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Vega v. Wake County Government

United States District Court, E.D. North Carolina, Western Division

March 27, 2015

Ricardo Vega, Plaintiff,
Wake County Government, et al., Defendant.


ROBERT T. NUMBERS, II, Magistrate Judge.

On May 1, 2014, Plaintiff Ricardo Vega ("Vega"), pro se, filed a Complaint (D.E. 1) against Wake County Government; Jim Hartman, Wake County Manager; Ramon Rojano, Human Services Department Director; and Warren Ludwig, Child Welfare Director (collectively, "Wake County"). His Complaint alleged retaliatory termination, failure to employ, failure to promote, harassment and hostile work environment based on race, national origin, and "ethnic background customs" in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It also alleged that Vega was underpaid in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII. Wake County has asked the court to dismiss Vega's Complaint pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (D.E. 22.)

Vega's Complaint contained information that is treated as confidential under North Carolina law, so the court ordered Vega's original Complaint sealed and required him to file an Amended Complaint with the confidential information redacted. (D.E. 52, 54.) Vega filed an Amended Complaint on January 5, 2015 in which he redacted the confidential information and elaborated the various forms of relief requested. (D.E. 54.) Because the court ordered Vega to file an amended complaint merely to redact confidential information, the court did not require Wake County to refile its Motion to Dismiss. Wake County did however file an Answer (D.E. 61) to the Amended Complaint which asserted various defenses and responded to Vega's allegations.

Prior to the court's ruling on Wake County's Motion to Dismiss or any discovery, Vega also filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 28). He subsequently filed a Motion for Sanctions (D.E. 37) alleging that Wake County's Answer (D.E. 21) to his original Complaint violated Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

For the following reasons, the court grants Wake County's Motion to Dismiss (D.E. 22) as to all of Vega's claims except for his retaliatory termination claim. For the reasons stated below, Vega's Complaint[1] establishes a prima facie case for retaliatory termination and it may go forward to the discovery stage. All other claims, however, are dismissed. Furthermore, the court denies Vega's Motion for Summary Judgment (D.E. 28) without prejudice because it is premature, and denies his Motion for Sanctions (D.E. 37) because it is without merit.

I. Factual Background

Vega's Complaint identifies him as a Canadian citizen of Latino-descent who worked for Wake County Human Services as a social worker from 2005 until his termination from employment on November 25, 2013. (D.E. 54; Compl. at 2-4.) He worked for Wake County under a North American Free Trade Agreement ("NAFTA") work visa. ( Id. ) Before and after his termination, Vega complains of various forms of misconduct. First, Vega claims that he was underpaid - earning $36, 500 when he claims he should have been paid at least $41, 500 - and cites without elaboration a "County document dated February 2, 2010" for support. ( Id. at 4.)

Second, Vega states that "[p]ersonal points of view or differences with supervisor, adversely affected his status as employee to the point of dismissal." ( Id. ) Specifically, he alleges that he received unfair and inaccurate performance evaluations. Vega cites multiple disciplinary reports and performance evaluations spanning from 2010 until 2013 in which he was repeatedly accused of exercising poor judgment in his handling of cases, failing to consult with his supervisor, providing inaccurate information, making inappropriate communications with other staff, and insubordination. ( Id. at 5-7.) Vega received three written warnings for exercising poor judgment, insubordination, failing to follow policy, and other problems.[2] ( Id. at 5, 7-8.) He states that these disciplinary documents were inaccurate and unfair and that his supervisor was inattentive to his needs. ( Id. at 11.)

Vega's Complaint recounts many events that were the subject of the various disciplinary documents. He discusses two instances in which he was accused of poor judgment. In one such instance, he claims that he was "falsely accused" by a parent under his supervision of inappropriately offering his wife's babysitting services to help care for that parent's children. ( Id. at 10.) In another situation, Vega took a photograph of a five year old girl during a social services visit to her home. ( Id. at 11.) Vega was again accused of poor judgment for taking this photograph. He contends, however, that he took the photograph "because he loves the children he works with and he thought this girl was very cute and his by then 15 and 13 years old daughters would love her." ( Id. ) He also states that he took the picture with the mother's permission, that the child was appropriately dressed, and that taking such a photograph "could be considered something normal" in his home-country of Colombia. ( Id. )

After receiving his third written disciplinary report on November 7, 2013, Vega submitted a grievance to the report on November 15, 2013 to Bob Sorrell, Deputy Director of Wake County Human Services. ( Id. at 13.) He submitted his grievance because he was "[t]ired of accusations and biased written warnings, unjust and discriminatory employment practices" that did not fairly construe Vega's actions. ( Id. ) His grievance complained of inaccuracies in the report and the unresponsiveness of his supervisor to his email communications.

In a subsequent meeting on November 25, 2013, Mr. Sorrell dismissed Vega from employment "based on the written warning allegations of poor judgment, low performance, and insubordination." ( Id. at 14.) Vega appealed the decision to terminate him and a hearing was scheduled on January 27, 2014.

On December 2, 2013, soon after Vega was terminated from his position, he applied for a Senior Case Manager position with the Child Care Subsidy Program and was interviewed for the position. ( Id. at 14.) Wake County offered the position to Vega to begin work on January 28, 2014. Because of that offer, Vega cancelled his appeal of his termination. Later, however, "Wake County did not continue considering [Vega] for the child care position that had been offered." ( Id. ) On February 21, 2014, Vega attempted to reinstate his appeal of his discharge from employment but was told that his appeal rights had been exhausted. ( Id. at 15.)

Over the course of his time with Wake County, Vega had previously applied for 28 positions within Wake County social services. ( Id. at 12.) He received an interview for only one of those positions, even though he satisfied all the minimum requirements for the positions and spoke Spanish, a language ability at least some of the job postings said was preferred. ( Id. )

On March 7, 2014, Vega filed a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") alleging discrimination based on national origin between November 25, 2013 and January 31, 2014 - the dates spanning his termination from employment to the end of Wake County's consideration of him for the position of Senior Case Manager with the Child Care Subsidy Program. ( Id. at 15; D.E. 58.) On April 1, 2014, he received the EEOC's Notice of Right to Sue. He commenced this action on May 1, 2014.

Vega's Complaint states that he seeks recovery of back pay, reinstatement, compensation for emotional distress, and an order enjoining Wake County to work with him in his pursuit of American citizenship. ( Id. at 15-17.)

II. Legal Standard

Wake County has filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. The County's Rule 12(b)(1) motion asserts that Vega failed to exhaust administrative remedies and that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction to hear his claims. In a Rule 12(b)(1) motion, the court may look beyond the pleadings and "the jurisdictional allegations of the complaint and view whatever evidence has been submitted on the issue to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists." Capitol Leasing Co. v. FDIC, 999 F.2d 188, 191 (7th Cir. 1993) (citations omitted); see Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th Cir. 1982). It is the plaintiff's burden to prove that jurisdiction in this court is proper. See DeBauche v. Virginia Commonwealth Univ., 7 F.Supp.2d 718, 721 (E.D. Va. 1998). The court must presume that all factual allegations in the complaint are true and make all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Khoury v. Meserve, 268 F.Supp.2d 600, 606 (D. Md. 2003).

The Supreme Court has explained that in order to withstand a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain 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). The Court explained that "[a] claim has facial plausibility 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. Therefore, while a court must accept all the factual allegations contained in a complaint as true, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice." Id.

After Iqbal, a court considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(6) must subject a complaint to a two-part test. First, the court must identify the allegations in the complaint that are not entitled to the assumption of truth because they are conclusory in nature or nothing more than a formulaic recitation of the elements of a claim. Id. at 679. Then, taking the remaining factual allegations as true, the court must determine whether the complaint "plausibly suggest[s] an entitlement to relief." Id. If, after conducting this two-part analysis, "the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - ...

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