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Woerner v. Board of Education of Rio Rancho Public Schools

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

December 16, 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 GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT RANDALL EVANS' MOTION TO DISMISS

         THIS MATTER is before the Court on Defendant Randall Evans' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 17). Evans asserts multiple grounds for dismissal including qualified immunity, lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and failure to state a claim. Having reviewed the parties' briefing and considered the applicable law, the Court finds that the Motion should be 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 Weeks' supervisor, Randall Evans (“Evans”), knew of the alleged harassment and permitted it to continue. (Doc. 22 at 1-5.) Moreover, Plaintiff alleges that all Defendants, [2] including Evans, retaliated against her for reporting the alleged harassment. (Doc. 15 ¶ 1.)

         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 Richard 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.)

         Plaintiff's claims against Evans include violation of the Equal Protection Clause (Count IV) and gender harassment (Count V), sex discrimination (Count VI), and retaliation (Count VII) under the New Mexico Human Rights Act, 1978 NMSA § 28-1-1 et seq. (“NMHRA”). Evans argues that he is entitled to dismissal of all four claims.

         DISCUSSION

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

         Evans, like his co-defendants (see Doc. 16) asserts that this Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiff's NMHRA claims (Counts V, VI, and VII) because Plaintiff did not properly exhaust her administrative remedies. (Doc. 17 at 16-18.) Plaintiff avers that the exhaustion requirement is no longer jurisdictional in the Tenth Circuit but that in any event she did exhaust her administrative remedies. (Doc. 22 at 12.)

         As a threshold matter, the Courts notes that while the Tenth Circuit has recognized that the administrative exhaustion requirement is not jurisdictional for claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-1 et seq., (“Title VII”), see Smith v. Cheyenne Ret. Inv'rs L.P., 904 F.3d 1159, 1163-64, (10th Cir. 2018), under New Mexico law exhaustion is a jurisdictional prerequisite for NMHRA claims. Mitchell-Carr v. McLendon, 980 P.2d 65, 71 (N.M. 1999) (“[T]he exhaustion of administrative remedies is a prerequisite to suit under the NMHRA, and a failure to exhaust administrative remedies may mean that the district court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction.”). As such, the issue before the Court is whether Plaintiff exhausted her administrative remedies with respect to the state law claims[3] against Evans.

         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).[4]

         Here, Evans attacks the underlying jurisdictional facts and argues that Plaintiff failed to provide him fair notice of her complaints. He further asserts that the allegations in Plaintiff's EEOC charges are a “far cry” from the conduct alleged in the Complaint. (Doc. 23 at 12.)

         Evans first argues that he was not properly named as a respondent in Plaintiff's February 2017 EEOC filing and objects to the sufficiency of the reference to him therein. (Id.) But the Court notes that the form's instructions expressly require Plaintiff to complete the form as she did. (See Doc. 16-1). See also Campos v. Las Cruces Nursing Ctr., 828 F.Supp.2d 1256, 1276-77 (D.N.M. 2011) (recognizing that the New Mexico Supreme Court would likely find that naming an individual in the body an EEOC charge is sufficient to name them as a respondent to the case). As such, the Court finds that Evans is named in Plaintiff's EEOC filing. Compare Luboyeski v. Hill, 1994-NMSC-032, ¶ 7, 117 N.M. 380 (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).

         “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 would which 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).

         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 her, and that Evans failed to take any effective action regarding the conduct. (See Doc. 16-1.) Put another way, the Court is convinced that Evans had fair notice based on the EEOC Complaint that Plaintiff believed Evans 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 (Doc. 16-1). 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). Further, as discussed above, Evans 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. 23 at 12.) While Evans advocates for a requirement of detailed specificity for the allegations in an administrative filing to past exhaustion requirement muster, he points the Court to no binding authority which so requires, and the Court is not inclined to support his propositions for him. See Gross v. Burggraf Constr. Co., 53 F.3d 1531, 1547 (10th Cir. 1995). And, while Evans correctly points out that he is not named in two of three charges, the allegations in the February 2017 charge are sufficient to have put him on notice.

         Therefore, for all the foregoing reasons, Evans' Motion to Dismiss on subject matter jurisdiction grounds is DENIED.

         II. Plaintiff failed to state a claim for gender harassment and sex discrimination, but has plausibly pleaded a claim for retaliation.

         A. Legal Standard Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 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, 550 U.S. at 555. Although a court must accept all the complaint's factual allegations as true, the same is not true of legal conclusions, including legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Id. at 555-56.

         Accordingly, “in ruling on a motion to dismiss, a court should disregard all conclusory statements of law and consider whether the remaining specific factual allegations, if assumed to be true, plausibly suggest the defendant is liable.” Kan. Penn Gaming, LLC v. Collins, 656 F.3d 1210, 1214 (10th Cir. 2011). In deciding whether the plaintiff has adequately stated a claim for relief, we view “the totality of the circumstances as alleged in the complaint in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff].” Jones v. Hunt, 410 F.3d 1221, 1229 (10th Cir. 2005). ...


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