Brackens v. Stericycle, Incorporated, 092920 FED5, 20-30286

Docket Nº:20-30286
Opinion Judge:Per Curiam:
Party Name:Brandon Lee Brackens, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Stericycle, Incorporated; Brian Demarest; Christopher David Perez; David Falletta; Brandon Arceneaux, Sr., Defendants-Appellees.
Judge Panel:Before Haynes, Willett, and Ho, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:September 29, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

Brandon Lee Brackens, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Stericycle, Incorporated; Brian Demarest; Christopher David Perez; David Falletta; Brandon Arceneaux, Sr., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 20-30286

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

September 29, 2020

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana USDC No. 2:19-CV-13454

Before Haynes, Willett, and Ho, Circuit Judges.

Per Curiam: [*]

Brandon Lee Brackens appeals the district court's order granting Appellees' motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim for discrimination or retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-2(a)(1), 2000e-3(a), intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"), defamation, and for the denial of various evidentiary rulings. For the following reasons, we AFFIRM the district court's order.

I. Background

Brackens is a former employer of Stericycle, Inc. He started working as a swing driver for the company in 2017, and he was terminated for misconduct in 2019. Following his termination, Brackens filed a pro se lawsuit against Stericycle and several of its employees1 (collectively, "Stericycle"), bringing discrimination and retaliation claims under Title VII, as well as state law claims for IIED and defamation. He sought $10 million in punitive damages.

Brackens alleged that Stericycle took various adverse actions against him in retaliation for filing an anonymous complaint against his supervisor with Stericycle's Human Resources department ("HR Complaint"). Brackens described the general nature of his complaint as an issue of "communication and favoritism." He maintained that his supervisor gave preferential treatment to another swing driver and allowed that driver to do "nothing for the day," while Brackens was subject to sudden route changes.

Brackens claimed that, after filing the HR Complaint, he and a small group of other swing drivers were singled out by his supervisors in a meeting to discern the identity of the complainant. Brackens maintained that, in the aftermath of this meeting: (1) his workload fluctuated unfairly, (2) his vehicle was vandalized, (3) he was stalked by other Stericycle drivers, (4) he was drug tested more than any other driver, and (5) he was harassed by his supervisors-all leading to his termination from Stericycle.

In the wake of his termination, Brackens filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), alleging that Stericycle discriminated and retaliated against him in violation of Title VII ("EEOC Complaint"). Notably, Brackens did not indicate that the alleged discrimination was based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, or genetic information. The EEOC was "unable to conclude that the information obtained establishe[d] violations of [Title VII]." Nonetheless, it issued Brackens a "Notice of Suit Rights[, ]" allowing his lawsuit to go forward.

Brackens filed a pro se complaint in federal district court, and the parties consented to proceed before a U.S. magistrate judge (hereafter the "district court").[2] Stericycle moved to dismiss all of Brackens's claims with prejudice, arguing that Brackens failed to plead (1) that he was part of a protected class or engaged in a protected activity, as required under Title VII; (2) sufficiently severe or outrageous conduct for IIED; and (3) any of the elements necessary under Louisiana law to support his defamation claim.

Brackens responded to Stericycle's motion to dismiss and attached thirty-two exhibits to support his allegations against Stericycle. These exhibits included, among other things, Brackens's HR Complaint, several write-ups concerning on-the-job incidents, a police report documenting vandalism to a personal vehicle, the EEOC Complaint, EEOC's Notice of Suit Rights, and documents related to the denial of Brackens's benefits. Stericycle moved to strike Brackens's response as untimely or, alternatively, to strike the attached exhibits.

The district court declined to strike Brackens's response in its entirety but did strike Brackens's attached exhibits. The court subsequently granted Stericycle's motion to dismiss with prejudice for failure to state a claim. Brackens timely appealed.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of review

The district court had federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331 over the Title VII claim and supplemental jurisdiction over the related state law defamation and IIED claims under 28 U.S.C. § 1367. We have jurisdiction over this appeal under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291 and 636(c)(3).

We review the district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo. See James v. Hyatt Corp. of Del., 981 F.2d 810, 812 (5th Cir. 1993); see also Budhathoki v. Nielsen, 898 F.3d 504, 507 (5th Cir. 2018). Accordingly, "[w]e accept all well-pleaded facts as true and view those facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Whitley v. Hanna, 726 F.3d 631, 637 (5th Cir. 2013). The facts, taken as true, must "state a claim that is plausible on its face." Amacker v. Renaissance Asset Mgmt. LLC, 657 F.3d 252, 254 (5th Cir. 2011). "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). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements," are not entitled to an assumption of truth. Id.

Unlike a motion to dismiss, we review a district court's evidentiary rulings for abuse of discretion. Mahmoud v. De Moss Owners Ass'n, Inc., 865 F.3d 322, 327 (5th Cir. 2017) (quotation omitted). "Evidentiary rulings . . . are also subject to harmless error review, so even if a district court has abused its discretion, we will not reverse unless the error affected the substantial rights of the parties." Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

We also note that Brackens is a pro se plaintiff. "Although we liberally construe briefs of pro se litigants and apply less stringent standards to parties proceeding pro se than to parties represented by counsel, pro se parties must still brief the issues and reasonably comply with the standards of [Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure] 28." Grant v. Cuellar, 59 F.3d 523, 524 (5th Cir. 1995) (per curiam).

III. Discussion

On appeal, Brackens raises the same arguments addressed by the district court in striking his exhibits and dismissing his complaint.3 Namely, Brackens argues that the district court erred in dismissing his Title VII claims related to retaliation, harassment (as a form of employment discrimination), and disparate treatment. He also asserts related state law claims for defamation and IIED. Lastly, he challenges the district court's decision to strike his thirty-two exhibits, as well as his inability to conduct discovery. We reject Brackens's arguments and AFFIRM the district court's rulings.

To prevail on his Title VII claims, Brackens must show that he is entitled to protected status, see 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2(a)(1), or engaged in a protected activity, see id. § 2000e-3(a). He failed to plead the necessary facts to support either aspect. Protected status extends to individuals on the basis of "race, color, religion, sex, or national origin[.]" Id. § 2000e-2(a)(1). Protected activity is the "opposition to any practice rendered unlawful by Title VII, including making a charge, testifying, assisting, or participating in any investigation, proceeding, or hearing under Title VII." Ackel v. Nat'l Commc'ns, Inc., 339 F.3d 376, 385 (5th Cir. 2003) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Title VII is an anti-discrimination law, not a general civility code. See, e.g., West v. City of Houston, 960 F.3d 736, 742 (5th Cir. 2020). In the retaliation context, protected activity is dependent on Title VII's categories of protected individuals. See 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Importantly, "Title VII protects an employee only from 'retaliation for complaining about the types of discrimination it prohibits.'" O'Daniel v. Indus. Serv. Sols., 922 F.3d 299, 307 (5th Cir. 2019), abrogated in part on other grounds by Bostock v. Clayton Cty., 140 S.Ct. 1731 (2020) (quoting Miller v. Am....

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