Turner v. Federal Express Corp.

Decision Date28 March 2008
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 07-00569(JDB).
Citation539 F.Supp.2d 404
PartiesEvangeline TURNER, Plaintiff, v. FEDERAL EXPRESS CORP., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Columbia

Michael L. Avery, Sr., Washington, DC, for Plaintiff.

Edward John Efkeman, Federal Express Corporation, Memphis, TN, M. Kimberly Hodges, Law Office of M. Kimberly Hodges, Memphis, TN, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JOHN D. BATES, District Judge.

Plaintiff Evangeline Turner brought this action against her former employer, defendant Federal Express Corp., for breach of contract, defamation, and wrongful termination. Federal Express has moved to dismiss, arguing that certain defamation claims are untimely while others are subject to absolute or qualified privilege, and that Turner's other claims are precluded by her at-will employment status. For the reasons explained below, the Court agrees and therefore the motion of Federal Express will be granted.

BACKGROUND

Turner was hired by Federal Express on September 3, 1997 as a courier with routes in the District of Columbia. Compl. ¶ 6. On January 20, 2006, she was advised by her supervisor that her vehicle had been in an accident on January 11, 2006. Id. ¶ 13. She denied having been in an accident, but was suspended with pay pending an investigation. Id. ¶ 14. Thereafter, on February 3, 2006, she was terminated from employment. Id. ¶ 19.

Turner appealed her termination through Federal Express's Guaranteed Fair Treatment Procedure and provided statements in support of her claim, but her termination was upheld. Id. ¶¶ 20, 23. She also applied for unemployment benefits, which Federal Express contested by reporting that she was terminated "for cause." Id. ¶¶ 24-25. After Turner provided the D.C. Department of Employment Services with documentation that she had not engaged in willful misconduct, her application for unemployment benefits was granted. Id. ¶¶ 26-27. Federal Express appealed that decision, but then failed to appear for a scheduled hearing; Turner therefore continued to receive benefits. Id. ¶¶ 28-30.

This action was filed by Turner in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on February 22, 2007; it was removed to this Court by Federal Express on March 22, 2007. Turner asserts three claims in this action. In Count I, she alleges that both the statements of Federal Express that she had engaged in willful misconduct and her suspension by Federal Express (with resulting communication to co-employees that she had performed a disgraceful or dishonest act) constituted defamation. Id. ¶¶ 32-37. Count II asserts a breach of contract claim based on her termination in breach of "a written, oral and/or implied contract of employment" and Federal Express policies and procedures contained in an employee handbook manual. Id. ¶¶ 42-48. Finally, in Count III Turner claims wrongful discharge, again based on her allegedly unjust termination in the face of the designation in her contract for employment that she could only be terminated for cause. Id. ¶¶ 51-58.

Federal Express has moved to dismiss Turner's complaint,1 arguing that the defamation claims are either untimely or barred by privilege and that the breach, of contract and wrongful discharge claims are barred because Turner was an at-will employee. That motion is fully briefed and ripe for decision. As explained below, the motion will be granted and Turner's complaint will be dismissed in its entirety.2

STANDARD OF REVIEW

All that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require of a complaint is that it contain "`a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to `give the defendant fair notice of what the ... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1964, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957)); accord Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. ___, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam). Although "detailed factual allegations" are not necessary to withstand a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, to provide the "grounds" of "entitle[ment] to relief," a plaintiff must furnish "more than labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." Bell Atl. Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1964-65; see also Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932, 92 L.Ed.2d 209 (1986). Instead, the complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Bell Atl. Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1965 (citations omitted). Hence, although "a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is impossible, and `that a recovery is very remote and unlikely,'" id. (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683, 40 L.Ed.2d 90 (1974)), the "threshold requirement" of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2) is "that the `plain statement' possess enough heft to `sho[w] that the pleader is entitled to relief,'" id. at 1966 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)).

The notice pleading rules, however, are not meant to impose a great burden on a plaintiff. Dura Pharm., Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347, 125 S.Ct. 1627, 161 L.Ed.2d 577 (2005); see also Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 512-13, 122 S.Ct. 992, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002). When the sufficiency of a complaint is challenged by a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff's factual allegations must be presumed true and should be liberally construed in his or her favor. Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 164, 113 S.Ct. 1160, 122 L.Ed.2d 517 (1993); Phillips v. Bureau of Prisons, 591 F.2d 966, 968 (D.C.Cir.1979); see also Erickson, 127 S.Ct. at 2200 (citing Bell Atl. Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1965). The plaintiff must be given every favorable inference that may be drawn from the allegations of fact. Scheuer, 416 U.S. at 236, 94 S.Ct. 1683; Sparrow v. United Air Lines, Inc., 216 F.3d 1111, 1113 (D.C.Cir. 2000). However, "the court need not accept inferences drawn by plaintiffs if such inferences are unsupported by the facts set out in the complaint. Nor must the court accept legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations." Kowal v. MCI Commc'n Corp., 16 F.3d 1271, 1276 (D.C.Cir.1994); see also Domen v. Nat'l Rehab. Hosp., 925 F.Supp. 830, 837 (D.D.C.1996) (citing Papasan, 478 U.S. at 286, 106 S.Ct. 2932).

DISCUSSION

Turner's defamation claim in Count I is either untimely or barred by absolute or qualified privilege. Her breach of contract and wrongful discharge claims in Counts II and III fail because Turner was an at-will employee. These points are addressed below.

I. Defamation

It is not altogether clear what alleged statements Turner claims were defamatory. In the Complaint, she focuses on the alleged statement by Federal Express that she engaged in willful misconduct, Compl. ¶ 32, and the alleged communication by Federal Express to her co-employees that Turner had been suspended and "had performed a disgraceful and/or dishonest act," id. ¶ 34. In her opposition memorandum, she instead seems to focus on a letter from Federal Express informing her that she had lost the internal appeal of her termination. See Pl.'s Opp'n at 7. None of these alleged defamatory statements can survive here, however.

A one-year statute of limitations applies to claims of defamation. See D.C.Code § 12-301(4) (2003); see also Jin v. Ministry of State Sec., 254 F.Supp.2d 61, 68 (D.D.C.2003). Turner filed this action on February 22, 2007. Hence, any allegedly defamatory statement made prior to February 22, 2006 could not be the basis for a claim, as it would be time-barred. Turner asserts that her suspension occurred on January 20, 2006 and her termination occurred on February 5, 2006.3 Claims based on any alleged statements or communications by Federal Express prior to February 22, 2006, in conjunction with Turner's suspension or termination are therefore untimely. See Dove v. Wash. Metro. Area Transit Auth., 402 F.Supp.2d 91, 98 (D.D.C.2005).

The only defamatory statements alleged by Turner that may have been made after February 22, 2006 are the statement in the response by Federal Express to Turner's application for benefits to the D.C. Department of Employment Services ("DOES"), see Compl. ¶¶ 25, 32, and the statement by Federal Express in a letter advising Turner that she had lost her appeal of her termination through the internal Federal Express Guaranteed Fair Treatment Procedure ("GFTP") process, which Turner had raised in the briefing on the motion to dismiss, see Pl.'s Opp'n at 7. Even if these claims are timely, however, they are nonetheless barred by absolute or qualified privilege.

Under settled District of Columbia law, "[r]eports to the unemployment compensation board (a.k.a. Department of Employment. Services) concerning the termination of an employee are absolutely privileged and cannot support a claim for libel." Alexander v. Evans-Afflick, 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16425 at *20-21 (D.D.C. Nov. 18, 1993); Rice v. Hilton Hotel Corp., 1987 WL 16851 at *2-3, 1987 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 16893 at *7 (D.D.C. Sept. 1, 1987) (same), aff'd Hilton Hotels Corp. v. Banov, 899 F.2d 40, 43 (D.C.Cir.1990) (acknowledging that statements made during unemployment hearings are privileged); Coleman v. ABC, 1985 WL 365 at *7-8, 1985 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 18787 at *20-21 (D.D.C. June 18, 1985) (holding that representations made during DOES hearing may not be the basis for a lawsuit); accord Goggins v. Hoddes, 265 A.2d 302, 303 (D.C.1970) (explaining that communication by employer to DOES concerning termination of employee is absolutely privileged). To the extent that Turner is complaining of alleged statements by Federal Express to DOES that Turner had engaged in willful...

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