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Blackmon v. Cohen

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

May 31, 2018

SHARON RENEA BLACKMON, Plaintiff,
v.
MANDY COHEN, PATRICIA GARCIA, CLAUDIA HORN, VETA COOPER-HENDERSON, TARA MYERS, AND ALMA TAYLOR, in their individual capacities, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          N. CARLTON TILLEY, JR. SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Pro se Plaintiff Sharon Renea Blackmon has sued individuals employed in North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services for failure to pay overtime. This matter is before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss [Doc. #17] by Defendants Mandy Cohen, Claudia Horn, Patricia Garcia, Veta Cooper-Henderson, Tara Myers, and Alma Taylor (collectively “Defendants”). For the reasons explained below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part. It is granted in part as to Blackmon's North Carolina Wage and Hour Act claim, but it is denied in part as to her Fair Labor Standards Act claim which is treated as having been alleged against the State of North Carolina rather than Defendants.

         I.

         From March 2010 until August 31, 2017, Blackmon was employed as a Processing Assistant within North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services (“NCDHHS”). (Compl. ¶¶ 1 (Parties[1]), 3 (Facts & Allegations) [Doc. #2].) Blackmon's primary job duties as a Processing Assistant IV included scheduling physician appointments, making travel arrangements for clients, paying vendor invoices, and other general clerical duties like answering the phones, making copies, and data entry. (Id. ¶ 10 (Facts & Allegations).)

         Cohen, Horn, Myers, and Taylor served as the Secretary of NCDHHS, Senior Director of NCDHHS, Division Director of NCDHHS, and Regional Director of NCDHHS, respectively. (Id. ¶¶ 2-5 (Parties).) Garcia was the Human Resources Director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (“DVR”) with NCDHHS, while Cooper-Henderson was the Unit Manager of DVR. (Id. ¶¶ 6-7 (Parties).) They are alleged to have been Blackmon's employers and responsible for administering her hours of work, payment of wages, conditions of employment, and pay policies. (Id. ¶ 5 (Facts & Allegations).)

         Defendants allegedly misclassified non-exempt employees as exempt to gain more work productivity and avoid paying overtime. (Id. ¶ 13 (Facts & Allegations).) Blackmon refers to this “scheme” as “budgeted labor”. (Id.) Because of the operational needs and demands of NCDHHS clients, a shortage of office personnel, and a hiring freeze, Defendants allegedly used BEACON, an electronic time-keeping system for tracking and reporting employee work hours, to further their “budgeted labor” scheme. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 14, 16 (Facts & Allegations).) BEACON flagged and rejected any time recorded over forty hours a week. (Id. ¶ 14 (Facts & Allegations).) “This rejection forced [Blackmon] to inaccurately record times to reflect 40 hours a week for Defendants[‘] approval, although overtime hours were made and attempted to be recorded.” (Id.) When Blackmon notified Defendants of the overtime hours she had worked, they instructed her to use “flex time” to offset her overtime. (Id. ¶ 15 (Facts & Allegations).)

         Defendants also “expected, encouraged, enticed, induced, condoned, required, permitted, and suffered [Blackmon] to receive and handle emails, faxes, text messages, internet searches, and other such communications to and from management, co-employees, and clients during her lunch period and after [her] scheduled end of the work day ‘off the clock.'” (Id. ¶ 18 (Facts & Allegations).) They similarly “expected, encouraged, enticed, induced, condoned, required, permitted, and suffered [Blackmon] to compile ‘end-of-day' reports, job-related training, and attend mandatory meetings during her lunch period and after [her] scheduled end of the work day ‘off the clock'.” (Id. ¶ 19 (Facts & Allegations).)

         Blackmon alleges that this “budgeted labor” scheme was ultra vires and served Defendants' own personal interests by allowing them to receive higher scores on their “budgeted labor” matrixes for job evaluations, bonuses, special recognition, and rewards. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 20, 21, 31 (Facts & Allegations).)

         She has sued Defendants in their individual capacities for unpaid overtime wages, liquidated damages, attorney's fees, and interest for their violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). (Id. ¶¶ 27 (Facts & Allegations), 33 (First Claim for Relief).) Although the only claim for relief alleged is one for violating the FLSA, Blackmon also mentions the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (“NCWHA”) in the introductory paragraph (alleging that she is entitled to unpaid overtime wages under the FLSA and the NCWHA) and in the first paragraph of her prayer for relief (seeking a declaration that Defendants violated the FLSA and NCWHA).

         Defendants have moved to dismiss the FLSA claim and any claim under the NCWHA, to the extent that Blackmon asserted one. They first argue that Blackmon's FLSA claim against them in their individual capacities is actually a suit against the State and, as such, the individual capacity claims should be dismissed. (Br. in Supp. at 4-9 [Doc. #19].) They further argue that Blackmon has failed to state a claim for relief under the FLSA. (Id. at 9.) Next they argue that, to the extent Blackmon has asserted a NCWHA claim, not only are they entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, but the State is exempt from the overtime provision in the NCWHA. (Id. at 10-16.)

         II. A.

         It is necessary “to begin the analysis [of Blackmon's FLSA claim] by noting that ‘when a suit is brought only against state officials, a question arises as to whether that suit is a suit against the State itself.'” Martin v. Wood, 772 F.3d 192, 195 (4th Cir. 2014 (quoting Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp. v. Halderman, 465 U.S. 89, 101 (1984)). To answer the question, the court must “look beyond the form of the complaint . . . to determine who is the ‘real, substantial party in interest.'” Id. at 196 (quoting Pennhurst State Sch. & Hosp., 465 U.S. at 101). “To identify the real, substantial party in interest, ” “the substance of the claims” must be examined by asking:

(1) were the allegedly unlawful actions of the state officials tied inextricably to their official duties, (2) if the state officials had authorized the desired relief at the outset, would the burden have been borne by the State, (3) would a judgment against the state officials be institutional and official in character, such that it would operate against the State, (4) were the actions of the state officials taken to further personal interests distinct from the State's interests, and (5) were the state officials' actions ultra vires.

Id. (internal quotations and citations omitted). As Defendants argue, an examination of Blackmon's Complaint shows that the State is the real, ...


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