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Johnson v. The Boeing Company

United States District Court, W.D. Washington

November 7, 2017

RALPH G. JOHNSON, Plaintiff,
THE BOEING COMPANY, et al., Defendant.



         This matter comes before the Court on “Defendant Barbara Wiley's Motion to Dismiss Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).” Dkt. # 22. Plaintiff alleges that defendant Wiley lodged a false and retaliatory complaint of sexual harassment against him after he removed her from a lead position at Boeing. Plaintiff asserts claims of defamation (Count IX), intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count X), and negligent infliction of emotional distress (Count XI) against Wiley. Defendant seeks dismissal of all claims against her, arguing that they are barred by the applicable statutes of limitation and/or are insufficiently pled.

         The question for the Court on a motion to dismiss is whether the facts alleged in the complaint sufficiently state a “plausible” ground for relief. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007).

A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Plausibility requires pleading facts, as opposed to conclusory allegations or the formulaic recitation of elements of a cause of action, and must rise above the mere conceivability or possibility of unlawful conduct that entitles the pleader to relief. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief. Nor is it enough that the complaint is factually neutral; rather, it must be factually suggestive.

Somers v. Apple, Inc., 729 F.3d 953, 959-60 (9th Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). All well-pleaded factual allegations are presumed to be true, with all reasonable inferences drawn in favor of the non-moving party. In re Fitness Holdings Int'l, Inc., 714 F.3d 1141, 1144-45 (9th Cir. 2013). If the complaint fails to state a cognizable legal theory or fails to provide sufficient facts to support a claim, dismissal is appropriate. Shroyer v. New Cingular Wireless Servs., Inc., 622 F.3d 1035, 1041 (9th Cir. 2010).

         Having reviewed the complaint and the memoranda submitted by the parties, the Court finds as follows:

         A. Defamation

         Plaintiff alleges that, on October 3, 2014, he learned that defendant Wiley “was communicating to other employees that Johnson groped her . . . .” Dkt. # 1 at ¶ 2.20. Although the exact date is not specified, Wiley subsequently filed a sexual harassment complaint against plaintiff. Plaintiff was demoted on or about March 26, 2015, in part as a result of the sexual harassment complaint. In Washington, defamation claims are subject to a two-year statute of limitations. RCW 4.16.100(1). This lawsuit was filed on May 5, 2017.

         Plaintiff argues that his defamation claim is not time-barred because he could not have immediately known of the cause of his injuries and/or because equitable tolling applies. Under the discovery rule, the limitations period does not begin to run until plaintiff knew or, in the exercise of diligence, should have known the facts giving rise to the claim. Plaintiff relies on cases in which it was unclear when the claimant learned of the defamatory statements. In JM Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. v. Wash., 363 Fed.Appx. 529, 531-32 (9th Cir. 2010), for example, the plaintiff suffered unexplained injuries but did not know that defendants' had made defamatory comments that caused those injuries. In Kittinger v. Boeing Co., 21 Wn.App. 484, 488 (1978), the plaintiff heard rumors that bad things were being said about him, but they were not specific enough to put plaintiff on notice that he had been defamed. In this case, in contrast, plaintiff alleges that he was aware that Wiley had publicly accused him of groping her in October 2014. While plaintiff characterizes this information as a rumor, he was specifically informed both of the statement and its content. If the statement were defamatory, plaintiff knew it at the time. If there were any doubt as to whether Wiley had made such statements, he had a duty to investigate and bring suit within the time allowed by law. In addition, the injuries arising from the sexual harassment accusation and their causal connection to Wiley's statements were also known more than two years before this lawsuit was filed. The discovery rule cannot save plaintiff's defamation claim.

         Plaintiff argues that defendant Wiley has taken steps to conceal her defamatory statements, thereby justifying equitable tolling of the limitations period. As discussed above, however, plaintiff had actual knowledge that Wiley had accused him of sexual harassment in October 2014. Any subsequent concealment related to the confidentiality with which the complaints was treated by Boeing does not and should not stop the clock. Nor is there any indication that Wiley engaged in deception or gave false assurances that prevented plaintiff from timely filing his claim. The defamation claim is time-barred.[1]

         B. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress

         The elements of the tort of outrage, or intentional infliction of emotional distress, are (1) extreme or outrageous conduct, (2) intentional or reckless infliction of emotional distress, and (3) severe emotional distress resulting from defendant's conduct. Robel v. Roundup Corp., 148 Wn.2d 35, 41 (2002). To be actionable, defendant's conduct must be “so outrageous in character, so extreme in degree, as to go beyond all possible bounds of decency, and to be regarded as atrocious, and utterly intolerable in a civilized community.” Grimsby v. Samson, 85 Wn.2d 52, 59 (1975). The question whether certain conduct is sufficiently outrageous is ordinarily for the jury, but the Court must initially determine whether reasonable minds could differ on the issue. Dicomes v. State, 113 Wn.2d 612, 630 (1989). Plaintiff alleges that Wiley made knowingly false accusations of sexual harassment against him, that she intended to cause him emotional distress, and that the statements did, in fact, cause him “emotional and physical distress, psychological anxiety, depression, and physical illness.” Dkt. # 1 at ¶¶ 3.43-3.45.

         Similar allegations in Lawson v. Boeing Co., 58 Wn.App. 261 (1990), were found insufficiently extreme or outrageous to raise a question for the jury. In Lawson, female employees complained that their supervisor sexually harassed them, resulting in the supervisor's demotion. Lawson asserted that the complaining employees “deliberately, maliciously and outrageously lied about him, ” assertions that mirror plaintiff's allegations here and were taken as true at the summary judgment stage. Nevertheless, the state court found that the complaints did not reach the high threshold of outrageousness established in Grimsby. Id. at 270. The Court likewise finds that plaintiff's allegations, taken as true, do not state a viable claim of outrage.

         C. Negligent Infliction of ...

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