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Lynch v. Rem Community Options, LLC

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia

March 1, 2018



          John T. Copenhaver, Jr. United States District Judge

         Pending is REM Community Options, LLC's (“REM”) motion to dismiss or, alternatively, for a more definite statement, filed November 17, 2017.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Jason Scott Lynch (“Mr. Lynch”) is a West Virginia resident. (Compl. ¶ 1.) REM is a West Virginia limited liability company with its principal place of business in Boston, Massachusetts.[1] (Id. ¶ 2.) REM employed Mr. Lynch for nineteen years, most recently as one of its regional directors, before terminating Mr. Lynch's employment on May 9, 2017. (See id. ¶¶ 3, 7.)

         Before his termination, “[Mr. Lynch] made numerous complaints about [REM's] lack of direct service and nursing staff and [REM's] failure to follow treatment plans as a result of the lack of these staffing.” (Id. ¶ 4.) Specifically, Mr. Lynch complained to REM that the lack of staffing “resulted in lack of nurses to monitor care of clients served by [REM], staff working excessive hours to provide client care, lack of training of staff members, [and] failure to administer medication as required.” (Id. ¶ 5.) These problems caused Mr. Lynch “to operate with uncertified staff passing medications due to lack of nurses.” (Id. ¶ 6.)

         Audits by KEPRO, an agency “under contract with the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources [(“WVDHHR”)] to monitor compliance by [REM] and others with the IDD [intellectual/developmental disabilities] waiver program, ” showed that “[Mr. Lynch's] area was equal to or better than other areas of [REM's] operation” regarding deficiencies identified by KEPRO. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) Nevertheless, REM issued to Mr. Lynch a “plan of correction, ” with which Mr. Lynch always complied. (Id. ¶ 10.)

         On May 4, 2017, REM notified Mr. Lynch of his termination, stating that Mr. Lynch had failed to “communicat[e]

         the number of nurses needed during a reduction in work force, hav[e] an established medication pass schedule, get[] bed bug eradication treatments done as needed and hav[e] []sufficient certified staff to pass medications.” (Id. ¶ 7.) Mr. Lynch alleges, to the contrary, that he

reported the additional staffing needed both verbally and in writing but [REM] refused to provide additional nurses. . . . The medication pass schedule was established as requested but [REM's] failure and refusal to adequately staff the positions resulted in inability to timely implement medication pass schedule for clients of [REM]. Bed bug treatment was ongoing and [Mr. Lynch] was in no worse condition regarding the bed bug infestation than were other regional directors who were not disciplined by [REM] over this issue. [Mr. Lynch] did lack certified staff to pass medications, but the same situation existed in all West Virginia offices and other regional directors . . . were not disciplined for [this reason]. Additionally, [Mr. Lynch] had requested additional direct care workers, nurses and supervisors from [REM] for approximately two years preceding his termination and was refused.


         Mr. Lynch initiated this action in the Circuit Court of Wood County, West Virginia, on October 2, 2017. He claims that REM violated a substantial West Virginia public policy when REM fired him “in retaliati[on] . . . for requesting adequate staffing to provide patient care.” (Id. ¶ 11; accord id. ¶ 12.) Mr. Lynch seeks lost wages and benefits, damages for emotional distress, punitive damages, costs and attorney's fees, and reinstatement. (Id. WHEREFORE Clause.)

         REM removed the action to this court on November 10, 2017, invoking the court's diversity jurisdiction. See 28 U.S.C.A. §§ 1332(a)(1), 1441 (West 2018). On November 17, 2017, REM moved to dismiss the complaint or, alternatively, for a more definite statement. REM argues that Mr. Lynch has failed to “plausibly allege any substantial public policy implicated by REM's decision to terminate his employment.” (Mem. Supp. 3.) Alternatively, REM insists that a more definite statement regarding “the specific standard [Mr. Lynch] alleges implicates a substantial public policy” is necessary for it to reasonably prepare a response. (Id. 15.)

         II. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading “contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Correspondingly, Rule 12(b)(6) provides that a pleading may be dismissed for a “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” To survive a motion to dismiss, a pleading must recite “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); see also Monroe v. City of Charlottesville, 579 F.3d 380, 386 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008)). In other words, the “[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citation omitted); see also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (“A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.”); Andrew v. Clark, 561 F.3d 261, 266 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

         A district court's evaluation of a motion to dismiss is underlain by two principles. First, when considering a motion to dismiss, the court “must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the [pleading].” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation omitted); see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (“Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, . . . on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).”) (citations omitted). In doing so, factual allegations should be distinguished from “mere conclusory statements, ” which are not to be regarded as true. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (“[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”). Second, the court must “draw[] all reasonable factual inferences . . . in the [nonmovant's] favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999); see also Jenkins v. McKeithen, 395 U.S. 411, 421 (1969) (“[T]he complaint is to be liberally construed in favor of plaintiff.”).

         III. Discussion

         Mr. Lynch presents a Harless retaliatory discharge action, which is a common-law action named as a reference to the case in which the action originated, Harless v. First National Bank in Fairmont, 162 W.Va. 116 (1978). The Harless court held that

[t]he rule that an employer has an absolute right to discharge an at will employee must be tempered by the principle that where the employer's motivation for the discharge is to contravene some substantial public policy principle, then the employer may be liable to the employee for damages occasioned by this discharge.

Syl., id. at 116. The Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia instructs that the State's “constitution, legislative enactments, legislatively approved regulations, and judicial opinions” are the “sources of public policy for purposes of determining whether a retaliatory discharge has occurred.” Syl. Pt. 6, Williamson v. Greene, 200 W.Va. 421, 423 (2000) (quoting Syl. Pt. 2, Birthisel v. Tri-Cities Health Servs., Corp., 188 W.Va. 371, 372 (1992)). Furthermore, to be considered “substantial, ” the source of the public policy must “provide specific guidance to a reasonable person.” Syl. Pt. 7, id. (quoting Syl. Pt. 3, Birthisel, 188 W.Va. at 377); see also Feliciano v. 7-Eleven, Inc., 210 W.Va. 740, 745 (2001) (“[T]o be substantial, a public policy must not just be recognizable as such but must be so widely regarded as to be evident to employers and employees alike.”). “A determination of the existence of public policy in West Virginia is a question of law . . . .” Syl. Pt. 1, Cordle v. Gen. Hugh Mercer Corp., 174 W.Va. 321, 322 (1984).

         Mr. Lynch alleges that REM fired him in retaliation for his complaints that REM was failing to comply with WVDHHR staffing regulations. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6, 11-12.) Although Mr. Lynch neglects to list in the complaint any particular regulation, both parties in their briefs cite the following two regulations as pertinent to Mr. Lynch's claims:

The Center shall provide an adequate number of qualified personnel during all hours of operation to support the functions of the Center and ensure the provisions of quality care. ...

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