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Stewart v. GM Financial

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

November 7, 2019



          Frank D. Whitney, Chief United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Jurisdiction (Doc. No. 3) and Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. No. 5). Plaintiff filed responses in opposition to both motions (Docs. Nos. 10, 11), to which Defendants replied (Docs. Nos. 19, 20), and the motions are now ripe for review.

         I. Background

         According to her pro se complaint, Plaintiff is a full-time employee with GM Financial in Huntersville, North Carolina, where she has worked since August 17, 1999. (Doc. No. 1, p. 7). On July 20, 2018, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), claiming that because of her disability, Defendant GM Financial “continually refused to properly accommodate” her and “subject[ed] [her] to retaliatory treatment and derogatory comments relating to [her] disability.” (Doc. No. 1-1, p. 1). Moreover, she alleges “GM Financial is subjecting [her] to a transfer without warning or explanation, heightened scrutiny, and refuses to assist [her] when [she] ask [sic] for help.” Id. In her Statement of Discrimination, Plaintiff stated in entirety: “I believe I have been discriminated and retaliated against because of my disability in violation of the Americans with Disability Act.” Id.

         On June 21, 2019, the EEOC issued a Right to Sue letter to Plaintiff, which noted the EEOC closed its file because it was “unable to conclude that the information obtained establishe[d] violations of the statutes.” Id. at 2. Shortly thereafter, on August 22, 2019, Plaintiff filed the instant case against Defendants Kenya Todd (“Todd”), Michael Allman (“Allman”), Cynthia Turner (“Turner”), Catrina Jett-Cameron (“Jett-Cameron”), Shawndra Thomas (“Thomas”), unnamed GM Financial Leave of Absence Administrators (“Unnamed Defendants”) (collectively, “Individual Defendants”) and GM Financial (“GM Financial”). (Doc. No. 1, p. 2). Plaintiff alleges violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, and the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, in addition to allegations of retaliation, harassment, and a hostile work environment. Id. at 3.

         Defendants filed their motions to dismiss based on Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(4) and 12(b)(5), and consequently 12(b)(2), as well as Rule 12(b)(6). (Docs. Nos. 3, 5). The Court issued Plaintiff a Roseboro notice in which it informed Plaintiff of her rights and responsibilities in responding to the motions. (Doc. No. 9).

         II. Standard of Review

         “When considering a motion to dismiss involving pro se parties, the court construes the pleadings liberally to ensure that valid claims do not fail merely for lack of legal specificity.” Brown v. Charlotte Rentals LLC, No. 3:15-cv-0043-FDW-DCK, 2015 WL 4557368, at *2 (W.D. N.C. July 28, 2015) (citing Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151 (4th Cir. 1978)). At the same time, however, the Court should not “assume the role of advocate for the pro se plaintiff.” Gordon, 574 F.2d at 1151 (quotation omitted).

         A. Process, Service of Process, and Personal Jurisdiction

         Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(4) and 12(b)(5) provide for dismissal of a case when a litigant does not adequately abide by the rules regarding process and service of process. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(4)-(5); see also Brown, 2015 WL 4557368, at *2. Process pertains to the sufficiency of the forms, whereas service of process relates to the delivery of the pleadings on a party. See Brown, 2015 WL 4557368 at *2. “It is important to note that proceeding pro se ordinarily will not excuse failure to properly accomplish service or a failure to understand the rules.” Id. at *3; see also McNeil v. United States, 508 U.S. 106, 113 (1993) (“[W]e have never suggested that procedural rules in ordinary civil litigation should be interpreted so as to excuse mistakes by those who proceed without counsel. As we have noted before, ‘in the long run, experience teaches that strict adherence to the procedural requirements . . . is the best guarantee of evenhanded administration of the law.'”) (footnote omitted) (quoting Mohasco Corp. v. Silver, 447 U.S. 807, 826 (1980)). The Fourth Circuit has likewise made clear that “[a]ctual notice does not equate to sufficient service of process, even under the liberal construction of the rules applicable to a pro se plaintiff.” Scott v. Md. State Dep't of Labor, 673 Fed.Appx. 299, 305 (4th Cir. 2016) (per curiam). In other words, “[a]lthough courts should liberally construe the requirements of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure if a defendant has actual notice of a suit against it, ‘plain requirements for the means of effecting service of process may not be ignored.'” Jones v. Se. Reg'l Med. Ctr., No. 7:18-cv-28-D, 2019 WL 97036, at *3 (E.D. N.C. Jan. 2, 2019) (quoting Armco, Inc. v. Penrod-Stauffer Bldg. Sys., Inc., 733 F.2d 1087, 1089 (4th Cir. 1984)). The Plaintiff has the burden of proving that process has been executed in accordance with Rule 4 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Sweeting v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 3:17-cv-00309-FDW, 2017 WL 3923978, at *3 (W.D. N.C. Sept. 7, 2017).

         It is well-settled law that without valid process or service of process, the Court has no jurisdiction over a defendant. See, e.g., Armco, 733 F.2d at 1089. Without personal jurisdiction over the defendants, the case must be dismissed. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(2).

         B. Failure to State a Claim

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) likewise provides for dismissal when the pleading party fails to “state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) tests the legal “sufficiency of a complaint” but “does not resolve contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Republican Party of N.C. v. Martin, 980 F.2d 943, 952 (4th Cir. 1992); accord E. Shore Mkts, Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). A complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss will survive if it contains “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 697 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see also Robinson v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 551 F.3d 218, 222 (4th Cir. 2009). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. The Supreme Court has also opined that

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Specific facts are not necessary; the statement need only “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” In addition, when ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss, a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.

Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007) (alteration in original) (internal citations omitted) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-56).

         III. Analysis

         A. Motion to Dismiss-Lack of Personal Jurisdiction

         Defendants' first motion to dismiss is based on lack of personal jurisdiction. (Doc. No. 3). Defendants raise three arguments in this motion: first, Plaintiff failed to include a copy of the complaint with the summons; second, the summons for GM Financial was not directed to an officer, director, or other authorized agent of the corporation; and third, the summonses were mailed to an office where none of the individual defendants worked. Id. Each argument is analyzed below.

         1. Failure to Include Copy of the Complaint with the Summons

         Defendants' first argument in favor of its motion to dismiss is that Plaintiff failed to include a copy of the complaint with the summons. (Doc. No. 4, p. 4). Plaintiff admits “that a copy of the complaint was not sent with the summon [sic] but, when [she] submitted [her] complaints to the courts [sic], it was attached, and all information was available in Pacer.” (Doc. No. 11, p. 2).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 4(c)(1) states in its entirety that “A summons must be served with a copy of the complaint. The plaintiff is responsible for having the summons and complaint served within the time allowed by Rule 4(m) and must furnish the necessary copies to the person who makes service.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 4(c)(1) (emphasis added). “It is clear . . . that even though a copy of the complaint is on file at the clerk's office, service of a summons without a copy of the complaint is not effective service.” 4A. Fed. Prac. & Proc. Civ. § 1093 (4th ed.).

         Other courts have determined the basic process requirements of Rule 4 must be closely followed. In Diede v. UNC Healthcare, No. 5:16-cv-00788-BR, 2018 WL 3448219 (E.D. N.C. July 17, 2018), the Eastern District of North Carolina concluded that dismissal was warranted when the pro se plaintiff failed to serve a defendant with both the summons and a copy of the complaint. Diede, 2018 WL 3448219, at *3 (“Because plaintiff has failed to show compliance with the requirements of Rule 4, dismissal is warranted for plaintiff's failure to effect service.”). The Eastern District similarly dismissed a complaint where, although the plaintiff believed she served sufficient process, the Defendant never “receive[d] the summons or a complete copy of [the plaintiff's] complaint.” Jones, 2019 WL 97036, at *1. Relying in part on Patterson v. Brown, No. 3:06-cv-476, 2008 WL 219965, at *9-11 (W.D. N.C. Jan. 24, 2008), rev'd in part sub nom. Patterson v. Whitlock, 392 Fed.Appx. 185, 191-92 (4th Cir. 2010) (per curiam) (reversing because Defendants failed to timely raise the defense of insufficient process and thus waived any defense as to that point), the Jones court properly determined that the pro se plaintiff's failure to include the summons and a complete copy of the complaint constituted insufficient process. Jones, 2019 WL 97036, at *3-4. Even in light of the reduced standards afforded pro se litigants, the “mistake does not excuse that litigant from the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Id. at 4.

         It is clear Plaintiff has failed to meet her burden proving she complied with the requirements of serving sufficient process to Defendants, even in light of the liberal construction afforded pro se litigants. According to the Declaration of Lora Stanford, a Senior Paralegal for GM Financial who received the package containing the summonses, no copies of the complaint were included with the summonses. See (Doc. No. 4-1, p. 1, ¶ 5). Moreover, Plaintiff concedes that she failed to serve sufficient process on Defendants, instead stating “that a copy of the complaint was not sent with the summon [sic] but, when [she] submitted [her] complaints to the courts [sic], it was attached, and all information was available in Pacer.” (Doc. No. 11, p. 2). The requirement to serve both the summons and a complete copy of the complaint is a clear requirement of Rule 4, which cannot be ignored, even with a liberal construction. See Armco, 733 F.2d at 1089. Thus, the Court finds that process was insufficient. To the ...

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