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Akaku v. Unite Here Local No. 17

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

June 23, 2017

Sisay Akaku, Plaintiff,
UNITE HERE Local No. 17, and Graves Hospitality Corporation, Defendants.

          David E. Schlesinger, Esq., and Matthew A. Frank, Esq., Nichols Kaster, PLLP, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Jessica M. Marsh, Esq., and Michael John Moberg, Esq., Jackson Lewis PC, counsel for Defendant Graves Hospitality Corporation.

          Brendan D. Cummins, Esq., Justin D. Cummins, Esq., Laura I. Bernstein, Esq., and Robert D. Metcalf, Esq., counsel for Defendant UNITE HERE Local No. 17.


          DONOVAN W. FRANK United States District Judge


         This matter is before the Court on an Amended Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings brought by Defendant UNITE HERE Local No. 17 (“Local 17”). (Doc. No. 34.)[1] For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted in part and denied in part.


         This case involves allegations of employment discrimination. Plaintiff, a black woman of Ethiopian descent, works as a busser in Towns/American Grill, a restaurant owned and run by Defendant Graves Hospitality Corporation (“Graves”). (SAC ¶¶ 1, 4.)[2]Local 17 is a union that represents employees in the hotel and restaurant industry in the Twin Cities area, including Plaintiff. (Id. ¶ 2.) The terms and conditions of Plaintiff's employment are established, in part, by a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). (Id. ¶¶ 10-12.)

         In 2014, Graves opened a new restaurant (Rival House) downstairs in the same building where Towns/American Grill is located. (Id. ¶ 5.) Several employees at Towns/American Grill were hired to work at Rival House. (Id. ¶ 6.) Graves interviewed Plaintiff for a position at Rival House, but she was not offered the job. (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) According to Graves, Plaintiff applied for a Server Assistant position, which requires verbal interaction with patrons, and Graves maintains that Plaintiff did not speak English well enough to perform the required duties. Plaintiff alleges that among the employees hired to work at Rival House, some were people outside of Plaintiff's race and national origin. (Id.) Plaintiff also alleges that soon after Rival House opened, Towns/American stopped serving customers after breakfast, which resulted in a reduction in Plaintiff's hours from full-time to approximately 8 hours per week. (Id. ¶¶ 8-9.) Plaintiff asserts that she was qualified to perform the duties of a Server Assistant and that Graves' refusal to allow her to switch to Rival House was the result of discrimination on the basis of race and national origin. (Id. ¶ 15.)

         Plaintiff also alleges that in July and August 2014, she sought assistance from her union, Local 17, and specifically that she complained to Local 17 about Graves' discriminatory conduct and that she asked for help moving to Rival House. (Id. ¶ 10.) Plaintiff alleges that Local 17 deprived her of her union-membership rights under the CBA and otherwise discriminated against her on the basis of race and national origin by failing to file a grievance and generally failing to assist her in securing a job at Rival House.

         Local 17, however, contends that it responded to each of Plaintiff's complaints and requests in the summer of 2014, and that in September 2014, Local 17 met with Plaintiff to discuss work schedules and her interest in the Server Assistant position at Rival House. (Doc. No. 33 (Second Amended Answer (“SAA”)) ¶¶ 10, 11.) Local 17 asserts that it spent significant time during the fall and winter of 2014 helping Plaintiff obtain alternative full-time employment, but that Plaintiff elected not to take any of the available positions. Local 17 also asserts that on September 11, 2015, it filed a grievance regarding Graves denying Plaintiff a Server Assistant position within the 14-day deadline under the CBA after Plaintiff requested that such a grievance be filed. (Id. ¶ 19, Exs. G-I.) Local 17 further asserts that Plaintiff did not pursue the grievance, and in particular, opted not to present the grievance before the Local Grievance Committee. (Id. ¶ 19, Ex. N).

         Ultimately, Plaintiff filed a charge of discrimination against Graves with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), which was cross-filed with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (“MDHR”). (SAC ¶ 29.) Both the EEOC and the MDHR issued Plaintiff a right to sue on April 1, 2016, and June 24, 2016, respectively. (Id.) As against Local 17, Plaintiff filed charges of discrimination with the St. Paul Department of Human Rights and Economic Security (“St. Paul DHR”) and the EEOC. (Id. ¶ 28.) The St. Paul DHR found probable cause to believe that Local 17 discriminated against Plaintiff on the basis of race and national origin and issued a right to sue on March 29, 2016. (Id.; Doc. No. 43 ¶ 1, Ex. 6.) The EEOC adopted the St. Paul DHR's findings and issued a right to sue on May 17, 2016. (SAC ¶ 28, Ex. O.) The EEOC's Dismissal and Notice of Rights stated that any lawsuit on Plaintiff's federal claims “must be filed WITHIN 90 DAYS of [her] receipt of this notice; or [Plaintiff's] right to sue based on this charge will be lost.” (Id.)[3]

         On May 10, 2016, Plaintiff sued Graves and Local 17 (and a third defendant) in Ramsey County Court. (Doc. No. 1, Ex. A.) Plaintiff asserted claims for violations the MHRA and St. Paul Human Rights Ordinance (“St. Paul HRO”) (both claims under state and local law). (Doc. No. 1, Ex. 1.) On June 8, 2016, Graves removed the case to this Court. (Doc. No. 1.) Both defendants filed answers. (Doc. Nos. 3, 4.) On July 19, 2016, the parties filed a stipulation to amend the complaint to change the case caption, dismiss the third defendant without prejudice, and add a claim for discrimination against Graves. (Doc. No. 8.) Plaintiff filed a First Amended Complaint on July 25, 2016. (Doc. No. 10.) After a dispute about Plaintiff's intent to amend her complaint to add federal claims of discrimination against Local 17, on October 4, 2016, Plaintiff filed the SAC adding federal discrimination claims against Local 17. (Doc. No. 32.) In the SAC, Plaintiff alleges the following: Count I-Violation of the MHRA against Local 17; Count II-Violation of the St. Paul HRO against Local 17; Count III-Violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 against Local 17; Count IV-Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Local No. 17; Count V- Violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981 against Graves; Count VI-Violation of the MHRA against Graves. (See SAC.) Plaintiff had not filed Federal discrimination claims against Local 17 in her prior complaints. Thus, the first time federal claims were asserted against Local 17 was on October 4, 2016.

         Local No. 17 presently moves for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that Plaintiff's claims against Local 17 were filed outside the governing limitations period, and even if timely, Plaintiff's claims ...

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