Thompson-Lyons v. Cmty. Dental of Hamilton

Full title:CISSY THOMPSON-LYONS, Plaintiff, v. COMMUNITY DENTAL OF HAMILTON, P.C., Defendant

Court:United States District Court, D. New Jersey

Date published: Aug 12, 2022

Facts

This is a case about alleged racial discrimination by a supervisor and the fallout that followed. Community Dental, a dental office located in Hamilton Township, New Jersey, hired Thompson-Lyons as a part-time dental assistant in May 2019. (Compl. ¶¶ 10, 12, ECF No. 1.) Thompson-Lyons earned about $14 an hour and worked part-time for the first several months of her employment. (Id. ¶¶ 12, 14.) Due to Thompson-Lyons’s success at work, sometime later, Community Dental began routinely scheduling Thompson-Lyons to work full-time hours and then granted her a “merit-based pay raise to $15.00 per hour” in October 2019. (Id. ¶¶ 14, 15.) 

Things took a turn in November 2019, however. Silvia Cruz (“Cruz”), a manager at Community Dental, allegedly approached Thompson-Lyons in November 2019 to tell Thompson-Lyons that “[her] hair is so unprofessional.” (Id. ¶ 17.) Thompson-Lyons maintained her hair “in an ‘afro’ style, commonly worn by African-American women.” (Id. ¶ 18.) In response to this comment, Thompson-Lyons asked Cruz whether “[her] natural hair is unprofessional to [Cruz],” to which Cruz responded, “Yes, didn’t they teach you that at school? Every office has a set of rules, and those are [Community Dental’s] rules. You can wear your hair gelled down or straight.” (Id. ¶ 17.) Thompson-Lyons did not respond. (Id.)

Understandably upset, Thompson-Lyons reported the incident to the district manager at Community Dental, Joseph Potena (“Potena”). (Id. ¶ 19.) When Thompson-Lyons met with Potena the next day, Potena stated that Community Dental does not discriminate and Thompson-Lyons may “wear [her] hair how [she] want[s].” (Id. ¶ 20.) A day or so after this meeting, Community Dental substantially cut Thomson-Lyons’s hours, as she went from a forty-hour week to working only fourteen hours a week. (Id. ¶ 23.) Thompson-Lyons did not complain about her reduction in hours out of fear of further retaliation. (Id. ¶ 24.)

The story does not end there. In January 2020, Thompson-Lyons again raised the November 2019 incident up the chain of command, and Community Dental opened an internal investigation after a series of meetings between Thompson-Lyons and various managers. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 28, 29.) But Community Dental closed the investigation shortly after conducting witness interviews. (Id. ¶ 29.) Frustrated and now working only fourteen hours a week, Thompson-Lyons quit in late January 2020. (Id. ¶¶ 26, 32.) Partially motivating Thompson-Lyons’s decision to leave was the “economic brunt of her new [limited] schedule.” (Id. ¶ 25.) 

Thompson-Lyons later sued Community Dental, alleging five claims: (1) racial discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), (2) retaliation under Title VII, (3) violations of 42 U.S.C. § 1981, (4) discrimination under the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (“NJLAD”), and (5) retaliation under NJLAD. Community Dental moved for a narrow, partial dismissal of Thompson-Lyons’s Complaint, contending that she failed to state a claim for relief on her constructive discharge claim. (ECF No. 6.) Thompson-Lyons opposed (ECF No. 8), and Community Dental replied (ECF No. 9).

Issue

Decision

Community Dental is attempting to dismiss the legal theory of constructive discharge in a case involving a racial discrimination complaint filed by Thompson-Lyons. Constructive discharge operates as an alternative theory to satisfy the element of an adverse employment action, as per the New Jersey Labor Relations Act (NJLAD). The Court believes that Thompson-Lyons failed to adequately plead a theory of constructive discharge predicated on the facts leading up to her resignation, including her rollercoaster ride from part-time employment to full-time employment and back to part-time employment in the wake of her racial discrimination complaint.

The Court considers all Thompson-Lyons’s claims of constructive discharge together, finding dismissal unwarranted due to its fact-specific nature and the fact-intensive nature of the claim. The Court finds dismissal unwarranted because it is often inappropriate for the district court to decide that fact-intensive question in the context of a 12(b)(6) motion.

Despite Thompson-Lyons meeting the low pleading bar at this stage, the Court cannot conclude that a reasonable person would not have found it necessary to resign as a matter of law. Additionally, the Court is not convinced by Community Dental’s argument that because Thompson-Lyons was hired as a part-time employee, her reduction in hours cannot form the basis of a constructive discharge claim. Such a legal position would steamroll the fact-finding process, ignoring the reality that Thompson-Lyons may have been informally promoted to a full-time employee even if her job title never changed. This is a particular concern here, as constructive discharge claims often include evidence of subtle coercion, demotions, and changes in job responsibilities.

Considering all facts in a light most favorable to Thompson-Lyons, the Court denies Community Dental’s Motion. An Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion will follow.

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