Defendants do not present any evidence beyond the pleadings for review, and the court construes their jurisdictional challenge as facial.[1]

         In addition to meeting this court's jurisdictional requirements, Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires a pleading to 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 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). Mere “‘labels and conclusions'” or “‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action'” are insufficient. Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits dismissal when a complaint fails to comply with Rule 8(a)(2) or does not otherwise state a claim upon which relief can be granted. When evaluating a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the court accepts “the allegations in the complaint as true and construe[s] them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Hunt v. Aimco Props., L.P., 814 F.3d 1213, 1221 (11th Cir. 2016). However, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must . . . ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). 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. The complaint must establish “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id.; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (emphasizing that “[f]actual allegations [included in the complaint] must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level”). Ultimately, the line between possibility and plausibility is a thin one making this determination a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         II. FACTS

         Gaines worked for ALDOT as a rest area attendant under the supervision of Gary Smith, the Director of ALDOT's Oneonta Division, at the Interstate 59 rest area in Ashville, Alabama for a little over four years. Doc. 1 at 2-3. During that time, Gaines was never disciplined or notified of any unsatisfactory conduct. Id. at 3. In May 2014, Gaines wrote a letter to Smith's supervisor in which Gaines complained about his work hours and, more generally, about the treatment of African-American employees in the workplace. Id. Approximately a month later, Smith questioned Gaines, who is an African-American, regarding the letter, purportedly informing Gaines that “he should not have [complained].” Id. at 2, 3.

         Within a few weeks of this conversation, Smith denied Gaines' request for a transfer to an open permanent rest area attendant position. Id. at 3. Gaines also requested shift changes during this time period which Smith uniformly denied. Id. at 3-4. Within three months of Smith's warning, ALDOT terminated Gaines, purportedly because Gaines failed to obtain his commercial driver's license (CDL) in a timely manner. Id. at 3-4. However, the time ALDOT had previously given Gaines to obtain his CDL had not expired when he was terminated. Id. at 4-5. Moreover, Gaines claims that ALDOT transferred three similarly situated white employees who also failed to obtain their CDL licenses instead of discharging them. Id. at 5.


         The Defendants' motion relies on two arguments: (1) that, as state officials sued in their official capacity, the Defendants are immune from suit pursuant to the Eleventh Amendment; and alternatively, (2) that the Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity because the complaint fails to adequately allege that they violated any of Gaines' clearly established rights. The court will address each argument in turn.

         A. Eleventh Amendment Immunity

         It is well-settled that “state officials sued for damages in their official capacity are immune from suit in federal court.” Jackson v. Ga. Dep't of Transp., 16 F.3d 1573, 1575 (11th Cir. 1994). It is equally well-settled, however, that “the Eleventh Amendment does not protect state employees sued in their individual capacity for employment-related acts.” Id. Moreover, the Supreme Court in Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), declared that “suit[s] alleging a violation of the federal constitution against a state official in his official capacity for injunctive relief on a prospective basis . . . [do] not violate the Eleventh Amendment.” Grizzle v. Kemp, 634 F.3d 1314, 1319 (11th Cir. 2011). To determine whether a suit falls within the Ex parte Young exception for prospective relief, “a court need only conduct a ‘straightforward inquiry into whether [the] complaint alleges an ongoing violation of federal law and seeks relief properly characterized as prospective.'” Verizon Md. Inc. v. Pub. Serv. Comm'n of Md., 535 U.S. 635, 645 (2002) (quoting Idaho v. Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 U.S. 261, 296 (1997) (O'Connor, J., concurring)).

         Here, although Gaines' complaint is far from clear, the caption of the document indicates that he is suing the Defendants in both their official and individual capacities. Doc. 1 at 1. Thus, as Gaines concedes, to the extent his complaint can be construed as seeking an award of money damages from the Defendants in their official capacities, those claims are due to be dismissed. Doc. 16 at 5. However, Gaines' claim for damages against the Defendants in their individual capacities does not violate the Eleventh Amendment. See Cross v. Ala. Dep't of Mental Health & Mental Retardation, 49 F.3d 1490, 1503 (11th Cir. 1995). The other remedies Gaines seeks including reinstatement, a permanent injunction against the Defendants' alleged continuing violation of federal law, and a declaration that the Defendants' employment policies and practices violate federal law all easily qualify as prospective. See Doc. 1 at 6. Accordingly, Gaines' requests for injunctive and declaratory relief fall within the Ex parte Young exception and also avoid the immunity bar imposed by the Eleventh Amendment. See Verizon Md., 535 U.S. at 645 (suit to enjoin enforcement of a state official's order in contravention of federal law qualified as prospective relief for purposes of Ex parte Young); ...

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