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Leuenberger v. Spicer

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

January 28, 2016

FAHNDA HASHISH LEUENBERGER, Plaintiff,
v.
ROSS SPICER, etc., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

ELIZABETH K. DILLON, District Judge.

In this employment case, plaintiff Fahnda Hashish Leuenberger claims that defendants Ross Spicer, the Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney of Frederick County, Virginia (Office), and Frederick County (County) discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA) and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They now move to dismiss her claims on various grounds under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), (b)(2), and (b)(6). For the following reasons, the court will grant Spicer's motion in part and deny it in part, and grant the Office's and County's motions.

I. BACKGROUND

The facts recited in this section and relied on below are taken from Leuenberger's complaint and her Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) discrimination charge, a document integral to the complaint. Zak v. Chelsea Therapeutics Int'l, Ltd., 780 F.3d 597, 606-07 (4th Cir. 2015). For purposes of defendants' motions to dismiss, the court accepts Leuenberger's factual allegations as true and construes them in the light most favorable to her. Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 189 (4th Cir. 2010); Lovern v. Edwards, 190 F.3d 648, 654 (4th Cir. 1999).

A. Leuenberger works as a prosecutor in California, moves to Virginia, and takes a break from practicing law.

Leuenberger began her career as a prosecutor in California in 1989, working in a district attorney's office. (Dkt. No. 1, Compl. ¶ 12.) There, she prosecuted both felonies and misdemeanors, gaining significant experience in all stages of criminal prosecution. ( Id. ) In July 1996, she relocated to Virginia and took a break from practicing law to stay at home with her children. ( Id. ¶ 13.)

B. Leuenberger returns to practicing law and begins working at the Office.

Approximately 15 years later, in 2011, Leuenberger decided to return to practicing law and applied for an assistant Commonwealth's attorney position with the Office. ( Id. ¶¶ 14-15.) Then-Commonwealth's Attorney Glenn Williamson hired her that July, and she started working the following month. ( Id. ¶¶ 15-16.)

Leuenberger was initially assigned to work in juvenile and domestic relations (J&DR) district court, though she worked on some cases in general district court and circuit court. ( Id. ¶¶ 17, 26.) She had full authority to accept or reject plea deals and to decide case strategy. ( Id. ¶ 27.) In January and October 2012, Williamson evaluated her and rated her as "above expectations" in the work quality, communications, and work habits categories, and as "meets expectations" in the rest. ( Id. ¶ 29.)

C. The County partially funds Leuenberger's salary, manages her benefits, and maintains her employment records.

Under Virginia law, the Commonwealth, through its Compensation Board, authorizes and funds assistant Commonwealth's attorney positions. Va. Code Ann. §§ 15.2-1626, -1627.1. Counties may, however, supplement the salaries of assistant Commonwealth's attorneys, id. § 15.2-1605.1, and many do so.

The Commonwealth and the County each funded a portion of Leuenberger's salary, and the County gave her a bonus in 2012. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 18.) In addition, the County, through either its board of supervisors or human resources department (or both), set and managed her benefits, paid her via direct deposit, maintained her employment records, and reviewed her performance for purposes of an employee-of-the-month award. ( Id. ¶¶ 21-24.) Virginia law requires counties to provide (among other benefits) two weeks' paid vacation time and seven days' paid sick leave to employees of Commonwealth's attorneys. Va. Code Ann. § 15.2-1605.

The County also furnished the space, materials, and equipment used by the Office during Leuenberger's employment. (Dkt. No. 1 ¶ 25.) Under Virginia law, counties are obligated to provide "suitable space and facilities" for Commonwealth's attorneys to discharge their duties. Va. Code § 15.2-1638.

D. Williamson retires, Spicer becomes Commonwealth's attorney, and Leuenberger shares duties with her male colleagues.

In November 2012, Williamson announced that he would retire as Commonwealth's attorney at the end of that year. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 30.) Upon Williamson's retirement, Spicer, then the deputy Commonwealth's attorney, became the acting Commonwealth's attorney. ( Id. ) He was elected to the position in November 2013. ( Id. ¶¶ 9, 31.)

When Leuenberger first began working at the Office in August 2011, she worked with Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Dennis McLoughlin in J&DR district court. ( Id. ¶ 32) He was admitted to the Virginia State Bar in 2004 and had been working at the Office since 2007. ( Id. ¶ 34.)

In December 2011, McLoughlin was reassigned to general district court, and Leuenberger took over his cases in J&DR district court. ( Id. ¶¶ 33, 44.) While they were assigned to different courts, Leuenberger and McLoughlin shared responsibilities for all types of probation violation hearings. ( Id. ¶ 45.) And occasionally, they would split prosecutorial duties on individual cases. ( Id. ¶ 46.)

Leuenberger also worked with Assistant Commonwealth's Attorneys Andy Robbins and Nicholas Manthos during her time at the Office. ( Id. ¶¶ 47, 49.) Robbins handled cases in general district court and circuit court. ( Id. ¶ 47.) He became a member of the Virginia State Bar in 1993 and had been working at the Office since 2008. ( Id. ¶ 48.) After Spicer became Commonwealth's attorney, Robbins was promoted to deputy Commonwealth's attorney. ( Id. ¶ 49.)

Manthos was hired in 2013 to fill the vacancy created by Williamson's retirement. ( Id. ¶ 49.) He was responsible for cases in general district court and circuit court. ( Id. ¶ 50.) He was admitted to the Virginia State Bar in 1989. ( Id. ¶ 50.)

Starting in October 2013, Leuenberger, Spicer, Robbins, and Manthos shared an assignment rotation in general district court. ( Id. ¶ 51.) On alternating Tuesdays, either Leuenberger and Robbins or Spicer and Manthos would take all of the criminal cases on the court's docket. ( Id. ) During their weeks, Leuenberger and Robbins would take turns handling the misdemeanors and felonies. ( Id. ¶ 52.)

Prosecutors assigned to J&DR district court, general district court, and circuit court perform substantially similar duties and exercise substantially similar skills. ( Id. ¶¶ 36, 55.) Among other tasks, they interview witnesses and victims, do legal research, offer plea agreements, participate in hearings, and try cases. ( Id. ¶ 37.) Moreover, they have substantially similar caseloads, both in terms of numerosity and complexity. ( Id. ¶ 59.)

E. Leuenberger learns that she is paid less than her male colleagues and complains about the pay disparity.

In August 2013, Leuenberger learned that she was being paid less than McLoughlin. ( Id. ¶ 62.) He was making $74, 200 per year, and she was making only $68, 900. ( Id. ¶ 63.) At some point, she also learned that she was earning $30, 000 per year less than Robbins and Manthos. ( Id. ¶ 61.)

After learning that she made less than McLoughlin, Leuenberger went to Spicer and asked for a raise in August 2013. ( Id. ¶¶ 62, 64.) She wanted a salary that matched or beat McLoughlin's. ( Id. ) She explained to Spicer that she should make as much or more than McLoughlin because of her additional prosecutorial experience. ( Id. ¶ 65.) She further told Spicer that her lower pay for work comparable to that performed by McLoughlin violated the EPA and that she had spoken with the EEOC about her rights as an employee before taking her position. ( Id. ¶ 66.)

In addition to asking Spicer for a raise, Leuenberger requested a reassignment to general district court. ( Id. ¶ 70.) She explained to him that she should be reassigned to that court because she had experience handling more than just J&DR district court cases from her time at both the Office and the district attorney's office in California. ( Id. )

Spicer did not respond to either of Leuenberger's requests during their August 2013 meeting. ( Id. ¶¶ 67, 71.) Later that month, he evaluated her and rated her as "meets expectations" in all categories, which was a downgrade in some categories from her 2012 performance evaluations. ( Id. ¶¶ 29, 72.) Before this evaluation, he had never indicated that he thought her performance had slipped. ( Id. ¶ 73.) He did not give her a raise. ( Id. ¶ 69.)

F. Leuenberger is reassigned to general district court.

In September 2013, Spicer honored Leuenberger's request to be reassigned to general district court. ( Id. ¶ 75.) But the move came with a couple of conditions: first, Leuenberger had to meet with Robbins to discuss any issues with her cases; and second, she had to get his permission before accepting or rejecting any plea agreements. ( Id. ¶ 77.) Leuenberger tried to comply with these conditions. ( Id. ¶ 80.)

G. Leuenberger is forced to resign.

In December 2013, Spicer and Robbins met with Leuenberger, and Spicer told her that he had to let her go. ( Id. ¶¶ 82-83.) Spicer and Robbins explained to her that they had received some complaints about her work from law enforcement officers, though they could not say what those complaints were. ( Id. ¶¶ 86-87.) They further told her that she had not handled some of her recent cases as well as she could have, but they could not say what she could have done better. ( Id. ¶ 88.) At the end of the meeting, Spicer told her that she could either submit a letter of resignation or be fired. ( Id. ¶ 90.)

A few days later, Leuenberger met with Spicer and Robbins again to rebut their criticisms and to ask Spicer to reconsider his decision to let her go. ( Id. ¶¶ 92-93.) She told them that she had asked two supervisory law enforcement officers if there had been any complaints about her work from other law enforcement officers, and both responded no. ( Id. ¶ 94.) Upon hearing this, Spicer conceded that he had received no such complaints and that he knew her "fans among law enforcement officers [were] legion." ( Id. ¶ 95.) He nonetheless refused to reconsider his decision. ( Id. ¶ 96.) If she would resign, however, he would allow her to stay on until June 30, 2014. ( Id. ¶ 97.) Three days later, she submitted her resignation letter. ( Id. ¶ 98.)

From December 2013 until her resignation in June 2014, Leuenberger faced hostility and criticism from Spicer and Robbins. ( Id. ¶ 100.) As a result, she felt significant emotional distress. ( Id. ¶ 101.)

H. Leuenberger files a discrimination charge with the EEOC.

In August 2014, Leuenberger filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC against the "Office of the Commonwealth's Attorney Frederick County, " asserting discrimination and retaliation claims under the EPA and Title VII. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 5; Dkt. No. 12-5 at 3, EEOC Charge.) She alleged that Spicer discriminated against her based on her sex by paying her less than her male colleagues and that he retaliated against her for complaining about the pay disparity by forcing her to resign. (Dkt. No. 12-5 at 3.)

I. Leuenberger files suit.

After the EEOC failed to resolve her charge within 180 days, Leuenberger filed this suit against defendants, making the same basic claims made in the charge. (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 6.) In Counts One and Two, she alleges that defendants discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of the EPA. ( Id. ¶¶ 104-20.) And in Counts Three and Four, she alleges that defendants discriminated and retaliated against her in violation of Title VII. ( Id. ¶¶ 121-35.) Among other relief, she seeks back pay, front pay, compensatory damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees and costs.

Defendants now move to dismiss Leuenberger's claims on a range of grounds. Spicer moves to dismiss the Title VII claims under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the Title VII and EPA claims under Rule 12(b)(2) for lack of personal jurisdiction, and the Title

VII claims and EPA discrimination claim under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.[1] The Office moves to dismiss the Title VII and EPA claims under Rule 12(b)(2), and the Title VII claims and EPA discrimination claim under Rule 12(b)(6). And the County moves to dismiss the Title VII claims under Rule 12(b)(1), and the Title VII and EPA claims under Rule 12(b)(6).

II. DISCUSSION

A. Spicer's and the County's Motions to Dismiss for Lack of Subject ...


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