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Owen v. County of Franklin

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

December 14, 2017




         Plaintiff Jennifer Owen, a former county building inspector, filed a three-count amended complaint against defendants, the County of Franklin, Virginia (the "County"), and Robert Andrew Morris. Counts I and II allege claims against the County under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seg,, for sexual harassment and retaliation, respectively. Count III alleges assault and battery under Virginia law against Morris. The case is presently before the court on the County's motion to dismiss Count II pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. For the following reasons, the motion will be denied.


         The following facts, taken from the plaintiffs amended complaint, are accepted as true for purposes of the County's motion to dismiss. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007).

         Owen worked as a building inspector for Franklin County, Virginia, from December 2013 to February 2016. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 10, 30. In November 2014, Morris became the County Building Official. Id. ¶ 12. Owen alleges that within a few months of taking the position, Morris began to make sexual comments to Owen and to pressure her about entering into a sexual relationship with him. Id. ¶ 14. On several occasions, Morris groped Owen's breasts, forced her to touch his genitals, and grabbed her face in an attempt to force a kiss. Id. ¶¶ 18, 24, 27.

         The comments and behavior continued into the summer of 2015, when Morris placed his hand on the plaintiffs genital area while she was driving. Id. ¶ 25. In October 2015, he slapped Owen's buttocks with a ruler in front of a coworker. Id. ¶ 28. In approximately November 2015, Morris grabbed Owen's breasts underneath her bra. Id. ¶ 27.

         Owen alleges that she rejected all of Morris' sexual advances and complained to him about those advances, but his behavior did not change. Id. ¶¶20, 23. Morris "threatened [Owen] and told her if she went 'across the hall' (where the office of human resources was located) for any reason, then he would fire her no questions asked." Id. ¶29. "[A]fter rejecting [Morris] for months, " Owen alleges that "he eventually terminated her employment on February 10, 2016." Id. ¶ 30.

         Based on the foregoing allegations, Owen filed this lawsuit against the County under Title VII and state law. She later amended the complaint to substitute Morris as the defendant for the state law claim. In the amended complaint, Count II alleges retaliation under Title VII against the County. The County has moved to dismiss Count II for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The parties appeared before the court for a hearing on this matter on November 16, 2017. The matter is now fully briefed and ripe for review.

         Standard of Review

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the sufficiency of a plaintiffs complaint, which must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a); see also Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006). When deciding a motion to dismiss under this rule, the court must accept as true all well-pleaded allegations and draw all reasonable factual inferences in the plaintiffs favor. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). However, to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" and that "permit[s] the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct." Id. at 678-79 (internal quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff must rely on "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id


         Title VII prohibits an employer from retaliating against an employee "because [the employee] has opposed any practice made an unlawful employment practice by [Title VII]." 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). In the absence of direct evidence of retaliation, the plaintiff may proceed under the burden-shifting framework from McDonnell Douglas Corporation v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973). The plaintiff bears the initial burden of establishing a prima facie case of retaliation, which has three elements: (1) the plaintiff engaged in a protected activity; (2) her employer took a materially adverse action against her; and (3) "there was a causal connection between the protected activity and the asserted adverse action." Hoyle v. Freightliner, LLC, 650 F.3d 321, 337 (4th Cir. 2011). If a plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden then shifts to the employer to identify a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for its conduct. Id. If the employer succeeds in making a showing of such a reason, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to prove that the employer's reason was a mere pretext for retaliation. Id.

         The County has moved to dismiss Count II of Owen's amended complaint for failing to plausibly allege causation. [*] Specifically, the County argues that a plaintiff must allege but-for causation in order to survive a motion to dismiss a Title VII retaliation claim. In support of this argument, the County cites Villa v. CavaMezze Grill LLC, which held that, at the summary judgment stage, a plaintiff must prove that '"the desire to retaliate was the but-for cause of the challenged employment action.'" 858 F.3d 896, 900 (4th Cir. 2017) (quoting Univ. of Tx. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar. 133 S.Ct. 2517, 2528 (2013) (emphasis omitted)).

         The County's emphasis on but-for causation Is misplaced. Under the McDonnell Douglas framework, a plaintiff starts by making a prima facie case of retaliation, which does not require proof of but-for causation. Foster v. Univ. of Md.-E. Shore, 787 F.3d 243, 251 (4th Cir. 2015) (requiring a plaintiff to prove but-for causation only after the employer has shown that it acted on the basis of a legitimate, non-retaliatory reason). "[T]o satisfy the[] ultimate burden of persuasion, " which includes ...

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