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Mohammed v. Sidecar Technologies Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

November 10, 2016

ABDUL MOHAMMED, Plaintiff,
v.
SIDECAR TECHNOLOGIES INC., SIDE.CR LLC, and/or their parent, subsidiaries and affiliates and successors collectively, "Sidecar", SUNIL PAUL and JAHAN KHANNA, individually and as agents of Sidecar, GENERAL MOTORS HOLDING COMPANY, and JOHN AND JANE DOE STAKEHOLDERS OF SIDECAR, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          HON. JORGE L. ALONSO United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff, Abdul Mohammed, brings this lawsuit against his former employer, Sidecar Technologies, Inc. ("Sidecar"), and two of its officers, [1] making numerous claims in a sprawling twenty-one count complaint. Defendant Sidecar[2] moves to dismiss. For the following reasons, the motion is granted.

         BACKGROUND

         Sidecar was a ride-share company, apparently akin to Uber and Lyft (for whom plaintiff also worked, according to his pending lawsuits in Mohammed v. Uber Technologies, Inc., case no. 16 C 2537, and Mohammed v. Lyft, Inc., case no. 16 C 2470) that ceased operations on December 31, 2015. Plaintiff began working as a driver for Sidecar in late September or early October 2014, expecting to be paid $35 per hour. He was discharged on or about December 29, 2014, and he alleges that he was not paid the full amount of wages he had earned during his period of employment.

         After he was discharged, plaintiff promptly filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, claiming religious discrimination under Title VII, and he received a right-to-sue letter on January 6, 2015. On February 24, 2016, plaintiff filed this lawsuit, in which he has apparently abandoned his Title VII religious discrimination claim[3] and raised various new state and federal claims. Defendant moves to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.

         ANALYSIS

         "A motion under Rule 12(b)(6) tests whether the complaint states a claim on which relief may be granted." Richards v. Mitcheff, 696 F.3d 635, 637 (7th Cir. 2012). 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 Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (ellipsis omitted).

         Under federal notice-pleading standards, a plaintiffs "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. Stated 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 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). "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." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). "In reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint under the plausibility standard, [courts must] accept the well-pleaded facts in the complaint as true, but [they] 'need[ ] not accept as true legal conclusions, or threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements.'" Alam v. Miller Brewing Co., 709 F.3d 662, 665-66 (7th Cir. 2013) (quoting Brooks v. Ross, 578 F.3d 574, 581 (7th Cir. 2009)).

         COUNT I: INVOLUNTARY SERVITUDE (18 U.S.C. § 1584)

         Plaintiff alleges that Sidecar recruited and employed him without providing fair and reasonable compensation. When plaintiff complained, Sidecar compelled him to stay in its employment by promising to pay back wages, but it never did. Plaintiff claims that this treatment amounted to involuntary servitude in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1584.

         The Supreme Court has defined "involuntary servitude, " as the term is used in § 1584, as "a condition of servitude in which the victim is forced to work for the defendant by the use or threat of physical restraint or physical injury, or by the use or threat of coercion through law or the legal process." United States v. Kozminski, 487 U.S. 931, 952 (1988). Reviewing its cases decided under the Thirteenth Amendment (which, the Court held, Congress intentionally echoed in § 1584) and the legislative history of § 1584, the Court explained that the "reach [of § 1584] should be limited to cases involving the compulsion of services by the use or threatened use of physical or legal coercion." Id. at 948.

         In his complaint, plaintiff alleges only that he was "psychologically" coerced to remain at Sidecar by the promise of back wages. In Kozminski, the Supreme Court specifically rejected the argument that such conduct violates § 1584, explaining that it could not accept an interpretation of the statute under which an employer would be subject to criminal penalties[4] "whenever an employee asserts that his will to quit has been subdued by a threat which seriously affects his future welfare but as to which he still has a choice, however painful." 487 U.S. at 950 (citing United States v. Shackney, 333 F.2d 475, 487 (2d Cir. 1964) (Friendly, J.)).

         In his response brief, plaintiff mentions that he was called a "terrorist, " subjected to rude and aggressive language, and threatened with physical injury if he continued to demand his back pay or if he stopped working for Sidecar, but these facts are not alleged in plaintiffs complaint, the gravamen of which is that he was simply not paid the wages he was owed. These new facts do not merely add detail to the claim raised in his complaint; they attempt to transform it essentially into a different claim altogether, and it is "axiomatic . . . that a plaintiff may not amend his complaint in his response brief." Pirelli Armstrong Tire Corp. Retiree Med. Benefits Tr. v. Walgreen Co., 631 F.3d 436, 448 (7th Cir. 2011); see also Milazzo v. O'Connell, 925 F.Supp. 1331, 1340 (N.D. HI. 1996) (response brief may allege new facts consistent with the complaint, but it may not allege new claims).

         Further, these new facts include very sparse, essentially conclusory allegations of physical or legal coercion; as such, even if true, they do not support a reasonable inference that Sidecar's actions genuinely compelled plaintiff to continue to work there in a condition of servitude, with no "choice" in the matter, not even a "painful" one. See Kozminski, 487 U.S. at 950. Plaintiff fails to state a claim in Count I.

         COUNT II: FORCED LABOR (18 U.S.C. § 1589)

         Plaintiff alleges that Sidecar committed the offense of forced labor under 18 U.S.C. § 1589, which provides as follows:

(a) Whoever knowingly provides or obtains the labor or services of a person by any one of, or by any combination of, the following means-
(1) by means of force, threats of force, physical restraint, or threats of physical restraint to that person or another person;
(2) by means of serious harm or threats of serious harm to that person or another person;
(3) by means of the abuse or threatened abuse of law or legal process; or
(4) by means of any scheme, plan, or pattern intended to cause the person to believe that, if that person did not perform such labor or services, that person or another person would suffer serious harm or physical restraint, shall be punished ....

18 U.S.C. § 1589. In his complaint, plaintiff alleges that Sidecar forced plaintiff to work by making false promises of back wages. He makes no allegation that Sidecar used or threatened force, physical restraint, serious harm, or abuse of law or legal process.

         Again, as with his involuntary servitude claim, plaintiff adds additional facts in his response brief, alleging that he was called a terrorist and threatened with false criminal charges. Again, it is improper to attempt to amend the complaint in a response brief, but in any case, these additional allegations do not aid plaintiff in stating a claim. Plaintiff appears to be attempting to allege that Sidecar threatened him with abuse of legal process unless he continued to work for Sidecar, but "[a] statement is a threat if a reasonable person would believe that the intended audience would receive it as a threat, regardless of whether the statement was intended to be carried out." United States v. Calimlim, 538 F.3d 706, 713 (7th Cir. 2008). Plaintiff, who has shown himself in his written submissions and appearances before this Court to be an intelligent, articulate person, could not have believed that Sidecar, a private employer, had the power to cause criminal or immigration proceedings to be initiated against plaintiff by making false charges of terrorism, nor has he plausibly alleged that Sidecar made statements to him that a reasonable person in his position would have "interpreted ... as a serious expression of an intention" to frame him as a terrorist. See United States v. Fuller, 387 F.3d 643, 646 (7th Cir. 2004) cited in Calimlim, 538 F.3d at 713. Plaintiff fails to state a claim in Count II.

         COUNT III: PEONAGE (18 U.S.C. § 1581)

         Plaintiff alleges that Sidecar committed the offense of peonage under 18 U.S.C. § 1581. Peonage is "a status or condition of compulsory service, based upon the indebtedness of the peon to the master. The basal fact is indebtedness." United States v. Reynolds,235 U.S. 133, 144 (1914). Plaintiff alleges in his complaint that Sidecar forced plaintiff to purchase a car in order to begin employment ...


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