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Johnson v. Morrison & Foerster LLP

United States District Court, S.D. New York

February 26, 2015

ALONZO JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
v.
MORRISON & FOERSTER LLP, et al., Defendants.

OPINION AND ORDER

JESSE M. FURMAN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Alonzo Johnson ("Plaintiff") brings this action against his former employer, the law firm Morrison & Foerster LLP ("Morrison & Foerster"), and several of his former supervisors and co-workers, alleging discrimination on the basis of his age, race, and gender, a hostile work environment, and retaliation, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq.; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 ("ADEA"), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq.; the New York State Human Rights Law ("NYSHRL"), N.Y. Exec. Law § 290 et seq.; and the New York City Human Rights Law ("NYCHRL"), N.Y. City Admin. Code § 8-101 et seq. Defendants now move, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is granted, and Johnson's complaint is dismissed.

BACKGROUND

The following facts, taken from the Complaint and exhibits attached thereto, are presumed true for the purposes of this motion. See Karmely v. Wertheimer, 737 F.3d 197, 199 (2d Cir. 2013).

Plaintiff - an African-American male with fifteen years of work experience - was employed by Morrison & Foerster as a paralegal. (Compl. (Docket No. 1) 3, 7).[1] Plaintiff's background was in intellectual property law, but in 2013, he was asked to spend three to six months working for the law firm's State and Local Tax ("SALT") group. (Id. at 3). Defendant April K. Jenkins, who served as his immediate supervisor, told him that the SALT group "loved" his work and appreciated having him in the group. (Id. ). While working for the SALT group, however, "it was clear that [Plaintiff's] race, gender, and/or age was a problem for some of the attorneys." (Id. at 8). Specifically, Defendant Nicole L. Johnson (presumably, no relation to Plaintiff) "appeared aghast" when Plaintiff told her his age and his number of children, and did not refer many assignments to Plaintiff after that conversation; Defendant Craig B. Fields "always seemed nervous in [Plaintiff's] presence"; and Defendant Hollis L. Hyans did not request his assistance directly, but rather went through Jenkins - a practice he asserts would not have occurred with a younger, non-African-American paralegal. (Id. at 7-8).

Additionally, when Plaintiff was first assigned to the SALT group, he was tasked with convincing the group's attorneys to transition from paper files to electronic files; he attributes the significant resistance he encountered in that task to the fact that, as an "experienced, 45, male, African-American paralegal, " his "judgment and recommendations were not received well and resulted in little trust" by and from his co-workers. (Id. at 7). Plaintiff was also not invited to a SALT attorney's farewell party, and was initially not invited to another SALT function, but admits that he was later forwarded the invitation to the second event; nevertheless, Plaintiff did not go and contends that "some of the other attorneys would not [have been] comfortable with his presence" at the event, and a non-African-American paralegal "would have been embraced and urged by other SALT group attorneys to attend." (Id. ).

On August 28, 2013, Plaintiff was asked to either resign or accept a ninety-day probation period based on his "inefficient" performance and "ineffective" communication with SALT attorneys. (Id. at 3). He opted for a probation period, during which several conditions were imposed on him. Among others, Plaintiff was required to seek Fields' or Defendant Irwin M. Slomka's approval before working overtime on any SALT matters and was required to work from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. instead of 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. (Id. at 6). On September 7, 2013 - a Saturday - Plaintiff received a request from a SALT attorney to cite check and create a table of authorities for a brief due that Monday morning. (Id. ). Because meeting the Monday deadline appeared to be "doable, " Plaintiff determined that it was unnecessary to ask for approval to do the overtime work required. (Id. ).

That Monday, September 9, 2013, Plaintiff found himself stuck in traffic on the George Washington Bridge while on his way to drop his son off at school. (Id. ). While stuck in traffic, Plaintiff received other requests from SALT attorneys to complete tasks due by 2 p.m. that day, work for which Plaintiff sought help from other paralegals via e-mail. (Id. ). Plaintiff did not arrive at work until 10:35 a.m. (Id. ). Three days later, Plaintiff's employment with Morrison & Foerster was terminated, allegedly because of Plaintiff's perceived inefficiency and ineffective communication that had led to his probationary period and - according to Plaintiff - his tardiness that Monday. (Id. at 7).

On September 23, 2013, Plaintiff filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"). (Id. at 3, 10). On October 22, 2013, the EEOC issued a formal decision indicating that it was declining to further investigate or pursue Plaintiff's claim - which it had read to allege discrimination on the basis of race, age, and participation in a protected activity - because the information it had was insufficient to conclude that further investigation would likely reveal a violation of federal law. (Id. at 10). Plaintiff then filed this action on January 23, 2014, alleging that he was discriminated against on the basis of his age, gender, and race through Morrison & Foerster terminating him, failing to promote him, subjecting him to unequal terms and conditions of employment, and retaliating against him. (Id. at 2-3). Defendants now move to dismiss. (Docket No. 18).

LEGAL STANDARDS

In evaluating a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must accept all facts set forth in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See, e.g., Burch v. Pioneer Credit Recovery, Inc., 551 F.3d 122, 124 (2d Cir. 2008). A claim will survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, however, only if the plaintiff alleges facts sufficient "to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is facially plausible "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A plaintiff must show "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant acted unlawfully, " id., and cannot rely on mere "labels and conclusions" to support a claim, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. If the plaintiff's pleadings "have not nudged [his or her] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, [the] complaint must be dismissed." Id. at 570.

Twombly and Iqbal notwithstanding, the Supreme Court has held that, to survive a motion to dismiss, "a complaint in an employment discrimination lawsuit need not contain specific facts establishing a prima facie case of discrimination under the framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973)." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 569 (quoting Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 508 (2002)). The Second Circuit recently clarified that Swierkiewicz has continued viability "as modified by Twombly and Iqbal, " meaning that at the motion to dismiss stage in a discrimination suit, a plaintiff "need not allege facts establishing each element of a prima facie case of discrimination, " but the complaint "must at a minimum assert nonconclusory factual matter sufficient to nudge its claims across the line from conceivable to plausible." E.E.O.C. v. Port Auth. of N.Y. & N.J., 768 F.3d 247, 254 (2d Cir. 2014). In applying Twombly and Iqbal to employment discrimination claims, courts in this Circuit have further held that the elements of a prima facie case "provide an outline of what is necessary to render [a plaintiff's employment discrimination] claims for relief plausible." Sommersett v. City of New York, No. 09-CV-5916 (LTS) (KNF), 2011 WL 2565301, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. June 28, 2011). Thus, a court must dismiss a claim of employment discrimination if the plaintiff "fail[s] to allege even the basic elements of a discriminatory action claim." Patane v. Clark, 508 F.3d 106, 112 n.3 (2d Cir. 2007). Further, "[n]aked assertions of... discrimination without any specific factual allegation of a causal link between the defendants' conduct and the plaintiff's protected characteristic are too conclusory to withstand a motion to dismiss." Sanders-Peay v. NYC Dep't of Educ., No. 14-CV-4534 (CBA) (MDG), 2014 WL 6473507, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 18, 2014) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Finally, because Plaintiff is proceeding pro se, his Complaint "must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (quoting Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97, 106 (1976)). Nonetheless, a pro se litigant must still state a plausible claim for relief. See, e.g., Walker v. Schult, 717 F.3d 119, 124 (2d Cir. 2013). Thus, the Court's "duty to liberally construe a plaintiff's complaint is not the equivalent of a duty to re-write it.'" ...


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