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Dixon v. State, Department of Education

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

December 5, 2017



          Derrick K. Watson Judge.


         Stephanie Dixon brings discrimination, hostile work environment, and retaliation claims against her current employer, the State of Hawaii, Department of Education (“DOE”), asserting that she was treated less favorably than a similarly situated white male employee when she was denied training opportunities, forced to share an office with another African American school counselor, and eventually moved to a smaller office. Dixon alleges that the DOE took no action when she complained about the disparate treatment, but instead retaliated against her when she reported an assault by a parent of one of her students. The DOE seeks judgment on the pleadings as to each of her claims under federal and state law.

         To the extent Dixon's claims for disparate treatment and retaliation are based upon discrete acts occurring more than 300 days before she filed her Charge of Discrimination, those claims are dismissed with prejudice as untimely. Further, because Dixon fails to adequately state claims upon which relief may be granted, her timely discrimination and retaliation claims (based upon the 2012 incident involving the assault by a student's parent) and her hostile work environment claims are dismissed as well. Dixon is permitted limited leave to file an amended complaint consistent with the terms of this Order.


         Dixon has been employed by the DOE from 1999 to the present, and in July 2006, she was assigned to Iroquois Point Elementary School (“IPES”) to work as a school counselor. First Am. Compl. (“FAC”) ¶¶ 5-6, Dkt. No. 8. The only African American female counselor, Dixon alleges that beginning in 2008, the DOE subjected her to “disparate and differential treatment as compared to similarly situated, non-African American employees.” FAC ¶¶ 10-12.

         In January 2008, Principal Heidi Armstrong, a Caucasian female, forced Dixon and the only African American School Based Behavioral Health Specialist (“SBBH”) to share an office, despite the fact that the SBBH worked with students with substantial emotional needs. FAC ¶¶ 7, 12. Although Dixon expressed her concerns to Armstrong about this shared-office arrangement, Armstrong required the two African American females to share the same office until the SBBH left IPES in approximately June 2009. FAC ¶ 13.

         Dixon also alleges that she was treated differently than, and denied opportunities afforded to, Nicholas Barry, a Caucasian male school counselor. From September 2009 to January 2012, Dixon was not allowed to attend training in connection with IPES' transition to becoming an International Baccalaureate school, even though Barry was allowed to do so. FAC ¶¶ 14-15. In addition to performing her own duties as a school counselor, Dixon alleges she was also expected to provide assistance to others at IPES, whereas Barry did not have the same additional expectations. FAC ¶ 16. In November 2009, Armstrong relocated Dixon's office from a portable classroom to a converted library storage closet, which was approximately one-fifth the size of Barry's office in the library conference room. FAC ¶¶ 17-18. Dixon also claims that she was required to find her own substitute when she was absent, but Barry was not required to do the same. FAC ¶¶ 19-20. According to Dixon, “[o]n many occasions [she] attempted to address her concerns about the disparate treatment to which she had been subject but no changes were made.” FAC ¶ 21. Instead, her concerns were often met with hostility by Armstrong and Vice Principal, Robert Hurley, a Caucasian male. FAC ¶¶ 8, 21.

         In August 2012, Dixon alleges she was verbally and physically assaulted by a parent of a student to whom she had been assigned. FAC ¶ 22. Dixon reported the assault to Principal Ofelia Reed, a Filipino American female who replaced Armstrong in August 2012, but Dixon claims no action was taken following her report. FAC ¶¶ 9, 23. Dixon requested that Barry be assigned to work with this student, but Principal Reed refused the reassignment request, and instead, “expected Plaintiff to continue working with the student and the parent who assaulted Plaintiff.” FAC ¶ 24-25. According to Dixon, Reed told her on October 10, 2012 that Barry would not be reassigned because Barry “does not do well with change.” FAC ¶ 26.

         Dixon went on leave beginning October 12, 2012, “due to the harassment and discrimination to which Defendant had subjected her, ” FAC ¶27, and filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). FAC ¶ 28.

         On March 11, 2016, Dixon filed the current action against the DOE pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. On June 7, 2016, Plaintiff filed the FAC asserting two Counts for “Illegal Employment Discrimination” and “Retaliation” in violation of both Title VII and Hawaii Revised Statutes (“HRS”) Chapters 368 and 378. Count I alleges discrimination based on Dixon's race, color and sex, alleging that the DOE “treated Plaintiff differently as compared to similarly situated employees who were not of the same race, color, or sex, ” FAC ¶ 31, and that the conduct of “Defendant's supervisory and administrative employees against Plaintiff created a hostile and offensive working environment.” FAC ¶ 32. Count II asserts that the DOE retaliated against Dixon for bringing complaints of “harassment and discrimination which were violations of State and Federal law, ” FAC ¶ 38, and that such “retaliation by Defendant reflects a pattern and practice of illegal behavior.” FAC ¶ 39.

         The DOE moves for judgment on the pleadings and requests the dismissal of each of Dixon's claims with prejudice.


         The standard governing a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings is functionally identical to that governing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. United States ex rel. Caffaso v. Gen. Dynamics C4 Sys., Inc., 637 F.3d 1047, 1054 n.4 (9th Cir. 2011). For a Rule 12(c) motion, the allegations of the nonmoving party are accepted as true, while the allegations of the moving party that have been denied are assumed to be false. See Hal Roach Studios v. Richard Feiner & Co., 896 F.2d 1542, 1550 (9th Cir. 1989). A court evaluating a Rule 12(c) motion must construe factual allegations in a complaint in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Fleming v. Pickard, 581 F.3d 922, 925 (9th Cir. 2009). Under Rule 12(c), “[j]udgment on the pleadings is properly granted when, accepting all factual allegations as true, there is no material fact in dispute, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Chavez v. United States, 683 F.3d 1102, 1108 (9th Cir. 2012) (quoting Fleming, 581 F.3d at 925); see also Jensen Family Farms, Inc. v. Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control Dist., 644 F.3d 934, 937 n.1 (9th Cir. 2011). As detailed below, the DOE has met this standard.


         First, Dixon's state law claims are dismissed in light of the Defendant State agency's sovereign immunity. Second, insofar as her disparate treatment and retaliation claims are based upon discrete acts occurring more than 300 days before she filed her Charge with the EEOC, such claims are untimely and are dismissed. Finally, although the DOE does not challenge the timeliness of her remaining causes of action, because Dixon fails to adequately state claims for hostile work environment, or for discrimination and retaliation based upon the 2012 incident involving the assault by a student's parent, those claims are likewise dismissed. Because the DOE is entitled to judgment on the pleadings, the Court grants its Motion but permits Dixon limited leave to amend her timely claims, with instructions below.

         I. The State Law Claims Are Barred By The Eleventh Amendment

         The DOE seeks dismissal of Dixon's claims under HRS Chapters 368 and 378 based upon its sovereign immunity. The Eleventh Amendment prohibits suits against state agencies “regardless of the nature of the relief sought.” Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 100 (1984). Eleventh Amendment immunity applies to claims brought against a state in federal court unless the state consents or Congress unequivocally abrogates the immunity under its Fourteenth Amendment authority. Id. at 99. The State of Hawaii has not consented to suit in federal court for Chapter 368 or 378 claims, and thus sovereign immunity bars Dixon's § 378-2 claims against the DOE. See Lawrence v. Haw. Air Nat'l Guard, 126 Fed.Appx. 835, 837 (9th Cir. 2005); Turner v. Dep't of Educ. Hawaii, 855 F.Supp.2d 1155, 1177 (D. Haw. 2012), aff'd, 539 F. App'x 731 (9th Cir. 2013) (dismissing Chapter 378 claims against the DOE and Superintendent in her official capacity); Sherez v. State of Haw. Dep't of Educ., 396 F.Supp.2d 1138, 1143 (D. Haw. 2005) (granting Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, because “the DOE, as an agency of the state, shares in the state's Eleventh Amendment immunity”); Office of Hawaiian Affairs v. Dep't of Educ., 951 F.Supp. 1484, 1492 (D. Haw. 1996) (holding that the DOE is a state agency entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity).

         Accordingly, the Court grants the DOE's Motion with respect to Dixon's claims based on state law.

         II. The Untimely Claims Are Dismissed With Prejudice

         The DOE seeks dismissal of Dixon's claims that it characterizes as based on discrete acts of discrimination and retaliation occurring prior to March 19, 2012-i.e., those beyond 300 days of Dixon's January 13, 2013 EEOC Charge of Discrimination. The DOE accepts, for purposes of this Motion, that Dixon's claims relating to the failure of the DOE to sufficiently address Dixon's assault by a parent and request for reassignment, which occurred between August and October 2012, and Dixon's hostile work environment claim are both timely.[1] See FAC ¶¶ 22-26; Reply at 4, Dkt. No. 45.

         A. Legal Principles Regarding Timeliness

         Title VII requires that a “charge shall be filed by or on behalf of the person aggrieved within three hundred days after the alleged unlawful employment practice occurred.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5(e)(1); see also EEOC v. Global Horizons, Inc., 904 F.Supp.2d 1074, 1090 n.2 (D. Haw. 2012) (“The 300-day limitations period is applicable in this case because Title VII extends the 180-day period to 300 days if filed in a ‘worksharing' jurisdiction. . . . Hawaii and California are both ‘worksharing' states . . . ”) (citations omitted).

         In determining whether a claim is timely, courts look to whether it is based on a discrete act of discrimination or retaliation. A discrete act consists of an unlawful practice that “occurred” on the day it “happened, ” which includes, for example, “termination, failure to promote, denial of transfer, or refusal to hire.” Nat'l R.R. Passenger Corp. v. Morgan, 536 U.S. 101, 111, 114 (2002). Morgan explains that a plaintiff may assert a claim for a discrete act only if the plaintiff timely filed an EEOC charge for that particular act:

[D]iscrete discriminatory acts are not actionable if time barred, even when they are related to acts alleged in timely filed charges. Each discrete discriminatory act starts a new clock for filing charges alleging that act. The charge, therefore, must be filed within the [relevant statutory] time period after the discrete discriminatory act occurred. The existence of past acts and the employee's prior knowledge of their occurrence, however, does not bar employees from filing charges about related discrete acts so long as the acts are independently discriminatory and charges addressing ...

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