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Holmes v. Southwest Human Resource Agency

United States District Court, W.D. Tennessee, Eastern Division

August 30, 2017




         Plaintiff Lakiesha Holmes filed this action against her former employer, Southwest Human Resource Agency (“Southwest”), alleging that she was subjected to unlawful retaliation and discrimination on the basis of her religion and was ultimately terminated in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. Defendant Southwest has filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claim of religious discrimination in its entirety and her retaliation claim to the extent that it is based on the events leading up to her 2016 charge of discrimination on the ground that Plaintiff did not exhaust her administrative remedies on these claims. (ECF No. 13.) Plaintiff has filed a response to Defendant's motion (ECF No. 14), and Defendant has filed a reply to the response. (ECF No. 15.) For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for partial dismissal is GRANTED.

         Standard of Review

         A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1134 (6th Cir. 1996). A complaint need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” but it must contain more than “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action....” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A complaint does not “suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertions' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).

         “To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 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.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In deciding whether the plaintiff has set forth a plausible claim, the court must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). This presumption is not applicable to legal conclusions, however. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 668. Therefore, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). The failure to exhaust administrative remedies is a condition precedent to an action in district court and may be asserted in a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See McKnight v. Gates, 2007 WL 1849986 at *2 (M.D. Tenn. 2007) (“[A] failure to exhaust administrative remedies . . . is not a jurisdictional bar, but rather a condition precedent to an action in federal court, ” and, therefore, the exhaustion issue is analyzed under Rule 12(b)(6) rather than Rule 12(b)(1)).


         It is well-settled that exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to filing a district court lawsuit alleging discrimination under Title VII, see Brown v. General Serv. Admin., 425 U.S. 820, 823-33 (1976), and that a plaintiff may only bring a Title VII action in district court after she has exhausted the administrative remedies provided under 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16. Thus, timely filing a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) and subsequently filing a complaint in federal district court in a timely manner are prerequisites to maintaining a Title VII action. See Lomax v. Sears, Roebuck, & Co., 2000 WL 1888715 at *6 (6th Cir. Dec. 19, 2000) (reiterating that “when a claim is not first presented to the EEOC, the claim may not be brought in court”).

         Such “[p]rocedural requirements established by Congress for gaining access to the federal courts are not to be disregarded by courts out of a vague sympathy for particular litigants.” Baldwin County Welcome Ctr. v. Brown, 466 U.S. 147, 152 (1984). Jurisdictional filing requirements may not be set aside just because a plaintiff initiates an action without the assistance of counsel and is unfamiliar with the mechanics of Title VII.[1] See Askew v. Stone, 1996 WL 135024 at *3 (6th Cir. Mar. 25, 1996) (“Despite the fact that Askew initiated this action without the assistance of counsel and was unfamiliar with Title VII's procedural requirements, she failed to comply with the strict procedural and time limitations imposed by statute.”)

         In order to exhaust Title VII's administrative remedies, a plaintiff must “trigger the investigatory and conciliatory procedures of the EEOC so that the Commission may first attempt to obtain voluntary compliance with the law.... These investigatory and conciliatory procedures notify potential defendants of the nature of plaintiffs' claims and provide them with the opportunity to settle the claims before the EEOC rather than litigate them.” Davis v. Sodexho, Cumberland College Cafeteria, 157 F.3d 460, 463 (6th Cir. 1998). A plaintiff must exhaust her administrative remedies for each and every claim. Id.

         In Davis, the court determined that the plaintiff could not bring an action in federal court under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act when her EEOC charge of discrimination indicated “race” and “other” as the motivations for the discrimination and “[n]owhere on the form did she indicate age as a potential cause of discrimination.” Id. Likewise, in Younis v. Pinnacle Airlines, 610 F.3d 359, 362 (6th Cir. 2010), the Sixth Circuit held that a Title VII plaintiff did not exhaust his retaliation claim when he failed to check the “RETALIATION” box on the charge form or include any allegations of retaliation in his narrative.

         An exception that the Sixth Circuit has recognized to permit a plaintiff to file a complaint in federal court when the claims were not included in the EEOC charge is for claims “reasonably expected to grow out of the charge of discrimination.” Davis, 157 F.3d at 463 (quoting EEOC v. McCall Printing Corp., 633 F.2d 1232, 1235 (6th Cir. 1980). To meet this criteria, the EEOC investigation of one charge must “in fact reveal[ ] evidence of a different type of discrimination against the plaintiff.” Davis, 154 F.3d at 463 (citing Sanchez v. Standard Brands, Inc., 431 F.2d 455, 466 (5th Cir. 1970)). The reason for the “expanded rule is that charges are frequently filed by lay complainants, and the courts recognize that subsequent actions should not be restricted by the failure of a complainant to attach the correct legal conclusion to the EEOC claim, conform to procedural technicalities, or include ‘the exact wording which might be required in a judicial pleading.'” Davis, 157 F.3d at 463 (quoting Bailey, 563 F.2d at 447; McCall Printing, 633 F.2d at 1235). However, this exception does not mean “that plaintiffs are excused from filing charges on a particular discrimination claim before suing in federal court.” Davis, 157 F.3d at 463. If that were to occur, then the “charge filing requirement would be written out of the law, and the triggering and conciliation functions disabled.” Id. at 464.

         In the present case, Plaintiff completed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC on November 17, 2016. (First Charge, ECF No. 13-2.)[2] Plaintiff checked only the box for discrimination based on “religion.” In the narrative, she stated, “I believe I have been discriminated against based on my religion (Jehovah Witness), in violation of Title VII….” (Id.) The EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of rights letter on November 18, 2016. (2016 Right-to-Sue Letter, ECF No. 13-3.) The letter stated, in pertinent part: “Your lawsuit must be filed WITHIN 90 DAYS of your receipt of this notice; or your right to sue based on this charge will be lost.” (Id. (emphasis in original)).

         Plaintiff filed a second charge of discrimination with the EEOC on February 3, 2017. (Second Charge, ECF No. 13-4.) This time, Plaintiff checked only the box for discrimination based on retaliation. The narrative stated, in part, that “I believe that I have been discriminated against due to my filing a previous charge of discrimination....” (Id.) There is no mention of religion or religious discrimination in the second charge. The EEOC issued a dismissal and notice of rights letter on February 8, 2017. (2017 Right-to-Sue Letter, ECF No. 13-5.) Plaintiff filed her complaint in this Court on April 19, 2017, which was 152 days after the 2016 right-to-sue letter was issued.

         Defendant contends that any retaliation claim contained in the first charge of discrimination is time-barred and should be dismissed. To the extent that Plaintiff alleged a retaliation claim in the first charge for events occurring prior to the date of her first charge (and it does not appear that she did so), Defendant is correct that that claim must be dismissed because this lawsuit was filed more than ninety days after the first right-to-sue letter was issued. SeePage v. Metro Sewer Dist. of Louisville & Jefferson Cnty., 84 F. App'x 583, 584 (6th Cir. 2003) (“Before filing a Title VII claim, a plaintiff must receive a right-to-sue letter from the EEOC and then file suit within ninety days after receiving the right-to-sue letter.”). However, Plaintiff has exhausted her administrative remedies and has ...

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