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Badal v. Ariens Co.

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

June 18, 2018

HAWO BADAL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
ARIENS COMPANY, Defendant.

          DECISION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART MOTION TO DISMISS

          WILLIAM C. GRIESBACH, CHIEF JUDGE

         Plaintiffs, nineteen American Black Muslims of Somali national origin, brought this suit against Defendant Ariens Company, alleging race, national origin, and religious discrimination, retaliation, and a hostile work environment, in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. § 2OOOe et seq., and race discrimination, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Now before the court is Ariens' motion for partial dismissal pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ECF No. 12. Ariens contends that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim under either Title VII or Section 1981 for discrimination on account of their race, national origin or ethnic background, and seeks dismissal of their complaint as to those claims. For the reasons explained below, Ariens' motion will be granted in part.

         Rule 12(b)(6) Motion To Dismiss and Rule 8 Pleading Standard

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of a pleading. Szabo v. Bridgeport Machines, Inc., 249 F.3d 672, 675 (7th Cir. 2001). To state a cognizable claim under the federal notice pleading system, the plaintiff is required to provide a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that [he] is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The complaint must contain sufficient factual matter "that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)).

         In Twombly, the Court rejected the liberal pleading standard of Conley v. Gibson, under which a complaint was not to be dismissed for failure to state a claim "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 561-62 (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. 41, 45-6 (1957)). Rather than requiring the defendant to show at the pleading stage that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts to support his claim, Twombly held that to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Id. at 570. In so ruling, the Court expressed concern over the cost of discovery, particularly in complex anti-trust litigation of the kind presented in Twombly itself. The Court rejected the view that judicial supervision of the discovery process and the availability of summary judgment could effectively curb discovery abuse and expense. Id. at 559-60 ("It is no answer to say that a claim just shy of a plausible entitlement to relief can, if groundless, be weeded out early in the discovery process through careful case management, . . . given the common lament that the success of judicial supervision in checking discovery abuse has been on the modest side. See, e.g., Easterbrook, Discovery as Abuse, 69 B.U. L. Rev. 635, 638 (1989) ('Judges can do little about impositional discovery when parties control the legal claims to be presented and conduct the discovery themselves'). And it is self-evident that the problem of discovery abuse cannot be solved by careful scrutiny of evidence at the summary judgment stage, much less lucid instructions to juries . . . .") (internal quotations and citations omitted). Based upon these considerations, the Court concluded that "[w]hile a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, ... a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his ' entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. at 555 (internal citations omitted).

         In Iqbal, a civil rights action, the Court made clear that the pleading standard it had announced in Twombly was not confined to complaints asserting anti-trust claims but was grounded in the language of Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure: "Our decision in Twombly expounded the pleading standard for 'all civil actions' . . . and it applies to antitrust and discrimination suits alike." 556 U.S. at 684.

         Iqbal also highlighted "two working principles" underlying Twombly. Id. at 678. First, the Court noted that the rule requiring the court to accept as true all of the allegations of the complaint did not apply to legal conclusions: "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. Though it acknowledged that "Rule 8 marks a notable and generous departure from the hypertechnical, code-pleading regime of a prior era, " the Court emphasized that "it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Id. at 678-79. The second Twombly principle the Court highlighted in Iqbal is that "only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Id. at 679. "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The Court emphasized that determining whether a 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." Id. While "not akin to a probability requirement, " the standard requires "more than a sheer possibility that the defendant acted unlawfully." Id. at 678.

         These are the principles that must govern the determination of Ariens' motion to dismiss.

         Allegations of First Amended Complaint

         According to the First Amended Complaint (FAC), Plaintiffs are all "American Black Muslims of Somali national origin, " who are either currently employed by Ariens or were employed at the time in question. FAC, ECF No. 11, at ¶¶ 11-29, 35. Ariens is described simply as a "for-profit corporation" located in Brillion, Wisconsin, and an employer within the meaning of Title VII. Id. ¶ 30. By way of background, however, the court notes that Ariens is a manufacturer of lawn mowers, snow blowers and other machines. ARIENS, https://www.ariens.com/en-us (last visited June 13, 2018). In any event, the FAC alleges that, as practicing Muslims and in accordance with their sincerely-held religious beliefs, each Plaintiff performs a prayer ritual five times a day. These prayer rituals take about five minutes and must be performed during prescribed time frames that vary depending upon the position of the sun. Some of the prayer times occur while Plaintiffs are at work. Id. ¶¶ 35-36.

         At the time they were hired, Plaintiffs requested religious accommodations to allow them to take short breaks during their shifts to perform their daily prayer rituals. Ariens' management assured Plaintiffs that it would provide an accommodation that would allow them short breaks if a prescribed prayer time should fall during their shift. Initially, Ariens did in fact provide the accommodation, and Plaintiffs, two at a time, would take short breaks to perform the ritual. This accommodation was in line with the company-wide policy of allowing employees to take short breaks for a variety of purposes, including to use the restroom, smoke, make a phone call, or purchase a snack. Id. ¶¶ 37-42. Plaintiffs allege that the religious accommodation worked smoothly and caused no problems or burdens to the operation of Ariens' business. Id. ¶¶ 43-44.

         Sometime in December 2015, Ariens' management team held a meeting with all of the Somali Muslim employees, including Plaintiffs, and announced that their religious accommodation would be revoked, effective January 25, 2016. Some of the Somali Muslims, including some Plaintiffs, expressed concern that Ariens' scheduled breaks did not coincide with the times in which they needed to say their prayers. All of the Somali Muslim workers, including Plaintiffs, walked out of the meeting and did not return to work that day in protest of the upcoming change. Some of the workers, including some Plaintiffs, resigned in protest of the revocation of their religious accommodation. Id. ¶¶ 47-52.

         Between that date and January 25, 2016, Ariens' management met with the Somali Muslims several additional times. At each meeting, management encouraged the employees to voluntarily resign and later explained that they risked being terminated if they continued to take prayer breaks after the accommodation was revoked. Management also informed the Somali Muslims that if they resigned, they could seek unemployment benefits. Instructions on how to apply for such benefits were provided, both in English and in the Somali language. Id. ¶¶ 52-64.

         Despite this encouragement, some of the Somali Muslims did not resign and continued to work even after the accommodation was revoked on January 25, 2016. Many sought and received verbal permission from their supervisor to perform the prayer ritual. When they returned to their work station, however, they discovered a written warning which threatened disciplinary actions for taking a break in violation of Ariens' new policy. Ariens' management also moved the Somali Muslims into one area to monitor them and ensure they were not requesting bathroom breaks to say their prayers. Again, Ariens' management advised the Somali Muslims to voluntarily resign or they would continue to receive warning slips until a disciplinary action was taken against them. Id. ¶¶ 66-69.

         On February 1, 2016, Ariens' Manufacturing Leader told several Somali Muslim employees, including seven of the Plaintiffs, to sign a document acknowledging they were violating company policy and that they may be fired if they continued to request the religious accommodation. All of the employees, including the seven Plaintiffs, refused to sign. Later that day, the Manufacturing Leader met with these employees, accused them of being "troublemakers, " and terminated them all. Those Plaintiffs who remained employed continued to request permission to perform their prayer ritual and continued to receive verbal or written warnings until their employment was terminated. Id. ¶¶ 78-88.

         Based on these background factual allegations, the amended complaint asserts four separate claims or counts. Count I asserts a claim of "Discrimination in Violation of Title VII." Count II asserts a claim for "Retaliation in Violation of Title VII." Count III asserts a claim of "Hostile Work Environment in Violation of Title VII." Finally, Count IV (misnumbered V) asserts a claim for "Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981(c)." It is to the race and national origin components of ...


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