Joyner v. Alston & Bird LLP

Decision Date13 May 2022
Docket NumberCivil Action 21 Civ. 8549 (AT) (SLC)
PartiesDAWN M. JOYNER, Sui Juris, Plaintiff, v. ALSTON & BIRD LLP, RICHARD HAYS, in his official and individual capacities, CATHY BENTON, in her official and individual capacities, and MICHAEL STEVENS, in his official and individual capacities, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Southern District of New York

HONORABLE ANALISA TORRES, United States District Judge:


SARAH L. CAVE, United States Magistrate Judge.


Pro se Plaintiff Dawn M. Joyner (Ms. Joyner) filed this action asserting claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985(3) and 5 U.S.C. § 552a and seeking injunctive relief, declaratory judgment, and money damages against the following Defendants: (1) Alston & Bird LLP (the Firm); (2) Richard Hays, the Firm's Chairman and Managing Partner; (3) Cathy Benton, Chief Human Resources Officer; and (4) Michael Stephens, Director of Human Resources and Diversity (Hays, Benton, and Stephens together, the “Individual Defendants,” the Firm and the Individual Defendants together Defendants). (ECF No. 1 (the “Complaint”)). Ms. Joyner's claims are predicated on her allegations that, inter alia, during her employment at the Firm, Defendants prohibited her from terminating her Forms W-4, violated her privacy, and deprived her of part of her salary. (Id. ¶¶ 46-48, 86-91, 204-207).

Defendants have moved to dismiss the Complaint as barred by res judicata and for failure to state claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 17 (the “Motion”)).

Ms. Joyner opposed the Motion. (ECF No. 20 (the “Opposition”)). In addition, Ms. Joyner has asked the Court to take judicial notice of certain legal authorities in connection with the Motion. (ECF Nos. 36-37 (the “Judicial Notice Motion”)).

For the reasons set forth below, I respectfully recommend that the Motion be GRANTED, and that the Judicial Notice Motion be DENIED.


A. Factual Background

The Court summarizes the factual background of Ms. Joyner's claims based on the allegations in her Complaint (ECF No. 1), which the Court accepts as true for purposes of the Motion. See N.J. Carpenters Health Fund v. Royal Bank of Scot. Grp., PLC, 709 F.3d 109, 119-20 (2d Cir. 2013); Adeniji v. N.Y. State Office of State Comptroller, No. 18 Civ. 0761 (PAE) (BCM), 2019 WL 4171033, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 3, 2019). In addition, because Ms. Joyner is pro se, the Court may consider and include in this summary “factual allegations contained in [her] opposition papers and other court filings.” Rodriguez v. Rodriguez, No. 10 Civ. 891 (LGS), 2013 WL 4779639, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 8, 2013).

1. Ms. Joyner's Employment

Ms. Joyner worked as a Legal Secretary and Legal Administrative Assistant at the Firm for approximately twelve years. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 14, 43). At the beginning of her employment, Ms. Joyner completed a Form W-4 at the Firm's request.[1] (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 25, 69-71). In April 2019, Ms. Joyner asked the Firm's Human Resources Department to remove her Social Security number from her Forms W-4. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 114-15). Ms. Joyner made this request, in part, to enable her to process her compensation through an Employer Identification Number assigned to a trust. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 120-22). Lynn Nabors (“Ms. Nabors,” a non-party), the Firm's Payroll Manager, informed Ms. Joyner that there would be complications with routing her compensation to a trust. (Id. ¶¶ 123-24). Ms. Nabors, having consulted a representative from the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) and several tax and employee benefit attorneys, informed Ms. Joyner that, we are an employer that employs you as an employee. We do not employ the trust.” (Id.) Ms. Nabors added that, “if we employ you as the trust, we will need you to complete an I-9 with the new information.” (Id. ¶ 120). Ms. Joyner chose not to complete any new forms. (Id. ¶¶ 121, 205-06).

On April 30, 2019, Ms. Joyner sent to the Firm's Payroll Department an email entitled, “Termination of Voluntary Withholding Agreement.” (ECF No. 1 ¶ 27 & Ex. B (the April 30 Email”)). Ms. Joyner stated that the April 30 Email was her “formal written notice to you desire [sic] that I wish to formally terminate between us any and all W-4 agreements on file with you, as per 26 CFR Sec. 31.3402 (p)-1(b)(2), effective[] immediately.” (ECF No. 1 ¶ 27 & Ex. B).

On May 13, 2019, Ms. Joyner spoke by telephone with Defendant Stephens and Elena Hegel, the Firm's Human Resources and Attorney Hiring Coordinator. (ECF No. 1 ¶ 183). During the call, Stephens informed Ms. Joyner that the Firm would not honor her requests to terminate her Forms W-4. (Id. ¶ 184). The next day, Defendant Benton re-affirmed that decision, stating that, we are not going to engage back and forth about the Firm's tax withholding obligations. If the Firm's response on this issue is unsatisfactory to you, then you should pursue other employment options.” (Id. ¶ 51). On June 24, 2019, Ms. Joyner voluntarily resigned from the Firm. (Id. ¶ 30).

2. Ms. Joyner's Claims

Ms. Joyner asserts three causes of action against all Defendants: (1) violation of the First and Thirteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, brought under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 34-138 (the Section 1983 Claim)); (2) conspiracy to violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution under 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3) (id. ¶¶ 139-99 (the Section 1985(3) Claim)); and (3) privacy infringement under 5 U.S.C. § 552a (Section 552a). (Id. ¶¶ 200-11 (the “Privacy Claim”)).

Ms. Joyner seeks compensatory and punitive damages, declaratory and permanent injunctive relief to prevent Defendants from making future privacy violations and false misrepresentations about the Forms W-4, and costs. (ECF No. 1 at 32-33 ¶¶ 1-7).[2]

B. Procedural Background

On December 20, 2020, Ms. Joyner commenced an action by filing a complaint that alleged privacy violations under Section 552a against the Defendants and Ms. Nabors. (Joyner v. Alston & Bird LLP et al., No. 20 Civ. 10093 (AT) (GWG) (Joyner I), ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 54-81).[3] The Firm, the Individual Defendants, and Ms. Nabors moved to dismiss on the ground that Section 552a did not apply to private entities or individual employees. (Joyner I, ECF Nos. 9; 10 at 4-8). On January 7, 2021, Ms. Joyner filed an amended complaint. (Joyner I, ECF No. 14 (the Joyner I FAC)). In the Joyner I FAC, Ms. Joyner voluntarily dismissed her Section 552a claim, and all claims against the Individual Defendants and Ms. Nabors. (Joyner I, ECF No. 14 ¶¶ 1-5). Instead, Ms. Joyner asserted a breach of contract claim against the Firm only. (Joyner I, ECF No. 14 ¶ 6).

On January 27, 2021, the Firm moved to dismiss the Joyner I FAC. (Joyner I, ECF No. 20). On May 27, 2021, the Honorable Gabriel W. Gorenstein issued a Report and Recommendation recommending that the Joyner I FAC be dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. (Joyner I, ECF No. 30 at 9). Joyner v. Alston & Bird LLP et al., No. 20 Civ. 10093 (AT) (GWG), 2021 WL 2149316 (S.D.N.Y. May 27, 2021) (the Joyner I R&R). On June 4, 2021, Ms. Joyner requested permission to file a second amended complaint, seeking to rename Stephens and Benton as Defendants, and assert claims against them under Sections 1983 and 1985(3), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. (Title VII), and state law. (Joyner I, ECF No. 35-1 (the “Proposed SAC”)).

On September 21, 2021, the Honorable Analisa Torres rejected Ms. Joyner's objections, adopted the Joyner I R&R, and denied leave to file the Proposed SAC. (Joyner I, ECF No. 41 at 910). Joyner v. Alston & Bird LLP et al., No. 20 Civ. 10093 (AT) (GWG), 2021 WL 4296433, at *5 (the Joyner I Dismissal)). Judge Torres analyzed the Proposed SAC under the standard that “a motion for leave to amend should be denied only if the . . . proposed amendment is futile.” Joyner I Dismissal, 2021 WL 4296433, at *3. Judge Torres concluded that Ms. Joyner had not remedied the absence of federal subject matter jurisdiction that Judge Gorenstein had identified in the Joyner I R&R, nor had Ms. Joyner alleged facts sufficient to support the Section 1983, 1985(3), and Title VII claims that she sought to assert in the Proposed SAC. See Joyner I Dismissal, 2021 WL 4296433, at *3. Judge Torres held that the Section 1983 claim was futile because the Firm was not a state actor, as were the Section 1985(3) and Title VII claims because Ms. Joyner had not plausibly alleged that she was a member of a protected class. Id. at *4. [W]ith all federal claims deemed futile,” Judge Torres declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Ms. Joyner's state law claims. Id. at *5.

On October 18, 2021, Ms. Joyner filed her Complaint in this action, alleging the same factual background and asserting claims against the same Defendants under Sections 1983 and 1985(3), and Section 552a. (Compare ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 23-210, with Joyner I ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 22-81). Specifically, the Joyner I FAC, Proposed SAC, and Complaint all allege that Defendants engaged in a wrongful taking for twelve years by refusing to modify her Forms W-4, resulting in her resignation from the Firm. (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 23-210; Joyner I ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 22-81; Joyner I ECF No. 35-1 ¶¶ 26-130).

In the Complaint, Ms. Joyner advances the new allegation that Defendants' failure to accommodate her tax elections deprived her of “her federally protected right to free exercise of religion.” (ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 33-34). By “unknowingly, unwillingly, unintentionally and involuntarily” permitting the Firm to withdraw a portion of her income “for payment of a public debt including but not limited to, the social security system,” Ms. Joyner argues that these withdrawals were violative of her faith as a “born-again, Spirit-filled Believer[.] (Id...

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