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Knoskie v. Virginia Department of Corrections

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Big Stone Gap Division

February 17, 2017


          Joshua Erlich, Benjamin W. Owen, Davia Craumer, and Katherine L. Herrmann, The Erlich Law Office, PLLC, Arlington, Virginia, for Plaintiff; E. Lewis Kincer, Jr., Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, for Defendant.



         The plaintiff, Marie Knoskie, has asserted claims of race discrimination, creation of a hostile work environment based on race, and retaliation for engaging in a protected activity, all in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17 (“Title VII”) against her employer, defendant Virginia Department of Corrections (“VDOC”). VDOC has moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).[1] In response, Knoskie opposes the Motion to Dismiss and, alternatively, seeks leave to further amend her Amended Complaint. For the reasons that follow, I will grant VDOC's Motion to Dismiss as to the claims of race discrimination and retaliation, deny VDOC's Motion to Dismiss as to the claim of creation of a hostile work environment based on race, and grant Knoskie's request to amend.[2]


         The Amended Complaint alleges the following facts, which I must accept as true for the purpose of deciding the present motion.

         Marie Knoskie is an African-American woman who has been employed by VDOC since August 2000. Knoskie works as a Corrections Officer at Red Onion State Prison (“Red Onion”) in Pound, Virginia. During her employment, the use of racial slurs and making of race-related jokes by non-black officers was common and accepted. Knoskie did not feel confident that her fellow officers would protect her in the event of inmate violence. Red Onion also experienced failures of safety and security that were unique to black workers.

         On April 1, 2013, Knoskie discovered that someone had written the phrase “I hate n******” in a log book in the C2 control room. Am. Compl. ¶ 19, ECF No. 5. Because log books are only available to corrections officers, the phrase could not have been written by an inmate. Knoskie reported the incident to management, including Chief Warden Randall Mathena (her supervisor), Assistant Warden John Walruth, and EBT manager Israel Hamilton. On April 12, 2013, she asked Mathena if she should document the incident in CORIS, the system used by VDOC to manage incident reports. Mathena told her not to document the incident in CORIS and to instead give a written incident report to Hamilton. Knoskie did so, but never heard anything further. According to Knoskie, VDOC took no action to resolve the matter.

         Following this incident, Knoskie was not asked to work in the C2 control room, where the log book with the slur was located, until February 2014. On February 18, 2014, she was told to work at that post by Sergeant Brandon Hall. When Knoskie reminded Hall of the slur and told him she was uncomfortable working there, he “said he had forgotten the incident, apologized, and reassigned [her] to a different location.” Id. at ¶ 29.

         On February 27, 2014, Knoskie looked in the log book and found that the racial slur was still there. The same day, she was told by Unit Manager Andy Kilborn to work in the C2 control room. She refused to work the post because of the slur and told Kilborn that “she believed she was being subjected to a hostile work environment based on her race.” Id. at ¶ 33. In response to this incident and Knoskie's refusal to work, Mathena sent her home because she was “hysterical” and “unable to perform [her] job.” Id. at ¶ 34.

         The next day, February 28, Knoskie met with Chief Warden Mathena, Assistant Warden Walruth, Unit Manager Kilborn, and Human Resources Head Officer Renee Conley. At this meeting, Mathena mentioned a past occasion on which Knoskie had reported swastikas carved into another post and asked why she had continued to work at the post where the swastikas were found but would not work in the C2 control room. Knoskie responded that the swastikas had been removed promptly after she reported them, whereas the racial slur in the C2 control room log book had remained for nearly a year.

         On March 9, 2014, Knoskie saw a workplace counselor to discuss the “mental stress, frustrating [sic], and fear involved at working in a super-max prison where she did not feel supported by her coworkers and supervisors.” Id. at ¶ 42. The counselor placed her on short-term disability leave. Until this point, Knoskie had an “excellent performance and disciplinary history.” Id. at ¶ 44.

         Knoskie filed a timely charge of race-based discrimination and retaliation with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and on March 31, 2016, the EEOC issued her a Notice of Right to Sue. She initiated this action on July 5, 2016, within ninety days of her receipt of the Notice of Right to Sue.


         Knoskie asserts that VDOC discriminated against her and created a hostile work environment based on her race, in violation of Title VII.[3] She also asserts that VDOC retaliated against her for engaging in a protected activity in violation of Title VII. Knoskie seeks damages for loss of earnings and related employment benefits and damages for emotional distress and litigation expenses, including attorneys' fees.[4]


         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a 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. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 572, and it must view those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Christopher v. Harbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002).

         However, this “tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Although legal conclusions can “provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations.” Id. at 679.

         In the context of employment discrimination claims, “a plaintiff is not required to plead facts that constitute a prima facie case” in order to survive a motion to dismiss. Coleman v. Md. Ct. of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510-15 (2002)). However, her “[f]actual allegations must be enough ...

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