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Spencer v. Town of Bedford

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

November 2, 2018

Carla Beels Spencer, Plaintiff,
v.
Town of Bedford Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          NORMAN K. MOON, SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         For eight months, the Town of Bedford employed Carla Beels Spencer as a Deputy Chief of Police. Spencer is an openly gay woman. She claims that during her employment her co-workers and superiors demonstrated an aversion to her identity. She alleges this aversion led to discriminatory enforcement of policies and, ultimately, her termination. Accordingly, she has filed claims against the Town of Bedford for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits “discriminat[ion] against any individual . . . because of such individual's . . . sex.” 42 U.S.C.A. § 2000e-2(a)(1), as well as claims for negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The Town of Bedford has filed a motion to dismiss all claims pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. Rule 12(b)(6), arguing that Spencer is not a member of a protected class and failed to state facts sufficient to support any claim.

         The Court disagrees, finding that Spencer lodged sufficient factual allegations of sex-based discrimination to support claims of disparate treatment and retaliation under Title VII. However, Plaintiff does not provide sufficient facts to support claims of disparate impact or negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Accordingly, Defendant's motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

         I. Facts as Alleged

         The Town of Bedford (“Defendant”) is a municipality in the County of Bedford that provides law enforcement services through the Town of Bedford Police Department (“Police Department”).[1] (Complaint ¶ 7). Spencer (“Plaintiff”) began working as a Deputy Chief of Police at the Police Department in January 2016. (Id. ¶ 8). At all times during her employment, Plaintiff was open about her sexuality, but “was aware of gossip and speculation within the police department related to her sexual orientation.” (Id. ¶ 12). During her employment with Defendant, Plaintiff made efforts to “improve the police department's adherence to stated policies, ” but her attempts “were never meaningfully addressed, and were often ignored” because her co-workers did “not want to report to a gay woman.” (Id. ¶¶ 16-18).

         Plaintiff describes disapproval and resentment within the workplace, claiming that when she gave orders co-workers “did not want to follow, ” they “would remark, ‘well, she's a woman.'” (Id. ¶ 18). Specifically, one of her “direct reports, Sargent [sic] Robert Monk, ” said, “he was a Christian, and that he applied for Plaintiff's job and ‘should have gotten it.'” (Id. ¶ 19). Plaintiff understood Sgt. Monk's remarks about Christianity to “mean that he did not approve of her sexual orientation.” (Id. ¶ 19). She “brought her concerns regarding her co-workers' lack of respect and resistance to her authority to Chief Foreman on or about March 15, 2016, ” but her complaints were ignored. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21). The hostility demonstrated by Plaintiff's co-workers was mirrored by her superior, Chief Foreman. She states that Chief Foreman “discussed his reluctance to work with Plaintiff, and his aversion to homosexuals, with church congregants, ” and that he had become “uncomfortable working with a gay female employee once Plaintiff became more visible in the community.” (Id. ¶ 25).

         In addition to the discriminatory environment described, sex-based favoritism was demonstrated by a “discriminatory pay scheme . . . [and] preferential treatment.” (Id. ¶ 15). Despite Plaintiff's “education, experience level, and working conditions [being] consistent with, if not greater than” heterosexual male employees, Plaintiff received a lower salary. (Id.). Additionally, Chief Foreman “openly favored heterosexual male co-workers.” (Id. ¶ 21). These co-workers “were rarely disciplined for workplace infractions, and Chief Foreman often permitted [them] to disobey stated police department policy.” (Id. at ¶ 22). For example, one investigator was permitted to use a government police car as a personal family vehicle and given extra time to submit receipts. (Id. ¶ 23). A separate male lieutenant was not disciplined or investigated when he “failed to deposit approximately $500, earned from a Special Olympics fundraiser . . . and instead kept the money in his office” for more than a year. (Id. ¶ 24).

         Despite Defendant's alleged willingness to overlook the infractions described above, Plaintiff was “target[ed] for a minor personnel issue stemming from a July 2016 comment she made about a co-worker.” (Id.) Specifically, “on or about July 8, 2016, Plaintiff and her wife were attending a party” with several uniformed officers from the Police Department. (Id. ¶ 28). Plaintiff, observing “several officers, not in uniform, drinking alcoholic beverages heavily and socializing with the . . . uniformed officers, ” believed it was best not to “fraternize . . . in this reckless situation.” (Id. ¶¶ 29-30). As Plaintiff prepared to depart the event, she had a “private conversation” with the town's communications director and “made a brief comment critical of the work performance of one of her subordinate officers.” (Id. ¶¶ 30-31). The following day, “Sgt. Monk filed an administrative complaint against Plaintiff based upon” the described comment. (Id. ¶ 32). The administrative complaint alleged that Plaintiff “had disparaged many members of office personnel after drinking heavily.” (Id. ¶ 33). Plaintiff claims that none of these allegations were true. (Id.)

         As a result of Sgt. Monk's complaint, there was an investigation of Plaintiff that was soon elevated to the “high level of an Internal Affairs Investigation.” (Id. ¶¶ 34-35). Plaintiff states that the “particulars of the complaint and relevant policies at play” did not warrant an Internal Affairs Investigation, but nonetheless resulted in an August 8 meeting with Chief Foreman, who “read a list of alleged work performance deviations on the part of Plaintiff.” (Id. ¶¶ 35-36). Plaintiff claims that all the allegations were false, specifically those regarding her failure to complete assigned tasks relating to the “National Night Out, ” “CIT Training, ” and her “falsification of Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police (“VACP”) documents.” (Id. ¶ 36). Plaintiff, details her efforts and communication with Chief Foreman regarding each of those tasks, and ultimately claims these accusations of poor work performance “were mere pretext to conceal unlawful discrimination.” (Id. ¶¶ 36-40).

         During their August 8 meeting, Chief Foreman commented “that, ‘the guys don't like it when people come in here and ask for the Deputy Chief.'” (Id. ¶ 41). Plaintiff understood Chief Foreman's reference to “the guys” as an attempt “to highlight the fact that Plaintiff was a gay female, and that the other male officers were not pleased to report to a gay, female Deputy Chief.” (Id. ¶¶ 41-42). Plaintiff was not given a chance to defend herself at this meeting, nor review the documents used as proof against her. (Id. ¶ 43). However, at this point, she reiterated the concerns she had expressed in March, namely “that she thought that she was being treated differently than her colleagues.” (Id.). Two days later, on August 11, 2016, Plaintiff was put on administrative leave, and her employment was terminated the following day. (Id. ¶ 44).

         II. Standard of Review

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint; it does not ask which party will ultimately prevail. Woods v. City of Greensboro, 855 F.3d 639, 652-53 (4th Cir. 2017) (internal quotations omitted). A complaint must provide more than legal conclusions, but will survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion where factual allegations and reasonable inferences, accepted as true, state a claim that is plausible on its face. McCleary-Evans v. Maryland Dept. of Transp., State Highway Admin., 780 F.3d 582 (4th Cir. 2015) (citing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) and Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)). The Court will not accord the presumption of truth to legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986); SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker, Inc., 801 F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015).

         III. Title VII Claims

         Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”) prohibits employers from discharging or otherwise discriminating against any individual “because of such individual's . . . race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” 42 U.S.C.A. §2000e-2(a). When stating a claim under Title VII, “a plaintiff is not required to plead facts that constitute a prima facie case in order to survive a motion to dismiss, ” but the factual allegations must “raise a right to relief above a speculative level.” Coleman v. Maryland Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010) (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 510-515 (2002); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). This burden is met where the plaintiff “allege[s] facts to satisfy the elements of a cause of action created by [the relevant] statute.” McCleary-Evans v. Md. Dept. of Transp., State Highway Admin., 780 F.3d 582, 585 (4th Cir. 2015) (holding that the district court erred in applying the McDonnell-Douglas framework when analyzing the sufficiency of a complaint at the motion to dismiss stage). Absent direct evidence, the elements of a Title VII discrimination claim are: “(1) membership in a protected class; (2) satisfactory job performance; (3) adverse employment action; and (4) different treatment from similarly situated employees outside the protected class.” Coleman, 626 F.3d at 190.

         In this case, Plaintiff's Title VII claims are based on discrimination because of sex (Compl. ¶ 51). Plaintiff argues that she is the member of a protected class because Title VII's prohibition on sex-based discrimination encompasses discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation. (Id. ¶ 47). Defendant counters that Plaintiff fails to state a claim because “it is clear that [she] is alleging sex discrimination based on her sexual orientation, ” which is a characteristic Defendant asserts is excluded from Title VII's protection. (Dkt. 6 (hereinafter “MTD”) at 5). Additionally, Defendant argues that, even if Plaintiff's complaint “were construed as addressing a protected class, ” she fails to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. (MTD at 10). Defendant's arguments are largely unpersuasive. Plaintiff, as a woman, is a member of a class protected by Title VII, and has met the pleading requirements for disparate treatment and retaliation. However, Plaintiff has failed to meet the pleading requirements for disparate impact, and that claim will be dismissed.

         A. Membership in ...


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