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Farmer v. Spartan Mining Co., LLC

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

February 27, 2019

JASON FARMER, Plaintiff,
v.
SPARTAN MINING CO., LLC and RONALD MILLER, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          IRENE C. BERGEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Court has reviewed the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Document 6), the Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss of Defendants Spartan Mining Company, LLC and Ronald Miller (Document 7), the Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss (Document 9), and the Defendants' Reply Memorandum in Support of Motion to Dismiss (Document 14). The Court has also reviewed the Amended Complaint (Document 11). To date, the Plaintiff has not filed a substantive response to the motion to dismiss. For the reasons stated herein, the Court finds that the Defendants' motion should be granted in part and denied in part.

         FACTUAL ALLEGEATONS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         The Plaintiff, Jason Farmer, initiated this lawsuit with a complaint filed in the Circuit Court of Wyoming County, West Virginia, against the Defendants, Spartan Mining Company, LLC (“Spartan”) and Ronald Miller. The two-count complaint alleged that the Plaintiff was wrongfully discharged from his position at Spartan as a roof bolt operator and employee at the Road Fork #51 Mine (“the Mine”). He alleged that the Defendants ordered him to work in extremely dusty conditions downwind from the active mining machines, which allegedly threatened his health and resulted in his inability to work for Spartan. The complaint further alleged that the Defendants' actions were in violation of the West Virginia common law and the West Virginia Human Rights Act (“WVHRA”). On April 6, 2018, the Defendants jointly removed the matter to this court based on diversity jurisdiction. On April 13, 2018, the Defendants filed an answer, which denied all allegations.

         On May 10, 2018, the Plaintiff filed an amended complaint. On May 17, 2018, in response to the amended complaint, the Defendants filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Amended Complaint and Memorandum of Law in Support. On May 31, 2018, the Plaintiff filed his response in opposition and on June 7, 2018, the Defendants filed a reply in support. On January 29, 2019, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order, denying the Defendants' motion to strike and directing that the amended complaint be filed.

         The Plaintiff claims that Ronald Miller ordered the Plaintiff and other miners to operate a roof bolt machine in dusty conditions in advance of the ventilation current. In the summer of 2016, at the age of thirty-six, the Plaintiff began struggling to breathe. On July 18, 2016, the Plaintiff notified Terry Lambert, the Mine's safety director, in writing, that his lungs were damaged, and that he would not be able to work in advance of the ventilation any longer. Despite this notification, the Defendants required the Plaintiff to operate the roof bolt machine in advance of the ventilation current. The Plaintiff was off work between July 19, 2016 and September 1, 2016. While he was away from work, the Plaintiff's medical treatment providers informed him that he suffered from an irreversible progressive breathing impairment caused by pulmonary disease resulting from coal mine dust exposure, also known as black lung disease. On August 10, 2016, Terreal Blankenship, on behalf of Spartan, filed a Form 7000-1 Occupational Illness Report with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration acknowledging that, as of August 8, 2016, the Plaintiff had developed dust disease of the lungs.

         The Plaintiff returned to work on September 1, 2016. Upon his return, he requested that he no longer work in advance of the ventilation current. He also informed management of his breathing problem and provided them with an x-ray report confirming that he was suffering from black lung disease. In response to this information, the Defendants initially moved Mr. Farmer to another part of the mine that was not as dusty and assigned him less hours in comparison to the hours he was assigned when he worked in advance of the ventilation current. However, during September 2016, the same month of the Plaintiff's return to work, the Defendants again ordered him to work in advance of the ventilation current. Working in those conditions aggravated the Plaintiff's breathing difficulties and he feared working under those conditions would lead to irreparable damage and additional suffering from black lung disease. In light of his request to work elsewhere, once the Defendants ordered the Plaintiff to work in the dusty environment, in advance of the ventilation current, with knowledge of his black lung disease, the Plaintiff found the conditions to be so intolerable that he was compelled to quit his job on September 25, 2016.

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted tests the legal sufficiency of a complaint or pleading. Francis v. Giacomelli, 588 F.3d 186, 192 (4th Cir. 2009); Giarratano v. Johnson, 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008). 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.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Additionally, allegations “must be simple, concise, and direct.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(d)(1). “[T]he pleading standard Rule 8 announces 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 Bell Atlantic Corp v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In other words, “a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Moreover, “a complaint [will not] suffice if it tenders naked assertions devoid of further factual enhancements.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The Court must “accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007). The Court must also “draw [] all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor.” Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999). However, statements of bare legal conclusions “are not entitled to the assumption of truth” and are insufficient to state a claim. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Furthermore, the court need not “accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.” E. Shore Mkts., v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice . . . [because courts] ‘are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (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.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. At 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). In other words, this “plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than ‘a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.'” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). A plaintiff must, using the complaint, “articulate facts, when accepted as true, that ‘show' that the plaintiff has stated a claim entitling him to relief.” Francis, 588 F.3d at 193 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557). “Determining whether a complaint states [on its face] a plausible claim for relief [which can survive a motion to dismiss] will ... be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679.

         DISCUSSION

         The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, which addressed alleged deficiencies with the complaint, and raised affirmative defenses. In response to the motion, the Plaintiff asserted, without any legal basis or order from the Court, that the motion was moot because he had filed an amended complaint. The Defendants protested and filed a response renewing their motion to dismiss and asked the Court to strike the amended complaint. The Court addressed the procedural defects with the filing of the amended complaint but permitted it to be filed for the sake of preserving judicial economy. The Court will address the arguments raised by the Defendants, both in the initial motion to dismiss and in the briefing filed after submission of the amended complaint. The Court's analysis of the sufficiency of the complaint will rely on the amended complaint as the operative pleading.

         A. Count ...


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