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Woerner v. Board of Education of Rio Rancho Public Schools

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 13, 2019

KAREN BOULANGER WOERNER, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF EDUCATION OF RIO RANCHO PUBLIC SCHOOLS, and RICHARD BRUCE in his individual and official capacity, and RANDALL EVANS in his individual and official capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER DENYING DEFENDANT BOARD OF EDUCATION OF RIO RANCHO PUBLIC SCHOOLS AND RICHARD BRUCE'S RULE 12(b)(1) MOTION TO DISMISS FOR LACK OF SUBJECT-MATTER JURISDICTION AND GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART THEIR 12(b)(6) MOTION TO DISMISS FOR FAILURE TO STATE A CLAIM

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendants Board of Education of Rio Rancho Public Schools and Richard Bruce's Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss for Lack of Subject-Matter Jurisdiction and Rule 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Doc. 16). Having reviewed the parties' briefing and considered the applicable law, the Court finds that the Rule 12(b)(1) Motion is not well-taken and is, therefore, DENIED. The Court further finds that Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART for the reasons set forth below.

         BACKGROUND

         This is an employment harassment, discrimination, and retaliation case wherein Plaintiff, a former Executive Director of Information Technology at Rio Rancho Public Schools (“RRPS”), alleges that she was subjected to gender-based harassment by a coworker, RRPS' Chief Procurement Officer, Tom Weeks (“Weeks”).[1] (Doc. 15 ¶¶ 1, 9.) Plaintiff alleges that RRPS and her supervisor, Richard Bruce (“Bruce”), knew of the alleged harassment and did nothing to stop it and, moreover, that they retaliated and discriminated against her. (Id.)[2] Specifically, Plaintiff's 45-page, 184 paragraph First Amended Complaint (“Complaint”) lays out numerous allegations of alleged harassment, including that Weeks yelled at Plaintiff, bullied her, sought to undermine and sabotage her with regard to her procurement responsibilities, “derisive[ly]” laughed when she spoke, made false accusations against her, refused to acknowledge her expertise and input, and engaged in a “irrational and concerning course of conduct, ” including not following “best practices for IT purchases” and delaying technology related purchase requests for months at a time. (Id. ¶¶14-16, 35.) Plaintiff makes a number of specific, detailed allegations with regard to Weeks' purported “concerning course of conduct” and even cites an email by a fellow employee who “registered his outrage” at Weeks' handling of procurement decisions. (See Id. ¶¶ 17-42, 56-62.) Within this series of allegations, Plaintiff avers multiple times that Bruce and Evans did not address the issues raised by Plaintiff or other employees. (See e.g., Id. ¶¶ 26, 28, 30, 37, 42, 62, 75, 97).

         Although Plaintiff does not allege any specific, overt instances of gender-based harassment, she summarily states that Weeks “consistently treated women with contempt and derision, but especially Plaintiff.” (Id. ¶ 14.) Plaintiff also cites to a finding from RRPS' internal investigation that “‘there is a general consensus and concern among Executive Directors and Directors'” that Weeks was difficult to work with and created “‘numerous issues for departments.'” (Doc. 15 ¶ 64.) Plaintiff alleges that during that same investigation, multiple employees reported that Weeks treated women “differently” in the sense that his difficult behavior was amplified when dealing with women as opposed to men. (Doc. 15 ¶¶ 65-71.) She further asserts that, “upon information and belief, ” Weeks did not mistreat or disregard male executive directors in similar fashion. (See e.g., Id. ¶¶ 32, 34, 36, 40.) Some of her allegations also include conclusory add-ons regarding gender, e.g., Weeks attempted to undermine Plaintiff “because of her sex.” (Id. ¶¶ 1, 33, 73, 141, 162.)

         RRPS and Bruce (collectively, “Defendants”) now move for dismissal, alleging a lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) as to each count of Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint (“Complaint”). Plaintiff has asserted a total of ten claims:

• Count I - gender harassment under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1 et seq., (“Title VII”) against RRPS;
• Count II - Title VII sex discrimination against RRPS;
• Count III - Title VII retaliation against RRPS;
• Count IV - Violation of the Equal Protection Clause against Bruce and Evans;
• Count V - gender harassment under the New Mexico Human Rights Act, NMSA 1978 § 28-1-1 et seq., (“NMHRA”) against all Defendants;
• Count VI - NMHRA sex discrimination against all Defendants;
• Count VII - NMHRA retaliation against all Defendants;
• Count VIII - violation of the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act, NMSA 1978 § 10-16C-1 (“NMWPA”) against RRPS;
• Count IX - breach of contract against RRPS; and
• Count X - breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing against RRPS.

         DISCUSSION

         I. Plaintiff adequately exhausted her administrative remedies, giving this Court subject matter jurisdiction.

         Defendants first challenge Plaintiff's suit on the grounds that this Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over the NMHRA claims against Defendant Bruce. (Doc. 16 at 6.)[3]

         Although not specifically addressed by the Parties in their briefing, the Court notes that any jurisdiction over the NMHRA claims against Defendant Bruce arises under 28 U.S.C. § 1367, which provides for supplemental jurisdiction over all nonfederal claims that are so related to claims within a district court's original jurisdiction that such nonfederal claims form part of same case or controversy. Defendants do not appear to challenge this premise, but instead contend that supplemental jurisdiction cannot exist in this case because Plaintiff failed to adequately exhaust her administrative remedies with respect to Bruce. (Doc. 16 at 6.) Plaintiff responds that exhaustion is no longer jurisdictional, and that in any case she has exhausted her administrative remedies.[4] (Doc. 21 at 3-6.)

         It is axiomatic that a court must have a basis for jurisdiction. Where subject matter jurisdiction is lacking, the Court must dismiss the action. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3). 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). Where the attack is facial, the Court presumes all the allegations contained in the complaint to be true. Id. But where the jurisdictional facts are attacked, no presumptive truthfulness attaches, and the Court has discretion to consider affidavits or other documents to resolve the issue. See Holt v. United States, 46 F.3d 1000, 1003 (10th Cir. 1995) (citations omitted).[5]

         Here, Defendants attack the underlying jurisdictional facts (Doc. 15 at 6-8). They contend that Plaintiff failed to provide fair notice to Bruce in her administrative filing to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) (“EEOC Complaint”) and, as such, Counts V, VI, and VII of Plaintiff's Complaint should be dismissed for want of subject matter jurisdiction. (Id.) Specifically, they contend that Plaintiff was required to exhaust her administrative remedies and failed to adequately do so with respect to Bruce because she did not name him in two of three EEOC Complaints and, in the one where she did name Bruce, she “failed to identify any specific discriminatory acts of Defendant Bruce.” (Doc. 16 at 6.)

         Defendants miss the mark. As noted by Plaintiff, the primary case relied on by Defendant is not directly on point. (See Doc. 21 at 4-5.) In Luboyeski v. Hill, 1994-NMSC-032, ¶ 7, 117 N.M. 380, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld dismissal where certain defendants were not named as respondents to the administrative charges but were included in the district court suit. In this case though, Bruce was named as a Respondent in Plaintiff's February 10, 2017 EEOC Complaint. (Doc. 16-1).[6] As such, the Court interprets Defendants' challenge as a challenge to the sufficiency of the allegations made in the EEOC filing.

         “The exhaustion rule derives from two principal purposes:” (1) “to give notice of the alleged violation to the charged party;” and (2) “to give the EEOC an opportunity to conciliate the claim, which effectuates Title VII's goal of securing voluntary compliance.” Smith, 904 F.3d at 1164 (internal quotation omitted). The relevant inquiry “is whether the conduct alleged [in the lawsuit] would fall within the scope of an EEOC investigation which would reasonably grow out of the charges actually made [in the administrative filing].” Jones v. United Parcel Serv., 502 F.3d 1176, 1186 (10th Cir. 2007). An EEOC filing must be given liberal construction. Id. “This more lenient pleading standard contemplates the fact that administrative charges of unlawful employment practices are regularly filled out by employees who do not have the benefit of counsel” and thus precise pleading is not required at the administrative stage. Mitchell v. City & County of Denver, 112 Fed.Appx. 662, 667 (10th Cir. 2004) (unpublished).

         Here, liberally construing Plaintiff's February 2017 EEOC Complaint, the Court finds that the conduct alleged by Plaintiff in the Complaint would have fallen in the scope of any EEOC inquiry resulting from her allegations that Weeks harassed and discriminated against her and that Bruce failed to take any effective action regarding the conduct. (See Doc. 16-1.) Put another way, the Court is convinced that Bruce had fair notice based on the EEOC Complaint that Plaintiff believed Bruce was liable for the harassment, discrimination, and retaliation against her. Plaintiff literally “checked the box” on the EEOC Complaint form regarding sex discrimination and retaliation. (Id.); cf. Jones, 502 F.3d at 1186 (explaining that where a plaintiff fails to check the appropriate box of an EEOC form, he creates a presumption that he is not asserting a claim represented by that box). Bruce was properly named as a respondent. He cannot now claim to be surprised by the allegations in the Complaint simply because the allegations therein are more specific than the general claims made in the EEOC Complaint. (See Doc. 16 at 7.)

         Defendants also urge the Court to require Plaintiff to amend her Complaint to reflect that she is not seeking liability against Bruce for certain claims on the grounds that she has “conceded” to not naming Bruce in her second or third EEOC Complaints. (Doc. 25 at 2 n. 1.) It strikes the Court that Defendants are distorting Plaintiff's so-called “concession” beyond a reasonable interpretation. Requiring amendment is not in any way materially different than the Court dismissing those claims. And, in any case, the allegations in the first EEOC Complaint are sufficient to have put Bruce on notice. For the same reasons the Court will not grant Defendants 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss, it will likewise deny their request for an order requiring Plaintiff to amend.

         Therefore, for all the foregoing reasons, Defendants' Rule 12(b)(1) Motion to Dismiss is DENIED.

         II. Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) Motion is Granted in Part and Denied in Part as Set Forth Below.

         A. Legal Standard Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

         Having concluded that this Court has jurisdiction over Plaintiff's claims, the Court turns to Defendants' arguments under Rule 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the complaint “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 570 (2007)). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). Complaints which are nothing more than “a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Twombly ...


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