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Congden v. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 29, 2018




         This matter is before the Court on Defendants Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (“DHHS”), Allison Zinn, Zoe Lyons, and Emilee Hudson's motion to dismiss (Dkt. 7). The issues have been fully briefed, and a hearing was held on May 3, 2018. For the reasons stated below, the Court grants in part and denies in part Defendants' motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Calvin Congden is a former officer with Child Protective Services (“CPS”), a division of DHHS. Compl. ¶ 10 (Dkt. 1). Congden began his position with CPS in the summer of 2015, on a one year at-will probationary period, after serving in the United States Army, and as a corrections officer with the State of Michigan. Id. ¶¶ 13-15. As a result of his military service, Congden was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”) and anxiety. Id. ¶ 12.

         Each year during the winter holidays, Congden would dress up as Santa Claus for a charity event. Id. ¶ 16. On December 15, 2015, prior to attending that year's event, Congden put on his Santa Claus outfit at home, and posed for a picture carrying his legally purchased semiautomatic rifle. Id. ¶¶ 17, 19. Congden subsequently posted the picture to his Facebook page. Id. ¶ 19. Soon thereafter, the picture was viewed by Zinn, a managerial employee at DHHS. Id. ¶ 23. After viewing the picture, Zinn told Congden's coworkers to beware of Congden because he was a veteran, owned firearms, and “looked crazy” in the Facebook picture. Id.

         Congden later learned of Zinn's statements and contacted his state representative on January 10, 2016 to inform her of what he perceived to be Zinn's discrimination against him as a state employee. Id. ¶ 24. The next day, Congden spoke with Hudson, another managerial employee at DHHS, to inform her of Zinn's comments. Id. ¶ 25. He informed Hudson that he is a disabled veteran and objected to Zinn's remarks. Id. Congden also met with Lyons, a managerial employee at DHHS, to let her know that he took issue with Zinn's remarks. Id. ¶ 26. Lyons asked Congden if he had contacted his state representative about this issue, to which Congden acknowledged that he had. Id. ¶¶ 27-28.

         Two weeks after his meetings with Hudson and Lyons, Congden received a disciplinary action for the first time at DHHS. Id. ¶ 29. Over the next several months, Congden continued to receive write-ups for minor infractions such as falling behind on documentation and making simple grammatical errors; other employees were not disciplined for identical conduct. Id. ¶¶ 31-32. During Congden's nine-month review, he was told by Hudson that he was “emotionally unfit” for his position. Id. ¶ 33. On July 5, 2016, Congden was informed that his performance during the one-year probationary period was unsatisfactory, and that he was being terminated prior to the end of the period. Id. ¶ 34. Congden's employment with DHHS ceased on July 15, 2016, after he was allegedly constructively discharged. Id. ¶ 35.

         Congden now brings this suit, alleging that Defendants engaged in First Amendment retaliation, Second Amendment retaliation, and disability discrimination pursuant to the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).


         “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.' 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.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “[T]he tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions. Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Americans with Disabilities Act

         Defendants first argue that Congden's claim brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et seq., should be dismissed because it is barred by the Eleventh Amendment. The Eleventh Amendment states that “[t]he judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” U.S. Const. amend. XI. “Although by its terms the Amendment applies only to suits against a State by citizens of another State, [the Supreme Court's] cases have extended the Amendment's applicability to suits by citizens against their own States.” Carten v. Kent State Univ., 282 F.3d 391, 394 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Bd. of Trs. v. Garrett, 531 U.S. 356, 363 (2001)).

         However, the Supreme Court has also held that “Congress may abrogate the States' Eleventh Amendment immunity when it both unequivocally intends to do so and act[s] pursuant to a valid grant of constitutional authority.” Garrett, 531 U.S. at 363. In Garrett, the Court addressed whether the unequivocal abrogation of immunity in Title I of the ADA, which prohibits employers, including states, from discriminating in employment against individuals with disabilities, see 42 U.S.C. §§ 12111-17, was constitutional. The Court ultimately concluded that the Constitution, specifically Section V of the Fourteenth Amendment, did not grant Congress the authority to abrogate the states' Eleventh Amendment immunity from suits seeking money damages under Title I of the ADA. Garrett, 531 U.S. at 374.

         In their motion, Defendants argue that Garrett bars Congden's ADA claim because he is seeking monetary damages under Title I. However, as Congden notes, Count IV of his complaint, the count alleging a violation of the ADA, states that “Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief under the ADA against the Individual Defendants in their official capacity to remedy their lawful behavior.” Compl. ¶ 77. Pursuant to Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123 (1908), “individuals can seek prospective injunctive relief for Title I violations.” See Whitfield v. Tennessee, 639 F.3d 253, 257 (6th Cir. 2011). “In order to qualify under Ex parte Young, such an action must seek prospective relief to end a continuing violation of federal law” by individual state officials. Carten, 282 F.3d at 395.

         Congden's complaint makes clear that he is seeking injunctive relief in the form of an order “reinstating Plaintiff to the positions he would have if there had been no wrongdoing by Defendants.” Compl., Relief Requested. At oral argument, counsel for Defendants conceded that Congden was properly seeking injunctive relief pursuant to Ex Parte Young, and stated that Defendants were withdrawing their motion to dismiss as to this claim. As a result, the Court denies Defendants' motion to dismiss as to Congden's ADA claim.

         B. ...

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