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Martinson v. Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

March 11, 2019

Nicole Martinson, Plaintiff,
v.
Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc., Defendant.

          David E. Schlesinger and Laura A. Farley, Nichols Kaster, PLLP, for plaintiff Nicole Martinson.

          Ruvin S. Jayasuriya, Ellen A. Brinkman, and David A. Schooler, Briggs & Morgan, P.A., for defendant Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Eric C. Tostrud United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Nicole Martinson (“Martinson”) asserts a single claim alleging that Defendant Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership, Inc. (“Mahube”) terminated her employment in violation of the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, Minn. Stat. § 181.931-.935. To summarize, Mahube operates a Head Start program, among other services. Mahube hired Martinson to manage enrollment for this program. Martinson alleges that her supervisor instructed her to enroll applicants in the program who Martinson believed were ineligible under federal law. Martinson claims she then reported “violations or perceived violations” of a federal regulation governing the Head Start program to Mahube and that Mahube terminated her employment in retaliation for her reports. Martinson commenced this action originally in Minnesota state district court. Martinson asserts no claim created by federal law, and there is no assertion that the parties are of diverse citizenship. Mahube removed the case to federal court asserting that Martinson's claim “turns on an embedded, substantial question of federal law which [Defendant is] entitled to litigate in a federal forum.” Following removal, Martinson moved to remand for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, and Mahube moved to dismiss the suit for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.

         Federal district courts “have original jurisdiction of all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 1331. “[T]he vast bulk of suits that arise under federal law” assert a claim (or claims) created by federal law. Gunn v. Minton, 568 U.S. 251, 257 (2013) (citation omitted). A category of cases asserting a state-created claim nonetheless arise under federal law for purposes of § 1331 “if a federal issue is: (1) necessarily raised, (2) actually disputed, (3) substantial, and (4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance approved by Congress.” Gunn, 568 U.S. at 258. This category is “special and small.” Id. (quoting Empire Healthchoice Assurance, Inc. v. McVeigh, 547 U.S. 677, 699 (2006)). Martinson's complaint does not satisfy this test. Regardless of whether Martinson's claim necessarily raises a federal issue that is actually disputed, the federal issue is neither substantial in the jurisdictional sense nor capable of resolution in federal court without causing serious disruption to the federal-state balance approved by Congress. Martinson's motion to remand will be granted, and Mahube's motion to dismiss will be denied as moot.

         I

         “Mahube is a Minnesota nonprofit corporation providing services to low income and elderly persons living in Mahnomen, Hubbard, Becker, Otter Tail and Wadena counties in northwestern Minnesota.” Notice of Removal ¶ 3 [ECF No. 1]; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 2 [ECF No. 14]. Among other services, “Mahube offers a Head Start program. Head Start is a federally-funded program which promotes the school readiness of young children from low-income families through agencies in their local communities.” Notice of Removal ¶ 4. Mahube describes that its “Head Start program assists enrollees with education and school readiness, family support, health and nutrition, mental health, self-sufficiency and self-esteem, and positive discipline.” Id.; see also Am. Compl. ¶ 8.

         Martinson began working for Mahube in August 2016. Am. Compl. ¶ 6. She was responsible for overseeing and managing enrollment for Mahube's Head Start program. Id. ¶ 7. Martinson alleges that her employment with Mahube was “immediately successful.” Id. ¶ 10. Martinson alleges, for example, that she received an “overwhelmingly positive” first evaluation from her supervisor, Margaret Aho (“Aho”), “[i]n September 2016.” Id. Martinson also alleges that she “was promoted out of [a] probationary period” that “usually lasts for six months” in only four months, or two months ahead of schedule. Id. ¶ 11. Martinson alleges that she received a second “positive performance review” from Aho in “approximately December 2016.” Id. ¶ 12.

         According to Martinson, her employment relationship with Mahube began to deteriorate “around March 2017.” Id. ¶ 13. At that time, Martinson alleges, Aho instructed her to enroll applicants in Head Start who “Martinson believed were ineligible for reenrollment under federal law.” Id. Martinson grounds her belief that these applicants “were ineligible for reenrollment” on a federal regulation governing Head Start, and Martinson identifies and describes the regulation in her complaint. Id.; see Id. ¶¶ 14-16.

         Martinson first identifies 45 C.F.R. § 1302.12(c)(1), which she alleges establishes four “needs-based criteria” for Head Start eligibility. Id. ¶ 14. Per the regulation (and not Martinson's summary of it in her complaint), a “pregnant woman or a child is eligible” for Head Start if:

(i) The family's income is equal to or below the poverty line; or,
(ii) The family is eligible for or, in the absence of child care, would be potentially eligible for public assistance; including TANF child-only payments; or,
(iii) The child is homeless, as defined in part 1305; or,
(iv) The child is in foster care.

45 C.F.R. § 1302.12(c)(1). Martinson alleges that any family meeting any one criterion in paragraph (c)(1) is “automatically eligible” for Head Start. Am. Compl. ¶ 14.

         Martinson next identifies 45 C.F.R. § 1302.12(c)(2) and (d). Id. ¶ 15. These paragraphs of the regulation address Head Start enrollment of participants who do not satisfy any one criterion described in § 1302.12(c)(1). Again, quoting from the regulation itself, § 1302.12(c)(2) provides: “If the family does not meet a criterion under paragraph (c)(1) of this section, a program may enroll a child who would benefit from services, provided that these participants only make up to 10 percent of a ...


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