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Lee v. Burlington Coat factory of Missouri, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

March 21, 2018

TERRENCE LEE, Plaintiff,
v.
BURLINGTON COAT FACTORY OF MISSOURI, LLC, [1] Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          AUDREY FLEISSIG UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion (ECF No. 18) to compel arbitration and to dismiss or, alternatively, stay these proceedings pending arbitration. For the reasons set forth below, the Court will grant Defendant's motion and will stay this case pending arbitration.

         Plaintiff, an African American male, brought this lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., for alleged race discrimination suffered while he was employed as a Receiving Supervisor at Defendant's store, from August 2015 until his termination on November 5, 2015. Plaintiff timely filed his lawsuit on September 25, 2017, after receiving right-to-sue letters from the EEOC and the Missouri Commission on Human Rights. Plaintiff initially proceeded pro se, but the Court appointed counsel to represent him on November 13, 2017.

         On February 12, 2018, Defendant filed this motion to compel arbitration of Plaintiff's claims. Defendant argues that, at the time Plaintiff filed his complaint, he was party to an enforceable arbitration agreement requiring him to arbitrate all covered employment-related disputes, including his Title VII claim in this case.

         According to Defendant, in July 2014, its parent company began a dispute resolution program for employees of all of its affiliates and subsidiaries. The program was called “STEPS, ” and involved three steps: Step 1, discussing a concern with a supervisor or human resources representative; Step 2, submitting a written request for reconsideration to the STEPS program administrator; and Step 3, arbitration of legal claims. All store employees were automatically enrolled in the STEPS Program, but employees had the choice to opt out of Step 3, arbitration.[2] As part of its hiring and onboarding process, Defendant required new hires to sign into its human resources employee management system using a unique username and password to receive, review, and complete new hire documentation. This documentation included the STEPS Program Materials, which in turn included the Burlington Stores, Inc.'s Early Dispute Resolution Program Rules and Procedures (the “Arbitration Agreement”).

         The Arbitration Agreement states that it applies to Burlington Stores, Inc. and its affiliates, subsidiaries, and successors (defined collectively as the “Company”), and includes a one-and-a-half page introduction explaining the three steps described above.

         This introduction describes the arbitration procedure in general, and states:

In Step 3, you and the Company agree to arbitrate covered legal claims instead of bringing them to a court or jury trial. . . . You and the Company mutually agree to arbitrate covered disputes if you accept or continue employment with the company after the Effective Date (July 27, 2014). However, you also will be given the option to exclude yourself from arbitration by completing an Arbitration Opt-Out Form. If you do not elect to be excluded from arbitration within the timeframe set forth in the Arbitration Opt-Out Form, you and the Company are covered by arbitration. The choice is yours, and whether you choose to remain covered by arbitration or to exclude yourself will have no impact on your employment - positive or negative.

ECF No. 19-1 at 40. The Arbitration Agreement then includes the following specific provisions regarding arbitration:

Step 3: Arbitration - Rules and Procedures* * *

3. Claims Covered. Step 3: Arbitration applies to any dispute arising out of or related to your employment with or termination from the Company . . ., regardless of the date of accrual and survives after the employment relationship ends. Except as these Rules and Procedures otherwise provide, Step 3: Arbitration is intended to apply to the resolution of disputes that would otherwise be resolved in a court of law or before a forum other than arbitration, and you and the Company agree that any legal dispute or controversy covered by these Rules and Procedures . . . shall be resolved by binding arbitration.

1* * *

b. Effective Date: The Effective Date of this STEPS Program, including these Step 3 Arbitration Rules and Procedures is July 27, 2014. Unless you timely submit an Arbitration Opt-Out Form, any covered employment-related claims as described above that are brought on or after the Effective Date must be arbitrated pursuant to these Step 3 Arbitration Rules and Procedures. . . .

ECF No. 19-1 at 41-42. Title VII claims are explicitly listed under “Examples of Covered Claims.” Id. at 42.

         The Arbitration Agreement further provides that the employee has the right to be represented by counsel during arbitration proceedings, but if the employee chooses not to retain an attorney, Defendant will not be represented by an attorney either. Id. at 44. Further, Defendant will pay all costs and expenses related to the arbitration process, including up to $1, 500 to assist an employee with attorneys' fees and incidental costs associated with the arbitration. Id. at 45.

         The Arbitration Agreement includes the following separate paragraph regarding employee's right to opt out:

15. Your Right to Opt Out of Arbitration. Arbitration is not a mandatory condition of your employment at the Company, and therefore you may notify the Company that you wish to opt out and not be subject to Step 3 Arbitration. If you want to opt-out, you must notify the Company of your intention to opt out by submitting a signed and dated “Arbitration Opt-Out Form” (contained in the packet in which you received these Rules and Procedures and available on the Company's web portal under the Human Resources tab) to the STEPS Office Program Administrator, 1830 Route 130 North, Burlington, New Jersey 08016. In order to be effective, your Arbitration Opt-Out Form must be postmarked within 30 days of your receipt of these Step 3: Arbitration Rules and Procedures . . . . If you timely opt-out as provided in this paragraph, you will not be subject to any adverse employment action as a consequence of that decision and may pursue available legal remedies without regard to these Step 3 Arbitration Rules and Procedures. Should you not opt-out of arbitration within 30 days of your ...

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