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Smelser v. Sandia Corp.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

March 30, 2018

RUTH SMELSER, Plaintiff,
SANDIA CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.


         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint. Doc. 15. The Court, having reviewed the parties' submissions and the relevant law, will grant the motion.

         I. Procedural History

         On November 30, 2016, Plaintiff Ruth Smelser filed this lawsuit in state court against her former employer, Defendant Sandia Corporation (Sandia), her supervisors, Defendants Hy Tran and Meaghan Sena Carpenter, and a coworker, Defendant Rick Mertes. Doc. 1-1. Plaintiff asserted a single claim for violations of the New Mexico Human Rights Act (NMHRA), NMSA 1978, § 28-1-7 (2004). Id. On March 30, 2017, Defendants removed the lawsuit on the basis of federal enclave jurisdiction, arguing that the lawsuit is subject to the Court's federal question jurisdiction because the events giving rise to it occurred during the course of Plaintiff's employment on Kirtland Air Force Base. Doc. 1 at 2 (citing Allison v. Boeing Laser Tech. Services, 689 F.3d 1234, 1236 (10th Cir. 2012)).

         After the case was removed, Plaintiff amended her complaint to assert a number of federal and state law claims against Defendants. Doc. 11. Her two federal claims are a gender-based discrimination claim under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., (Count V), and a disability-based discrimination claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 42 U.S.C. § 12112 et seq. (Count VI). Id. In addition, Plaintiff asserts five New Mexico state law claims: NMHRA (Count I); negligence (Count II); an assault claim against Defendant Tran (Count III); breach of an implied contract claim against Defendant Sandia (Count IV); and respondeat superior (Count VII). Id.

         With the exception of Plaintiff's respondeat superior claim, [1] Defendants have moved to dismiss all claims raised in Plaintiff's amended complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). Doc. 15. On September 22, 2017, the Court stayed any further proceedings in the case pending resolution of the motion to dismiss, with the exception of Plaintiff's request to take jurisdictional discovery regarding the application of the federal enclave doctrine. Doc. 27. The Court gave Plaintiff until October 2, 2017 to submit a motion for this jurisdictional discovery. Doc. 29. Plaintiff, however, chose not to file any such motion. The Court will therefore resolve the motion to dismiss on the basis of the briefing submitted. See Docs. 15, 21, and 25.

         II. Factual Background

         The incidents that gave rise to this lawsuit occurred in Albuquerque, New Mexico, during the course of Plaintiff's employment with Sandia. Doc. 11 (Am. Compl.) ¶¶ 6, 14. Sandia is a “Delaware for-profit corporation doing business in New Mexico and located aboard Kirtland Air Force Base.” Id. ¶ 2. Plaintiff has been employed with Sandia for thirteen years, most recently as an R&D laboratory support senior technologist. Id. ¶¶ 14, 15. During the relevant time period, Defendants Tran and Carpenter were Sandia employees with supervisory authority over Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 17. Defendant Mertes was a Sandia employee who worked with Plaintiff. Id. ¶ 18.

         In December 2011, Plaintiff alleges that she injured her right shoulder at work, which led to her medical providers assigning her a permanent impairment rating regarding lifting restrictions. Id. ¶ 19. Plaintiff asserts that Sandia has failed to accommodate these restrictions and instead has used the restrictions as a basis to criticize Plaintiff's work. Id. ¶ 20. In addition, Plaintiff has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and her treatment has caused her to experience hand tremors that have affected her fine motor skills. Id. ¶¶ 16, 21. Plaintiff alleges that Sandia has also failed to accommodate her medical restrictions related to her cancer diagnosis and treatment. Id. ¶ 22. Because her cancer recovery and medications made her “very susceptible to [the] cold environments she had to work in”, Plaintiff alleges that she requested reverse tweezers and voice transcription software, among other things, to accommodate this sensitivity. Id. ¶ 33. Sandia never provided her with such accommodations. Id. When Plaintiff asked Defendant Carpenter for reasonable accommodations due to her disability and cancer treatment side effects, she alleges that Defendant Carpenter told her “in no uncertain terms she would not listen to these medical issues.” Id. ¶ 32. Plaintiff also alleges that Sandia discussed and disclosed Plaintiff's cancer diagnosis to others within the workplace in violation of Plaintiff's privacy rights. Id. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiff alleges that her coworker, Defendant Mertes, wanted a male applicant hired for her position and that when she was selected instead, he became “antagonistic” toward her. Id. ¶ 25. Although Defendant Mertes was obligated to train Plaintiff, he refused to do so -- despite her asking him for training on multiple occasions. Id. ¶¶ 27-28. Defendant Mertes undermined and disrupted Plaintiff's work, “disregarded ‘Do Not Enter' signs when work was in progress, routinely told other employees Plaintiff was not doing her job properly and took a condescending tone with Plaintiff when she sought help and guidance.” Id. ¶ 27. Defendant Mertes also held the side effects of Plaintiff's medication against her and “interpreted the side effects as a lack of proficiency and capability.” Id. ¶ 29. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Mertes's “efforts resulted in Plaintiff receiving a work evaluation that was deemed ‘Deficient'”. Id. ¶ 35. Because Defendant Mertes refused to train her, Plaintiff alleges she was never “officially certified to conduct ‘mass measurements'”, which was a requirement of her job. Id. ¶ 36. Plaintiff claims, however, at some point during her employment, “her training jacket was changed to reflect that she was qualified to conduct ‘mass measurements' even though she had not received the requisite training.” Id. In so doing, Defendants allegedly made it appear that she was adequately trained to conduct mass measurements, even though she had not had sufficient training to become proficient. Id. ¶ 37. Thus, Plaintiff alleges that any “real or perceived lack of proficiency” was due to a void in training. Id.

         Plaintiff also alleges that she frequently took safety issues and ethics violations to Defendant Carpenter. Id. ¶ 32. Subsequent to her doing so, Defendant Carpenter scheduled weekly meetings with Plaintiff, an action Plaintiff alleges “typically predicated firing.” Id. ¶ 34. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Carpenter was also Defendant Tran's supervisor and according to Plaintiff, Defendant Carpenter often deferred to Defendant Tran on issues that required her decision. Id. ¶¶ 30-31. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Tran “has a history of negative interactions with women and has retaliated against Plaintiff, treated Plaintiff poorly and differently from male employees at least in part, because of Plaintiff's gender consistent with Plaintiff's Charge of Discrimination and affidavit.”[2] Id. ¶ 24. On one occasion, Defendant Tran “cornered Plaintiff in the office, screamed and berated her in a unprofessional and hostile manner in an attempt to embarrass, intimidate and belittle Plaintiff.” Id. ¶ 41. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendant Tran “intentionally engaged in high intensity verbal assaults” on her. Id. ¶ 49.

         With regard to Defendants Mertes and Carpenter, Plaintiff alleges that they have “retaliated against [her], treated her poorly, and differently from other Sandia employees at least in part, because of Plaintiff's gender, disability, and serious medical condition, consistent with [her] Charge of Discrimination and affidavit.” Id. ¶ 38.

         On January 13, 2016, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination with the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Human Rights Division. Id. ¶ 7. On September 1, 2016, the Department issued a determination of no cause letter.[3] Id. ¶ 8; But see id. ¶ 10 (indicating that the Department issued a non-determination letter).

         III. Legal Standards

         Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiff's amended complaint pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Doc. 15 at 2, 10, 15. With regard to Rule 12(b)(1), Defendants first contend that Plaintiff's alleged failure to exhaust administrative remedies has deprived the Court of subject matter jurisdiction over her federal claims. See id. at 10. Defendants' second jurisdictional argument is that the federal enclave doctrine, which served as the basis for removal of this lawsuit from state court, bars some of Plaintiff's state claims. Doc. 15 at 3-5; Doc. 1 at 2 (Notice of Removal); See Celli v. Shoell, 40 F.3d 324, 328 (10th Cir. 1994) (stating that federal enclave jurisdiction is “a form of federal question jurisdiction”); Akin v. Ashland Chem. Co., 156 F.3d 1030, 1034 (10th Cir. 1998) (indicating that “[p]ersonal injury actions which arise from incidents occurring in federal enclaves may be removed to federal district court as a part of federal question jurisdiction.”). Under Rule 12(b)(6), Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claims, including any that may survive Rule 12(b)(1) scrutiny, fail to state a claim. Doc. 15 at 5-14. Accordingly, the Court sets forth below the applicable legal standards for both Rule 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6) motions. Rule 12(b)(1)

         Motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) for lack of subject matter jurisdiction “generally take one of two forms: (1) a facial attack on the sufficiency of the complaint's allegations as to subject matter jurisdiction; or (2) a challenge to the actual facts upon which subject matter jurisdiction is based.” Ruiz v. McDonnell, 299 F.3d 1173, 1180 (10th Cir. 2002). On a facial attack, the Court presumes all of the allegations contained in the complaint to be true. Id. “But when the attack is factual, a district court may not presume the truthfulness of the complaint's factual allegations” and may “allow affidavits, other documents, and a limited evidentiary hearing to resolve disputed jurisdictional facts under Rule 12(b)(1). In such instances, a court's reference to evidence outside the pleadings does not convert the motion to a Rule 56 [summary-judgment] motion.” Campos v. Las Cruces Nursing Ctr., 828 F.Supp.2d 1256, 1265 (D.N.M. 2011) (citation omitted).

         Where, however, the jurisdictional issues raised in a Rule 12(b)(1) motion are intertwined with the case's merits, the “court is required to convert a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss into a Rule 12(b)(6) motion or a Rule 56 summary judgment motion.” See Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1003 (10th Cir. 1995). “The jurisdictional question is intertwined with the merits of the case if subject matter jurisdiction is dependent on the same statute which provides the substantive claim in the case.” Id.; see also Sizova v. Nat'l Inst. of Standards & Tech., 282 F.3d 1320, 1324 (10th Cir. 2002) (“[T]he focus of the inquiry is not merely on whether the merits and the jurisdictional issue arise under the same statute. Rather, the underlying issue is whether resolution of the jurisdictional question requires resolution of an aspect of the substantive claim.”) (internal citation omitted)).

         Here, to the extent Defendants move to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(1) due to a failure to exhaust or the applicability of the federal enclave doctrine, they mount a factual challenge to the existence of subject matter jurisdiction. Accordingly, the Court may consider evidence outside of the pleadings to decide these issues. That being said, conversion of Defendants' motion to a Rule 56 summary judgment motion is not necessary because resolution of these issues does not require resolution of the substantive aspects of Plaintiff's claims. More specifically, Plaintiff may not bring her federal Title VII and ADA claims unless she has exhausted these claims. See Apsley v. Boeing Co., 691 F.3d 1184, 1210 (10th Cir. 2012) (“Under both Title VII and the ADA, exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to suit.”). A determination as to whether Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies is not intertwined with the merits of her federal claims such that conversion to a summary judgment motion is necessary. See Sizova, 282 F.3d at 1324-25 (determining that conversion of a Rule 12(b)(1) motion to a summary judgment motion was not necessary as to “the jurisdictional issue [of] whether [the plaintiff] has exhausted her administrative remedies, a matter that is simply not an aspect of her substantive [Title VII] claim of discrimination”); see also Kibler v. Genuine Parts Co., 2017 WL 4410786, at *3 n.5 (D.N.M. Oct. 2, 2017) (determining that conversion of Rule 12(b)(1) motion to a Rule 56 motion was not necessary where defendant mounted a factual challenge to the court's subject matter jurisdiction by arguing that the plaintiff failed to exhaust her NMHRA claim). Likewise, the parties' factual arguments concerning the applicability of the federal enclave doctrine are not intertwined with the substantive merits of Plaintiff's NMHRA, implied contract, and negligence state law claims such that conversion is necessary. See Benavidez v. Sandia Nat'l Labs., 212 F.Supp.3d 1039, 1093-94 (D.N.M. June 27, 2016) (where the district court considered matters beyond the pleadings, including declarations attached to notice of removal, to resolve motion to dismiss based on the federal enclave doctrine). Therefore, the Court will consider the evidence submitted by the parties on Defendants' arguments under Rule 12(b)(1). Rule 12(b)(6)

         Rule 12(b)(6) allows for the dismissal of a complaint where the plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). “The court's function on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion is not to weigh potential evidence that the parties might present at trial, but to assess whether the plaintiff's complaint alone is legally sufficient to state a claim for which relief may be granted.” Tal v. Hogan, 453 F.3d 1244, 1252 (10th Cir. 2006) (internal citation omitted). In considering dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court will “assume the truth of the plaintiff's well-pleaded factual allegations and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.” Ridge at Red Hawk, L.L.C. v. Schneider, 493 F.3d 1174, 1177 (10th Cir. 2007). Generally, a district court can consider outside materials only by converting a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss to a motion ...

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