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Hudgins v. Pruitthealth, Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Aiken Division

August 31, 2018

Michelle Hudgins, Plaintiff,
v.
PRUITTHEALTH, INC. and PRUITTHEALTH-NORTH AUGUSTA, LLC, Defendants.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION

          Kaymani D. West United States Magistrate Judge.

         Plaintiff Michelle Hudgins (“Hudgins” or “Plaintiff”), filed this action in the Aiken County Court of Common Pleas against her former employers, PruittHealth, Inc. (“PruittHealth”) and PruittHealth-North Augusta, LLC (“PruittHealth-North Augusta”) [collectively, “Defendants”], [1] alleging employment discrimination based on a disability in alleged violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq. (“ADA ”), as amended by the ADA Amendments Act of 2008, effective January 1, 2009, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12102, et seq. (“ADAAA”). Defendants removed the matter to this court on May 30, 2018.

         This matter is before the court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and Local Civil Rule 73.02(B)(2) (D.S.C.) for a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”) on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss. ECF No. 5. The court has considered Defendants' Motion and Memorandum; Plaintiff's response, ECF No. 7; and Defendants' Reply, ECF No. 8. Having reviewed the parties' submissions and applicable law, the undersigned recommends Defendants' Motion to Dismiss be denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff, who began working with Defendants as a Registered Nurse Case Manager in August 2013 and was promoted to the position of Clinical Competency Coordinator, was terminated in May 2014. Plaintiff avers she was terminated because of a disability and because she had requested an accommodation by requesting short-term medical leave. See Compl., ECF No. 1-1. Plaintiff initiated administrative proceedings with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Defendants challenge whether Plaintiff timely and appropriately exhausted her administrative remedies.

         II. Standard of review

         Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) and Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, noting district courts within the Fourth Circuit have analyzed motions to dismiss for failure to file a timely charge of discrimination under both subsections of Rule 12(b). Defs. Mem. 4.

         A. Rule 12(b)(1)

         A plaintiff always bears the burden of demonstrating that subject matter jurisdiction properly exists in federal court. See Evans v. B.F. Perkins Co., a Div. of Standex Int'l Corp., 166 F.3d 642, 647 (4th Cir. 1999). When a defendant challenges subject-matter jurisdiction pursuant to a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss, the court may regard the pleadings as mere evidence on the issue and may consider evidence outside the pleadings without converting the proceeding to one for summary judgment. Velasco v. Gov't of Indonesia, 370 F.3d 392, 398 (4th Cir. 2004) (citing cases).

         B. Rule 12(b)(6)

         When ruling on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court “must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). Nonetheless, the court need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs., Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). The court need not accept legal conclusions couched as factual allegations, Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), or “legal conclusions drawn from the facts.” Monroe v. City of Charlottesville, 579 F.3d 380, 385-86 (4th Cir. 2009) (internal quotation omitted). Rule 12(d) provides that consideration of matters outside of the pleadings will convert a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to one for summary judgment. When, as here, however, Plaintiff has referred to EEOC documents and relied on them in defending against Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, the court's consideration of such documents does not convert the motion into one for summary judgment under Rule 56, as the EEOC Charges are referred to in the Complaint and relied upon by Plaintiff. See Biospherics, Inc. v. Forbes, Inc., 989 F.Supp. 748, 749 (D. Md. 1997) (recognizing an exception to Rule 12(d)'s conversion rule when documents are referred to in the complaint and relied on in bringing the action); see also New Beckley Mining Corp. v. Int'l Union, United Mine Workers of America, 18 F.3d 1161, 1164 (4th Cir.1994) (holding that the district court did not err in considering, in connection with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a document referred to in the plaintiff's complaint to justify a cause of action).

         III. Analysis

         Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, arguing her sole claim-one for discrimination in violation of the ADA/ADAAA-has not been administratively exhausted because she failed to timely file a charge with the EEOC. Defendants note that Plaintiff filed her signed and verified charge more than 300 days after the latest date on which the alleged discrimination took place. Defs. Mem. 6-8. Plaintiff does not dispute that the actual EEOC Charge was submitted more than 300 days after the last alleged discriminatory act. Rather, Plaintiff argues that, because she initiated the complaint process with the EEOC well before the 300-day deadline, and because the EEOC did not provide Plaintiff with a proposed Charge to send to Defendants until after the 300-day mark, applicable law and equity require that the verified Charge be considered to relate back to the earlier EEOC filings and her claim be considered to have been timely filed. Pl. Mem. 10-17. On Reply, Defendants argue that applicable law and equity do not render Plaintiff's Charge timely. Defs. Reply 2-9.

         A. Timely exhaustion of administrative remedies under the ADA to be examined pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6)

         “[T]he ADA incorporates [the] enforcement procedures [from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e et seq.], including the requirement that a plaintiff must exhaust his administrative remedies by filing a charge with the EEOC before pursuing a suit in federal court.” Sydnor v. Fairfax Cnty., Va., 681 F.3d 591, 593 (4th Cir. 2012) (citations omitted) (considering whether plaintiff's charge sufficiently raised issues contained in her federal complaint so that those claims would be considered exhausted; noting there was no issue with whether the charge had been timely filed). As the Fourth Circuit noted in Hentosh v. Old Dominion University, 767 F.3d 413, 416-17 (4th Cir. 2014), the failure to exhaust administrative remedies under Title VII “‘deprives the federal courts of federal subject matter jurisdiction over the claim.'” (quoting Jones v. Calvert Grp., Ltd., 551 F.3d 297, 300 (4th Cir. 2009)). However, as the Hentosh decision explained, whether the court has subject matter jurisdiction relates to the scope of the claims contained in the charge-that is, whether the claims contained in the administrative charge encompasses the claims in the judicial complaint. Title VII's requirement that an employee's administrative charge be timely filed, though, is not jurisdictional. Hentosh, 767 F.3d at 417. As the court noted,

If an individual fails to file an administrative charge with the EEOC within one hundred eighty (180) days after an alleged discriminatory act occurs (or three hundred (300) days if the aggrieved person presented the claim to a state deferral agency), then the EEOC charge is not considered timely filed. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1); EEOC v. Commercial Office Products Co., 486 U.S. 107, 110 (1988). The failure to timely file an EEOC charge, however, does not deprive the district court of subject matter jurisdiction. See Zipes v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 455 U.S. 385, 393 (1982). The court retains discretion, therefore, to equitably toll the statutory deadline. Id.; see also Olson v. Mobil Oil Corp., 904 F.2d 198, 201 (4th Cir. 1990).

Hentosh, 767 F.3d at 417, As the Zipes Court explained, the jurisdictional portion of Title VII's requirements “does not limit jurisdiction to those cases in which there has been a timely filing with the EEOC.” Zipes, 455 U.S. at 393 (emphasis added). See also Underdue v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., 684 Fed.Appx. 346, 347 (4th Cir. 2017) (citing Hentosh, 767 F.3d at 417, and considering the timeliness of a Title VII/ADA EEOC charge pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) rather than Rule 12(b)(1) because the “timeliness of an EEOC charge is not a jurisdictional matter”). Accordingly, the undersigned considers Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).

         B. ADA exhaustion requirements

         Before filing suit under the ADA or Title VII, a plaintiff must exhaust her administrative remedies by bringing a charge with the EEOC. 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(f)(1); 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a) (ADA's provision indicating it applies the “powers, remedies, and procedures” set out in Title VII). Here, it is undisputed that a claimant has 300 days after the allegedly unlawful employment practice to submit a Title VII charge. A workshare agreement between the EEOC and South Carolina traditionally has been assumed by courts in this district, considering South Carolina a “deferral state, ” and making the 300-day deadline applicable “by virtue of any EEOC filing.” Talent v. Comm'r of Pub. Works, No. 2:12-CV-0622 DCN, 2014 WL 971747, at *3 (D.S.C. Mar. 11, 2014); see Farley v. Goodwill Indus. of Lower S.C., Inc., No. 4:15-CV-2450-RBH-KDW, 2016 WL 408949, at *3 n.3 (D.S.C. Jan. 12, 2016) (discussing deferral state and 300-day limitations period), report and recommendation adopted, No. 415CV02450RBHKDW, 2016 WL 398159 (D.S.C. Feb. 2, 2016). Here, the parties agree that the 300-day limitation period applies to Plaintiff's filing her charge.

         As the principal issue before the court concerns the timely filing of the charge in this case, further consideration of what is considered to be a “charge” is necessary. Title VII does not explicitly define the term “charge.” See Edelman v. Lynchburg Coll., 535 U.S. 106, 112 (2002) (noting Title VII contains no statutory definition of “charge”).

         Typically, an employee complaining of discrimination contacts the EEOC and provides it with information to support the allegations of illegal discrimination. After receiving that information through an intake questionnaire (“Questionnaire”) and any other information the employee has provided, “the EEOC typically assists the employee with filing a charge.” Balas v. Huntington Ingalls Industs., 711 F.3d 401, 407 (4th Cir. 2013) (in Title VII context). The EEOC's assistance may include the drafting of a charge to be forwarded to the employee for signature. Id. (citing U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Comm'n, The Charge Handling Process, available at http://www.eeoc.gov/employees/process.cfm (last visited by citing court on Feb. 15, 2013)). The EEOC then sends a notice and copy of the charge to the employer, giving the employer an opportunity to conduct its own investigation and resolve any actions internally. At the same time, the EEOC investigates the charge. Balas, 711 F.3d at 407. As noted by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (“Fourth Circuit”), the filing of a charge also “‘initiates agency-monitored settlement, the primary way that claims of discrimination are resolved.''' Id. (quoting Chris v. Tenet, 221 F.3d 648, 653 (4th Cir. 2000)).

         As to the substance of a charge, Title VII-and by extension, the ADA-requires that a charge “contain such information and be in such form as the [EEOC] requires.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b). Pertinent EEOC regulations require that a charge contain the following information: (1) the full name, address, and telephone number of the person making the charge; (2) the full name and address of the person against whom the charge is made (if known); (3) a clear and concise statement of the facts, including relevant dates, regarding the alleged unlawful practices; (4) if known, the approximate number of employees of the respondent; and (5) a statement disclosing whether any proceedings regarding the alleged unlawful practices have been commenced before a state or local agency. 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12(a). These specific requirements notwithstanding, the EEOC regulations also contain a catchall clause, which provides that “a charge is sufficient when the [EEOC] receives from the person making the charge a written statement sufficiently precise to identify the parties, and to describe generally the action or practices complained of.” 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12(b).

         The Title VII regulations require that a charge be “in writing under oath or affirmation.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(b); see also 29 C.F.R. § 1601.9 (establishing that a Title VII charge “shall be in writing and signed and shall be verified”). The EEOC's Title VII regulations define “verified” to mean “sworn to or affirmed before a notary public, designated representative of the [EEOC] or other person duly authorized by law to administer oaths and take acknowledgements, or supported by an unsworn declaration in writing under penalty of perjury.” 29 C.F.R. § 1601.3. An unverified document that satisfies the other substantive requirements for a charge can be cured by a later-filed charge that is verified, in which case the verified charge relates to the filing date of the unsworn charge. See 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12(b); Edelman, 535 U.S. at 118 (upholding EEOC's regulation permitting relation back). EEOC regulations characterize the failure to verify a charge as a “technical defect, ” 29 C.F.R. § 1601.12(b); nonetheless, the Fourth Circuit has held that compliance with Title VII's verification requirement is “mandatory, ” Balazs v. Liebenthal, 32 F.3d 151, 156 (4th Cir. 1994).

         A filing must “be reasonably construed as a request for the agency to take remedial action to protect the employee's rights or otherwise settle a dispute between the employer and the employee” before it can be deemed a charge. Fed. Express Corp. v. Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, 402 (2008) (in context of a charge alleging violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”)). In Holowecki, the United States Supreme Court addressed whether an EEOC Intake Questionnaire may constitute a “charge” for ADEA purposes. 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. The Court deferred to the EEOC's position that the regulations' criteria are not exhaustive, meaning that “not all documents that meet the minimal requirements of [the ADEA's charge requirements] are charges.” Holowecki, 552 U.S. at 397. The Court also adopted the EEOC's position that “the proper test for determining whether a filing is a charge is whether the filing, taken as a whole, should be construed as a request by the employee for the agency to take whatever action is necessary to vindicate her rights.” Id. at 398. This is sometimes referred to as the EEOC's “objective test.” See Id. at 402 (noting that, in determining whether submission to the EEOC may be considered a charge requires examination “from the standpoint of an objective observer”). Courts have applied Holowecki, 552 U.S. 389, in the context of employment discrimination claims under Title VII and ...


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