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Tripp v. County of Gates

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

August 16, 2017

VALERIE SIMMONS TRIPP, Plaintiff,
v.
COUNTY OF GATES, Defendant.

          ORDER

          LOUISE W. FLANAGAN United States District Judge.

         This matter is before the court on defendant's motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (DE 38).[1] The issues raised are ripe for ruling. For the following reasons, the court grants defendant's motion to dismiss as set forth herein.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, proceeding pro s e, commenced this action against her former employer, the County of Gates, and various County employees and/or representatives on May 20, 2016, asserting claims for race discrimination and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq. (“Title VII”). Defendants filed motion to dismiss. Shortly thereafter counsel entered appearance on behalf of plaintiff. Motion to amend complaint followed.

         The court allowed plaintiff's motion together with defendants' motion for a more definite statement, as set forth in text order entered December 1, 2016. Defendants' motion to dismiss was denied as moot. In amended complaint, plaintiff proceeds only against defendant named above, having abandoned any claims against individual defendants.

         On April 24, 2017, defendant filed the instant motion to dismiss, asserting that plaintiff's claims must be dismissed because they fail as a matter of law, are time barred, and/or are outside the scope of plaintiff's previously filed charges with the EEOC. Plaintiff responded in opposition to the instant motion on May 25, 2017, and defendant replied on June 7, 2017.

         STATEMENT OF FACTS

         The facts alleged in the complaint may be summarized as follows.

         Plaintiff Valerie Tripp is a black female employed by defendant beginning September 19, 2006. During her time working for defendant, plaintiff held numerous job titles. Plaintiff originally was hired as a secretary for the zoning/building inspector at a rate of compensation of $11.63 an hour, with subsequent “cost of living” pay increases over the next few years. (Compl.¶ 7). In 2010, plaintiff became a permit officer at a salary of $25, 038.00 per year. Around March 2013, plaintiff assumed the additional duties of county planner after the former county planner, who was a white woman, left the position. In August 2013, plaintiff's position title changed to special project liaison in the finance department at a salary of $28, 024.21 per year. Approximately one month later, plaintiff's position title was changed to include customer service clerk and tax collections clerk in addition to surplus property coordinator, both of which included additional responsibilities but no salary increase. Weeks later, plaintiff's position title was changed to include planning and zoning administrator with no salary increase.

         A. First EEOC Charge

         From August to October 2013, plaintiff allegedly was subjected to unwarranted disciplinary actions for unapproved absence, failure to train a co-worker, failure to organize a box of documents, and for a phone call she connected to the county manager. Plaintiff objected to these disciplinary actions in writing and objected to the imposition of duties without attendant pay increases, stating that her treatment was due to discrimination.

         Plaintiff filed her first charge with the EEOC on November 19, 2013, asserting race-based discrimination by her supervisor for unapproved absences. Plaintiff's first EEOC charge was resolved through settlement agreement dated February 19, 2014. The relevant terms of the settlement agreement are memorialized in four parts: 1) plaintiff agreed not to institute a lawsuit against the county; 2) the county agreed not to discriminate or retaliate against plaintiff for filing the EEOC charge; 3) the county agreed to expunge the last three notices of deficiency from plaintiff's file; and 4) the county agreed “to meet with [plaintiff] to review her actual job duties to determine whether her salary ha[d] been established correctly.” (Id. Ex. 5).[2]

         About one month after plaintiff filed her first EEOC charge, plaintiff's supervisor filed a criminal complaint with the local sheriff's department claiming, allegedly falsely, that plaintiff had stolen $200.00 from the county. Plaintiff never was charged with the crime, although the accusation became known at plaintiff's workplace.

         B. Settlement Agreement Implementation

         As of April 1, 2014, the county had removed the notices of deficiency from plaintiff's personnel file but had not met with plaintiff regarding her job duties or salary. On March 31, 2014, plaintiff submitted, as requested by interim manager Ken Windley (“Windley”), a written list of the job duties she had been performing. Roughly one month later, Windley presented plaintiff with a “sample” new job description but told her he would need to “tweak” the description. (Id. ¶ 29). On May 1, 2014, Windley informed plaintiff that a new job description had been approved and assigned to her. At some point Windley also informed plaintiff that she would not be receiving a salary increase. On May 19, 2014, the Gates County commissioners convened and discussed plaintiff's job description, among other items, during a closed portion of the meeting.

         On May 21, 2014, Windley responded to a request from an EEOC Investigator, informing the EEOC that plaintiff had provided information regarding her job duties, the information was used to create a new job description, the County's personnel board had reviewed and approved plaintiff's new job description, the board had reviewed plaintiff's salary and “felt the change made earlier in the fiscal year was sufficient, therefore no change to the salary was needed, ” and plaintiff approved of her new job description in a meeting with him. (Id. ¶ 26, 31, 35).

         On or around June 23, 2014, plaintiff received notification of her new job title “planning and permitting technician.” She was informed there would be no change in salary, benefits, or hours and that she would now be splitting her time between two departments while coordinating with her previous department. She was also provided with an extensive list of new work functions. Plaintiff did not sign the memorandum evidencing agreement to her new job title and description. She filed a written memorandum objecting to the new job description on July 1, 2014, requesting re- etvaluation. On July 7, 2014, plaintiff was informed that the changes to her job title were effective July 1, 2014. In July and August 2014, plaintiff lodged complaints with multiple Gates County commissioners in person, by telephone, and though emails concerning the treatment she was receiving and the amount of work she was expected to accomplish for a salary that was less than $30, 000.00 per year.

         C. 2014 Hiring of County Planner

         In August 2014, the county initiated a hiring process to fill the position of county planner/county director, with a salary of $45, 000.00 per year, and concluded the hiring process in November 2014. Plaintiff had been performing the duties of this position “competently and fully” since the position became vacant in April 2013. (Id. ¶ 47). Plaintiff applied for the position and was not chosen, although her experience and education met all the posted job qualifications. Unlike plaintiff, the person hired lacked qualifications in zoning that had been listed as a necessary qualification for the position. Plaintiff was informed that she did not receive the position because she did not have experience with graphic information systems (“GIS”), experience that was not listed as a necessary qualification for the position nor a system used by plaintiff in the time that she had performed the duties of the position. She was also not given the opportunity to be trained for the position in order to overcome her alleged shortcomings.

         Plaintiff tendered her resignation to the county in February 2015.

         D. Second EEOC Charge

         On April 20, 2015, plaintiff filed a second charge with the EEOC, alleging race discrimination and retaliation. In plaintiff's second EEOC charge, she stated white employees are compensated for their management work, are paid top salaries, are groomed for positions even when not yet advertised, and are trained when they are under-qualified. Plaintiff asserted race-based discrimination regarding the county's decision to not promote her to county planner. On February 16, 2016, the EEOC closed its investigation and issued a notice of right to sue, which was received by plaintiff on February 20, 2016. This suit was filed 90 days later on May 20, 2016.

         COURT'S DISCUSSION

         A. Standard of Review A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint but “does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992). A complaint states a claim if it contains “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 Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “Asking for plausible grounds . . . does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage; it simply calls for enough fact to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal [the] evidence” required to prove the claim. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556. In evaluating the complaint, “[the] court accepts all well-pled facts as true and construes these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, ” but does not consider “legal conclusions, elements of a cause of action, . . . bare assertions devoid of further factual enhancement[, ] . . . unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 255 (4th Cir. 2009).

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiff asserts breach of contract claims based on the parties' settlement agreement and Title VII claims alleging both discrimination and retaliation against defendant. The court addresses each claim in turn below.

         1. Settlement Agreement Claims

         The settlement agreement states that “[t]he parties agree . . . that this agreement may be specifically enforced in court by the EEOC or the parties and may be used as evidence in a subsequent proceeding in which a breach of this agreement is alleged.” (Compl. Ex. 5). Taking the facts as alleged in the amended complaint as true, the court finds that plaintiff has not sufficiently stated a claim for breach of the parties' settlement ...


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