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Martinez v. Naranjo

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

October 31, 2018

VALERIE MARTINEZ, Plaintiff,
v.
NICK NARANJO, individually and in his official capacity as a Member of the Jemez Mountains Electrical Cooperative; LEO MARQUEZ, individually and in his official capacity as a Member of the Jemez Mountains Electrical Cooperative; DONNA MONTOYA-TRUJILLO, individually and in her official capacity as a Acting General Member of the Jemez Mountains Electrical Cooperative; LAURA RENDON, individually and in her official capacity as a Executive Assistant to the Member of the Jemez Mountains Electrical Cooperative, and the JEMEZ MOUNTAINS ELECTRICAL COOPERATIVE, Defendants.

          Dori Ellen Richards Western Agriculture Resource and Business Advocates Attorneys for the Plaintiff

          M. Karen Kilgore Cuddy & McCarthy, LLP Attorneys for the Defendants

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on the Plaintiffs Opposed Motion to Strike Pursuant to Rule 12(f), or in the Alternative Motion for a More Definite Statement Pursuant to Rule 12(e) as to Insufficient Answers, filed June 4, 2018 (Doc. 13)(“Motion to Strike”). The Court held a hearing on September 12, 2018. The primary issues are: (i) whether the Court should strike or require the Defendants to amend defenses in their Answer to Complaint for Damages Arising from Conspiracy to Interfere with Employment, Defamation/Slander/Invasion of Privacy, Violation of First Amendment Rights, Violation of Equal Protection, Violation of 42 U.S.C. 1985 and Violation of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act, filed April 13, 2018 (Doc. 9)(“Answer”), because the Defendants state negative defenses; and (ii) whether the Court should deem admitted or require the Defendants to amend parts of their Answer for not properly responding to Martinez' Complaint for Damages Arising from Conspiracy to Interfere with Employment, Defamation/Slander/Invasion of Privacy, Violation of First Amendment Rights, Violation of Equal Protection, Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985 and Violation of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act, filed March 1, 2018 (Doc. 1)(“Complaint”), because responses 1-6, 106, 115-119, and 127 state the Complaint makes a legal conclusion, see Motion to Strike ¶ 8, at 5, responses 16-20 and 56 respond that “documents speak for themselves, ” see Motion to Strike ¶ 9, at 5, and responses 60, 74, and 97 avoid responding directly to the averment, see Motion to Strike ¶ 10, at 5-6. The Court will deny Plaintiff Valerie Martinez' requests that the Court strike or require a more definite statement of the Defendants' defenses, because the Court concludes that Martinez did not timely file the Motion to Strike and that she filed the motion for a more definite statement in response to an answer, which does not require a responsive pleading. The Court further concludes that the Defendants' responses 1 through 6 do not respond fairly to the Complaint, because they do not admit, deny, or make a disclaimer about a lack of information. Accordingly, the Court will require the Defendants to amend these responses.

         FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Court takes its facts from the Complaint. The Court provides these facts for background. It does not adopt them as the truth, and it recognizes that these facts are largely Martinez' version of events.

         This action arises from events surrounding the termination of Martinez' employment on October 27, 2017. See Complaint ¶¶ 1-98, at 1-12. Martinez was the Director of Member Services at Defendant Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative (“Jemez Cooperative”). See Complaint ¶ 7, at 2. She resides in Espanola, New Mexico. See Complaint ¶ 7, at 2. Defendant Donna Montoya-Trujillo was the acting manager of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative at the time the events alleged in the Complaint occurred. See Complaint ¶ 8, at 2. Laura Rendon was and is the Executive Assistant to the Board of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative (“Board”). See Complaint ¶ 11, at 2. Montoya-Trujillo and Rendon reside in Cuba, New Mexico. See Complaint ¶¶ 8, 11, at 2. Nick Naranjo and Leo Marquez were and are Board members of the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative. See Complaint ¶¶ 10-11, at 2. Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative has offices in Espanola, Jemez Springs, and Cuba, New Mexico. See Complaint ¶¶ 12-13, at 2.

         Martinez had twenty-nine years of experience when she began working for Jemez Cooperative around July 17, 2017. See Complaint ¶¶ 24-25, at 4. Martinez worked under Joseph Sanchez, who was then General Manager. See Complaint ¶ 27, at 4. Montoya-Trujillo was the Assistant General Manger when Martinez began. See Complaint ¶ 28, at 4. In August and September, 2017, Martinez raised concerns about several financial transactions and about the number of Naranjo's family and friends working at Jemez Cooperative. See Complaint ¶¶ 30-32, at 5. Montoya-Trujillo refused, however, to discuss the transactions, and a Board member informed Martinez that Jemez Cooperative “had a very political board.” Complaint ¶¶ 31, 33, at 5.

         On October 18, 2017, Sanchez left Jemez Cooperative to run for New Mexico State Representative. See Complaint ¶ 36, at 5; id.¶ 45, at 6. Before Sanchez left, Martinez volunteered to help with his campaign. See Complaint ¶ 35, at 5. Naranjo, however, had connections to Sanchez' opponent and had expressed his hope that the opponent win. See Complaint ¶¶ 38-44, at 6. On October 9, 2017, Naranjo told Martinez that he would save money “by getting rid of Joseph [Sanchez] and also getting rid of [her].” Complaint ¶ 46, at 6. On October 19, 2017, Montoya-Trujillo took Martinez' credit card. See Complaint ¶ 48, at 47-53. On October 22, 2017, Martinez attended a political meeting, at which she joined Sanchez' campaign. See Complaint ¶ 54, at 7. On October 27, 2017, Montoya-Trujillo informed Martinez of Martinez' termination, citing restructuring. See Complaint ¶¶ 55-58, at 7-8.

         According to Martinez, management did not discuss restructuring before October 18, 2017, and the Board did not take action to restructure afterward. See Complaint ¶¶ 59-60, at 8; id. ¶ 84, at 11. Martinez contends that Naranjo terminated Martinez' employment, because she questioned expenses, and his friends' and family's employment at Jemez Cooperative, and because she helped Sanchez. See Complaint ¶¶ 64-67, at 8. Martinez alleges that Naranjo, Montoya-Trujillo, and Marquez conspired to secure Martinez' removal by telling the board that Martinez had driven a non-employee in a company car without approval, used her credit card improperly, and improperly purchased employees tickets for a University of New Mexico game. See Complaint ¶¶ 68-85, at 9-11. Martinez denies these allegations. See Complaint ¶¶ 74-80, at 9-10; id. ¶ 85 at 11. Martinez contends that Naranjo, Marquez, Montoya-Trujillo, Rendon, and Jemez Cooperative communicated with people outside Jemez Cooperative -- including Martinez' brother-in-law; an employee at KDCE radio; and the President of the Northern New Mexico College -- about her termination. See Complaint ¶¶ 87-91, at 11-12; id. ¶¶ 93-98, at 12.

         PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On March 1, 2018, Martinez filed her Complaint alleging the facts recited in the “Factual Background” section. See Complaint at 1. Based on these facts, Martinez brought several causes of action against the Defendants. See Complaint ¶¶ 100-34, at 13-17. Martinez contends that: (i) Naranjo, Montoya-Trujillo, and Marquez maliciously interfered with her employment when they secured her removal, see Complaint ¶¶ 100-04, at 13; (ii) the Defendants defamed her by disseminating false information about her alleged theft, embezzlement, and misuse of company resources, see Complaint ¶¶ 105-13, at 13-14; (iii) the Defendants violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution of the United States of America and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 when, in response to her support for Sanchez, the Defendants terminated her employment, see Complaint ¶¶ 114-25, at 15-16, and (iv) the Defendants violated the Whistleblower Protection Act, New Mexico Statutes Annotated. § 10-16c-1 to -6 (1978), when they terminated her employment in retaliation for her questions about expenses and hiring, see Complaint ¶¶ 126-34, at 16-17.

         1.The Answer.

         The Defendants filed their Answer on March 13, 2018. See Answer at 1. Martinez began the Complaint with several jurisdictional statements:

1. Plaintiffs complaint seeks damages caused by Defendants' conspired efforts to deprive Plaintiff of her First Amendment right of association, to violate 42 U.S.C. § 1985 and deny her equal protection under the law, as well as their conspired efforts to interfere with Plaintiffs employment and defame/slander her.
2. This action arises under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, and 28 U.S.C. § 1343, 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3).
3. This Court has both subject matter jurisdiction over this action and personal jurisdiction over the Parties pursuant of 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343.
4. The Court has authority to grant the requested relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §1343(a)(1) and (2) and to redress the deprivation under 28 U.S.C. § 1343(a)(3).
5. This Court has pendent jurisdiction over Plaintiffs state claims per 28 U.S.C. § 1367.
6. Venue lies in this district pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391.

Complaint ¶¶ 1-6, at 1-2. To these items, the Defendants respond, “the Complaint states a legal conclusion and, therefore, does not require a response.” Answer ¶¶ 1-6, at 2. The Complaint later alleges several facts about the Board of Trustee's policies:

16. BOT [Board of Trustee Policies] 107 provides that “Information about consumer accounts, trustee, and employee records must be kept in complete confidence.”
17. BOT 107 also provides that “Information relative to consumers, trustees, or employees may not be given to anyone except authorized Cooperative employees or as authorized in writing by the respective consumers, trustees, or employees.”
18. BOT 107 provides that “information to third parties may only be provided upon written instruction to the General Manager.”
19. BOT 102 provides that all Trustees are required to act:
as fiduciaries, members of the BOT must not put themselves in a position where their interests and duties conflict with the duties they owe to JEC; their actions must be transparent and accountable to members and JMEC; BOT members must act honestly and in good faith to avoid placing themselves in . . . precarious positions; all questions should be addressed openly and honestly to ensure that actions are in the best interests of JMEC. All JMEC members of the Board of Trustees must disclose any actual or potential conflicts of interest; maintain transparency.
20. BOT 103 provides that the “business and affairs of JMEC shall be managed by the Board of Trustees, which shall exercise all the powers of JMEC except such as are by law and JMEC bylaws.”

Complaint ¶¶ 16-20, at 3-4. Regarding these averments, the Defendants “admit the quoted sentence is included in [the policy] and state that the policy speaks for itself.” Answer ¶¶ 16-20 at 4. The Defendants offer a similar response to the paragraph which describes Martinez' termination letter. See Answer ¶ 56 at 7. The Complaint alleges, “Donna Montoya-Trujillo issued a termination letter stating that the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, Inc. Director of Member Services position was being eliminated immediately and she was no longer needed, ” Complaint ¶ 56, at 7, and the Answer responds, “Defendants admit the allegations contained in Paragraph 56 of the Complaint and state that the letter speaks for itself.” Answer ¶ 56, at 7. Throughout the Answer, the Defendants qualify several responses, but Martinez takes issue with three such responses in particular -- 60, 74, and 97. See Motion to Strike ¶ 10, at 5-6. These responses and related allegations read:

         Paragraph 60:

Complaint: “There was never a board action taken to eliminate Plaintiffs position, initiate a RIF and/or restructure.” Complaint ¶ 60, at 8.
Answer: “Defendants deny the allegations contained in Paragraph 60 of the Complaint. With respect to Plaintiffs position, Defendants affirmatively state that since Plaintiffs position did not exist in the budget, no Board action was required to eliminate the position.” Answer ¶ 60, at

         Paragraph 74:

Complaint: “Coop policies do not prohibit non-employees from being in a Coop vehicle.” Complaint ¶ 74, at 9.
Answer: “Defendants deny there is a policy on this subject; however, Defendants affirmatively state that JMEC practice is that non-employee passengers must have authorization to ride in a JMEC vehicle and only a JMEC employee may drive or operate a JMEC vehicle.” Answer ¶ 74, at 8.

         Paragraph 97:

Complaint: “The disclosure of employment based information violates JMEC's own policies.” Complaint ¶ 97, at 10.
Answer: “In response to Paragraph 97 of the Complaint, Defendants admit that policies exist and that the policies were followed. Defendants deny that any disclosure was made and deny any remaining allegations contained in Paragraph 97 of the Complaint.” Answer ¶ 97, at 10.

         Toward the end of the Complaint, Martinez includes statements about the law. In paragraph 106, Martinez alleges “[p]laintiff has a legitimate and meaningful business, religious, moral and personal interest in maintaining her reputation and good name.” Complaint ¶ 106, at 13. Paragraphs 115 and 116 state respectively, “Political rights is part of a class of rights that protect individuals' freedom from infringement by governments, social organizations, and private individuals. Such rights ensure one's ability to participate in the civil and political life of the society and state without discrimination, repression or retribution, ” Complaint ¶ 115, at 14, and,

It is beyond debate that the freedom to engage in association for the advancement of beliefs and ideas is an inseparable aspect of the liberties assured by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The freedom of political association is one such protected right. See NAACP v. Alabama ex. rel. Patterson, 357 U.S. 449, 460-61 (1958)

Complaint ¶ 116, at 14-15. Finally, in paragraph 127 Martinez explains, “[t]he Whistleblower Protection Act, NMSA § 10-16c-1 et seq. prevents a public employer from engaging in retaliatory action against an employee based on an employee's communications to the employer or third parties about an action that the employee believes in good faith constitutes an unlawful or improper act.” Complaint ¶ 127, at 16. To each of these allegations, the Defendants assert, “the Complaint states a legal conclusion . . . . To the extent a response is required, Defendants deny the allegations contained in Paragraph [106/115/116/127] of the Complaint.” Answer ¶ 106, at 10; ¶¶ 115-16, at 11; ¶ 127, at 12.

         The Defendants assert fifteen defenses, which they have labeled as “affirmative defenses.” Answer ¶¶ 135-48 at 12-14. The defenses state:

First defense: “Plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and her Complaint must be dismissed.” Answer ¶ 135, at 12.
Second defense: “For the entirety of her employment at JMEC, from July 17, 2017 through October 27, 2017, Plaintiff was an at-will employee on probationary status.” Answer ¶ 136, at 12.
Third defense: “Plaintiff was discharged for legitimate business reasons.” Answer ¶ 137, at 12.
Fourth defense: “At all material times, the individual Defendants engaged in their official acts reasonably and in good faith.” Answer ¶ 138, at 12.
Fifth defense: “At all times, Defendants acted in accordance with JMEC policies.” Answer ¶ 139, at 13.
Sixth defense: “Plaintiffs damages, if any, were caused or contributed to by her own intentional conduct and/or negligent, grossly negligence and/or wrongful actions in connection with her employment.” Answer ¶ 140, at 13.
Seventh defense: “Plaintiff has failed to exercise reasonable care to mitigate her damages, if any, and/or to avoid harm, if any.” Answer ¶ 141, at 13.
Eighth defense: “Defendants made no publication or communication of a false defamatory fact concerning Plaintiff.” Answer ¶ 142, at 13.
Ninth defense: “Defendants did not act with malice.” Answer ¶ 143, at 13.
Tenth defense: “There is no state action, which is a requirement for a Section 1983 or a Section 1985(3) claim relating to First or Fourteenth Amendment ...

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