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Taylor v. Wal-Mart Stores

January 12, 2010

CYNTHIA TAYLOR, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WAL-MART STORES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reagan, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Cindy Taylor and her minor daughter Tabitha live in Jackson County, Illinois, within this Judicial District. In February 2009, Cindy and Tabitha went to their local Wal-Mart store in Murphysboro, Illinois, where Cindy purchased a new coat for Tabitha. According to a complaint filed by Cindy in Illinois state court in October 2009, Tabitha has "a learning disability known as Downs Syndrome" (Doc. 2-3, p. 1), a condition "obvious to any reasonable person" encountering Tabitha, and while on a school outing to the Wal-Mart store, the following occurred.

Cindy bought Tabitha a new coat. Cindy gave the coat to Tabitha and left Tabitha at the store with classmates, under the supervision of school instructors. Shortly thereafter, Wal-Mart personnel approached Tabitha and accused her of stealing the coat. The Wal-Mart employees chastised Tabitha in a threatening manner in front of Tabitha's classmates. These actions were intended to and did cause Tabitha mental distress and embarrassment.

The complaint contains claims for intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count I), slander (Count II), and conversion (Count III). Suing as guardian and next friend of minor Tabitha, Cindy seeks over $50,000 in actual damages, plus punitive damages and costs.

Served on October 16, 2009, Wal-Mart timely removed the case to this District Court and now moves to dismiss and strike portions of the complaint under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) and 12(f). Rule 12(b)(6) governs motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim; Rule 12(f) governs motions to strike.

A 12(b)(6) motion challenges the sufficiency of the complaint to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, -- S.Ct. --, 2009 WL 3092496 (Nov. 30, 2009). Dismissal is warranted under Rule 12(b)(6) if the complaint fails to set forth "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

In making this assessment, the District Court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations and draws all reasonable inferences in plaintiff's favor. Rujawitz v. Martin, 561 F.3d 685, 688 (7th Cir. 2009); Tricontinental Industries, Inc., Ltd. v. PriceWaterhouseCoopers, LLP, 475 F.3d 824, 833 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 824 (2007).

In Tamayo v. Blagojevich, 526 F.3d 1074, 1083 (7th Cir. 2008), the Seventh Circuit emphasized that even though Bell Atlantic retooled federal pleading standards, notice pleading remains all that is required in a complaint. "A plaintiff still must provide only enough detail to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests and, through his allegations, show that it is plausible, rather than merely speculative, that he is entitled to relief." Id. Accord Pugh v. Tribune Co., 521 F.3d 686, 699 (7th Cir. 2008)("surviving a Rule 12(b)(6) motion requires more than labels and conclusions;" the allegations "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level"). See also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007)(Rule 8 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.'").

Rule 12(f) authorizes a district court -- on its own or on motion filed by a party -- to strike from a pleading "an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter." Thus, a district court can strike allegations devoid of factual basis under Rule 12(f). Delta Consulting Group, Inc. v. R. Randle Const., Inc., 554 F.3d 1133, 1142 (7th Cir. 2009). Here, Defendant Wal-Mart moves to strike the prayer for punitive damages from all three counts of the complaint and moves to dismiss Counts I and II for failure to state a claim.

Count I is the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED"). The elements of an IIED claim in Illinois are threefold: (1) the defendant's conduct was extreme and outrageous, (2) the defendant intended to inflict severe emotional distress or knew there was a high probability that severe emotional distress would result from his conduct, and (3) the conduct in fact did inflict severe emotional distress on the plaintiff. See Lopez v. City of Chicago, 464 F.3d 711, 720 (7th Cir. 2006), citing McGrath v. Fahey, 533 N.E.2d 806, 809 (Ill. 1988); Lifton v. Board of Educ., 416 F.3d 571, 579 (7th Cir. 2006), citing Thomas v. Fuerst, 803 N.E.2d 619, 625 (Ill. App. 2004). Severe emotional distress is "distress so severe that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it." Lifton, 416 F.3d at 579.

As the Seventh Circuit declared three months ago: "An intentional infliction of emotional distress claim in Illinois requires that the defendants' conduct be 'extreme and outrageous,' ... 'so extreme as to beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as intolerable in a civilized community.'" Hukic v. Aurora Loan Services, 588 F.3d 420, 438 (7th Cir. 2009), quoting Kolegas v. Heftel Broad. Corp., 607 N.E.2d 201, 211 (Ill. 1992), and Lewis v. School Dist. #70, 523 F.3d 730, 747 (7th Cir. 2008).

Cindy Taylor's complaint alleges that Wal-Mart's employees (who knew or should have known of Tabitha's mental condition), with malice and in a threatening manner, accused Tabitha of stealing the coat, intended to cause Tabitha mental distress and embarrassment, and caused Tabitha "great" emotional distress, via statements and actions that were both outrageous and egregious.

We are only at the pleading stage, not the proof stage, in this case. Still the complaint presents a close call for the Court, accepting as true all well-pled allegations of the complaint and drawing all reasonable inferences in Taylor's favor, St. John's United Church of Christ v. City of Chicago, 502 F.3d 616, 625 (7th Cir. 2007), cert. denied, 128 S.Ct. 2431 (2008).

Count I references the three elements of an IIED claim under Illinois law, and the complaint notifies Wal-Mart of the basis for the claim. It is difficult to find the allegations "so sketchy that the complaint does not provide the type of notice ... to which the defendant is entitled under Rule 8." Airborne ...


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