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Ferreira v. Child and Family Services of Rhode Island

Supreme Court of Rhode Island

December 17, 2019

John Ferreira
v.
Child and Family Services of Rhode Island.

          Newport County NC 17-330 Superior Court Brain Van Couyghen Associate Justice.

          For Plaintiff: Thomas Folcarelli, Esq.

          For Defendant: Kristen Whittle, Esq. Matthew R. Plain, Esq.

          Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, and Indeglia, JJ.

          OPINION

          Paul A. Suttell Chief Justice.

         The plaintiff, John Ferreira, is challenging the dismissal of his first amended complaint against the defendant, Child and Family Services of Newport County (CFS).[1] This case came before the Supreme Court pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After considering the parties' written and oral submissions and reviewing the record, we conclude that cause has not been shown and that this case may be decided without further briefing or argument. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         In August 2017, Ferreira filed a complaint in Newport County Superior Court, claiming that his former employer, CFS, defamed him and discriminated against him based on his age, gender, and "hostile environment[.]" The factual allegations asserted that Ferreira, who had been employed by CFS for nine years, resigned from his position after a newly hired clinician undermined him at the workplace by reporting false accusations against him to their supervisors, who in turn inappropriately disciplined Ferreira. CFS filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, which a hearing justice of the Superior Court granted, in part for lack of subject matter jurisdiction pursuant to Rule 12(b)(1) of the Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure because Ferreira had not exhausted his administrative remedies by obtaining the required right to sue letter from the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, and in part for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). The dismissal was without prejudice, however, and Ferreira was given twenty days from the date of the decision to file an amended complaint.

         Ferreira timely filed an amended complaint, adding a few new factual allegations and claims.[2] Accepting the factual allegations in the amended complaint as true-as we must when we consider an appeal from the grant of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), Chariho Regional School District v. State, 207 A.3d 1007, 1012 (R.I. 2019) (Chariho)-Ferreira's circumstances were as follows. He was over forty years old and had worked at CFS, a nonprofit agency, for nine years, having always received "good" evaluations. He was "very experienced with [CFS's] clients." In the summer of 2016, CFS hired a young, inexperienced female clinician, who "undermined" Ferreira by accusing him "of inappropriate communication and incompetence to management, co-workers and clients" and by "refusing to back him up when he tried to enforce policy with the clients." CFS "treated the clinician better than they treated [Ferreira]." CFS summoned Ferreira to a disciplinary meeting, confronting him with the "young" clinician's accusations as well as references to prior events for which Ferreira had not previously been made aware or disciplined. CFS presented Ferreira with a "last written warning[, ]" which he refused to sign. One of Ferreira's managers frequently told Ferreira, a retired police officer: "You're not a cop anymore[, ]" which Ferreira took to be a reference to his age. Ferreira "suffered stress, embarrassment, and financial hardship from these events[, ]" "sought relief from his physician[, ]" and was placed on stress leave. Ferreira resigned, but shortly thereafter attempted to rescind his resignation, which CFS "refused to accept" and "terminated [his] service while he was on stress leave citing his resignation." Neither the initial complaint nor the amended complaint specified any dates, sequence, or chronology for these alleged events.

         Ferreira asserted several claims in his amended complaint: Defamation (specifying all of its varieties: slander, libel, and false light); constructive termination; discrimination based on disparate treatment, age, and gender pursuant to G.L. 1956 chapter 112 of title 42 and G.L. 1956 § 28-5-7; and breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing. CFS responded with a motion to dismiss the amended complaint. At the conclusion of the hearing on this motion, the hearing justice dismissed the defamation claim and the claim of breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing and took the claims for discrimination and constructive termination under advisement. Over one month later, in a written decision, the hearing justice dismissed the remaining age and gender discrimination claims, as well as Ferreira's claim for "constructive termination," and dismissed the entire amended complaint, with prejudice. Ferreira challenges the dismissal of each claim in his amended complaint.[3]

         II

         Standard of Review

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted is "to test the sufficiency of the complaint." Chariho, 207 A.3d at 1012 (quoting Pontarelli v. Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 176 A.3d 472, 476 (R.I. 2018)). When this Court reviews the grant of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), we apply the same standard as the hearing justice. Id. "[W]e assume the allegations contained in the complaint [are] true and view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff[]." Id. (quoting Rein v. ESS Group, Inc., 184 A.3d 695, 699 (R.I. 2018)). "We will affirm a trial justice's grant of a motion to dismiss 'when it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff would not ...


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