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Apon v. ABF Freight Systems, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Maine

April 17, 2018

DONATO APON, Plaintiff,
v.
ABF FREIGHT SYSTEMS, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS

          JON D. LEVY, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         The Plaintiff, Donato Apon, is a former employee of Defendant ABF Freight Systems, Inc. (“ABF”). Apon claims that ABF terminated his employment because he refused to sign a form acknowledging certain legal requirements related to ABF's trucking business. In his Amended Complaint, Apon alleges violations of the Maine Whistleblowers' Protection Act, 26 M.R.S.A. § 831, et seq. (2018) (“MWPA”), and the Maine Human Rights Act, 5 M.R.S.A. § 4551, et seq. (2018) (“MHRA”). ABF has moved to dismiss Apon's Amended Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted (ECF No. 7). For the reasons that follow, ABF's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Apon worked for ABF from 1986 until his termination on February 19, 2016. On February 16, 2016, Apon's immediate supervisor, Derek Bell, instructed Apon to sign a document entitled “Leadership Responsibility Hours of Service and Meal Break Compliance Form” (the “Leadership Form”). The Leadership Form acknowledges the signatory's responsibility for enforcing certain hours of service and meal break requirements contained in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Act (“FMCSA”). 49 U.S.C.A. § 31131, et seq. (2018). The Leadership Form states that “[c]ompliance must be achieved through oversight, enforcement, and leadership of the Branch Managers and Linehaul Managers.” ECF No. 6 at 1 (emphasis added). The Leadership Form refers to Branch Managers and Linehaul Managers throughout, but makes no mention of Apon's job title: Operations Supervisor. Id. at 1-2.

         The Amended Complaint asserts that Apon refused to sign the Leadership Form because he believed that as an Operations Supervisor, and not a Branch Manager or Linehaul Manager, his signature on the form would violate state or federal transportation laws, rules, or regulations. Apon asked Bell for clarification about the Leadership Form, and asked to discuss the issue with Bell's supervisor. Bell offered no clarification and refused to contact his supervisor. Bell again asked Apon to sign the form, and when Apon refused, Bell sent him home.

         Apon went on medical leave on February 16 and returned to work on February 29, at which time he was informed that his employment had been terminated effective February 19, 2016. ABF's termination letter to Apon states that he was terminated for his failure to sign the Leadership Form. ECF No. 5 at ¶ 24; ECF No. 6 at 3.

         II. MOTION TO DISMISS STANDARD

         ABF moves to dismiss the Amended Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Rodríguez-Reyes v. Molina-Rodríguez, 711 F.3d 49, 53 (1st Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). In evaluating a motion to dismiss, the Court will accept all well-pleaded facts as true and draw all reasonable inferences in the Plaintiff's favor. Id. at 52-53. Determining the plausibility of a claim is a context-specific task that requires the court “to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 53 (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009)).

         To establish a prima facie claim for retaliation under the MWPA, an employee must demonstrate that “(1) she engaged in activity protected by the statute; (2) she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) there was a causal link between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.” Harrison v. Granite Bay Care, Inc., 811 F.3d 36, 46 (1st Cir. 2016) (citing Costain v. Sunbury Primary Care, P.A., 954 A.2d 1051, 1053 (Me. 2008)). “[T]he employee's burden of proving a prima facie case of retaliation is relatively light, and requires only a small showing that is not onerous and is easily made.” Brady v. Cumberland Cty., 126 A.3d 1145, 1151 (Me. 2015) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). “[T]he Court's role in a motion to dismiss is to determine only whether [the plaintiff] has surmounted the much lower bar of plausibly narrating a claim for relief.” Levitt v. Sonardyne, Inc., 918 F.Supp.2d 74, 85 (D. Me. 2013) (internal quotation marks, alterations, and citation omitted). This is a relatively light burden. Brady, 126 A.3d at 1151.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Apon's Amended Complaint contains a single count, which asserts two grounds of unlawful retaliation under the MWPA. First, that terminating Apon's employment in response to his refusal to sign the Leadership Form - when he believed that his signing the form was contrary to state or federal transportation laws - violated § 833(1)(D) (“Section D”) of the MWPA. Second, the Amended Complaint asserts that ABF terminated Apon in violation of § 833(1)(A) (“Section A”) of the MWPA based on his report to Bell, his supervisor, of what he reasonably believed was a violation of transportation laws. ABF argues that the Amended Complaint fails to plead (1) a refusal to act that was protected by Section D because Apon has not identified what law he was directed to violate; and (2) a “report” protected by Section A because Apon's verbal refusal to sign the Leadership Form does not constitute a “report” protected by the MWPA. For the reasons that follow, I conclude that Apon has stated a plausible report claim under Section A, but not a plausible refusal to act claim under Section D of the MWPA.

         The Amended Complaint also alleges a third basis for relief: that ABF's retaliation violated § 4633 of the MHRA (“Prohibition against Retaliation and Coercion”). 5 M.R.S.A. § 4633. In response to ABF's motion to dismiss, however, Apon concedes that there is no additional MHRA whistleblower liability authorized by § 4633 beyond what is authorized specifically by the MWPA, and he does not oppose ABF's Motion to Dismiss as to that asserted basis for relief. See Costain, 954 A.2d at 1053 (the MHRA provides the right of action for MWPA whistleblowers who have suffered retaliatory discharge or other adverse employment actions in violation of the MWPA). Accordingly, I grant the motion to dismiss as to the portion of Count I in the Amended Complaint that requests relief under § 4633 of the MHRA.

         A. Good Faith Refusal to Comply (Section D)

         ABF challenges whether the Amended Complaint sufficiently alleges that Apon engaged in activity protected by Section D. Section D provides, in relevant part, that an employer may not discharge an employee where “[t]he employee acting in good faith has refused to carry out a directive to engage in activity that would be a violation of a law or rule adopted under the laws of this State, a political subdivision of this State or the United States . . . .” 26 M.R.S.A. § 833(1)(D). ABF contends that because the Amended Complaint does not identify a particular law or rule ...


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