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Hand v. University of Alabama Board of Trustees

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

January 11, 2018

MARY JULIA HAND, Plaintiff,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA BOARD OF TRUSTEES, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. (Doc. # 4). The motion to dismiss has been fully briefed and is under submission. (Docs. # 9 & 10). After careful review, and for the reasons explained below, the court concludes that the Motion to Dismiss is due to be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff worked for several years as a program manager in the Professional and Conference Services Division (the “Division”) at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa (the “University”). (See Doc. # 1 at ¶ 15). She alleges that she suffered from severe neural foraminal narrowing and compression of a spinal nerve, which she controlled through exercise and use of a special chair before 2013. (Id. at ¶¶ 26-27).

         In 2013, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Leroy Hurt, an associate dean of professional development and conference services, pressured her to hire a male candidate for an open position and criticized her for questioning the male candidate during his interview about his salary requirements. (Id. at ¶ 18). Moreover, Hurt required Plaintiff to undergo coaching after the interview. (Id. at ¶ 19). In September 2013, Plaintiff complained to the University's EEOC office about gender discrimination because Hurt had hired the lesser-qualified male candidate. (Id. at ¶ 21).

         In November 2013, Plaintiff alleges that Hurt refused to allow her to terminate a subordinate for poor job performance. (Id. at ¶ 22). She asserts that (1) Hurt's refusal undermined her authority and (2) Hurt allowed a non-disabled supervisor to terminate a subordinate for poor job performance. (See Id. at ¶¶ 22-24). Plaintiff further complains that Hurt ordered her to relinquish planning and control of a conference to another employee with no apparent disabilities. (Id. at ¶ 25).

         Beginning in April 2014, Plaintiff alleges that Hurt harassed her about exercising in the University's gym during lunch. (Id. at ¶ 28). Hurt allegedly directed her to not change clothes at work and to shower before returning to the office. (Id.). According to Plaintiff, other employees were allowed to change clothes at the office. (Id.). Plaintiff's back conditions worsened in 2014, and she underwent back surgery in December of that year. (Id. at ¶ 29). Thereafter, she experienced slurred speech, grasping problems, and drooling, which progressively worsened. (Id. at ¶ 30). In February 2015, Hurt complained about Plaintiff's autistic son visiting her office between classes. (Id. at ¶ 33). In June 2015, Hurt allegedly directed Plaintiff to relinquish all of her office furniture, including the special chair she needed to alleviate her back condition. (The Complaint does not specify whether Plaintiff lost her ability to use the chair.) (Id. at ¶ 32). In August 2015, Plaintiff complained to the University's human resources department that Hurt had “undermined her ability to complete a major project by permitting [Plaintiff's] main support staff person to resign without giving a full two (2)-week notice.” (Id. at ¶ 35).

         In September 2015, Hurt issued Plaintiff a write-up that falsely accused her of yelling at another employee. (Id. at ¶ 36). Plaintiff alleges that Hurt threatened to pressure other employees to testify against her if she contested the write-up. (Id.). Plaintiff complained to a human resources employee about Hurt's “retaliatory conduct.” (Id.). According to the Complaint, Hurt permitted a male employee to yell at female employees without any repercussions. (Id. at ¶ 37). In September 2015, Hurt also moved another employee, Lisa Dunn, into Plaintiff's office. (Id. at ¶ 38).

         In October 2015, Hurt demoted plaintiff from program manager to sales manager.[1] (Id. at ¶ 39). Plaintiff complained to Defendants Craig Edelbrock and Hurt that she would likely not succeed as a sales manager due to her slurred speech, her limitations in moving her right leg, and after-effects from her back surgery. (Id. at ¶ 41). Plaintiff's slurred speech harmed her ability to make telephone sales calls, and her lack of mobility impeded her ability to conduct in-person sales calls. (Id. at ¶ 45). According to Plaintiff, Hurt failed to inform her of fundraising protocols, which impeded her fundraising efforts. (Id. at ¶¶ 52-53). At one point following her demotion, Hurt limited Plaintiff's fundraising “to selling at exhibit booths and seeking low-level sponsors under $10, 000, which were already being handled in the Marketing Department.” (Id. at ¶ 54). Hurt later instructed Plaintiff to focus on securing grants, rather than making sales. (Id. at ¶ 56). In August 2016, Plaintiff submitted a draft proposal for a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services, but Hurt decided to appoint another person to handle that grant application. (Id. at ¶ 57). Plaintiff began treatment for Parkinson's Disease in December 2016 and was diagnosed with Parkinson's in January 2017. (Id. at ¶ 59). Thereafter, she informed Hurt of the diagnosis. (Id.).

         II. Standard of Review

         The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require that a complaint provide “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). However, the complaint must include enough facts “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Pleadings that contain nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action” do not meet Rule 8 standards, nor do pleadings suffice that are based merely upon “labels and conclusions” or “naked assertion[s]” without supporting factual allegations. Id. at 555, 557. In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, courts view the allegations in the complaint in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Watts v. Fla. Int'l Univ., 495 F.3d 1289, 1295 (11th Cir. 2007).

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that 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). Although “[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a ‘probability requirement, '” the complaint must demonstrate “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Id. A plausible claim for relief requires “enough fact[s] to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence” to support the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         In considering a motion to dismiss, a court should “1) eliminate any allegations in the complaint that are merely legal conclusions; and 2) where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, ‘assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.'” Kivisto v. Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, PLC, 413 F. App'x 136, 138 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010)). That task is context specific and, to survive the motion, the allegations must permit the court based on its “judicial experience and common sense . . . to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. If the court determines that all of the well-pleaded facts, accepted as true, do not state a claim that is plausible, the claims are due to be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.

         III. Analysis

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff raises three counts against Defendant Board of Trustees: (1) sex discrimination and harassment claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) disability discrimination, harassment, and failure-to-accommodate claims under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act; and (3) retaliation claims under Title VII and the Rehabilitation Act. Plaintiff asserts state-law claims against Defendants Edelbrock and Hurt for negligence and interference with contractual or business relations. The court addresses the sufficiency of the allegations related to each claim below, in turn.

         A. Plaintiff's Complaint States Plausible Allegations of ...


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