Burch v. NC Dep't of Pub. Safety

Decision Date19 January 2016
Docket NumberNO. 4:15-CV-86-FL,4:15-CV-86-FL
Citation158 F.Supp.3d 449
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of North Carolina
Parties Lauren Burch, Plaintiff, v. NC Department of Public Safety; State Bureau of Investigation Division; Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch; John Ledford, Individually and in his official capacity as the Director of the Division of ALE; Mark Senter, individually and officially as the Branch Head of the NCDPS/ALE; Kendall Pike, individually and in his official capacity as Assistant Deputy Director of ALE; Roy Cooper, in his official capacity as the Attorney General of North Carolina; and North Carolina Department of Justice, Defendants.

Glenn A. Barfield, Haithcock, Barfield, Hulse & Kinsey, PLLC, Goldsboro, NC, for Plaintiff.

Hal F. Askins, Jennifer Joy Strickland, N.C. Dept. of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Defendants.

ORDER

LOUISE W. FLANAGAN, United States District Judge

This matter is before the court on defendants' motion to dismiss, made pursuant to Federal Civil Procedure Rule 12. (DE 24). Plaintiff filed a response to defendants' motion (DE 34), and a notice of voluntary dismissal with regard to certain claims. (DE 35). The issues raised have been briefed fully, and in this posture are ripe for ruling. For the reasons that follow, defendants' motion to dismiss is granted with respect to plaintiff's claims for violations of due process and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's remaining claims, and remands them to state court.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

Plaintiff Lauren Burch commenced this action against defendants in the Superior Court of Cateret County, North Carolina, on April 20, 2015. (DE 3-1). Defendants filed a notice of removal, and the action was removed to this court on June 3, 2015. (Id. ) The complaint names as defendants the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS); the State Bureau of Investigation Division (SBI); the Alcohol Law Enforcement Branch (ALE); the North Carolina Department of Justice (NCDOJ) (collectively, defendant state agencies”);1 John Ledford, individually and in his official capacity as the Director of ALE; Mark Senter, individually and in his official capacity as Branch Head of DPS and ALE; Kendall Pike, individually and in his official capacity as Assistant Deputy Director of ALE (collectively, individual defendants); and Roy Cooper, in his official capacity as the Attorney General of North Carolina. Plaintiff asserts that defendants discriminated against her in the course of her public employment, and that defendants' actions violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Article I of the North Carolina Constitution, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983 ”), Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), and North Carolina state law prohibitions on civil conspiracy and breach of contract.

On June 22, 2015, defendants filed the instant motion to dismiss plaintiff's complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), and 12(b)(6). Defendants argue that plaintiff fails to state claims under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions, § 1983, Title VII, and for civil conspiracy. Defendants assert defenses of sovereign immunity and public official immunity regarding the constitutional claims, as well as qualified immunity as to the § 1983 claim. In addition, defendants contend plaintiff's claim for breach of contract is without merit for failure to follow procedure required by the North Carolina State Personnel Act. With regard to defendants Cooper and the NCDOJ, defendants argue that all claims are unavailing where no factual allegations refer to defendant Cooper, and where plaintiff's employer, defendant ALE, never operated under control of the NCDOJ. Lastly, defendants assert that theories of res judicata and estoppel bar plaintiff's Title VII and breach of contract claims.

On August 3, 2015, plaintiff filed a response to defendants' motion to dismiss, followed by an amended notice of voluntary dismissal. In the amended notice, plaintiff voluntarily dismisses the Title VII claim and all claims against defendant Cooper. In addition, plaintiff dismisses claims made under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the U.S. Constitution as they relate to defendant state agencies and individual defendants in their official capacities.

In her response to defendants' motion to dismiss, plaintiff expands the Due Process Clause argument to encompass both substantive and procedural due process violations, and reasserts a class-of-one theory in support of equal protection claims under the U.S. and N.C. Constitutions. Plaintiff also argues against application of sovereign immunity, public official immunity, and qualified immunity. Finally, plaintiff contends that defendants' theories of res judicata and estoppel are inappropriate at this stage. Plaintiff's response does not address defendants' arguments for dismissal of the civil conspiracy claim, the breach of contract claim, and defendant NCDOJ. Defendants filed no reply to plaintiff's response.

STATEMENT OF FACTS

From 2006 to 2015, plaintiff worked as a special agent for ALE. (DE 3-1 ¶ 2). After plaintiff became pregnant in early 2012, she submitted written notice of the pregnancy to her immediate supervisor on March 16, 2012. (Id. ¶ 53). In turn, plaintiff's supervisor relayed the notice to ALE's supervising officers, including defendant Senter. (Id. ¶ 54). For at least four previous pregnant special agents, ALE had employed a practice whereby it allowed the special agent to remain on full duty status while accommodating at the special agent's request any restrictions for the health and well-being of the agent and the unborn child. (Id. ¶ 19–46). In effect, this practice created a de facto light duty regime that did not require pregnant special agents to request placement on formal limited duty status. (Id. ¶ 15).

Formal limited duty status required special agents to surrender their badges and guns, cease using assigned state vehicles, and no longer count travel time as working time. (Id. ¶ 16). Therefore, application of ALE's de facto light duty regime benefitted pregnant special agents because they were able to avoid the disadvantages of formal limited duty status. (Id. ¶ 17). Plaintiff alleges that defendants denied her that benefit by refusing to apply ALE's de facto light duty regime to her while she was pregnant, thereby forcing her to request formal limited duty status.

Plaintiff asserts that defendants Ledford, Senter, and Pike (the “Command Staff”), were motivated by personal ill will towards plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 56). Plaintiff describes two prior incidents in which defendant Senter played a role in disciplinary proceedings against plaintiff. (Id. ¶¶ 67, 108). Plaintiff contested the charges and prevailed in both instances, the most recent of which concluded in February 2012. (Id. ¶ 67, 108, 118).

ALE policy required pregnant special agents to obtain from their doctor and provide to their supervisor monthly status reports on their pregnancy. (Id. ¶ 127). If a pregnant special agent wished to restrict her activities under the de facto light duty regime, ALE policy required a doctor's note advising those restrictions. (Id. ¶ 128). If a pregnant special agent wished to be placed on formal limited duty, ALE policy required a written request for such placement and input from the ALE medical director. (Id. ¶¶ 138–39).

In April 2012, plaintiff obtained from her doctor and provided to her supervisor a note advising that “it is appropriate for [plaintiff] to avoid any situations that would put her at risk for physical altercations,” and that [i]f she is going to be in a vehicle for more than three-four hours, I would recommend that she have the opportunity to get out and stretch her legs for a few minutes.” (Id. at 29). Shortly after receiving an abbreviated version of this note,2 defendant Senter forwarded it to Dr. Thomas Griggs, the medical director for ALE and the State Highway Patrol. (Id. ¶ 137). Dr. Griggs replied to defendant Senter that the note was “consistent with ‘limited duty.’ (Id. at 35).

Defendant Senter then consulted with defendant Pike to consider placing plaintiff on formal limited duty assignment. (Id. ¶ 144). Although defendant Senter was familiar with ALE's de facto light duty regime (see id. ¶ 44), he communicated to plaintiff that unless she submitted a written request to be placed on formal limited duty, she would be placed on leave without pay in light of her doctor's restrictions. (Id. ¶¶ 152–53). Plaintiff requested that she be allowed to seek a new letter from her doctor clarifying that her doctor's advice was general and not specifically prohibitive, but defendant Senter denied this request. (Id. ¶ 155). Later that day, plaintiff submitted a written request for formal limited duty assignment. (Id. at 37).

On May 2, 2012, defendant Ledford approved plaintiff's limited duty request and assigned her to work at ALE Headquarters in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Id. at 39). At that time, plaintiff's work assignment was in New Bern, North Carolina, and she was registered to deliver her child at a hospital in Morehead City, North Carolina. (Id. at 43). Plaintiff found the assignment to Raleigh grossly unreasonable because it required a daily, six-hour round-trip commute, using her personal vehicle at her own expense, and provided no work credit for travel time. (Id. ¶ 159, 162). On May 3, 2012, plaintiff submitted to defendant ALE another note from her doctor advising that she limit her commute to “no more than 1 ½ hours to work and from work.” (Id. at 41). The Command Staff declined to adjust plaintiff's work assignment despite receiving her doctor's note. (Id. ¶ 161). Plaintiff felt unable to report to Raleigh, and instead felt forced to exhaust her accumulated vacation and sick leave. (Id. ¶¶ 164–65).

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