May 28, 2013
DOREEN HARROCKS, Plaintiff,
SAKER SHOPRITES, INC., et al., Defendants.
MARY L. COOPER, District Judge.
THE PLAINTIFF, Doreen Harrocks, brings the action against the defendants, her former employer, Saker ShopRites, Inc. ("Shoprite"), and the labor organization that represented her interests during her term as a Shoprite employee, United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 464A (pleaded here as "UFCW, 464A" and referenced in this Opinion as "the Union"). (See dkt. entry no. 1-1, Ex. A to Notice of Removal, Compl.) It appears that Shoprite terminated Harrocks's employment after determining that she brought a "small plastic bag containing a suspected controlled dangerous substance (CDS')" into the workplace. (See id. at ¶¶ 9, 12.) It also appears that Harrocks, while employed by Shoprite, was bound by the collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") between Shoprite and the Union. (See id. at ¶ 14; see also dkt. entry no. 23-3, Ex. A to Moroney Certification, CBA.)
HARROCKS seeks damages from Shoprite for both: (1) an alleged breach of the CBA, pursuant to Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA"), 29 U.S.C. § 185 ("the Breach of Contract Claim"); and (2) the publication of allegedly defamatory statements ("the Defamation Claim"). (See Compl. at ¶¶ 14-18, 22-24.) To support the Defamation Claim, Harrocks merely alleges that Shoprite "published to third parties an allegation that Harrocks possessed a CDS... [and] knew or should have known that the allegation had no evidentiary support." (Id. at ¶¶ 22-23.) She neither alleges who the third parties are or might have been, nor specifies whether the allegedly defamatory statements were made in the course of or relation to the termination of her employment.
SHOPRITE now moves to dismiss both of the claims raised against it pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure ("Rule") 12(b)(6). (Dkt. entry no. 23, Mot.) Harrocks opposes the Motion. (See dkt. entry no. 24, Opp'n Br.) The Court will now resolve the Motion without oral argument, and will address each of the claims at issue - and the parties' related arguments - in turn. See L.Civ.R. 78.1(b).
I. THE BREACH OF CONTRACT CLAIM
SHOPRITE first argues that the Breach of Contract Claim should be dismissed either as untimely or, alternatively, because Harrocks failed to exhaust the administrative remedies provided by the CBA. (See dkt. entry no. 23-1, Br. in Supp. at 5-11.) To support its argument, Shoprite submits the certification of Kevin Moroney, Shoprite's Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Labor Relations. (Dkt. entry no. 23-3, Moroney Certification.) Moroney claims "knowledge of the facts and circumstances surrounding the above-captioned matter", and raises factual allegations that go beyond the four corners of the Complaint. (Id. at ¶ 7-12.)
HARROCKS raises two arguments in opposition to dismissal of the Breach of Contract Claim. First, Harrocks argues that the Complaint was timely filed because the applicable statute of limitations was tolled until January 6, 2012, when she "received the final notice granting her unemployment benefits." (Opp'n Br. at 8.) To support this argument, Harrocks refers to peripheral documents that were not incorporated in the Complaint. (See id.) Second, Harrocks argues that the failure to exhaust administrative remedies is properly attributed to the Union and, accordingly, should not bar the Breach of Contract Claim. (See id. at 9-10.)
THE COURT has considered the parties' arguments, and intends to deny the Motion without prejudice insofar as it concerns the Breach of Contract Claim. The Court notes that the limitations period for a claim under Section 301 of the LMRA accrues "when the claimant discovers, or in the exercise of reasonable discretion, could have discovered the acts constituting the violation, " which has been interpreted as the moment when the plaintiff "receives notice that the union will proceed no further with the grievance." Vadino , 903 F.2d at 260 (citation omitted). It thus appears that issues concerning the limitations period and issues concerning a claimant's failure to exhaust administrative remedies may be intertwined, insofar as a claimant may not receive notice from her union that it will not further proceed with a grievance.
THE COURT has reviewed the CBA, which outlines the grievance procedures at issue. The Court's review demonstrates that both of Shoprite's arguments fail at this stage of the proceedings. When the CBA is read in the light most favorable to Harrocks, it appears that the Union may have been responsible for furthering the grievance process. (See CBA at Article 9, ¶ B ("If the Union and [Shoprite] cannot agree as to the justification of the discipline and/or discharge, the dispute shall be submitted to arbitration.").) Accordingly, the court is unable to determine at this stage of the proceedings: (1) when or whether Harrocks received notice that the Union would not further proceed with the grievance procedures outlined in the CBA; (2) whether the Union or Harrocks ultimately bore responsibility for furthering the grievance proceedings; and (3) when the limitations period relating to the Breach of Contract Claim began to accrue. See Vadino , 903 F.2d at 260. Following discovery, Shoprite may raise these issues anew in a timely and properly filed motion for summary judgment.
II. THE DEFAMATION CLAIM
SHOPRITE argues that the Defamation Claim should be dismissed because it is preempted by the LMRA. (See Br. in Supp. at 11-15.) To support this argument, Shoprite argues that the statements at issue arose in the context of and are thus inextricably intertwined with a grievance procedure contemplated by the CBA. (See id.) Shoprite also argues that the Defamation Claim should be dismissed because Shoprite was privileged to make such statements during a grievance proceeding contemplated by the CBA. (See id. at 15-16.)
THE ALLEGATIONS appearing in the Complaint, viewed in the light most favorable to Harrocks, do not support dismissal of the Defamation Claim. The Complaint does demonstrate that such statements were made during grievance proceedings, and the Court, when resolving the Motion, cannot accept Shoprite's contrary assertions. The Court may only decide the Motion based on the facts alleged in the Complaint. See Phillips v. Cnty. of Allegheny , 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008); Juice Entm't, LLC v. Live Nation Entm't, Inc., No. 11-7318, 2012 WL 2576284, at *2 (D.N.J. July 3, 2002). The Court thus intends to deny the Motion without prejudice, insofar as it concerns the Defamation Claim.
THE COURT, for the reasons stated above, will deny the Motion without prejudice. The Court will issue a separate Order.