Stevens v. Cabarrus Cnty. Bd. of Educ.

Decision Date22 January 2021
Docket Number1:20-cv-00335
Citation514 F.Supp.3d 797
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
Parties Tuwanna STEVENS, Plaintiff, v. CABARRUS COUNTY BOARD OF EDUCATION, Cabarrus County Schools, Defendant.

Khalif Rhodes, The Rhodes Firm, PLLC, Hintersville, NC, Shawntae R. Crews, Crews Law Firm, PLLC, Charlotte, NC, for Plaintiff.

Dena Beth Langley, Elizabeth Lea Troutman, Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, LLP, Greensboro, NC, for Defendant Cabarrus County Board of Education.

Elizabeth Lea Troutman, Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, LLP, Greensboro, NC, for Defendant Cabarrus County Schools.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Thomas D. Schroeder, United States District Judge

Before the court is the motion of Defendant Cabarrus County Board of Education1 ("the Board") to dismiss Plaintiff Tuwanna Stevens's amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), 12(b)(2), and 12(b)(6). (Doc. 17.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.

I. BACKGROUND
A. Factual Background

Stevens's complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to her, alleges the following:

From 2015 to 2019, Stevens — a black woman — worked as an Assistant II in the School Nutrition Program (SNP) in the Cabarrus County school district. (Doc. 15 ¶¶ 8–34.) Her primary responsibilities were prepping food, stocking items, and cashiering. (Id. ¶ 8.) Over the course of her employment, Stevens worked at several different schools and allegedly endured repeated verbal abuse from her non-black coworkers and supervisors. (Id. ¶¶ 11–29.)

During the 2015-16 school year, Stevens worked at Cox Mill High School. (Id. ¶ 8.) After Stevens reported harassment by co-workers there, her supervisor, Amy Hill, allegedly told her that there was an issue with a "black rat" in her kitchen. (Id. ¶¶ 14–17.) Stevens understood this to be a reference to her, due to her race. (Id. ¶ 18.)

At some point in 2016, the Board received an anonymous letter to bring attention to Stevens's working conditions at Cox Mill. (Id. ¶ 12.) In late April 2016, Stevens met with the SNP Director, Gayle Buddenbum, to discuss her hostile and abusive work environment. (Id. ¶ 20.) After that meeting, Stevens submitted a written account of the abuse. (See id. ¶ 21.)

Near the end of the 2015-16 school year, Stevens was transferred to Odell Elementary School. (Id. ¶ 22.) There, in preparation for an upcoming renovation, Stevens was required to pack up the cafeteria and clean out sheds. (Id. ) She perceived this transfer to be retaliation for her complaining about her working conditions. (Id. )

Stevens was next transferred to Winkler Middle School where she worked from 2016 to 2019. (See id. ¶¶ 24–34.) At Winkler, Stevens continued to experience verbal abuse from her white coworkers and her new supervisor, Staci Jerrell. (Id. ) At least one incident of verbal abuse was reported to the Human Resources Department. (Id. ¶¶ 28-29.)

On November 15, 2018, Stevens applied for a position as a Cafeteria Assistant II at Winkler, a position that provided increased hours and potentially included a raise. (Id. ¶¶ 31, 20a, 21a.)2 Stevens submitted a second application for the position on November 28, 2018. (Id. ¶ 22a.) On December 11, 2018, she was selected for an interview and was subsequently interviewed two days later. (Id. ¶¶ 23a, 24a.) On December 18, 2018, she learned that she was not selected. (Id. ¶ 25a.) Instead, a less qualified, non-black candidate received the position. (Id. ¶¶ 26a, 27a.) Later, when that candidate was unable to do the job, Stevens was asked to take on that job's responsibilities. (Id. ¶ 27a.) However, she was never offered the position or given the associated increase in hours or wages. (Id. )

Between 2015 and 2018, Stevens's employee evaluations were mostly positive. (Id. ¶ 9.) However, for the 2018-19 school year they were extremely poor. (Id. ¶¶ 30a–32.) On June 7, 2019, she was told she would shortly be terminated and was ultimately terminated on June 13, 2019 for subpar work performance. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 34.)

B. Procedural History

From 2018 to 2019, Stevens filed six charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). The EEOC dismissed five of the charges and gave Stevens notice of her right to sue within ninety days.

Stevens's first charge was filed on September 6, 2018 ("the first charge") and alleged that she experienced discrimination on the basis of race and religion. (Doc. 17-1.) The charge indicated that she was denied a promotion in 2017 and that she was subjected to less favorable treatment in comparison to her co-workers. (Id. ) On September 26, 2018, the EEOC dismissed this charge and gave Stevens notice of her right to bring suit on the claim within ninety days. (Id. ) Her second charge was filed on October 30, 2018 ("the second charge") and alleged that she was retaliated against for filing the first charge, although the charge did not detail the alleged retaliation. (Doc. 17-2.) The EEOC dismissed this charge on November 6, 2018, and again gave Stevens notice of her right to bring suit within ninety days. (Id. ) Stevens filed similar charges alleging retaliation on February 19, June 5, and June 13, 2019 ("the fourth charge," "the fifth charge," and "the sixth charge," respectively). (Docs. 17-4, 17-5, 17-6.) The EEOC dismissed the fourth charge on July 2, 2019, and dismissed the fifth and sixth charges on September 18, 2019. (Id. ) With each dismissal, the EEOC gave Stevens notice of her right to bring suit within ninety days. (Id. )

In Stevens's third charge, filed on December 11, 2018 ("the third charge"), Stevens alleged retaliation and discrimination based on race. (Doc. 17-3.) Stevens indicated that she continued to suffer harassment and a hostile work environment following the filing of her first two charges. (Id. ) She also reported that she had not been selected for the Cafeteria Assistant II position and that a less-qualified, non-black applicant had been chosen. (Id. ) Based on these allegations, the EEOC found reasonable cause to conclude that Stevens was subjected to race discrimination and retaliation, and the EEOC attempted to conciliate the case as required by Title VII. (Id. ) When conciliation ultimately failed, the EEOC gave Stevens, in a letter dated January 16, 2020, notice of her right to bring suit on the claim within ninety days. (Id. )

On March 13, 2020, Stevens filed this lawsuit in Superior Court in Cabarrus County for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e ("Title VII"), and the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act ("EEPA"), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 143-422.1 et seq. (Doc. 3.) The Board timely removed the action to this court, after which Stevens filed an amended complaint, on June 26, 2020, in which she brings seven causes of action against the Board: (1) violation of Title VII and 42 U.S.C. § 1981 based on failure to promote and discriminatory termination; (2) violation of Title VII and § 1981 based on retaliatory discharge; (3) violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for denials of her substantive due process rights; (4) violation of Title VII based on a racially hostile work environment; (5) intentional infliction of emotional distress; (6) wrongful discharge in violation of public policy; and (7) violation of the EEPA. (Doc. 15 ¶¶ 36–75.) The Board has moved to dismiss each of these claims. (Doc. 17.) The motion is now fully briefed and ready for resolution.3 (See Docs. 18, 22, 23.)

II. ANALYSIS
A. Federal Claims

Stevens brings four federal causes of action based on violations of Title VII, § 1981, and § 1983. The Board has moved to dismiss each pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Rule 12(b)(6).

1. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) provides that a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. (8)(a)(2). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter ... to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’ " Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929, (2007) ). A claim is plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, a court "must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint," Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam), and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the plaintiff's favor. Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). " Rule 12(b)(6) protects against meritless litigation by requiring sufficient factual allegation ‘to raise a right to relief above the speculative level’ so as to ‘nudge[ ] the[ ] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.’ " Sauers v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cnty. Bd. Of Educ., 179 F. Supp. 3d. 544, 555 (M.D.N.C. 2016) (alteration in original) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955 ). "[T]he complaint must ‘state[ ] a plausible claim for relief’ that permit[s] the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct based upon ‘its judicial experience and common sense.’ " Coleman v. Md. Ct. App., 626 F.3d 187, 190 (4th Cir. 2010) (alterations in original) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937 ). Thus, mere legal conclusions are not accepted as true, and "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court may "consider documents attached to the complaint, see Fed. R. Civ. P. 10(c), as well as those attached to the motion to dismiss, so long as they are integral to the...

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