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Stokes v. Benham

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

July 8, 2015

STEVEN BENHAM, et al., Defendants.


JOHN A. GIBNEY, Jr., District Judge.

Yolanda Stokes used to be a Commissioner on the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority, a position to which she was appointed by the Hopewell City Council. The City Council later changed its mind and removed her. Perceiving the removal as an act of retaliation for helping needy people, Stokes filed this law suit. Stokes has changed the identities of the defendants and the bases on which they should be held liable several times. After multiple attempts to revise her allegations, and pursuant to this Court's order, she filed a third amended complaint, which contained three claims. First, she argues the defendants retaliated against her in violation of Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Fair Housing Act. Second, she claims the defendants violated her constitutional right to equal protection. Finally, she claims defamation per se.

Stokes' third amended complaint does not state a claim for relief. Specifically, because the City Council appointed her to a position on the policy-making level, she does not enjoy the protections of Title VII. With respect to her other ADA, Rehabilitation Act, and FHA retaliation claims, she fails to put forward facts that show a causal connection between her protected activities under those laws and the defendants' decision to remove her from the Housing Authority. Her claim for relief under § 1983 fails for two reasons. First, she fails to allege a policy, practice, or custom of discrimination, which is necessary to state a § 1983 claim against a municipality. Second, the complaint lacks any facts that raise the specter of discrimination on any basis. Finally, the defamation claim fails both because it does not comply with the Court's instructions for filing the third amended complaint and because it lacks any factual support.

Accordingly, the Court grants the defendants' motions to dismiss in their entirety and dismisses the third amended complaint.


The Hopewell City Council appointed Yolanda Stokes as a Commissioner to the Hopewell Redevelopment and Housing Authority ("HRHA" or "Authority") in November 2012. Just eight months later, on July 8, 2013, the City Council convened a meeting and removed Stokes from the Authority. Stokes saw this as payback for her attempts to protect the rights of herself and others. In the third amended complaint ("TAC"), she emphasizes three separate incidents prior to her appointment that motivated the City Council to remove her.

The first incident relates to Stokes' unsuccessful applications for several positions with the Authority in 2009, including Executive Director, Housing Manager, and Secretary-Receptionist. Stokes felt especially qualified for each position, believed her status as a resident in the Authority's public housing entitled her to preferential treatment, and even had the recommendation of Joyce Gholson, then an Authority employee. Nonetheless, the Authority did not interview Stokes. In response, Stokes filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging retaliation, age discrimination, and disability discrimination. On December 31, 2012, Stokes received a letter indicating that the EEOC had dismissed her charge and issued her a right to sue letter.

The second incident arose when Stokes helped her late mother Gloria Jean Glover file a complaint with the Department of Housing and Urban Development ("HUD") under the Fair Housing Act ("FHA"). As the Court understands Stokes' explanation, Ms. Glover requested permission from the Authority for, among other accommodations, a live-in aide for health reasons, and Stokes intended to assume that role. The Authority denied this request, so Glover, with Stokes' help, filed the complaint with the FHA. The exact dates of this episode remain fuzzy, but attachments to the TAC indicate that Ms. Glover filed her complaint with HUD in 2011, and HUD found the Authority partially in compliance and partially in non-compliance in September 2012.[1]

Finally, Stokes also tried to assist Joyce Gholson, her contact within the Authority who had recommended her in 2009, after the Authority terminated Gholson. Stokes helped Gholson file an EEOC claim alleging that her termination was discriminatory.[2]

Believing her removal from the Authority to be retaliation for her attempts at good deeds, Stokes filed her own EEOC charges. On September 30, 2013, she named various individuals in separate EEOC charges, including the Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Hopewell, two members of the City Council, and six other HRHA commissioners. On October 29, 2013, she filed another EEOC charge, this time jointly against the City Council and the Housing Authority. In all of these charges, Stokes alleged that she was removed as commissioner in retaliation for having filed her previous Title VII complaint. On April 30, 2014, and July 31, 2014, the EEOC issue right to sue letters to Stokes for her claims against the individuals and the entities, respectively.

Stokes filed her suit in forma pauperis on July 28, 2014. Initially she named as defendants 11 individuals, but neither the City Council nor the HRHA. (Dk. No. 3.) The individual defendants, divided into groups based on their affiliations to the City Council or the Authority, filed motions to dismiss. Stokes responded in opposition to those motions, but also sought leave to file an amended complaint.[3] (Dk. No. 11.) Before the Court could rule on the defendants' motions to dismiss, Stokes filed a second motion for leave to file an amended complaint. (Dk. No. 21.) The second amended complaint named as defendants both the City Council and the Authority, but no individual defendants.

Recognizing that Stokes intended to name both individual and entity defendants in her suit, the Court ordered her to file a third amended complaint and gave explicit instructions for how to do so. ( See Dk. No. 27.) On February 3, 2015, Stokes filed the TAC. (Dk. No. 29.)

As anticipated, Stokes names both the City Council and Authority as defendants, along with many individuals from both entities. Specifically, she names Mayor Michael Bujakowski, Vice Mayor Jasmine Gore, and City Council Members Christina Lumina-Bailey, Roosevelt Edwards, Wayne Walton, and Jackie Shornak (collectively, the "individual City Council defendants"). She also names HRHA Executive Director Steven Benham; Commissioners Linwood Crenshaw, Michael Mahaney, Sheila Flowers, Renee Broxie, and Johnny Jones; James Vergara, whom Stokes identifies as the Authority's "Staff Attorney"; and Tina Raatz and Greg Pe'ay, two Housing Managers who work for the Authority (collectively, the "individual Authority defendants").

Stokes alleges three claims against different groupings of the defendants. Count I alleges retaliation in violation of Title VII, the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. Count II alleges an equal protection violation brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count III alleges defamation per se.

The defendants, again grouped by their affiliations to the City Council and the Authority, filed several motions to dismiss. The City Council and the individual City Council defendants ask the Court to dismiss the TAC for failing to state a claim for relief. The Authority and the individual Authority defendants ask the Court to dismiss the TAC for the same reason, and also because of Stokes' failure to comply with this Court's instructions for filing the TAC.


A. Legislative Immunity

The City Council and individual City Council defendants raise legislative immunity as a defense against Stokes' law suit. "Legislative immunity protects those engaged in legislative functions against the pressures of litigation and the liability that may result." McCray v. Md. Dep't of Tramp., Md. Transit Admin., 741 F.3d 480, 484 (4th Cir. 2014). Legislative immunity does not automatically attach whenever a defendant claims the title of "legislator, " but rather when the action taken qualifies as "legislative." Id. at 485. Legislative actions tend to be prospective, reflect broader policies that affect the electorate, and "generally bear the outward marks of public decision-making, including the observance of formal legislative procedures." E.E.O.C. v. Washington Suburban Sanitary Comm'n, 631 F.3d 174, 184 (4th Cir. 2011). By contrast, decisions involving employment or personnel do not receive the protection of legislative immunity "because they most often affect specific individuals rather than formulate broad public policy." Id. Although the City Council held a vote to decide whether to remove Stokes from the HRHA, that action was not legislative because it was "plainly unrelated to the process of adopting ...

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