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Cope v. Wal-Mart Stores East, LP.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

June 27, 2016

SPYROS COPE., Plaintiff,
v.
WAL-MART STORES EAST, LP., Defendant.

          RULING ON DEFENDANT'S MOTION TO DISMISS THE SECOND AND THIRD COUNTS OF PLAINTIFF'S COMPLAINT

          Charles S. Haight, Jr. Senior United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Spyros Cope brings this action against his former employer, Defendant Wal-Mart Stores East, LP ("Wal-Mart"), in relation to what he alleges was his unlawful termination. Plaintiff filed the action in Connecticut Superior Court on September 18, 2015. Defendant thereafter removed the case on October 20, 2015, invoking this Court's diversity jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332. Plaintiff brings statutory claims under the Connecticut Fair Employment Practices Act, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46a-60(a)(1) (Count I), and Conn. Gen. Stat. §§ 31-51x and 31-51z (Count IV). Plaintiff also brings common law claims for wrongful discharge (Count II) and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (Count III). Defendant has moved for partial dismissal seeking to dismiss Plaintiff's common law claims, Counts II and III. Doc. 12. This Ruling resolves that motion.

         I. Background[1]

         Plaintiff, a black male, was employed at Wal-Mart's store in Norwalk, CT from September 2000 until his termination on April 23, 2014. Compl. ¶¶ 4, 11. Plaintiff was promoted to an Assistant Manager position in 2007 and was, at all times, an "exemplary and dedicated employee." Id. ¶¶ 12, 15. In fact, during the first thirteen years of his employ at Wal-Mart, Plaintiff had never received a single poor performance review, nor had he been warned about any issues as to his job performance. Id. ¶ 16; see also Id. ¶ 39 ("[t]hroughout [Plaintiff's] employment at [Defendant], he satisfactorily performed all job duties assigned to him").

         This changed when, during the latter portion of 2013, Wal-Mart began to seek changes in the racial composition of the Norwalk store's staff, of which the majority were black. Id. ¶ 17. In November 2013, District Manager La'shion Robinson informed store management that "not enough white people work at the store." Id. ¶ 18. Robinson's proposed solution was that management should make efforts to "hire more white people." Id. Robinson repeated similar statements through February 2014 "between ten and twenty times."[2] Id. ¶ 19. Defendant soon obliged, firing the black manager of the Norwalk store on or about November 11, 2013. Id. ¶ 21. In addition, "two black employees were terminated and two quit because of the racist remarks." Id. ¶ 35.[3] No white employees were fired during this time. Id. ¶ 36. Further, "[o]n or about December 16, 2013, the entire remaining management team [at the Norwalk store], " including Plaintiff, "all of whom were black, was placed on performance improvement plans." Id. ¶ 22.

         As part of the performance improvement plan, Plaintiff was forced to undergo "coaching" on the manner in which he performed his duties and managed his employees. Id. ¶¶ 23-24. This was the first time that Plaintiff received coaching of any kind. Id. ¶¶ 24, 33(ii). Plaintiff lodged complaints as to the coaching process with regional management, but his coaching only increased. Id. ¶ 25. This was despite the fact that Plaintiff "complied with all coaching suggestions made to him while on the performance review plan, " and "committed no 'misconduct' related to his coachings." Id. ¶¶ 33(iv), (v). However, during a March 22, 2014 performance review, Plaintiff was told he still needed improvement, and was ultimately told that he might remain under review through the end of 2014. Id. ¶¶ 26-28. Management's critiques of Plaintiff's performance were not justified. Id. ¶ 29.

         On April 12, 2014, Plaintiff was involved in an incident at the Norwalk store. On that day, the store's asset protection associate told Plaintiff that he was investigating a potential larceny. Id. ¶ 32. Upon rendering assistance, Plaintiff recognized the suspect as a persistent shoplifter, who immediately acknowledged that "I can steal from this store if I want to!" Id. ¶¶ 32(iii), (iv). Plaintiff told the shoplifter that police officers were on their way. Id. ¶ 32(v). The shoplifter than initiated physical contact with Plaintiff, who used defensive tactics to detain the shoplifter and escort him to the store manager's office. Id. ¶¶ 32(vi)-(vii). The shoplifter thereafter struck Plaintiff in the face multiple times with a closed fist and wrestled Plaintiff to the floor. Id. ¶ 32(viii). Ultimately, three customers intervened to stop the assault. Id.

         Plaintiff's actions during the April 12, 2014 incident were all consistent with Defendant's policies and procedures, which authorize those in Plaintiff's employment position to use "physical redirection, and restraint" to detain suspected shoplifters. Id. ¶¶ 32(vii), (xvi)-(xix).[4] Following the incident, on the recommendation of his family physician, Plaintiff requested, and received, three days off from work. Id. ¶ 32(xi). On his return, Plaintiff was "immediately asked to submit to a drug test . . . [for] the first time in his career."[5] Id. ¶ 32(xii). The drug test was negative. Id. ¶ 32(xiii). For his actions, the shoplifter was charged with assault, breach of peace, and larceny. Id. ¶ 32(x). Plaintiff was identified as the victim in the criminal case. Id.

         Nevertheless, on April 23, 2014, Plaintiff was terminated by Wal-Mart. Id. ¶ 30. Defendant provided Plaintiff two causes for his termination. First, Defendant claimed Plaintiff violated Wal-Mart's Investigation and Detention of Shoplifters policy through his actions on April 12, 2014. Id. ¶ 31. In fact, Plaintiff was told by Wal-Mart's Asset Protection District Manager that "what he did was just like stealing and that he might as well have stolen from the store." Id. ¶ 32(xv). Plaintiff believes that he was the only employee ever terminated for violating the Investigation and Detention of Shoplifters policy during his time of employment at Wal-Mart. Id. ¶ 38. Second, Defendant claimed that Plaintiff was terminated for "Misconduct with Coachings." Id. ¶ 33(i).

         At the core of his complaint, Plaintiff alleges that these justifications were pretextual, and that race was Defendant's motivating factor for the adverse employment action. Id. ¶ 43. Plaintiff also claims that Defendant's termination was wrongful in that it was in violation of Connecticut public policies related to crime victims and safe workplaces.

         II. Standard of Review

         "To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) ("Iqbal") (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007) ("Twombly")). This pleading standard creates a "two-pronged approach, " Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, based on "[t]wo working principles, " id. at 678.

         First, although a complaint need not include detailed factual allegations, it must provide "more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. "A pleading that offers 'labels and conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). "Nor does a complaint suffice if it tenders 'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'"Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557. "Although for the purposes of a motion to dismiss we must take all of the factual allegations in the complaint as true, we 'are not bound to accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Id. at 679.

         Second, "[w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. This "'facial plausibility" prong requires the plaintiff to plead facts "allow[ing] the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678. Importantly, the complaint must demonstrate "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged but it has not 'show[n]' - 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). "Determining whether a complaint ...


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