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Mompoint v. Department of Elementary & Secondary Education

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

April 30, 2019




         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Cynthia Mompoint (“Mompoint”) has filed this lawsuit against Defendants the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (“Mass DOE”), Assistant Commissioner Heather Peske (“Peske”) and Director Helene Bettencourt (“Bettencourt”) (collectively, “Defendants”) alleging violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and defamation. D. 23. Defendants have moved to dismiss the now amended complaint. D. 26. For the reasons stated below, the Court ALLOWS Defendants' motion.

         II. Standard of Review

          On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must determine if the facts alleged “plausibly narrate a claim for relief.” Schatz v. Republican State Leadership Comm., 669 F.3d 50, 55 (1st Cir. 2012) (citation omitted). Reading the complaint “as a whole, ” the Court must conduct a two-step, context-specific inquiry. García-Catalán v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 103 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the Court must perform a close reading of the claim to distinguish the factual allegations from the conclusory legal allegations contained therein. Id. Factual allegations must be accepted as true, while conclusory legal conclusions are not entitled credit. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the factual allegations present a “reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the conduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). In sum, the complaint must provide sufficient factual allegations for the Court to find the claim “plausible on its face.” García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 103 (citation omitted).

         The Court will dismiss a pleading that fails to include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “To avoid dismissal, a complaint must provide ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 102. “A pleading that offers ‘labels and conclusions' or ‘a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders ‘naked assertion[s]' devoid of ‘further factual enhancement.'” Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (alteration in original). “In determining whether a complaint crosses the plausibility threshold, ‘the reviewing court [must] draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” García-Catalán, 734 F.3d at 103 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). “This context-specific inquiry does not demand ‘a high degree of factual specificity.'” Id. (citation omitted).

         When a plaintiff is pro se, the Court must apply a liberal reading to the complaint and hold pro se litigants to a less stringent pleading standard. Green v. Commonwealth of Mass., 108 F.R.D. 217, 218 (D. Mass. 1985). A pro se plaintiff, however, must still comply with procedural and substantive law and “dismissal remains appropriate . . . when the complaint fails to even suggest an actionable claim.” Overton v. Torruella, 183 F.Supp.2d 295, 303 (D. Mass. 2001).

         III. Factual Background

         The following facts are taken from Mompoint's amended complaint, D. 23; D. 23-1, and the Court accepts them as true for the purposes of resolving this motion. Mompoint is a former employee of Mass. DOE. D. 23-1 ¶ 1. In or about July 2011, Mompoint applied for a permanent position in the Teacher Quality unit at Mass. DOE but received a temporary position instead. D. 23-1 ¶ 4. Mompoint's temporary employment was funded through a federal “Race to the Top” grant. D. 23-1 ¶ 1. There were seven temporary employees, including Mompoint, who were funded by Race to the Top through 2015 and worked in a unit led by Defendant Peske. Id. Five of the employees were white and two of the employees, including Mompoint, were black. Id. Two years before her funding through Race to the Top ended, Mompoint applied for a permanent “Educator Quality” position within Mass. DOE but did not receive it. D. 23-1 ¶ 4. In 2015, Mompoint's temporary position ended. D. 23-1 ¶ 1. The five white employees funded by Race to the Top were either moved to permanent positions within Mass. DOE or given state funding, but the black employees were both terminated. Id. At some point, an unnamed “supervisor [was] hired over [Mompoint]” who was less qualified for the position and “did not have the leadership experience, supervisory experience, education experience, or the caliber of education that [Mompoint] had.” D. 23-1 ¶ 7.

         Mompoint alleges that Mass. DOE's “practice of denying blacks promotions and limited opportunities for advancement is systemic” and that based on her “observation and communication with black employees (both former and current), [Mass DOE] rarely selects black employees for professional development opportunities” that are necessary for obtaining permanent positions. D. 23-1 ¶ 5. According to Mompoint, Mass. DOE has data showing that of the thirty-four white employees hired under the Race to the Top grant, thirteen resigned or retired before the grant expired and seventeen of the remaining twenty-one were given other funding or positions and remained employed at Mass. DOE after the grant ended. D. 23-1 ¶ 3. In contrast, of the five black employees hired under the grant, one resigned, one was retained and the other three were released. Id.

         Mompoint further alleges that she was treated differently than white employees in terms of her ability to telecommute and bring her children to work. In February 2015, Peske denied Mompoint's request to work from home for medical reasons, even though a white employee had received permission to telecommute for medical reasons for approximately twelve months in 2013. D. 23-1 ¶ 9. After Mompoint gave Peske a doctor's note, however, she was permitted to telecommute. Id. Mass. DOE did not have a formal telecommuting policy. Id. In June 2015, Mompoint requested to telecommute but was denied. Id. Mompoint does not state whether she submitted a doctor's note on this occasion. Regarding children in the workplace, Mompoint alleges that when she brought her child to work, her supervisor told her children were not allowed in the workplace, even though white co-workers had previously brought their children to work. D. 23-1 ¶ 10.

         Mompoint also alleges that while employed by Mass. DOE, Peske engaged in “defamation of character” against her. D. 23-1 ¶ 8. This allegation arises from comments posted on a “staff recognition board” that Peske implemented for her unit. Id. Peske posted compliments about members of the staff weekly. Id. Mompoint alleges that Peske only posted compliments for staff members of color about once per month. Id. When Peske posted compliments about Mompoint's work, she used words such as “good, ” while using words such as “great” or “excellent” to describe white employees' work. Id. Mompoint alleges that Peske's words “cast[] a perception of ‘mediocrity'” on Mompoint's work, which in turn affected how certain colleagues interacted with her. Id. After the alleged disparity was communicated to Peske, Peske “started to use a variety of word[s] [] to describe all staff members including staff of color.” Id.

         IV. Procedural History

         Mompoint instituted this action on May 23, 2018. D. 1. Defendants moved to dismiss, and the Court denied the motion without prejudice. D. 18. The Court explained that Mompoint had failed to allege the required elements for defamation and “fail[ed] to state her race in the complaint or make any allegations tying her race or gender to any alleged discrimination, ” but allowed Mompoint to amend her complaint. Id. at 5. Accordingly, on January 14, 2019, Mompoint filed an amended complaint, D. 23, and Defendants ...

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