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Bryan v. Community Bank & Trust

United States District Court, W.D. Missouri, Southwestern Division

October 17, 2014

AMBER N. BRYAN, Plaintiff,
v.
COMMUNITY BANK & TRUST, RAY STIPP, and CANDY SHELLEY Defendants.

ORDER

DOUGLAS HARPOOL, District Judge.

Before the Court is the Defendant Community Bank and Trust's Motion to Dismiss Counts III and IV of Plaintiff's Petition for Damages and to Strike Plaintiff's Request for Emotional Distress Damages under the FMLA. (Doc. 3). In response to the motion, Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint (Doc. 8) and submitted suggestions in opposition to dismissal (Doc. 9). Defendant thereafter filed reply suggestions in support of its motion to dismiss. (Doc. 16). The Court, after careful consideration of the issues raised and legal arguments provided by the parties, hereby DENIES Defendant's Motion to Dismiss and FINDS AS MOOT Defendant's Motion to Strike.

BACKGROUND

On July 24, 2014, Plaintiff commenced the present action in the Circuit Court of Newton County, Missouri. The petition alleges that Defendants engaged in various unlawful employment practices including (I) MHRA gender discrimination, (II) MHRA disability discrimination, (III) FMLA interference, (IV) FMLA retaliation/discrimination, and (V) retaliatory discharge. Plaintiff claims she was criticized for reporting a perceived mortgage fraud committed by a loan officer, that her male supervisors doubled her commission goals to a number much higher than that of her male counterparts, that she was requested and was not provided a loan processer in a timely fashion, that upon requesting FMLA leave Defendant requested that she undergo a second medical certification, that she was terminated while on FMLA medical leave for medically diagnosed stress, anxiety, elevated blood pressure, and panic attacks, and that shortly thereafter her position was filled by a male. Plaintiff sued her employer, Community Bank and Trust, and her supervisors, Ray Stipp and Candy Shelley.

Defendants removed the case to federal court on August 28, 2014 and Defendant Community Bank and Trust filed a motion to dismiss on September 4, 2014. The motion argues three points. First, Defendant argues that Plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to support a claim for FMLA interference. Defendant contends that a request for a second medical certification cannot establish a claim for interference and Plaintiff failed to show that she was otherwise denied a benefit to which she was entitled because she was granted leave. Second, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's requests for emotional distress damages under the FMLA should be stricken because such damages are not available under the statute. Finally, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to state a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Because Plaintiff failed to cite any specific constitutional provision, statute, or rule to support her wrongful termination claim, Defendant argues that Plaintiff's allegations are too vague and fail to state a claim

Within twenty-one days of receiving Defendant's motion to dismiss, Plaintiff filed a first amended complaint and suggestions in opposition to Defendant's motion. In the suggestions, Plaintiff notes that the amended complaint removes her demand for mental and emotional distress damages under the FMLA and further clarifies the allegations made in her initial complaint. In response to Defendant's first argument, Plaintiff argues that she sufficiently pled facts to establish an FMLA interference claim because she alleged that she was terminated while on FMLA leave and she was denied the benefit of continued employment. As to Defendant's third argument, Plaintiff counters that Defendant reads Missouri courts' interpretation of public policy too narrowly; instead, Plaintiff states that reporting suspected criminal activity, like mortgage fraud, is sufficient to support a whistleblower claim. Furthermore, Plaintiff argues that it is not necessary to rely on an employer's direct violation of a statute in order to state a claim; rather, Missouri courts require only that the public policy allegedly violated be reflected by a statute, regulation, rule, etc. Regardless, Plaintiff contends, the amended petition now cites the federal criminal statutory scheme and banking regulations that prohibit mortgage fraud.

Defendant's response maintains that Plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to support her FMLA interference claim and her wrongful termination in violation of public policy claim. As to the FMLA claim, Defendant acknowledges that Plaintiff was terminated during her leave but argues that in order to state a claim she must also show that she was entitled to reinstatement upon conclusion of her leave. As to the wrongful termination claim, Defendant asserts that Plaintiff failed to state a claim because she alleged only internal whistleblowing to the alleged wrongdoer, which case law indicates is insufficient to state a whistleblower claim.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"To survive a motion to dismiss [under 12(b)(6)], 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). A complaint is facially plausible where its factual content "allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. The plaintiff must plead facts that show more than a mere speculation or possibility that the defendant acted unlawfully. Id .; Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). While the Court accepts the complaint's factual allegations as true, it is not required to accept the plaintiff's legal conclusions. Ashcroft, 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 court's assessment of whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 679. The reviewing court must read the complaint as a whole rather than analyzing each allegation in isolation. Braden v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 588 F.3d 585, 594 (8th Cir. 2009).

ANALYSIS

Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint was filed as a matter of course pursuant to Rule 15(a)(1)(B) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Upon review, the Court finds that the amended complaint provides "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face" as to both Plaintiff's FMLA interference claim and her whistleblower retaliatory discharge claim. This conclusion is premised upon both legal and factual grounds.

A. FMLA Interference

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides that it is "unlawful for any employer to interfere with, restrain, or deny the existence of or the attempt to exercise" rights guaranteed by the statute. 29 U.S.C. § 2615(a)(1). Examples of unlawful interference may include an employer's refusal to authorize FMLA leave, an employer's actions or practices that discourage employees from using FMLA leave, and/or manipulation by covered employers to avoid responsibilities under the FMLA. 29 C.F.R. § 825.220(b). As the Eighth Circuit explained, "[w]hen an employer attaches negative consequences to the exercise of protected rights, it has chilled' the employee's ...


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