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Woods v. S. C. Department of Health & Human Services

United States District Court, D. South Carolina

May 31, 2018

Cynthia B. Woods, Plaintiff,
S. C. Department of Health & Human Services; Mona Sechrest; Marsha Brown; Kim Backman; Hollie Hoadwonic, and Dr. Pete Liggett, Defendants.



         This is a civil action filed by a pro se litigant requesting to proceed in forma pauperis. Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1), and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2)(e) (D.S.C.), the undersigned magistrate judge is authorized to review all pretrial matters in such pro se cases and to submit findings and recommendations to the district court.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Cynthia B. Woods (“Plaintiff”) is a former employee of the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (“SCDHHS”), whose Complaint alleges that her employment was terminated in violation of federal discrimination statutes (Title VII; the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”)) and the Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”). Proper Form Complaint, ECF No. 1-6, at 5-6. She sues SCDHHS and various individuals who allegedly were involved in the circumstances that led to Plaintiff's termination from employment. See Id. at 2, 4. Plaintiff seeks back pay, reimbursement for expenses incurred, and damages. She also seeks an order from this court directing SCDHHS to make changes to her personnel record to permit her to have the status of a retiree. Id. at 48.

         II. Standard of Review

         Under established local procedure in this judicial district, a careful review has been made of the pro se Complaint pursuant to the procedural provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1915. The review has been conducted in light of the following precedents: Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 324-25 (1989); Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976); Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519 (1972); Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147 (4th Cir. 1978).

         The Complaint in this case was filed under 28 U.S.C. § 1915, which permits an indigent litigant to commence an action in federal court without prepaying the administrative costs of proceeding with the lawsuit. To protect against possible abuses of this privilege, the statute allows a district court to dismiss the case upon a finding that the action “fails to state a claim on which relief may be granted” or is “frivolous or malicious.” 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B)(I), (ii). Hence, under 28 U.S.C. §1915(e)(2)(B), a claim based on a meritless legal theory may be dismissed sua sponte. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989).

         This court is required to liberally construe pro se pleadings, Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. at 97, holding them to a less stringent standard than those drafted by attorneys, Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5 (1980). The mandated liberal construction afforded pro se pleadings means that if the court can reasonably read the pleadings to state a valid claim on which the plaintiff could prevail, it should do so, but a district court may not rewrite a pleading to “conjure up questions never squarely presented” to the court. Beaudett v. City of Hampton, 775 F.2d 1274, 1278 (4th Cir. 1985). The requirement of liberal construction does not mean that the court can ignore a clear failure in the pleading to allege facts which set forth a claim currently cognizable in a federal district court. Weller v. Dep't of Soc. Servs., 901 F.2d 387, 390-91 (4th Cir. 1990). Even under this less stringent standard, however, the pro se Complaint under review in this case is subject to partial summary dismissal.

         III. Discussion

         A. Title VII

         Initially, Plaintiff fails to state a plausible Title VII claim against any Defendant in this case because she does not allege that she suffered discrimination because of her race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. See Gerner v. Cnty. of Chesterfield, 674 F.3d 264, 266 (4th Cir. 2012) (recognizing that a Title VII claimant must show “membership in a protected class”); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Plaintiff's allegations show only alleged discrimination because of a disability, not because of her membership in one of the protected classes under § 2000e-2(a)(1).[1]

         B. ADA and FMLA claims against SCDHHS

         Plaintiff's claims against Defendant SCDHHS for monetary damages pursuant to the ADA and FMLA should be summarily dismissed because such claims against state governmental entities such as SCDHHS are barred by the Eleventh Amendment to the United States Constitution. See, e.g., Coleman v. Md. Court of Appeals, 560 U.S. 30, 33 (2012) (“In agreement with every Court of Appeals to have addressed this question, this Court now holds that suits against States under [the FMLA's self-care provision] are barred by the States' immunity as sovereigns in our federal system”); Bd. of Trustees of Univ. of Ala. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356 (2001) (holding state employees were barred by Eleventh Amendment from recovering monetary damages from state employer for failure to comply with Title I of the ADA); McKay v. Med. Univ. of S.C., No. CV 2:17-45-RMG-BM, 2017 WL 9250345, at *3 (D.S.C. July 19, 2017), report and recommendation adopted, 2017 WL 3477799 (D.S.C. Aug. 14, 2017); Nelson v. Univ. of Texas at Dallas, 535 F.3d 318, 321 (5th Cir. 2008); Miles v. Bellfontaine Habilitation Ctr., 481 F.3d 1106 (8th Cir. 2007); Toeller v. Wis. Dep't of Corr., 461 F.3d 871 (7th Cir. 2006); Touvell v. Ohio Dep't of Mental Retardation & Developmental Disabilities, 422 F.3d 392, 402 (6th Cir. 2005); Brockman v. Wy. Dep't of Family Servs., 342 F.3d 1159, 1164 (10th Cir. 2003).

         Here, in addition to her claims for monetary relief (back pay, reimbursement of expenses, and damages), Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief in the nature of changes to her employment record to allow her to become a retiree “with full benefits.” Although Eleventh Amendment immunity bars ADA and FMLA monetary relief as to SCDHHS, a plaintiff may seek injunctive relief for ADA and FMLA claims under Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908). See, e.g., Garrett, 531 U.S. at 374 n.9 (ADA); see also Coleman, 566 U.S. at 65 (Ginsburg, J.) (dissenting) (noting the availability of injunctive relief for FMLA self-care claims). See Allen v. The College of William & Mary, 245 F.Supp.2d 777, 787 (E.D. Va. 2003) (ADA); McGregor v. Goord, 18 F.Supp.2d 204, 210 ...

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