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Armento v. Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Asheville Division

March 27, 2019

GREGORY ARMENTO, Plaintiff,
v.
ASHEVILLE BUNCOMBE COMMUNITY CHRISTIAN MINISTRY, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

          Martin Reidinger United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendant's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [Doc. 46], Defendant's Motion to Dismiss [Doc. 49], and the parties' supplemental briefing pursuant to the Court's October 9, 2018 sua sponte Order [Doc. 62] on the issue of “whether the Defendant is ‘an enterprise engaged in commerce' within the meaning of § 203(s) of the FLSA.” [Docs. 63, 64].

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On June 12, 2017, the Plaintiff filed this action pro se, alleging failure to pay minimum wage and overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 207, and the North Carolina Wage and Hour Act (“NCWHA”), N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 95-25.3 and 95-25.4; record-keeping violations under 29 U.S.C. § 211(c) and N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-25.13; misclassification of employees under 29 C.F.R. Part 541; retaliation and wrongful termination in violation of 29 U.S.C. §§ 215 and 218c and the North Carolina Retaliatory Employment Discrimination Act (“REDA”), N.C. Gen. Stat. § 95-241; claims under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985; and claims for “duress, undue influence, and illegal contracts” and intentional infliction of emotional distress. [Doc. 1]. The Plaintiff sought and was granted leave to proceed in forma pauperis in this action. [Docs. 2, 7]. On the same day as filing the Complaint, the Plaintiff also filed a 59-page “Plaintiff's Affidavit in Support of Complaint, ” together with 171 pages of exhibits thereto [Doc. 3], and a Motion for Injunctive Relief under 29 U.S.C. § 217 [Doc. 4]. The Court denied this motion for the reasons stated in its Order thereon. [Doc. 23].

         On July 7, 2018, the Defendant filed a motion to dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and a partial motion for summary judgment under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, seeking dismissal of the Plaintiff's FLSA, NCWHA, and REDA claims. [Docs. 46, 49].

         The matters before the Court have been fully briefed and are ripe for adjudication.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A. Motion to Dismiss

         In reviewing a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court is guided by the Supreme Court's instructions in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), and Ashcraft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009). As the Fourth Circuit has noted, “those decisions require that complaints in civil actions be alleged with greater specificity than previously was required.” Walters v. McMahen, 684 F.3d 435, 439 (4th Cir. 2012).

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955). To be “plausible on its face, ” a plaintiff must demonstrate more than “a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949.

         In reviewing the complaint, the Court must accept the truthfulness of all factual allegations but is not required to assume the truth of “bare legal conclusions.” Aziz v. Alcolac, Inc., 658 F.3d 388, 391 (4th Cir. 2011). “The mere recital of elements of a cause of action, supported only by conclusory statements, is not sufficient to survive a motion made pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6).” Walters, 684 F.3d at 439.

         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, “a complaint must state a ‘plausible claim for relief.'” Id. (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. at 1949).Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is “a context-specific task, ” Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 193 (4th Cir. 2009), which requires the Court to assess whether the factual allegations of the complaint are sufficient “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955. As the Fourth Circuit has explained:

To satisfy this standard, a plaintiff need not forecast evidence sufficient to prove the elements of the claim. However, the complaint must allege sufficient facts to establish those elements. Thus, while a plaintiff does not need to demonstrate in a complaint that the right to relief is probable, the complaint must advance the plaintiff's claim across the line from conceivable to plausible.

Walters, 684 F.3d at 439 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         B. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is proper “if the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). “As the Supreme Court has observed, this standard provides that the mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment; the requirement is that there be no genuine issue of material fact.'” Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens Football Club, Inc., 346 F.3d 514, 519 (4th Cir. 2003) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505 (1986)) (emphasis in original)).

         A genuine issue of fact exists if a reasonable jury considering the evidence could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Shaw v. Stroud, 13 F.3d 791, 798 (4th Cir. 1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 814, 115 S.Ct. 68 (1994). “Regardless of whether he may ultimately be responsible for proof and persuasion, the party seeking summary judgment bears an initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Bouchat, 346 F.3d at 522. If this showing is made, the burden then shifts to the non-moving party who must convince the Court that a triable issue does exist. Id.

A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleadings, but rather must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. Furthermore, neither unsupported speculation, nor evidence that is merely colorable or not significantly probative, will suffice to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather, if the adverse party fails to bring forth facts showing that reasonable minds could differ on a material point, then, regardless of any proof or evidentiary requirements imposed by the substantive law, summary judgment, if appropriate, shall be entered.

Id. (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). Nonetheless, in considering the facts for the purposes of a summary judgment motion, the Court will view the pleadings and material presented in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-88, 106 S.Ct. 1348 (1986).

         III. FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         The Plaintiff formerly resided at the Veterans Restoration Quarters (“VRQ”), a homeless shelter for veterans owned and operated by Defendant. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 17]. Defendant is a non-profit organization that is supported by 284 churches throughout Western North Carolina and provides services to individuals in need, including veterans. [Doc. 47 at ¶¶ 3-4]. Plaintiff arrived at the VRQ on September 2, 2015. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 38]. As a condition of residing at the VRQ, the Plaintiff was required to work a number of “service hours” necessary to the daily operation of the facility. [Id. at ¶ 23]. The Plaintiff began performing his service hours on or about September 4, 2015. [Id. at ¶ 42]. Plaintiff's service hours were completed primarily in his capacity as a Duty Driver and as the Front Desk Manager of the VRQ. [Doc. 47 at ¶¶ 14, 18; see Doc. 1 at ¶ 50]. The parties dispute how many service hours the Plaintiff performed and for how long he performed them. [See Docs. 1 at ¶¶ 55, 61; 3 at ¶ 39; 47 at ¶ 18, 23-25].

         In addition, the Plaintiff was employed for pay on a part-time basis by Defendant as a Front Desk Manager beginning on or about September 8, 2015. [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 69-70]. Plaintiff's employment for pay as a Front Desk Manager was through Defendant's “1, 000-hour program, ”[2] which is designed to help transition homeless veterans to meaningful employment in the community by providing them with job skills and the opportunity to earn money. [Docs. 47 at ¶¶ 15, 17; 55-7 at 6]. The 1, 000-hour program allows a veteran to be paid for up to 1, 000 hours of work for the VRQ. [Docs. 47 at ¶ 16; 55-7 at 19]. Many residents do not finish the 1, 000-hour program because they find full-time employment with employers outside the VRQ. [Doc. 47 at ¶ 16]. The Plaintiff completed his 1, 000 work hours on or about June 1, 2016. [Docs. 1 at ¶¶ 118-119; 47 at ¶ 17]. At that time, Plaintiff was discharged from his employment as the VRQ's Front Desk Manager. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 119].

         The Plaintiff now alleges that he is entitled to unpaid wages and overtime compensation as a result of work performed both as “service hours” and in his capacity as a part-time employee as a Front Desk Manager. [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 61, 67, 96, 100]. Beginning on or about November 11, 2015, only two months after beginning his service hours and paid work at the VRQ, the Plaintiff began making complaints regarding his alleged unpaid wages. [Doc. 1 at ¶ 103]. On November 11, 2015, the Plaintiff complained to the staff at the VRQ. [Id.]. On November 12, 2015, the Plaintiff went to the U.S. Department of Labor office in Asheville, North Carolina, to lodge his complaints. Plaintiff also went to Defendant's primary office, also in Asheville, and met with various managers and directors of Defendant “to discuss unpaid wages and Service Hours.” [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 104-5]. On January 1, 2016, Plaintiff began sending a 17-page statement that he had prepared entitled “ABCCM Wage Hour and Service Hour Representations” (the “Statement”) to various government agencies, civil rights groups, U.S. Senators, and local attorneys. These groups included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Department of Labor, the N.C. Department of Labor, the N.C. Justice Center, the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The Statement related to Plaintiff's claims for unpaid wages and service hours, and the Plaintiff attached many documents in support of his claims. [Docs. 1-12; 1-14]. On February 1, 2016, Plaintiff sent an e-mail to U.S. Senator Thom Tillis attaching the Statement and the supporting documents seeking Senator Tillis' help in compelling “the prevailing Departments to assume their responsibility of advocacy for myself and the resident veterans at the Veterans Restoration Quarters.” [Doc. 1-10].

         On or about April 18, 2016, Randy Gamble, the VRQ Front Desk Supervisor, advised Plaintiff that he was nearing completion of his 1, 000 work hours and that he would soon be removed from the payroll. [Doc. 1 at ¶¶ 114]. In response, Plaintiff showed Defendant documentation that his total paid work hours were, in reality, around 727. Plaintiff continued his employment. [Id. at ¶ 115]. Then, on or about April 28, 2016, Defendant told Plaintiff that he had completed his 1, 000 work hours. [Id. at ¶ 116]. In response, Plaintiff showed Defendant documentation reflecting that he had worked only 799 total paid hours. Plaintiff again continued his employment. [Id. at ¶ 117]. On June 1, 2016, after Plaintiff had completed 1, 007 paid work hours [Doc. 47 at ¶ 13], Defendant advised Plaintiff that he had completed the 1, 000-hour program and that he would no longer be employed as a Front Desk Manager. [Id. at ¶¶ 118-119].

         On September 2, 2017, due to the two-year limit on a resident's participation in the program, Plaintiff became ineligible to continue living in the VRQ. [Doc. 47 at ¶ 26]. At the end of Plaintiff's eligibility for the program, Defendant assisted Plaintiff in qualifying for ...


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