Jordan v. Alternative Resources Corp.

Decision Date12 May 2006
Docket NumberNo. 05-1485.,05-1485.
Citation458 F.3d 332
PartiesRobert L. JORDAN, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. ALTERNATIVE RESOURCES CORPORATION; International Business Machines Corporation, Defendants-Appellees. The Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association; Public Justice Center; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amici Supporting Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Stephen Zak Chertkof, Heller, Huron, Chertkof, Lerner, Simon & Salzman, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Paul D. Ramshaw, United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Appellate Services, Washington, D.C., for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amicus Supporting Appellant. William C. Sammons, Tydings & Rosenberg, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Douglas B. Huron, Tammany M. Kramer, Heller, Huron, Chertkof, Lerner, Simon & Salzman, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., for Appellant. Marc R. Jacobs, Seyfarth Shaw, L.L.P., Chicago, Illinois, for Appellee Alternative Resources Corporation; J. Hardin Marion, Melvina C. Ford, Tydings & Rosenberg, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee International Business Machines Corporation. R. Scott Oswald, Employment Law Group, P.L.L.C., Washington, D.C., for The Metropolitan Washington Employment Lawyers Association and Public Justice Center, Amici Supporting Appellant. Eric S. Dreiband, General Counsel, James L. Lee, Deputy General Counsel, Lorraine C. Davis, Acting Associate General Counsel, Vincent J. Blackwood, Assistant General Counsel, United States Equal Employment

Opportunity Commission, Washington, D.C., for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Amicus Supporting Appellant.

Before WIDENER, NIEMEYER, and KING, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge NIEMEYER wrote the majority opinion, in which Judge WIDENER joined. Judge KING wrote a dissenting opinion.

NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge.

When the news broke in October 2002 that police in Montgomery County, Maryland, had captured two black men suspected of being the snipers who had randomly shot 13 individuals, killing 10, in separate incidents over a period of weeks in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, an IBM employee watching the news on television in one of IBM's Montgomery County offices exclaimed, "They should put those two black monkeys in a cage with a bunch of black apes and let the apes f—k them." A fellow employee, Robert Jordan, who is black, was in the room at the time and heard the exclamation. Jordan was offended and discussed the incident with two other co-workers, who told him that the employee had made similar comments before. Jordan then reported the incident to management. A month later Jordan was fired, purportedly because he was "disruptive," his position "had come to an end," and management personnel "don't like you and you don't like them."

Jordan sued IBM and Alternative Resources Corporation ("ARC"), alleging that they jointly were his employer, for retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and for breach of contract, fraud, and violations of local employment laws. Pursuant to the motion of IBM and ARC, the district court dismissed the complaint by order dated March 30, 2005, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, and entered judgment on April 26, 2005. The court held that Jordan was not protected by Title VII from his employers' retaliation because no objectively reasonable person could have believed that, in reporting the incident to management, Jordan was opposing an unlawful hostile work environment.

Jordan appealed, and, for the reasons that follow, we affirm.

I

In his complaint, Jordan alleges that in October 2002, he was employed jointly by ARC and IBM in Montgomery County, Maryland, because of the business relationship between the companies. He had entered into an at-will employment relationship with ARC in December 1998 as a network technician and, before October 2002, had been assigned to work at the IBM office in Gaithersburg, Montgomery County, Maryland.

Jordan alleges that, while in the network room at IBM's office on October 23, 2002, he heard his co-worker, Jay Farjah, who was watching television, exclaim—not directly to Jordan but in his presence— "They should put those two black monkeys in a cage with a bunch of black apes and let the apes f—k them." Farjah was speaking to the television in response to a report that John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo had been captured.*

Over a period of three weeks, Muhammad and Malvo shot 13 people in public places in the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area from hidden positions. They killed 10 people and seriously wounded 3. Soon after the snipers' names and a description of their car were released by Montgomery County police late on October 23, Malvo and Muhammad were arrested. Jordan and Farjah were watching this breaking news report on a television at the IBM facility.

In his complaint, Jordan states that he was offended by Farjah's statement and reported it to two IBM supervisors, Mary Ellen Gillard and C.J. Huang, explaining that he believed that Farjah should not utter racist comments in the office. After Gillard spoke with Farjah, who claimed that he only said, "They should put those two monkeys in a cage," Jordan told Gillard he was going to raise his complaint with Ron Thompson, IBM's site manager. Jordan also complained to ARC manager Sheri Mathers.

Jordan alleges that during the month following his complaints about Farjah's inappropriate statement, Gillard delayed Jordan's work shift by two-and-a-half hours and gave him additional work assignments. Jordan also alleges that Huang made a derogatory remark and gestured toward Jordan at an office Thanksgiving party. On November 21, 2002, ARC manager Mathers telephoned Jordan and fired him because, as Jordan alleges, he was "disruptive," his position "had come to an end," and IBM employees and officials "don't like you and you don't like them."

Alleging retaliatory discharge in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a), 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and related state laws, Jordan sued IBM and ARC based on his claim that they fired him for complaining about Farjah's statement. IBM and ARC filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), alleging that the complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. While the defendants' motion to dismiss was pending, Jordan filed a motion for leave to file an amended complaint to add an allegation that after hearing Farjah's remark, he discussed it with several co-workers, and "[a]t least two of the co-workers told Jordan that they had heard Farjah make similar offensive comments many times before." Jordan also proposed to add new state law claims for breach of contract, fraud, and wrongful discharge.

The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, and in doing so not only ruled on the original complaint, but also considered the proposed amended complaint, concluding that it too failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The court held that IBM and ARC could not be liable for retaliation because "Plaintiff has failed to allege that he engaged in a statutorily protected activity." As the court explained, "A plaintiff bringing a claim under the opposition clause of Title VII must at a minimum have held a reasonable good faith belief at the time he opposed an employment practice that the practice was violative of Title VII" (internal quotation marks, alterations, and citation omitted). The court concluded that "Farjah's comment, which [Jordan] does not allege was directed at him, simply is not such a violation." Addressing the proposed amended complaint, the court stated that the additional facts alleged

still [do] not make "objectively reasonable" Plaintiff's belief that Defendants engaged in unlawful employment practices by allowing an abusive working environment to persist. . . . [N]o facts are alleged to indicate that these prior comments, taken alone or in conjunction with the incident involving Plaintiff, constituted a hostile work environment. Plaintiff's amended complaint does not specify the frequency, severity, or nature of the prior comments, nor even any aspect of their content; it merely states that "two of the co-workers told Jordan that they heard Farjah make similar offensive comments many times before."

From the district court's April 26, 2005 judgment dismissing Jordan's complaint, Jordan filed this appeal.

II

Our review of an order granting a motion to dismiss filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is de novo and focuses only on the legal sufficiency of the complaint. In conducting this review, we "take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff," but "we need not accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts," and "we need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." Eastern Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir.2000); see also Bass v. E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Co., 324 F.3d 761, 765 (4th Cir.2003).

III

At the heart of Jordan's complaint is the allegation that IBM and ARC retaliated against him because he complained about Farjah's racist exclamation, made in response to a television report that the two snipers had been captured. Farjah's comment, directed at the news report, was the only time that Jordan had ever heard a racist comment from Farjah. Moreover, Jordan does not complain of any other similar statements made to him by others or heard by him in the workplace. He contends, however, that his complaint about Farjah's comment involved an "incipient violation" of Title VII and therefore is protected by § 704(a) of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a) (prohibiting discrimination when an employee has opposed a practice made unlawful by Title VII)....

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