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Gates v. Morris

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Charleston Division

March 29, 2018

GEORGE E. GATES, Plaintiff,
RODNEY MORRIS, et al., Defendants.



         Before the court is (1) the Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, filed by defendants Rodney Morris (“Morris”), E. I. du Pont de Memours and Company (“DuPont”), The Chemours Company (“Chemours”), and Aetna Life Insurance Company (“Aetna”) (collectively, “the defendants”) on June 30, 2017 [ECF No. 7]; and (2) the Motion to Amend Complaint, filed by plaintiff George E. Gates on August 8, 2017 [ECF No. 17]. Briefing is now complete and the motions are ripe for adjudication. For the reasons stated below, the Motion to Amend Complaint is DENIED and the Motion to Dismiss Complaint is GRANTED.

         I. Background

         The plaintiff filed his complaint in the Kanawha County Circuit Court in West Virginia on March 21, 2017 advancing seven different counts of relief. Compl. ¶¶ 14-61 [ECF No. 1-1]. Count VII, in particular, states:

While plaintiff disputes the claims as set forth above, against Aetna are covered by ERISA, to the extent the same are, plaintiff pleads that Aetna violated the same and by its violation caused harm to plaintiff which entitles plaintiff to benefits of the policy, costs, and attorney's fees, and whatever other relief may be available or the Court deems available. Plaintiff acknowledges that if ERISA applies, Plaintiff's common law claims for bad faith are pre-empted.

Compl. ¶ 61.

         The defendants removed this action on June 26, 2017. See Notice of Removal [ECF No. 1]. In their notice of removal and as a basis for federal subject-matter jurisdiction, the defendants maintain that the plaintiff expressly pleads an Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 1001, et seq., claim in Count VII.

         Thereafter, on June 30, 2017, the defendants moved to dismiss Counts I through VI on several grounds, including failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, and Count VII - the plaintiff's explicit ERISA claim - for failure to exhaust his administrative remedies under his ERISA plan prior to filing suit in federal court. The plaintiff did not contest the merits of the motion to dismiss in response, but instead simply requested leave to amend his complaint. The forthcoming proposed amended complaint, the plaintiff continued, would be consistent with his desire to only “bring ‘ERISA type' claims against named defendants and wrongful termination claims against Defendants Moore, [DuPont], and [Chemours].” Pl.'s Combined Mot. & Mem. of Law in Resp. to Defs.' Mot. to Dismiss ¶ 2 [ECF No. 12].

         On August 8, 2017, the plaintiff filed the Motion to Amend Complaint [ECF No. 17] and attached the proposed amended complaint to his Supplemental Motion to Amend Complaint, filed August 9, 2017 [ECF No. 18-1] (“Am. Compl.”). In seeking to amend his pleading under Rule 15(a), the plaintiff stated that he moves “only to ensure that his ERISA claims are protected while dismissing claims of common law and statutory bad faith” and “to provide more detail concerning” his West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”) claims. Pl.'s Supp. Combined Mot. for Leave to File Am. Compl. & Mem. of Law in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. to Am. Compl. ¶ 7 [ECF No. 18].

         The defendants now seek a court order denying the plaintiff's request to amend the complaint as futile, and the adjudication of their motion to dismiss. When, as here, both a motion to amend the complaint and a motion to dismiss the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6) are pending, it is generally improper to resolve the motion to dismiss before deciding the motion to amend. See Talley v. Ocwen Loan Servicing, LLC, 673 F. App'x 329, 330 (4th Cir. 2017) (vacating dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) and remanding to the district court to “specifically address” the plaintiff's motion to amend the complaint).

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 15(a) directs that leave to amend a pleading “shall be freely given when justice so requires.” Laber v. Harvey, 438 F.3d 404, 426 (4th Cir. 2006). “This liberal rule gives effect to the federal policy in favor of resolving cases on their merits instead of disposing of them on technicalities.” Id. “Leave to amend a pleading should be denied only” in those rare occasions “when the amendment would be prejudicial to the opposing party, there has been bad faith on the part of the moving party, or the amendment would have been futile.” Id. An amendment is “futile” if, for example, “the claim sought to be pleaded by amendment plainly would be subject to a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).” Devil's Advocate, LLC v. Zurich Am. Ins. Co., 666 F. App'x 256, 267 (4th Cir. 2016).

         A motion to dismiss filed under Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint or pleading. Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). A pleading must contain a “short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). It must therefore be specific enough to “give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)).

         This standard “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations, ' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). 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). To achieve facial plausibility, the plaintiff must plead facts allowing the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable, moving the claim beyond the realm of mere possibility. Id. Mere “labels and conclusions” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action” are insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         III. Discussion

         A. Motion to Amend the Complaint

         The plaintiff asserts three different counts in the proposed amended complaint: (I) Breach of Contract; (II) Violation of the WVHRA; and (III) Claim for ERISA Benefits. The defendants advance several reasons upon which the court should find the proposed amended complaint futile and, all together, not actionable. One of their primary contentions concerns the purported failure of the plaintiff to plead Counts I and II in a manner that achieves facial plausibility necessary to pass muster under Twombly and Iqbal. As it relates to Count III, the defendants argue that the plaintiff failed to exhaust his administrative remedies before bringing an ERISA claim in federal court.

         i. Proposed Count I - Breach of Implied Contract

         According to the proposed amended complaint, defendants Du Pont and Chemours previously employed the plaintiff. During his employment, Morris and Chemours purportedly advised the plaintiff that “he needed to go get the medical treatment he needed, [and] that his job would be waiting on him when he got back.” Am. Compl. ¶ 16(ii). But for this alleged promise, the plaintiff states, he would not have taken leave from work to receive medical treatment. Id. ¶ 17(iii). After returning from this leave and able to perform his duties as modified via an “accommodation” he was offered prior to taking leave, the plaintiff alleges that the “Defendants” reneged on that promise and informed him that his position had been terminated. Id.

         Notably, the plaintiff does not allege who uttered these representations or their relationship to any of the named defendants, when or how they were made, the nature of the alleged accommodation, or any indicia of when these alleged events occurred. Moreover, aside from these untethered accusations of misconduct, the remaining accusations are almost entirely conclusions of law. The only permissible inference that remains, taking the facts alleged as true and disregarding legal conclusions and unadorned accusations of wrongdoing, is that at some point in time, the defendants' conduct was inconsistent with the expectations of the plaintiff. Even if this inference supported a finding of plausibility in the abstract, the proposed amended complaint still lacks several significant and requisite facts necessary to establish this claim for breach of implied contract, i.e., the creation of an implied contract, its terms, manner of acceptance, and consideration. Instead, the plaintiff alleges only that the parties “entered into a valid implied contract for employment, benefits, and retirement, ” and that the undefined “Defendants” breached that agreement. Id. ¶ 16(iii).

         As a result, the proposed amended complaint does not provide either Morris or Chemours fair notice of what the plaintiff's breach of implied contract claim is or the grounds upon which it rests. Count I of the proposed amended complaint thus could not survive a motion to ...

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