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Valerie Douglas v. Susan A. Lofton

May 17, 2013

VALERIE DOUGLAS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
SUSAN A. LOFTON, IN HER INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY AND IN HER OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PRINCIPAL OF NICOLAS SENN HIGH SCHOOL, AND CHICAGO PUBLIC SCHOOLS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy J. St. Eve, District Court Judge:

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

On February 23, 2013, Plaintiff Valerie Douglas ("Douglas") filed a six-count Amended Complaint against Defendants Susan Lofton ("Lofton"), in her individual capacity and official capacity as Principal of Nicolas Senn High School, and Chicago Public Schools ("the Board")*fn1 (collectively, "Defendants"). (R. 21, Amend. Compl.) In Counts I and II, Ms. Douglas alleges that Defendants interfered with her rights and engaged in retaliation under the Family Medical Leave Act ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 2601 et seq. In Counts III and V, she claims that Defendants defamed her and intentionally inflicted emotional distress upon her. In Count IV, she alleges that Lofton assaulted her. In Count VI, she alleges that Defendants subjected her to differential treatment from others similarly situated to her in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. On February 28, 2013, Defendants moved pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6) to dismiss Counts I, III, IV and V of Ms. Douglas' Amended Complaint, and pursuant to Rule 12(f) to strike paragraphs 16-23, 33-37, 41-59 and Exhibits A, B, C, E, M, and N as redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter. (R. 25, Mot.) Defendants do not contest Ms. Douglas' claims in Count II (FMLA retaliation) or Count VI (Fourteenth Amendment). For the following reasons, the Court grants Defendants' motion in part and denies it in part.

BACKGROUND

Valerie Douglas has been a teacher with Chicago Public Schools for over 25 years. (Amend. Compl. ¶ 1.) Ms. Douglas previously taught at Nicolas Senn High School. Ms. Susan Lofton became principal of Nicolas Senn High School in the second semester of the 2009-2010 school year. (Id. ¶ 7.) According to Ms. Douglas, she was eligible for FMLA protections because of a serious health condition. (Id. ¶¶ 61, 72.) Specifically, she has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and severe depression. (Id. ¶ 72.) Additionally, on April 27, 2011, while at a meeting, Ms. Lofton "suddenly and aggressively moved across the table towards" Ms. Douglas. (Id. ¶ 95.) As a result, Ms. Douglas "developed a severe headache." (Id. ¶ 98.) She informed office staff that she needed to leave early and completed the required documents. (Id. ¶ 99.) A doctor diagnosed her as having had a heart attack. (Id. ¶ 100.)

Because of her health condition, Ms. Douglas took leave from January 25, 2011 through March 2011, from April 27, 2011 through May 9, 2011, and from September 14, 2011 through September 23, 2011. (Id. ¶¶ 63, 64, 68.) Ms. Lofton requested that the September days "be changed to suspension days" after requesting on July 29, 2011 that Ms. Douglas be suspended for certain days. (Id. ¶¶ 66, 67.) Ms. Douglas also took leave from late September through November 7, 2011 and was under a doctor's care. (Id. ¶ 68.)

On May 9, 2011, the day Ms. Douglas returned from one of her leaves of absence, Ms. Lofton provided her "with a list of charges which could result in disciplinary action 'up to and including' dismissal." (Id. ¶ 78.) The charges included a complaint from an anonymous student that Ms. Douglas had failed to input attendance grades for students in a class and that Ms. Douglas had left the building without permission on April 27, 2011. (Id.) Ms. Lofton disciplined Ms. Douglas for her failure to input grades during her FMLA leave and for leaving the building. (Id. ¶ 87, Ex. W.) Specifically, Ms. Lofton suspended Ms. Douglas. (Id.) According to Ms. Douglas, Ms. Lofton also "taunted [her] in hushed whispers" and subjected her "to a campaign of harassment." (Id. ¶¶ 101, 108.)

LEGAL STANDARD

I. 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss Standard

A Rule 12(b)(6) motion challenges the sufficiency of the complaint. See Hallinan v. Fraternal Order of Police of Chi. Lodge No. 7, 570 F.3d 811, 820 (7th Cir. 2009). Under Rule 8(a)(2), a complaint must include "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2). The short and plain statement under Rule 8(a)(2) must "give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007) (citation omitted). Under the federal notice pleading standards, a plaintiff's "factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Put differently, a "complaint must contain 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, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "In evaluating the sufficiency of the complaint, [courts] view it in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, taking as true all well-pleaded factual allegations and making all possible inferences from the allegations in the plaintiff's favor." AnchorBank, FSB v. Hofer, 649 F.3d 610, 614 (7th Cir. 2011).

II. 12(f) Motion to Strike Standard

"Rule 12(f) provides that a district court 'may strike from a pleading an insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous matter.'" Delta Consulting Grp., Inc. v. R. Randle Const., Inc., 554 F.3d 1133, 1141 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f)). Motions to strike are appropriate if they serve to expedite litigation. See Heller Fin., Inc. v. Midwhey Powder, 883 F.2d 1286, 1294 (7th Cir. 1989); see also Talbot v. Robert Matthews Distrib. Co., 961 F.2d 654, 664 (7th Cir. 1992) (allegations may be stricken if matter bears no possible relation to controversy). District courts have considerable discretion to strike allegations under Rule 12(f). See Delta, 554 F.3d at 1141-42.

ANALYSIS

Defendants seek to dismiss Counts I, III, IV, and V. They also seek to strike Paragraphs 16-23, 33-37, and 41-59, and Exhibits A, B, C, E, M, and N. The Court addresses each argument in turn.

I. Count I - Interference In Violation Of the FLMA

The "FMLA entitles an employee to twelve weeks of leave every twelve-month period if she is afflicted with 'a serious health condition' which renders her unable to perform her job." Smith v. Hope Sch., 560 F.3d 694, 699 (7th Cir. 2009) (quoting 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(D)). The FMLA "further provides that employers may not 'interfere with, restrain, or deny the exercise of or the attempt to exercise, any right provided under [the Act].'" Righi v. SMC Corp., 632 F.3d 404, 408 (7th Cir. 2011) (citation omitted). To prevail on her FMLA interference claim, Ms. Douglas must show that: (1) she was eligible for FMLA protections; (2) her employer was covered by the FMLA; (3) she was entitled to take leave under the FMLA; (4) she provided sufficient notice of her intent to take leave; and (5) her employer denied her FMLA benefits to which she was entitled. See James v. Hyatt Regency Chi., 707 F.3d 775, 780 (7th Cir. 2013). Defendants argue that Plaintiff has not pled sufficient factual allegations to support her claim for FLMA interference. Specifically, they argue that she has "failed to allege that the Board denied her requests for FMLA leave . . . [and] has pled not facts in support of her claim that the Board interfered with her FMLA rights." (Mot. at 4.) Indeed, Ms. Douglas has failed to specifically identify any manner in which Defendants denied her any FMLA benefits.

"An interference claim requires proof that the employer denied the employee FMLA rights to which she was entitled." Nicholson v. Pulte Homes Corp., 690 F.3d 819, 825 (7th Cir. 2012). Ms. Douglas does not allege that Defendants denied her any requested FMLA time off. See, e.g., id. at 827 (finding insufficient evidence that the defendant "did anything to deny or otherwise interfere with [plaintiff's] right to FMLA benefits" in part because "at no time did defendant decline plaintiff's request for leave"). In fact, her allegations are the opposite, as she states that she took FMLA time off on multiple occasions. Ms. Douglas alleges that she "took FMLA leave from January 25, 2011 through March 2011, approximately thirty (30) days." (Amend. Compl. ¶ 63.) She also "took FMLA leave from April 27, 2011 through May 9, 2011," "[f]rom September 14, 2011 through September 23, 2011," and "from late September through November 7, 2011." (Amend. Compl. ¶¶ 64, 67, 68.) Her Amended Complaint does not allege that Defendants denied any request she made for FMLA time off. In her response, Ms. Douglas clarifies that she seeks an FMLA claim based on something beyond denial of time off. (Resp. at 11-13.)

Specifically, Ms. Douglas argues that "one can make a reasonable inference that the actions were taken to discourage the use of FMLA rights" based on the statements made by a consulting teacher*fn2 that she "may be entitled to take FMLA leave but she is not entitled to the respect of her colleagues who have to pick up her slack." (Resp. at 12; Amend. Compl. ΒΆ 88.) Even viewing the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, there is no reasonable inference, based on a colleague's view that Ms. Douglas did not deserve respect, that Defendants took any actions to deny Ms. Douglas her benefits. ...


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