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Mace v. Underwood

United States District Court, M.D. Alabama, Northern Division

August 30, 2019

LATOYA MACE, Plaintiff,


          Myron H. Thompson United States District Judge.

         Under Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), plaintiff LaToya Mace, a former Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) employee, challenges her termination under the equal protection principles implied in the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. This case is now before the court on defendant Martha Underwood’s motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.[1] The court has subject-matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 (federal question). For the reasons below, Underwood’s motion will be granted and this case dismissed.


         To survive 12(b)(6) dismissal, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “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.” Id. In reviewing the complaint, the court “must take the facts alleged … as true and construe them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Resnick v. AvMed, Inc., 693 F.3d 1317, 1321–22 (11th Cir. 2012).


         Mace was employed by the BOP from March 2002 to September 28, 2012. See Am. Compl. (doc. no. 14) at 2. On September 3, 2012, Mace learned that a default judgment had been awarded against her in the amount of $ 20,000. See Id. at 2–3. On September 24, the BOP informed Mace that she was ineligible to continue her employment because the BOP had received a wage garnishment on the $ 20,000 judgment. See Id. Mace worked at the BOP for three more days but was eventually refused access to the prison on September 28.

         Mace filed this suit against prison warden Martha Underwood in her individual capacity under the theory of Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S. 388 (1971), which allows, under certain circumstances, a damages remedy against a federal agent who violates a plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Mace seeks, among other things, back pay, front pay, and reinstatement to her position at the BOP. Underwood filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. For the reasons below, that motion will be granted.


         “[A] plaintiff seeking a damages remedy under the Constitution must first demonstrate that [her] constitutional rights have been violated.” Davis v. Passman, 442 U.S. 228, 248 (1979). Because Mace’s constitutional rights were not violated, the court need not consider whether it should imply a Bivens cause of action on these facts.[2]

         Mace’s sole claim, styled as an equal protection claim under the Fifth Amendment,[3] is that she was terminated “in the absence of any rational basis.” Am. Compl. (doc. no. 14) at 6. Mace does not claim that she is a member of a protected class or that she was terminated on that basis. Hers is a “class of one” equal protection claim where Mace “alleges that she has been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment.” Vill. of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564 (2000) (per curiam).[4]

         But class-of-one equal protection claims are not cognizable in the context of public employment. See Engquist v. Ore. Dep’t of Agric., 553 U.S. 591, 609 (2008). As the Supreme Court explained, “recognition of a class-of-one theory of equal protection in the public employment context__that is, a claim that the State treated an employee differently from others for a bad reason, or for no reason at all__is simply contrary to the concept of at-will employment.” Id. at 606. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals had “little trouble” applying Engquist to hold that government contractors are also categorically barred from making class-of-one equal protection claims. See Douglas Asphalt Co. v. Qore, Inc., 541 F.3d 1269, 1274 (11th Cir. 2008).

         Engquist and Douglas Asphalt require dismissal of Mace’s complaint. Mace, who worked for the BOP, was indisputably a government employee, and her sole claim is a class-of-one equal protection claim challenging her termination. Such a claim is not cognizable under Supreme Court and Eleventh Circuit precedent.

         Even if she could bring such a claim, Mace’s threadbare allegations that she was treated differently from unnamed, similarly situated employees would not survive a motion to dismiss. See Leib v. Hillsborough Cty. Pub. Transp. Comm’n, 558 F.3d 1301, 1307 (11th Cir. 2009) (holding that “complete lack of factual detail regarding the ‘similarly situated’ requirement” required dismissal of class-of-one equal protection claim).

         Because Mace is categorically barred from bringing a class-of-one equal protection claim to challenge her termination and, in any event, her allegations are insufficient to ...

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