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3Thomas v. Petersburg Utility Lines Water Dept.

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

December 12, 2019

RANDY T. 3THOMAS, Plaintiff,


          Henry E. Hudson, Senior United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants'[1]-Petersburg Utility Lines Water Department ("Petersburg Water Dept."), Kimberly Robertson, Anthony Williams, Jim Reed, and Sergeant Hall ("Defendants")-Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (the "Motion"), filed on July 1, 2019 (ECF No. 15). Randy 3Thomas ("Plaintiff) filed the Complaint, pro se, on May 29, 2019, alleging that he was wrongfully terminated from his employment at Petersburg Water Dept. (ECF No. 4). In their Motion, Defendants contend that Plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and that Petersburg Water Dept. is an improper party. In response, Plaintiff reasserts that he was wrongfully fired, but provides no further supporting facts. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' Motion will be granted.

         I. FACTS

         Plaintiff alleges he sustained a severe injury to his back, requiring a doctor's care from January to April 2017 (ECF No. 4 at 7, 9). Plaintiff further alleges that his constitutional rights "were broken" when he was fired from his job in March 2017 while under a doctor's care, in violation of the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"). (Id. at 8.) Plaintiff asserts he had "the right documents from F.M.L.A. and [his] doctor" to qualify for FMLA protections. (Id. at 6.) Plaintiff alleges that he was fired from his job at Petersburg Water Dept. following a two-to-one vote against him by a "panel board." (Id.) Notably, it is unclear from the Complaint whether Plaintiff was allegedly denied FMLA leave and subsequently fired, or whether he allegedly took leave and was terminated in retaliation. It is also unclear which of the six named Defendants were on the board, or if the panel's meeting directly caused Plaintiffs termination or otherwise interfered with his FMLA rights.


         "A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the sufficiency of a complaint; importantly, it does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses." Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992) (citation omitted). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure "require[] only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). A complaint need not assert "detailed factual allegations," but must contain "more than labels and conclusions" or a "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Id. (citations omitted). Thus, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level," to one that is "plausible on its face" rather than merely "conceivable." Id. at 555, 570.

         "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In considering such a motion, a plaintiffs well-pleaded allegations are taken as true, and the complaint is viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. T.G. Slater & Son, Inc. v. Donald P. & Patricia A. Brennan, LLC, 385 F.3d 836, 841 (4th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted). Legal conclusions enjoy no such deference. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Additionally, pro se complaints are afforded a liberal construction. Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 413 n.3 (4th Cir. 2006). The Court, however, need not attempt "to discern the unexpressed intent of the plaintiff." Id. Nor does the requirement of liberal construction excuse a clear failure in the pleading to allege a federally cognizable claim. See Weller v. Dep 't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390-91 (4th Cir. 1990). As the Fourth Circuit articulated in Beaudett v. City of Hampton, "[t]hough [pro se] litigants cannot, of course, be expected to frame legal issues with the clarity and precision ideally evident in the work of those trained in law, neither can district courts be required to conjure up and decide issues never fairly presented to them. 775 F.2d 1274, 1276 (4th Cir. 1985).


         In their Motion, Defendants raise two objections to Plaintiffs Complaint. First, Defendants claim that Petersburg Water Dept. is not a proper defendant. Second, even if all of the parties are properly named, Defendants assert that Plaintiff does not allege sufficient facts to state a claim under the FMLA.

         Petersburg Water Dept. is an improper party because it is a subdivision of the Petersburg municipality. Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b), state law determines whether a governmental body may be sued in federal court. "In Virginia, departments of municipal governments are not capable of being sued in their own names." Allmond v. Sec. 8 Dep't, No. 03-894-A, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28728, at *5 (E.D. Va. Sept. 25, 2003); see also Hearn v. Hudson, 549 F.Supp. 949, 952 n.l (W.D. Va. 1982) ("The capacity of a governmental unit to be sued in federal court is to be determined by reference to state law."). This rule has been applied to a diverse range of municipal departments in Virginia. See, e.g., Allmond, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28728, at *5-6 (Department of Housing and Community Development); Davis v. City of Portsmouth, 579 F.Supp. 1205, 1210 (E.D. Va. 1983) (Department of Economic Development, and Planning Commission); Hearn, 549 F.Supp. at 952 n.l (Police Department).

         Like the departments at issue in Allmond, Davis, and Hearn, Petersburg Water Dept. is, by all measures, not an entity separate from the City of Petersburg. Thus, Petersburg Water Dept. cannot be sued in its own name and is an improper party named in Plaintiffs Complaint.

         Notably, in Virginia, "[e]very locality may ... be sued in its own name in relation to all matters connected with its duties." Va. Code Ann. § 15.2-1404. While the Complaint incorrectly names Petersburg Water Dept., it is plausible that Plaintiff named the additional Defendant, Anthony Williams, Petersburg City Attorney, with the intent of serving process on the City of Petersburg. Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-300. This does not, however, cure the original error of naming Petersburg Water Dept. as a party, particularly because Plaintiff has failed to name the City of Petersburg as a Defendant.

         Furthermore, Plaintiff does not allege facts sufficient to support a cognizable claim under the FMLA against Defendants. The FMLA creates two types of claims- interference and retaliation. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1)-(a)(2); see Waag v. Sotera Def. Sols., Inc.,857 F.3d 179, 186 (4th Cir. 2017); Yashenko v. Harrah's NC Casino Co., 446 F.3d 541, 546 (4th Cir. 2006). The FMLA allows employees to take twelve workweeks of leave during a twelve-month period "[b]ecause of a serious ...

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