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Valenzuela v. Bloomnet, Inc.

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

April 18, 2018

MEGAN VALENZUELA, Plaintiff,
v.
BLOOMNET, INC., individually and d/b/a 1-800 FLOWERS, 1-800 FLOWERS.COM, INC., individually and d/b/a 1-800-FLOWERS, 1-800 TEAM SERVICES, INC., individually and d/b/a 1-800 FLOWERS, 1-800 FLOWERS SERVICE SUPPORT CENTER, INC., individually and d/b/a 1-800 FLOWERS, 1-800 FLOWERS, and MARK NANCE, individually and in representative capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT BRACK, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         After the Corporate Defendants[1] terminated Megan Valenzuela's employment in July 2016, she filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) Intake Questionnaire, and later an EEOC Charge of Discrimination form, alleging discrimination and retaliation. Ms. Valenzuela, who resides in New Mexico, attached additional pages to her EEOC Intake Questionnaire, explaining the allegations in detail and naming seven employees-none of whom are New Mexico residents-who allegedly violated her rights in some way. Absent from any document Ms. Valenzuela submitted is any allegation of wrongdoing against Mark Nance, President of BloomNet, Inc. (BloomNet).

         Ms. Valenzuela eventually filed a lawsuit in state court. Curiously, Ms. Valenzuela named the Corporate Defendants, but she did not name any of the other employees she had made allegations against in the explanatory pages she submitted with the EEOC. Even more surprisingly, Ms. Valenzuela named one new individual defendant-Mr. Nance, who also happens to be a New Mexico resident. BloomNet removed the case to this Court, alleging that Ms. Valenzuela failed to exhaust her administrative remedies against Mr. Nance and fraudulently joined him in order to keep her lawsuit in state court.

         Ms. Valenzuela moves to remand, arguing that the New Mexico Supreme Court's decision in Lobato v. New Mexico Environment Department, 267 P.3d 65 (N.M. 2011), leaves the door open to her claims against Mr. Nance despite her failure to name him earlier. Defendants disagree and make several strong arguments to demonstrate that this case falls outside of Lobato's “limited circumstances.” However, the burden on Defendants to show that there is no possibility Ms. Valenzuela could maintain any of her claims against Mr. Nance is simply too high a hurdle. Because reaching a conclusion on the issue of exhaustion would require an intricate analysis of state law, the Court must GRANT Ms. Valenzuela's motion and REMAND this matter to the Third Judicial District Court, Doña Ana County, State of New Mexico.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background[2]

         Ms. Valenzuela began working for the Corporate Defendants in 2006. (Doc. 1-B (“Compl.”) ¶ 11.) She suffered from several medical conditions (major depression, anxiety, and insomnia), and in June 2015, she asked the Corporate Defendants to accommodate her conditions by allowing her to take intermittent leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). (Doc. 16-C at 1; see also Compl. ¶¶ 13-17.) The Corporate Defendants agreed and also allowed her to report late to work. (Compl. ¶¶ 17-18.)

         Employees of the Corporate Defendants discriminated against Ms. Valenzuela because of her medical conditions, subjected her to a hostile work environment, denied her reasonable accommodations, and eventually terminated her employment in retaliation for her reports to Human Resources regarding the discriminatory treatment. (See Doc. 16-C; Compl. ¶¶ 20-30.) Ms. Valenzuela was terminated on July 19, 2016. (Doc. 16-B at 2.) She submitted an Intake Questionnaire to the EEOC on July 27, 2016. (Id. at 4.)

         It appears that Ms. Valenzuela hand-wrote her answers on the Intake Questionnaire. (See Doc. 16-B.) On the first page, Ms. Valenzuela named BloomNet and 1-800-Flowers.com in the space marked “Organization Name, ” and Jim McCann, CEO, and Maurine Paradine, HR, in the space marked “Human Resources Director or Owner Name.” (Id.) She also attached six typed pages entitled “EEOC Complaint” to the Intake Questionnaire. (See Doc. 16-C.) In these pages, she described in detail specific acts of discrimination and retaliation by seven individual employees of the Corporate Defendants: (1) Jim McCann, CEO of 1-800 Flowers.com, (2) Maureen Paradine, Director of Human Resources for 1-800 Flowers.com, (3) Marc Greszkowiack, VP of Technology for BloomNet, (4) Ted Nelson, Superior of Marc Greszkowiack, BloomNet, (5) Amira Jensen, Senior Manager of Technology for BloomNet, (6) Jerry Leonard, VP of Human Resources for 1-800 Flowers.com, and (7) Cristal Feliciano, Benefits Director for 1-800 Flowers.com. (Id.) Defendants contend, and Ms. Valenzuela does not deny, that not one of these employees is a citizen of New Mexico. (See Doc. 16 at 7; Doc. 18.)

         An EEOC Investigator from the El Paso Area EEOC Office prepared a Charge of Discrimination form, which Ms. Valenzuela reviewed and signed on August 11, 2016. (See Doc. 12-1 at 1, 5-7.) The Charge of Discrimination form directs the charging party to name “the Employer, Labor Organization, Employment Agency, Apprenticeship Committee, or State or Local Government Agency That I Believe Discriminated Against Me or Others. (If more than two, list under PARTICULARS below.)” (Id. at 5.) Ms. Valenzuela named BloomNet but did not include 1-800-Flowers.com or Mr. Nance in the Particulars section. (Id.) On the second page of the form, the Investigator summarized Ms. Valenzuela's claim as follows:

PERSONAL HARM: I began my employment with Bloomnet Inc. on July 12, 2006 in customer service and sales. On or about June 2015, I began experiencing severe medical issues and decided to request FMLA per my disability. On December 2015, HR advised me that advanced notices were required whenever I was going to be absent from work. Around the same time the VP of Technology Marc Greszkowlack disclosed on an open floor which many non-management employees heard, that I was taking Xanax and was on FMLA because of depression and anxiety. He also stated I didn't take care of my kids and that things were going to get worse for me. I filed a complaint to Maureen Paradine the Director of HR for retaliation regarding my medical condition and breach of medical confidentiality to no avail. On January 31, 2016, I was retaliated and harassed by being called in repeatedly to HR. I was disciplined several times and discharged by Marc Greszkowlack on 07/19/2016. Prior to my discharge I had informed them that I would be opening an FMLA per my disability once again and in the process of submitting further medical documentation, I was discriminated and retaliated against with the discharge on 07/19/16. I have been discriminated against due to my disability and medical leave request.

(Id. at 6.)[3]

         Ms. Valenzuela submitted an affidavit and stated that she gave the EEOC Investigator “all of the factual basis for [her] discrimination and retaliation claims, as well as all of the entities and individuals that discriminated against [her] and retaliated against [her], including Mark Nance, personally.” (Id. at 1.) She never filed an amended form. Ms. Valenzuela also stated that she “was not represented by any attorney when [she] signed this Charge of Discrimination.” (Id.) Ms. Valenzuela “did not hire” her current attorneys, Mr. Brett Duke and Ms. Daniela Labinoti, “until after [she] signed the Charge of Discrimination.” (Id.)

         Mr. Nance submitted an affidavit and stated that he “did not participate in any disciplinary or accommodations issues related to [Ms. Valenzuela], and did not make the decision to terminate [her].” (Doc. 9-2 ¶ 8.)

         The New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions, Human Rights Bureau issued an Order of Nondetermination. (See Compl. ¶ 9.) Ms. Valenzuela, making only state-law claims, filed suit in the Third Judicial District Court on August 4, 2017. (Id. at 1.) Neither the amount in controversy nor the citizenship of the parties is in dispute. (See Doc. 1.) Ms. Valenzuela is a citizen of New Mexico. (Compl. ¶ 1.) BloomNet, 1-800 Flowers.com, Inc., and 1-800 Team Services, Inc. are all Delaware corporations with their principal places of business in New York. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 4-6.) 1-800 Flowers Service Support Center, Inc. is a New York corporation with its principal place of business in New York. (Id. ¶ 7.) Mr. Nance is a citizen of New Mexico. (Compl. ¶ 7.) Ms. Valenzuela ...


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