Haaijer v. Omnova Solutions, Inc.

Decision Date18 December 2018
Docket NumberCivil No. 3:18-CV-942
PartiesVERA HAAIJER, Plaintiff v. OMNOVA SOLUTIONS, INC., Defendant
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania

(Judge Mariani)

(Magistrate Judge Carlson)

I. Statement of Facts and of the Case

This workplace discrimination lawsuit comes before us for consideration of a motion to dismiss some, but not all, of the plaintiff's claims. In particular, the defendant seeks to dismiss Haaijer's retaliation and hostile workplace claims, as well as her pendent state law wrongful termination claim. (Doc. 18.)

With respect to these claims, the pertinent well-pleaded facts set forth in Haaijer's complaint, which we must accept as true when evaluating a motion to dismiss, allege that Haaijer was "an adult female over the age of 40 years and was a successful and accomplished engineer in her position with the Defendant." (Doc. 1, ¶11.) According to Haaijer she "was always provided with outstanding reviews and had no complaints about her work or her actions." (Id., ¶12.)

Despite what she describes as superior job performance throughout her tenure at Omnova, Haaijer's complaint alleges a pattern of discrimination against her over time. These alleged acts of discrimination were many, and varied, according to Haaijer. As Haaijer alleged in her complaint:

20. During her tenure with the Defendant the Plaintiff was consistently treated differently then [sic] male managers and other male employees.
21. On one occasion, just prior to her termination, the President (male) of the company paid a visit to the Auburn Facility.
22. The President visited with each and every male manager to discuss their performance and the work being performed at the Auburn facility.
23. The President failed and/or refused to meet with the Plaintiff and she stood as the only manager not seen by the President.
24. After her termination jobs that she was more than capable of performing for the same or similar salary were provided to men.
25. She was not informed of these other positions that she could have applied for because the Defendant did not want a female to assume said positions.
26. On at least five occasions she was overlooked for positions that were given to males who were younger and less qualified.
27. The Plaintiff was willing to accept a position other than the one she was being terminated from, but she never had the chance because she was fired under the ruse that there was a "reorganization" occurring.
28. There was no such reorganization and it served only as an excuse to fire a female.
29. In fact, one of the males that the Plaintiff was training to take up a managerial position was hired after the Plaintiff was terminated. Shewas more than capable of accepting said position and the pay rate was similar in nature.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

33. The Plaintiff, as a female, was left out of many meetings that were attended by male managers during her tenure at the Defendant.
34. The Plaintiff, as a female, had been interviewing certain male employees for management positions. She was informed that she was to interview these male employees and make the hiring decision.
35. However, this did not occur and her decisions were ignored and male managers who were subordinate to the Plaintiff made these hiring decisions.
36. The Plaintiff's decisions and work were often taken over by male employees who were subordinate or held an equal position as the Plaintiff.

According to Haaijer, this disparate treatment continued until September 14, 2017, when she was fired. (Id., ¶13.) While the chronology of events surrounding her termination are somewhat murky, at one point in her complaint Haaijer alleges that:

13. On September 14, 2017, the Plaintiff was called to the office of her manager and informed that she was terminated because the Defendant was in the process of "reorganization".
14. Following her termination the Plaintiff was offered a severance package from the Defendant that included a financial payment in excess of $17,000.00.
15. However, for the Plaintiff to receive said payment and other benefits under the severance package she had to sign a waiver stating that she would forego any claims under Title VII and other federal and statediscrimination laws and that she was not subject to sexual or age discrimination.
16. The Plaintiff informed the Defendant that she would accept the severance package, but would not agree to waive her rights under Title VII and other federal and state discrimination laws and that she was not subject to sexual or age discrimination.
17. In retaliation the Defendant refused to pay the Plaintiff her severance package because she refused to sign the waiver and/or release. The Defendant retaliated against the Plaintiff because she would not agree to the Defendant's attempt to insulate itself from legal action for its unlawful termination of the Plaintiff based upon her age and sex.

(Id., ¶¶ 13-17.) Thus, Haaijer initially described a scenario in which she was terminated and offered a severance package conditioned upon the waiver of claims, something she refused to do. She was then denied these severance benefits. Notably missing from this initial factual narrative, however, was any assertion of rights under Title VII by Haaijer prior to being offered a severance package.

However, later in her complaint Haaijer describes the events in a different fashion asserting that:

37. When the Plaintiff was terminated she informed her employer that she believed that she was subject to discrimination because of her age and gender.
38. In turn, the Defendant provided her a severance package, but required her to sign documents wherein she would waive any and all claims of discrimination.
39. Male employees were not required to sign similar waivers in order to receive their severance package.
40. When the Plaintiff demanded that the language be removed from the severance agreement the Defendant refused to provide her with her severance package in retaliation for making such a claim.

(Id., ¶¶ 37-40.) Thus, in this second recounting, Haaijer seems to allege that her employer made the payment of severance contingent upon her waiver of Title VII claims only after she asserted that she had been discriminated against based upon her gender. Haaijer's current complaint does not reconcile these two different factual narratives.

According to Haaijer's complaint she "exhausted her administrative remedies, [by] fil[ing] charges with the EEOC and Pennsylvania HRC, averring, inter alia, that she was subjected to discrimination and harassment based upon her sex, age, culminating in her termination." (Id., ¶ 8.) A review of Haaijer's administrative complaint lodged with the EEOC reveals that the thrust of that complaint related to her September 2017 termination, but Haaijer also alleged that this termination was the culmination of a longstanding pattern of disparate treatment based upon her gender, stating that:

Once I was terminated I began to understand why certain actions had happened prior to September 14, 2016. A number of younger male employees who had the same or less experience and education as myself were given positions that I would be able to fill. The Employer hired certain younger male employees to positions that I was eligible to fill. In essence, for a period of at least one year prior to my termination the Employer failed to offer me or make available several jobs for which I was eligible to fill. It needs to be noted that all employees who were given positions as part of the reorganization were male and younger than myself. 1 have since learned that one other femaleemployee was terminated from her employment as part of the reorganization and was not provided an opportunity to bid on other jobs.

(Doc. 21-2, p. 1.)

On the basis of the well-pleaded facts set forth in her complaint, Haaijer brings claims of workplace discrimination relating to her termination, alleges that she was subject to a hostile work environment during her tenure at Omnova and asserts that the conditioning of her severance pay upon the waiver of legal claims was retaliatory conduct on the part of Omnova. Haaijer brings these claims against her former employer under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, and the companion state statute, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, (PHRA), 43 Pa. Cons. Stat., § 951, et seq. (Id., Counts 1-III.)1 In addition, Haaijer pursues aPennsylvania common law wrongful termination claim against Omnova. (Id., Count IV.)

Omnova has now moved to dismiss Haaijer's retaliation, hostile workplace, and state common law wrongful termination claims, arguing that these claims fail as a matter of law. This motion to dismiss is fully briefed by the parties and is, therefore, ripe for resolution.

For the reasons set forth below, it is recommended that the motion to dismiss be granted in part and denied in part as follows: We recommend that the motion be GRANTED with respect to the plaintiff's common law wrongful termination claim, (Doc. 1, Count IV.) We also recommend that the plaintiff be directed to file a more definite statement of her retaliation claim, pursuant to Rule 12(e) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Finally, we recommend that the motion to dismiss be DENIED in all other respects.

II. Discussion
A. Rule 12(b)(6) - The Legal Standard

The defendant has moved to dismiss the amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, asserting that the plaintiff has continued to fail to allege facts that state a claim upon which relief may be granted.With respect to this benchmark standard for legal sufficiency of a complaint, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has aptly noted the evolving standards governing pleading practice in federal court, stating that:

Standards of pleading have been in the forefront of jurisprudence in recent years. Beginning with the Supreme Court's opinion in Bell Atlantic Corp. v.

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