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Spainhour v. Lowe's Companies, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. North Carolina, Statesville Division

April 12, 2017

ANDREA SPAINHOUR, Plaintiff,
v.
LOWE'S COMPANIES, INC., LOWE'S HOME CENTERS, LLC, Defendants.

          ORDER

          Richard L. Voorhees United States District Judge.

         THIS MATTER IS BEFORE THE COURT on Lowe's Companies, Inc.'s and Lowe's Home Centers, LLC's (“Defendants” or “Lowe's”) Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint (Doc. 3) (the “Motion”) and accompanying brief in support (Doc. 5), which were filed on July 19, 2016. Plaintiff Andrea Spainhour (“Plaintiff”) filed a Complaint (Doc. 1-1) in Iredell County Superior Court on June 3, 2016, followed by an Amended Complaint (Doc. 6-1) (the “Complaint” or “First Amended Complaint”) on June 27, 2016, which alleges that her employer, Lowe's, had discriminated against her on the basis of gender and age, creating a hostile work environment, and unlawfully retaliated against her in response to her filing of claims with the EEOC. Lowe's moves this Court, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), to dismiss the Plaintiff's Complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted (Doc. 3). For the following reasons, the Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.

         I. PROCEDURAL & FACTUAL BACKGROUND[1]

         In October 2009, Plaintiff, a 65 year-old female, began working at Lowe's Headquarters in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and was later transferred to the Store 480 location in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to work as a Human Resource Manager (“HRM”). (Doc. 6-1 at 2). Plaintiff's relevant education and experience relating to this position include a Bachelor's Degree in Organizational Behavior, a certification as a Human Resources Professional by the Society of Human Resource Managers, and her time working as an HR professional since 2004. (Doc. 6-1 at 2).

         In November 2013, Plaintiff noticed younger, newly-hired HR personnel being offered starting salaries around $55, 000, compared to her own salary of $38, 000. (Doc. 6-1 at 3). Upon expressing her concern over such disparity with the Area HRM, Mr. McArdle, he responded by increasing Plaintiff's salary; this increase still left Plaintiff receiving a lesser salary than younger, recently-hired employees. Id. Plaintiff was also not being afforded the same opportunities for special assignments as the younger HRMs, such as the task of working on new-hire orientation which was given to an HRM in his mid-30's. Id.

         Plaintiff was denied the opportunity to transfer to another store, the Lowe's at Hanes Mall in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to be closer to her residence. Id. Plaintiff is a resident of Forsyth County, within which is where the city of Winston-Salem is located, but the Complaint doesn't state her address. (Doc. 6-1 at 1). Plaintiff states that the HRM position at the Hanes Mall location was never posted, but a younger, less-experienced HRM was transferred to this position. Id. at 3. When Plaintiff asked why the position was never posted and why she could not transfer, Mr. McArdle said that the position was “confidential, ” and that Lowe's does not transfer employees based on home location. Id. However, Plaintiff notes that Mr. McArdle had on another occasion transferred an HRM based on home location. Id.

         On April 26, 2015, Plaintiff filed an EEOC claim based on this treatment, alleging age discrimination in violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (the “ADEA”). (Doc. 6-1 at 3; Doc. 3-1). About a month after filing the EEOC claim, Plaintiff went on medical leave from May 29, 2015 through June 19, 2015. (Doc. 6-1 at 3). A non-HRM employee, Marie Hippert, was delegated certain of Plaintiff's responsibilities while Plaintiff was on leave that were not tasks within Ms. Hippert's job title. Id. at 4. For instance, Hippert was given the task of managing all employee food events, despite the fact that there were no food events during Plaintiff's leave, and Ms. Hippert was also authorized to speak with employees regarding certain HRM matters; this authorized activity continued even after Plaintiff's return from medical leave. Id. These actions were viewed by Plaintiff as an effort to reduce her authority and distance her from the HRM position in retaliation for her EEOC claim. Id. at 4-5.

         Plaintiff states that another store associate informed Plaintiff that a notebook belonging to Ms. Hippert was found at the customer service desk. Id. at 5. Inside the notebook was a letter, written in April 2015 to the Area HRM, Jennifer Coady, alleging that Plaintiff was incompetent and unable to carry out her designated responsibilities. Id. The Complaint doesn't allege who wrote the letter. Plaintiff states that she inquired about the letter and Ms. Coady responded that she was aware of the allegations in the letter, but took no action as a result. Id.

         Following these events, Plaintiff applied for an “HR/Admin Coach” position with Lowe's in Statesville, North Carolina. Id. After receiving initial support from one of the interviewing agents regarding her application, this same individual appeared very “cold” while conducting Plaintiff's interview such that Plaintiff sensed the decision about her candidacy for the position had already been made. Id. The reasoning provided for why Plaintiff was not selected was her failure to provide sufficient examples of working with senior management, yet Plaintiff allegedly provided at least two such examples. Id. Plaintiff again saw this adverse treatment as retaliation after her EEOC claim. Id.

         The EEOC issued Plaintiff a Notice of Right to Sue on March 7, 2016. (Doc. 6-1) at 2. Plaintiff filed a Complaint (Doc. 1-1) in Iredell County Superior Court on June 3, 2016, followed by an Amended Complaint (Doc. 6-1) on June 27, 2016, which alleged her employer, Lowe's, had discriminated against her on the basis of gender and age, created a hostile work environment, and unlawfully retaliated against her in response to her filing of claims with the EEOC. Plaintiff seeks relief from: (1) gender discrimination in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) harassment based on gender creating a hostile work environment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (3) age discrimination in violation of the North Carolina Equal Employment Practices Act (the “NCEEPA”), N.C. G.S. § 143-422.2; and (4) retaliation[2] in violation of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the NCEEPA. Id. at 6-8. On July 13, 2016, Defendants filed a Notice of Removal, asserting subject matter jurisdiction in this Court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 for Plaintiff's federal causes of action and 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a) for Plaintiff's claim under the NCEEPA. (Doc. 1) at 2. This action was removed from the Superior Court of Iredell County, North Carolina, which is within this Court's Statesville division of the Western District of North Carolina. Therefore, venue is appropriate in this division.

         Defendants filed the present Motion and an accompanying brief in support on July 19, 2016. (Doc. 3; Doc. 5). On August 5, 2016, Plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the Motion (Doc. 7), to which Defendants replied on August 15, 2016 (Doc. 8). Defendants contend that this Court lacks jurisdiction over Plaintiff's Title VII claims for gender and retaliation because Plaintiff did not include these claims in the EEOC charge, and therefore did not exhaust her administrative remedies. (Doc. 3 at 2). Moreover, Defendants argue that Plaintiff's claim for relief under the NCEEPA should be dismissed because Plaintiff was not discharged from employment, and therefore cannot seek relief under the NCEEPA. Id. Plaintiff conceded this point and does not dispute that the claims under the NCEEPA deserve dismissal as a matter of law. (Doc. 7 at 4). Based on this concession, Defendants claim that Plaintiff's allegations regarding age discrimination are now fully absent from these proceedings since no ADEA claims appeared in the Complaint. (Doc. 8 at 1-2). Furthermore, Defendants argue that because Plaintiff's other allegations regarding gender discrimination and retaliation were not first included in the EEOC claim, nor do they relate back to any EEOC claim properly pending before the Court, the Court should not consider either claim. Id. at 6.

         In response to these contentions by Defendant, Plaintiff maintains that the factual allegations in the Complaint as well as the initial EEOC claim support her claims of discrimination, and she also provides additional facts concerning the alleged issues with jurisdiction and exhaustion of administrative remedies. (Doc. 7). Namely, Plaintiff asserts that she completed her initial EEOC claim without counsel present, and that it was subsequently supplemented with information contained in documented email communication between her counsel and an EEOC Federal Investigator, Mr. Nieves. Id. at 3-4; (Doc. 6-3; Doc. 6-4). Plaintiff asserts that such communication occurred at the behest of Mr. Nieves. Id. at 3; (Doc. 6-3; Doc. 6-4). Moreover, Plaintiff contends that this communication was sufficient to update and amend her original charge to include retaliation claims. (Doc. 7 at 3; Doc. 6-2).

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. ...


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