Hicks v. Mass. Dep't of Transp.

Decision Date05 January 2021
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 1:19-cv-11250-IT
Citation511 F.Supp.3d 8
Parties Bernard HICKS, Plaintiff, v. MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts

Bernard Hicks, Dorchester, MA, pro se.

Daniel Gordon Cromack, Jesse M. Boodoo, Attorney General's Office, Boston, MA, for Defendants.


Indira Talwani, United States District Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Bernard Hicks, a former employee of Defendant Massachusetts Department of Transportation ("MassDOT"), alleges that MassDOT and its employees Maria Rota, Julian Tynes, and Roland Francois1 refused to accommodate his disability, retaliated against him for seeking accommodations, and eventually terminated Hicks because of his disability. See Second Amended Complaint ("Sec. Am. Compl.") 2, 6, 11 [#13].2 Pending before the court is DefendantsMotion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, to Stay ("Mtn. to Dismiss") [#22]. For the reasons that follow, the Motion [#23] is GRANTED and the case will be dismissed.

II. Procedural History

On June 5, 2019, Plaintiff filed a pro se Complaint [#1] against Defendants Rota, Tynes, Francois, and MassDOT alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and unspecified state law violations. This court subsequently granted Plaintiff's motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis, but ordered Plaintiff to "clearly set[ ] out his claims" and "identify the alleged misconduct that constitutes the discrimination and/or retaliation of which he complains." Order [#7]. On October 1, 2019, Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint [#8], invoking the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") rather than the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act as the basis for jurisdiction in this court. Id. at 3. On February 12, 2020, after the court issued summonses, Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint [#13].

Defendants responded with the pending motion, seeking dismissal pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) or, in the alternative, a stay of proceedings in light of a substantially overlapping action in state court that Plaintiff had filed after initiating suit here. Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, to Stay [#22]; see also Civil Complaint, Hicks v. Mass. Dep't of Transp., et al., No. 1984-CV-02462 (Mass. Super. Aug. 1, 2019) [#23-1].3 Plaintiff opposed Defendants’ motion, Plaintiff's Opposition [#25], and also filed a Motion to Supplement his Opposition [#26], which the court allowed as unopposed. Elec. Order [#29].

On September 18, 2020, Defendants provided this court with notice that the state court had granted Defendantsmotion to dismiss the state court action and entered judgment. See Notice [#27].

III. Facts as Alleged in Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint

Plaintiff Bernard Hicks was an employee of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation ("MassDOT") from November 10, 2008, to March 23, 2019. See Sec. Am. Compl. 6 & ¶ 71 [#13]. In March 2016, Hicks took intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act ("FMLA") to care for his father, who had dementia. Id. ¶ 1. During his period of intermittent leave, Hicks's supervisor, Director of Facilities Defendant Francois, along with Assistant Secretary of Human Resources Jesse Saint Cyr, assigned him four additional departments to manage. Id. at ¶ 2. When Hicks expressed concern that he had been given an unreasonable amount of work, Defendant Francois and Assistant Secretary Saint Cyr threatened to fire him if he did not manage his new assignments. Id. ¶ 5. Hicks alleges that this reassignment was done "under the disguise" of a department reorganization, but that he was the only employee given so many additional responsibilities. Id. ¶ 3. He reached out to Defendant Julian Tynes in the Civil Rights Office, but was told that "Civil Rights has nothing to do with it" and that he should "complain to the Feds." Id. ¶ 9.

From August of 2016 until May of 2017, Hicks took full-time FMLA leave to address his own health, the decline of which he attributes to his increased workload and tense work environment. Id. ¶¶ 10–11, 18. While on leave, Hicks was approved for sick leave benefits and pay and received one paycheck before his benefits were revoked. Id. ¶ 12. He links the revocation to the involvement of the Department's Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") Coordinator, Allen Montenko, and alleges that the reasons he was given for the revocation conflicted with stated policy, and that the revocation was, in fact, a retaliation by Assistant Secretary of Human Resources Jesse Saint Cyr. Id. When Hicks reached out to the Deputy Director of Human Resources for assistance, an attorney from that department stepped in and "[gave Hicks] a hard time." Id. ¶ 13. Ultimately, Hicks went without pay or benefits while on leave for nine months. Id. ¶ 14.

On May 17, 2017, one day before he returned to work, ADA Coordinator Allen Montenko confirmed that Hicks would be returning to his previous position and previous office location. Id. ¶ 21. Instead, when Hicks arrived, he was demoted to a different job managing twenty-nine Registry of Motor Vehicle offices and was seated at a desk on an otherwise empty floor without a computer, telephone, or any staff. Id. ¶¶ 22–25. Hicks's assigned parking location was moved from the "executive garage" to "in front of a dumpster." Id. ¶ 26. To address what he viewed as retaliation, Hicks requested information about his position change from his supervisor Defendant Francois and Deputy Director of Human Resources Mathew Knosp, and reached out to ADA Coordinator Montenko.4 Id. ¶ 26.

On May 26, 2017, Defendant Francois reprimanded Hicks for "not doing [his] job," despite Hicks's contention that he lacked needed resources. Id. ¶ 27. Defendant Francois then assigned Hicks the additional task of validating the parking tickets for employees on an entire floor. Id. ¶ 29.

Three weeks after Hicks's return to the office, Defendant Francois and Deputy Director of Human Resources Knosps had yet to formally reinstate him as an employee, and, as a result, he was not paid on time. Id. ¶ 28. Moreover, Human Resources never responded to Hicks's request that his benefits be reinstated, leaving him without medical benefits. Id. ¶¶ 37-38, 41. Hicks's health declined. Id. ¶ 31. In June 2017, Psychiatric and Mental Health Clinical Nurse Specialist Gail Leslie "notified" MassDOT of Hicks's disability. Id. ¶ 64. He sought permission to attend weekly therapy sessions requiring the use of 15-30 minutes of his lunch or sick time, and though ultimately approved, he alleges he was questioned excessively, and the process unnecessarily stalled. Id. ¶¶ 32–33.

On July 27, 2017, Hicks filed an internal MassDOT civil rights complaint against Defendant Francois and the Assistant Secretary of Human Resources, Jesse Saint Cyr. Id. ¶ 54. After filing the complaint against HR, Assistant Secretary of Human Rights Defendant Tynes advised Hicks to bring any issues that would typically go through HR directly to him. Id. ¶ 44. When Hicks complied, he received no response, and subsequently appealed to Director of Employee and Labor Relations Defendant Maria Rota, from whom he also received no response. Id. ¶¶ 45-47.

Six months after his May 2017 return from leave, Hicks was placed on unpaid "protective leave" by Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights Defendant Tynes. Id. ¶¶ 41, 51.5 Hicks was unable to find a description of that type of leave in his employee manual and his inquiries about its ramifications went unanswered. Id.

On January 29, 2018, the investigation into Hicks's complaint against Defendant Francois and the Assistant Secretary of Human Resources, Jesse Saint Cyr was closed without a finding. Id. ¶¶ 55–56. Hicks also lodged complaints with: the Attorney General's Fair Labor Division, which gave him a right to sue letter, and with "senior management, ADA Coordinator, Human Resources, and the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights MCAD/EEOC, to no avail." Id. ¶¶ 38–39, 52. In June 2018, Clinical Nurse Specialist Gail Leslie again "notified" MassDOT of Hicks's disability, and recommended that he be placed on Disability Retirement. Id. ¶¶ 73, 76.

On March 23, 2019, MassDOT sent a letter terminating Hicks's employment without explanation or opportunity for a hearing. Id. ¶¶ 71–72.6 In August 2019, Hicks's Medical Professional, Gail Leslie, again recommended to MassDOT that Hicks be placed on Disability Retirement. Id. ¶ 76. That same month, the Massachusetts State Retirement Board asked MassDOT to complete within fifteen days documentation required to process Hicks's disability retirement. Id. ¶¶ 78-79. MassDOT failed to submit the application for four months, and then did so only after Hicks emailed asking them to do so twenty-three times. Id. ¶¶ 84–85. When Hicks finally received a copy of the documentation, it was missing critical information. Id. ¶ 87. On January 6, 2020, Hicks filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and was subsequently sent a notice of dismissal and right to sue letter. Id. ¶¶ 91, 95; see also EEOC documents [#13-1].7

IV. Standard of Review

"When faced with motions to dismiss under both 12(b)(1) [for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction] and 12(b)(6) [for failure to state a claim], a district court, absent good reason to do otherwise, should ordinarily decide the 12(b)(1) motion first.... It is not simply formalistic to decide the jurisdictional issue when the case would be dismissed in any event for failure to state a claim. Different consequences flow from dismissals under 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6): for example, dismissal under the former, not being on the merits, is without res judicata effect." Ne. Erectors Ass'n of the BTEA v. Sec'y of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Admin., 62 F.3d 37, 39 (1st Cir. 1995).

On a motion pursuant to 12(b)(1), the "party invoking the jurisdiction of a federal court carries the burden of proving its existence." Murphy v. U.S., 45 F.3d...

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