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Miller v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

September 6, 2019

HILTON MILLER, Plaintiff,
v.
SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION and NANCY BERRYHILL, ACTING COMMISSIONER, Defendants

          OPINION

          Kevin McNulty United States District Judge

         The plaintiff, Hilton Miller, is an administrative law judge ("ALJ") in the Social Security Administration ("SSA"). His Amended Complaint asserts claims of workplace discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although it lumps them together, the Amended Complaint asserts three distinct claims. Claim 1 is that the SSA discriminatorily denied Judge Miller appointment as hearing office chief administrative law judge ("HOCALJ") in 2014. Claim 2 is that SSA, for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons, terminated his temporary position as acting HOCALJ in 2016. Claim 3 is that SSA again denied him appointment as HOCALJ in 2017.

         Defendant has moved to dismiss the first and third claims based on failure to exhaust administrative remedies. For the reasons stated herein, that motion is granted.

         I. Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Animal Set Products, Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 469 n.9 (3d Cir. 2011). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. New Jersey Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const Corp. of New Jersey, 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); see Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 232 (3d Cir. 2008) (Rule 8 "requires a 'showing' rather than a blanket assertion of an entitlement to relief." (citation omitted)). Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570; see also West Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat'l Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013).

         That facial-plausibility standard is met "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). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement'... it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Id.

         When deciding a motion to dismiss, a court typically does not consider matters outside the pleadings. However, a court may consider documents that are "integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint" or any "undisputedly authentic document that a defendant attaches as an exhibit to a motion to dismiss if the plaintiffs claims are based on the document." In re Rockefeller Ctr. Props., Inc. Sec. Litig., 184 F.3d 280, 287 (3d Cir. 1999) (emphasis and citations omitted); see In re Asbestos Prods. Liab. Litig. (No. VI), 822 F.3d 125, 133 n.7 (3d Cir. 2016); Schmidt v. Skolas, 770 F.3d 241, 249 (3d Cir. 2014).

         In particular, courts considering motions to dismiss have relied on EEO files that are integral to the allegations of the complaint. See, e.g., Smith v. Pullman, 420 Fed.Appx. 208, 213 (3d Cir. 2011) (considering EEO documents in connection with a claim of failure to exhaust administrative remedies); Saba v. Middlesex Cty. Bd. of Soc. Servs., No. 16-CV-4712 (BRM), 2017 WL 2829618, at *5 (D.N.J. June 30, 2017); Cummings v. Princeton Univ., No. 15-CV-8587 (FLW), 2016 WL 6434561, at *l-2 (D.N.J. Oct. 31, 2016). With the motion to dismiss, the SSA has submitted two declarations attaching documents from the EEO administrative proceedings. (P-L Decl. (DE 17-1); Crawf. Decl. (DE 17-2))[1]

         As regards exhaustion of remedies, such documents are considered not for their truth but only for their legal effect. Further, the plaintiff does not seem to dispute the issue of what claims he raised at the administrative level; he only disputes the legal necessity of doing so as a matter of law.[2] I will therefore consider certain of the EEO documents here.

         II. Discussion

         A. The Title VII Exhaustion Requirement

         Plaintiff Hilton Miller, an administrative law judge (ALJ) employed by the Social Security Administration ("SSA"), claims that he has been the victim of racial discrimination in the workplace. He has filed this action against SSA under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000 et seq.

         With respect to Title VII, the government has conditioned its waiver of sovereign immunity on "rigorous administrative exhaustion requirements and time limitations." Brown v. GSA, 425 U.S. 820, 833 (1976).

" 'It is a basic tenet of administrative law that a plaintiff must exhaust all required administrative remedies before bringing a claim for judicial relief.'" Slingland v. Donahoe, 542 Fed.Appx. 189, 191 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Robinson v. Dalton, 107 F.3d 1018, 1020 (3d Cir. 1997)). "In particular, '[t]he Supreme Court has explained that when Title VII remedies are available, they must be exhausted before a plaintiff may file suit.'" Id. (quoting Spence v. Straw, 54 F.3d 196, 200 (3d Cir. 1995)). The Third Circuit has "explained that the purposes of the exhaustion requirement are to promote administrative efficiency, 'respect[ ] executive autonomy by allowing an agency the opportunity to correct its own errors,' provide courts with the benefit of an agency's expertise, and serve judicial economy by having the administrative agency compile the factual record." Robinson, 107 F.3d at 1020 (quoting Hey wood v. Cruzan Motors, Inc., 792 F.2d 367, 370 (3d Cir. 1986)).
"Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16, establishes the virtually exclusive remedy for federal employees who allege discrimination in the workplace." Green v. Potter, 687 F.Supp.2d 502, 513 (D.N.J. 2009) (Simandle, C.J.), aff'd sub nom. Green v. Postmaster Gen. of U.S., 437 Fed.Appx. 174 (3d Cir. 2011). Exhaustion under Title VII "requires both consultation with an agency counselor and filing a formal EEOC complaint within the required times." Robinson, 107 F.3d at 1021.

Paul v. Tsoukaris, No. CV135891KMJBC, 2017 WL 1033771, at *6 (D.N.J. Mar. 17, 2017) (footnotes omitted).

         More specifically, exhaustion of remedies in the Title VII context has three required steps:

First, the employee must contact an EEO counselor within 45 days of the effective date of any employment action;
Second, the employee must file a formal administrative complaint within 15 days after receiving a notice of right to file a discrimination complaint from the counselor;
Third, the employee must either appeal the agency's final decision to the EEOC or file a civil action in federal district court within 90 days of receiving the final action, or if no final action has been taken, after 180 days from the filing of the initial complaint.

See 29 C.F.R. §§ 1614.105-1614.109, 1614.401, 1614.407(a), (b); see also Winder v. Postmaster Gen., 528 Fed.Appx. 253, 255 (3d Cir. 2013); Dixon v. Sec'y U.S. Dep't of Veteran Affairs, 607 F. App'x, 154 (3d Cir. 2015).

         B. Failure to ...


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