Thursday, December 16, 2010

Western District of PA Dismisses Title VII and ADA Claims for Insufficient Facts

In the case of Robuck v. Mine Safety Appliances Co., No.: 2:10-cv-00763 (W.D. Pa. 11/3/2010), the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania dismissed claims of retaliation under Title VII and the ADA due to the employee's failure to plead sufficient factual allegations. While the arguments behind Robuck's claims here may have been admittedly weak from a plaintiff's perspective, this case serves as an important reminder of the importance that needs to be paid by a plaintiff's attorney to fact-pleading in the aftermath of the now infamous Twombly and Iqbal decisions.

The employee, Dennis Robuck, claimed to suffer from hypertension that required him to avoid stress and to take long walks on a regular basis, which he often did on his lunch break. He also alleged to have a problem with a female co-worker, Ruth Protzman, who apparently also took walks during her lunch break, as well. Robuck alleged that he made every attempt to avoid Ms. Protzman, and even the employer admitted that up until February of 2007, it had made every effort to keep Robuck and Ms. Protzman separated. One of the ways in which it did this was to allow Ms. Protzman to take her lunch hour at 11:30 AM, while Robuck took his lunch hour at 12:00 PM.

In February of 2007, however, the employer changed Robuck's lunch hour to 11:30 AM. Robuck alleged that the employer failed to accommodate him by changing his lunch hour back to 12:00 PM, despite his continuing complaints. Robuck also alleged that he had made numerous complaints to his supervisor, stating that the employer had given priority to Ms. Protzman over Robuck when attempting to separate them.

On October 29, 2007, Robuck was terminated by his employer, and subsequently received a letter from the employer indicating that had been discharged for willfully disregarding workplace rules.

Robuck subsequently filed suit, alleging that the reason given by the employer for his termination was pretextual, and that he was actually terminated for walking on a road on which the employer believed Ms. Protzman might also have been walking on at the same time. Robuck insisted, however, that Ms. Protzman was not even walking on the road at that time and that she was not even at work on the date of his alleged offense. Robuck alleged retaliation on the basis of sex in violation of Title VII, and retaliation in violation of the ADA.

The employer filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Robuck had failed to allege sufficient facts to sustain claims of retaliation under either Title VII or the ADA. The District Court agreed, and dismissed both claims. With respect to Robuck's claim that he was treated less favorably by his employer than Ms. Protzman, the Court held that the only real facts alleged by Robuck in his Amended Complaint related to his ongoing dispute with Ms. Protzman and the employer's attempt to keep them apart, which was thwarted by a change in lunch schedule. However, the Court found that "[Robuck's] allegations are little more than generalized complaints of unfairness which do not and cannot constitute protected activity." While Robuck alleged that the employer "always gave priority," to Ms. Protzman, he failed to set forth any facts to "support his conclusory allegation that he complained of sex discrimination to his supervisor or anyone else." Moreover, the Court recognized that "[Robuck's] Amended Complaint is similarly vague in that [the employer's] alleged favoritism towards Ms. Protzman could have been motivated by any number of factors which are not protected under Title VII."

With respect to Robuck's ADA retaliation claim, the Court noted that while "[Robuck] alleges that [the employer] has discriminated against him as a result of his previous complaints of discrimination based on [his] disability . . . [Robuck] . . . provides no indication that he ever mentioned his disability during his discussion with his supervisor . . . or anyone else. Therefore, [Robuck] did not explicitly or implicitly plead that his alleged disability was the reason for the unfairness in which he complains. Accordingly, such complaint does not constitute 'protected activity' to constitute a prima facie case of retaliation." Therefore, the Court dismissed Robuck's ADA claim as well.

Had more care been taken by Robuck's counsel in drafting the Amended Complaint in this case, so as to include more specific facts, circumstances and events, it is possible that the Court would not have dismissed it at a 12(b)(6) stage. At the very least, getting past the pleadings and into active discovery may have allowed Robuck to garner some leverage in which to settle the case. But, a sloppy and imprecise Amended Complaint here served no other purpose but to get Robuck's Title VII and ADA retaliation claims dismissed at the outset. It should also be noted that Robuck received no sympathy from the Court with respect to his request to be allowed to file a Second Amended Complaint to correct these deficiencies. As of the date of the Order dismissing these claims, the Court noted that this case had been in litigation for nearly three years. Given that length of time, the Court held that "[Robuck] and his counsel have had ample time and the necessary means to secure and plead facts to support his claims," and as such, allowing Robuck the opportunity to file a Second Amended Complaint would be, in the Court's own words, "futile."

The lesson is clear - pay close and careful attention to your factual pleadings. The more, the better.