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Dixon v. State, Department of Education

United States District Court, D. Hawaii

May 14, 2018





         Following amendment of the complaint, the State of Hawaii, Department of Education (“DOE”), again seeks judgment on the pleadings as to Dixon's discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims under Title VII. Dixon alleges that the DOE treated her 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 further alleges that the DOE took no action when she complained to her supervisors about the disparate treatment, and instead retaliated against her when she reported an assault by a parent of one of the students she counseled. Despite the Court's prior guidance, Dixon once more fails to adequately state claims for discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment, and, as a result, the Court GRANTS the DOE's Motion without leave to amend.


         I. Factual Background

         Dixon has been employed by the DOE from 1999 to the present. In July 2006, she was assigned to Iroquois Point Elementary School (“IPES”) to work as a school counselor and was the only African-American female counselor at the school during the relevant time period. Second Am. Compl. (“SAC”) ¶¶ 5-6, 11, Dkt. No. 56.

         Dixon alleges that beginning in 2008, the DOE subjected her to “disparate and differential treatment as compared to similarly situated, non-African American employees, ” including a white male counselor. SAC ¶ 12. For example, in January 2008, Principal Heidi Armstrong, a Caucasian female, allegedly forced Dixon and the only African American School Based Behavioral Health Specialist (“SBBH”) to share an office, even though the SBBH worked with students with substantial emotional needs. SAC ¶¶ 7, 14. Dixon alleges that she was unable to remain in the small, shared space when the SBBH conducted private meetings, and had to find another location to work or conduct her own meetings. SAC ¶ 15. Although Dixon expressed her concerns to Armstrong about this shared-office arrangement, she contends that Armstrong required the two African American females to share the same office until the SBBH left IPES in approximately June 2009. SAC ¶ 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 her white male colleague's office in the library conference room. SAC ¶¶ 17-18. The white male counselor was able to conduct meetings in his own office space, but Dixon asserts that she had to leave her office to find another location to conduct her meetings, which interfered with her ability to perform her job. SAC ¶ 19. Because she was the only African American employee at IPES at that time, she claims to have been “humiliated on a daily basis [because she] was forced to sit in a converted closet space as her office.” SAC ¶ 19.

         Dixon also alleges that she was treated differently than, and denied opportunities afforded to, the Caucasian male school counselor with less seniority. From September 2009 to January 2012, Dixon was not allowed to attend training in connection with IPES's transition to becoming an International Baccalaureate school, even though her male colleague was allowed to do so once in 2009 and again in 2012. SAC ¶¶ 21, 23. When Dixon confronted Armstrong during an October 13, 2010 faculty meeting “about IB training in Los Angeles[, ] Armstrong glared at [Dixon] and angrily told [her] that they would discuss it later.” SAC ¶ 22.

         In addition to performing her own duties as a school counselor, Dixon claims that she was also expected to provide assistance to other employees at IPES, whereas the white male counselor did not have the same additional expectations. SAC ¶ 24. Unspecified “assignments outside the scope of Plaintiff's job description occurred frequently until Plaintiff went on workers' compensation leave” in October 2012. SAC ¶ 24.

         Dixon also claims that she was required to find her own substitute when she was absent, but her male counterpart was not. If he needed a substitute, Vice Principal Robert Hurley, also a Caucasian male, assisted the white male counselor in securing one. SAC ¶¶ 25-26. For example, Dixon alleges that, in October 2010, after finding a substitute for herself, the substitute notified her that Hurley contacted the substitute to fill-in for the white male counselor instead. According to Dixon, the substitute told her that Hurley informed the substitute that Dixon would have to find another substitute for herself. SAC ¶ 26.

         Dixon maintains that “[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.” SAC ¶ 27. Instead, her concerns were often met with hostility by Armstrong and Hurley. SAC ¶ 27. Dixon's SAC includes a new allegation that Armstrong “made numerous racial comments to Plaintiff during 2009-2010, which made Plaintiff feel even more uncomfortable.” SAC ¶ 20. The SAC, however, provides only one example: “Armstrong commented about Plaintiff's hair style in relation to her being African American. Armstrong exclaimed, ‘You people change your hair styles every week!'” SAC ¶ 20. And on an unspecified date before August 2012, Dixon alleges that Hurley “made racist remarks to Plaintiff about being African American. Hurley asked Plaintiff something to the effect of whether she played basketball or was a good athlete in reference to her being African American.” SAC ¶ 34.

         In August 2012, Dixon alleges she was verbally and physically assaulted by a parent of a student to whom she had been assigned. SAC ¶ 29. Dixon reported the assault to Principal Ofelia Reed, a Filipino American female who had replaced Armstrong earlier that month.[1] Dixon claims no action was taken following her report. SAC ¶¶ 9, 23. In fact, although Dixon requested more than once that the Caucasian male counselor be assigned to work with this student, Principal Reed refused and, instead, “expected Plaintiff to continue working with the student and the parent who assaulted Plaintiff.” SAC ¶ 31-32. According to Dixon, Reed told her on October 10, 2012 that the other counselor would not be reassigned because her white male counterpart “does not do well with change.” SAC ¶ 33. Dixon alleges that although another teacher notified Reed and Hurley on August 8, 2012 about the parent's “aggressive behavior, ” Dixon was still required to work with the parent “and the White/Caucasian male counselor was not required to do so.” SAC ¶ 36. She claims that when attempting “to discuss her fear of physical harm inflicted by the parent with Hurley, he told [Dixon], ‘What's the matter Steph, you sound scared? What's the matter? You sound nervous. You can take her (referring to fighting the parent).'” SAC ¶ 34.

         Dixon went on stress leave beginning October 12, 2012 “due to the harassment and discrimination to which Defendant had subjected her.” SAC ¶ 34. She remains in that status to this day.

         II. Procedural Background

         On March 11, 2016, Dixon filed the current action against the DOE pursuant to Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. Compl., Dkt. No. 1. On June 7, 2016, she filed her First Amended Complaint (“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. Dkt. No. 8. Count I alleged 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 asserted 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.

         In a December 5, 2017 Order, the Court granted the DOE's first motion for judgment on the pleadings, dismissing the FAC, and granting Dixon limited leave to file an amended complaint only as to her timely Title VII claims. 12/5/17 Order, Dkt. No. 54. Her disparate treatment (Count I), retaliation (Count II), and hostile work environment claim based on either discrimination or retaliation were dismissed with leave to amend to attempt to cure the specific deficiencies noted in the 12/5/17 Order. 12/5/17 Order at 16. The Court explained that Dixon's disparate treatment and retaliation claims were based upon discrete acts-each of which constitutes a separate actionable unlawful employment practice that Dixon was required to timely assert in her EEOC Charge-and that claims for discrimination and retaliation based on discrete acts occurring outside of the 300-day statutory filing window were untimely. See 12/5/17 Order at 10-15. The Court dismissed with prejudice as time-barred any claims based on discrete acts that accrued before March 19, 2012-300 days prior to the filing of Dixon's EEOC Charge on January 13, 2013. 12/5/17 Order at 16.

         Dixon's SAC added additional factual allegations in an attempt to resurrect her claims for disparate treatment (Count I), retaliation (Count II), and hostile work environment based upon either discrimination or retaliation. The SAC also appears to attempt to reassert claims based upon untimely discrete acts, previously dismissed with prejudice, by contending that they are not actually “discrete acts.” The DOE again 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). A plaintiff must allege “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Weber v. Dep't of Veterans Affairs, 521 F.3d 1061, 1065 (9th Cir. 2008). This tenet-that the court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint-“is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Accordingly, “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555); see also Starr v. Baca, 652 F.3d 1202, 1216 (9th Cir. 2011) (“[A]llegations in a complaint or counterclaim may not simply recite the elements of a cause of action, but must contain sufficient allegations of underlying facts to give fair notice and to enable the opposing party to defend itself effectively.”).

         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.


         Despite the Court's prior guidance, Dixon again fails to adequately state claims upon which relief may be granted and her timely discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment claims are again dismissed. Much of the alleged conduct that forms the basis of Dixon's claims is comprised of discrete acts occurring more than 300 days before she filed her Charge of Discrimination. The Court previously dismissed with prejudice claims based on these acts as untimely. To the extent Dixon strings together these discrete acts in an attempt to state a hostile work environment claim, the SAC nevertheless falls short of alleging conduct that is sufficiently severe and pervasive to alter the conditions of employment. Because Dixon once more fails to state plausible claims for relief, and because the Court determines that further leave to amend would be futile, the Court GRANTS the DOE's Motion.

         I. The Untimely Claims Are Dismissed With Prejudice

         The Court previously dismissed with prejudice as untimely all claims 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. See 12/5/17 Order at 10-17. Despite the Court's clear ruling, the SAC re-alleges the same pre-March 19, 2012 acts, and alleges new discrete acts also occurring outside of the 300-day window, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate continuing conduct sufficient to state a hostile work environment claim. Dixon's pleading efforts, however, fall short, and the Court again dismisses her untimely claims based upon discrete acts that accrued more than 300 days prior to the filing of her EEOC Charge on January 13, 2013. Because amendment with respect to the time-barred discrete acts would be futile, dismissal of these claims is with prejudice.

         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 ...

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