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Johnson v. Star Freight, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

April 26, 2018




         This case is before the Court on Defendants' motion to dismiss [Doc. 4]. For the reasons discussed below, it is RECOMMENDED that the motion be GRANTED, but that Johnson be given an opportunity to file an amended complaint.

         I. Background

         According to the complaint in this case, Plaintiff Quantuse Jace Johnson was formerly employed as a truck driver with Defendant Star Freight LLC. On July 8, 2017, a trailer containing yogurt that he was hauling disconnected from his truck and was damaged. [Doc. 1 at 7.[1] While the trailer was being towed away, he was “coerced” by his dispatcher/supervisor Defendant Brendan Smith and the president of Star Freight, Defendant Charlie Johnson, to continue to try to deliver the load. Plaintiff refused because he believed that the trailer was so badly damaged that it did not meet Federal Motor Safety Carrier Administration (“FMCSA”) guidelines and would expose the public to danger, and that attempting to haul the load would put his license in jeopardy. The refrigerated trailer's landing gear was broken and its fuel lines and fuel tank were “leaking profusely.” In response, Defendant Johnson told plaintiff that if he “wasn't (expletive) willing to attempt to deliver this load, that [he] was (expletive) part of the problem.” Defendant Smith also directed Plaintiff to unload the yogurt from the damaged trailer and onto another trailer, even though it was “humanly impossible” to do so. Plaintiff refused, and went home. [Id. at 7.]

         Two days later, on July 10, 2017, as Plaintiff was preparing for an out-of-state delivery for Star Freight, Plaintiff learned from Defendant Smith that he had been placed on suspension effective immediately. [Doc. 1 at 7-8.] Plaintiff complied with the suspension. [Id. at 8.] Then, on July 11, Plaintiff noticed that his “settlement/pay was being withheld.” On the following day, July 12, he contacted the payroll department and learned that Defendant Laura Reed, Star Fleet's safety director/human resources director, “had made the request to withhold such funds.” [Id.]

         Plaintiff telephoned Defendant Reed, who notified him of his termination of employment. [Doc. 1 at 8.] It appears that she also demanded that Plaintiff return his truck to Star Freight, which he had been leasing from the company. According to Plaintiff, she “refused to relinquish the title to the truck that [Plaintiff] had labored for over the previous 4 years and countless hours of dedicated service to [Star Freight].” [Id.] Following his termination from employment, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), and on November 7, 2017, the EEOC issued a right to sue letter. [Doc. 1 at 11.]

         On February 6, 2018, Plaintiff, proceeding pro se, filed this action using the Court's Pro Se Employment Discrimination Complaint Form. [See Doc. 1.] On the first page of the form, he indicated that he was bringing this action under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq. [Id. at 1.] Then, in the portion of the form that instructs the plaintiff to identify the protected classification on which he was discriminated, Plaintiff selected “other” and specified that he believes he was discriminated against because he refused to perform a task that was unsafe under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules. [Doc. 1 at 6.] In the narrative portion of the form, Plaintiff did not allege any facts to suggest that race, religion, gender, national origin, age, disability, or engaging in protected activity had anything to do with how his former employer and coworkers treated him. Indeed, Plaintiff explicitly alleged that

Per my stance and refusal of being subjected to an unsafe working environment, it is my sincere belief that the negatively persistent attitudes and dispositions of management is what brought to a head my termination of contracted employment.

[Doc. 1 at 8.]

         On February 26, 2018, Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. [Doc. 4.] Defendants argue that Plaintiff's exclusive remedy lies with the Unites States Department of Labor because he alleges that he was terminated solely for refusing to perform unsafe tasks under the Department of Labor's commercial motor vehicle safety regulations. Defendants maintain that the Surface Transportation Assistance Act (“STAA”) sets out an administrative procedure for aggrieved drivers of commercial motor vehicles like Plaintiff to challenge adverse employment actions based on the employee's alleged refusal to operate a vehicle in violation of the pertinent regulations. [Doc. 4-1 at 3-5 (citing 49 U.S.C. § 31105(a)).] Thus, according to Defendants, this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims. [Id. at 5-6.]

         In response, Plaintiff argues that this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case because the STAA gives the employee the option of filing a complaint with the Secretary of Labor or in court. Specifically, Plaintiff cites 49 U.S.C. § 31105(b), which pertinently provides that an employee “may file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor.” [Doc. 8 at 3-4.[2] Plaintiff reads this language as indicating Congress's intent to permit an employee to file a complaint with the Secretary of Labor and pursue relief administratively, or, in the alternative, bring an action in federal court. [Id. at 4.] Plaintiff further argues that the Court has diversity jurisdiction over the action. [Id.]

         Defendants have filed a reply, in which they reiterate that Plaintiff's sole remedy is through the Department of Labor. [Doc. 9.]

         II. Applicable Standard

         A complaint should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(1) only where the court lacks jurisdiction over the subject matter of the dispute. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1). Attacks on subject matter jurisdiction come in two forms: “facial attacks” and “factual attacks.” Houston v. Marod Supermarkets, Inc., 733 F.3d 1323, 1335 (11th Cir. 2013). “Facial attacks to subject matter jurisdiction require the court merely to look and see if the plaintiff's complaint has sufficiently alleged a basis of subject matter jurisdiction, and the allegations in his complaint are taken as true for the purposes of the motion.” Id. at 1335-36. On a facial attack, a district court may properly consider extrinsic evidence, such as deposition testimony and ...

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