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Muwonge v. Department of Juvenile Justice

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

September 24, 2014



JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.

This matter comes before the Court on the defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.[1] (Dk. No. 13.) The plaintiff, Vertina Muwonge, a former employee of the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice ("DJJ"), claims that the defendants violated both federal and state law in firing her.

Each of Muwonge's claims fail for the following reasons. Her Title VII claim fails to adequately allege that a desire to retaliate against her was the but-for cause of her termination. Her due process[2] claim fails because she has not sued a "person" within the meaning of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and because she received procedural protection that satisfied constitutional minimums. Turning to her state law theories, Muwonge's wrongful termination claim is precluded by her unappealed decision in the state grievance process. Her conspiracy claim fails because employment interests fall outside of the scope of Virginia's conspiracy statute and because the intra-corporate conspiracy doctrine bars the claim. Finally, her workers' compensation claim fails because she has not adequately alleged causation under the statute. Accordingly, the Court GRANTS the defendants' Motion to Dismiss and DISMISSES Muwonge's suit with prejudice.

I. Statement of Facts[3]

Muwonge worked as a Juvenile Corrections Officer at the DJJ's Bon Air Facility, where her responsibilities included guarding juvenile offenders, implementing treatment programs, and conducting inspections and searches. In April 2011, Muwonge's supervisor, defendant Kenneth Washington, moved Muwonge to the "A-Break Days" shift. (Dk. No. 1, ex. 2 at 6.) Muwonge complained about this transfer to Washington's supervisor, Fred Lucas, then-Acting Superintendent of the Bon Air Facility. Washington apparently grew angry that Muwonge "went over his head, " and vowed to put an end to her complaint. (Dk. No. 4 at ¶¶ 3, 6.) Washington and other supervisors then mistreated Muwonge, leading her to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on March 14, 2012. The EEOC investigated her complaint and concluded on March 29, 2012, that she had not established a violation of Title VII. verbally taunted the young woman to the point where the juvenile hit Muwonge in the face. One of the defendants, DJJ Officer Chakela Clayton, observed the confrontation and assisted in restraining the juvenile. This incident prompted an investigation by the DJJ, which concluded that Muwonge's conduct "constituted verbal and mental abuse" and was "unbecoming of a corrections employee." (Dk. No. 10, ex. 1 at 5.) The DJJ confronted Muwonge with her behavior, but she did not offer a good explanation. The DJJ then issued Muwonge disciplinary notices, placed her on a ten-day suspension, and fired her on December 17, 2012. Before her dismissal, Muwonge filed a grievance with the state Department of Employment Dispute Resolution, requesting an "administrative due process hearing." (Dk. No. 10, ex. 1 at 1.) The agency upheld Muwonge's termination. She then appealed this decision to the Department of Human Resources Management ("DHRM"), which further affirmed her termination. Following the DHRM decision, Muwonge filed suit in this Court.

II. Discussion

Before turning to each specific claim, the Court will address claim preclusion, a defense raised as to all of Muwonge's claims. The defendants argue that the decision rendered in Muwonge's grievance hearing precludes her from raising the claims in this suit. Claim preclusion is a rule of law that keeps a litigant from raising the same issue in successive proceedings; in other words, litigants only get one bite at the apple. Under claim preclusion, "a final judgment forecloses successive litigation of the very same claim, whether or not relitigation of the claim raises the same issues as the earlier suit." Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892, 128 S.Ct. 2161 (2008) (quoting New Hampshire v. Maine, 532 U.S. 742, 748, 121 S.Ct. 1808 (2001) (internal quotation marks omitted).[4] Subject to certain exceptions discussed below, a plaintiff must "raise all possible theories of recovery and... demand all desired remedies in one proceeding at peril of losing all not raised in it." Dionne v. Mayor and City Council of Balt., 40 F.3d 677, 683 (4th Cir. 1994).

A. Title VII Claim

I. Claim Preclusion

State administrative decisions for which a plaintiff has not sought state-court review do not have preclusive effect on Title VII claims. Univ. of Tenn. v. Elliot, 478 U.S. 788, 796, 106 S.Ct. 3220 (1986) (stating that "Congress did not intend unreviewed state administrative proceedings to have preclusive effect on Title VII claims"). Because Muwonge did not appeal the conclusions of her administrative hearing to a Virginia court, the hearing officer's decision in favor of the DJJ does not bar Muwonge's Title VII retaliation claim against Washington.

2. Sufficiency

Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee for opposing unlawful discrimination or participating in Title VII processes. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). To show unlawful retaliation under Title VII, a plaintiff must show that (1) she engaged in protected activity; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action at the hands of the defendant; and (3) the defendant took the adverse action because of the protected activity. Spriggs v. Diamond Auto Glass, 242 F.3d 179, 190 (4th Cir. 2001). In order to satisfy the causation element, a plaintiff must show that the defendant's "desire to retaliate was the but-for cause" and not merely a "motivating factor" of the adverse action. Univ. of Tex. Southwestern Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2528, 2534 (2013). In other words, a plaintiff's claim must allege facts sufficient to create a "reasonable inference" that a connection exists between the two events. Bryant v. Aiken Reg'l Med. Ctrs., 333 F.3d 536, 543 (4th Cir. 2003).

Muwonge alleges no facts showing that her EEOC claim led to her firing. Unfortunately for her, Muwonge's own allegations refute any reasonable inference of retaliation. Rather, her termination stemmed from a serious incident between Muwonge and a juvenile detainee under her supervision. Muwonge admitted taunting the detainee to the point where the juvenile punched Muwonge in the face. (Dk. No. 20, ex. 1 at 3, 5.) The hearing officer rightly described this conduct as "very serious" and noted that it would "obviously constitute a Group III offense, " a level which may result in termination. (Dk. No. 20, ex. 1 at 7, 9.) Simply ...

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