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Patrick v. Altria Group Distribution Co.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Second Division

March 5, 2019

MEGHANN PATRICK, Respondent,
v.
ALTRIA GROUP DISTRIBUTION CO., et al., Appellants.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County The Honorable Marco Roldan, Judge.

          Before Alok Ahuja, P.J., and Thomas H. Newton and Mark D. Pfeiffer, JJ.

          Alok Ahuja, Judge.

         Meghann Patrick is a former employee of Altria Group Distribution Company. After her employment was terminated, Patrick sued Altria and a supervisor at Altria, alleging employment-related claims under the Missouri Human Rights Act, § 213.010, RSMo et seq. The defendants moved to compel arbitration and stay the civil action. The circuit court denied the defendants' motion, and they appeal. We affirm.

         Factual Background

         Patrick was hired by Altria in November 2007 as a Territory Sales Manager. At the time she began her employment, Patrick agreed to a dispute resolution program which included an arbitration provision.

         In February 2012, Altria distributed to employees a revised dispute resolution agreement, which superseded the earlier agreement.[1] Patrick executed the revised agreement on February 10, 2012. The agreement established a dispute resolution program which provided various options for addressing workplace disputes. The program describes four dispute resolution options: The Open Door Policy, The Company Ombudsperson, Mediation, and Arbitration. The first three dispute resolution mechanisms were optional and non-binding. By contrast, under the agreement all workplace disputes were subject to mandatory and binding arbitration.

         The agreement defined a covered "dispute" to mean

any legal or equitable claim, demand, dispute or controversy, whether based in tort, in contract, under statute, by common law, or alleging a violation of any legal obligation, by and between the Parties, that arises out of or relates in any way to the employment relationship between [Patrick] and [Altria] . . . including claims which relate to, arise from, concern or involve in any way:
. . . .
2. separation from employment of an Employee, whether involuntary, voluntary or "constructive", the terms and conditions of employment, the cessation of employment, wages alleged to be owed which are required to be paid pursuant to state or federal statute, and benefits (including any modification, amendment or termination of a benefit plan) or incidents of employment with [Altria];
. . . .
4. any other matter arising out of or related in any way to the employment relationship between [Patrick] and [Altria] including, by way of example and without limitation, allegations of: discrimination or harassment based on race, sex, religion, age, marital status, pregnancy, national original or disability or other bases; unpaid wages or expenses; harassment prohibited by state or federal statute or the common law; retaliation or whistleblower claims, including workers' compensation retaliation; defamation; infliction of emotional distress; and violation(s) of any federal, state, local or other governmental constitution, statute, ordinance, regulation or common law.

         The agreement excluded from the definition of a "dispute" (1) issues relating to the formation, interpretation or enforceability of the agreement; (2) any claim that the class action waiver in the agreement is void or voidable; and (3) any claim for workers' compensation benefits, state disability insurance benefits, or unemployment compensation benefits.

         The agreement provided that, "[i]n the event you and [Altria] are unable to resolve, or choose not to resolve, any such legal dispute through any of the other dispute resolution options, you and [Altria] agree to arbitrate any such legal dispute under the terms of the Program rather than pursue a lawsuit."

         The agreement gave Altria the power to unilaterally amend or terminate the dispute resolution program. The agreement defined a "Material Amendment" as "a change or modification of the Program that significantly changes a substantive provision relating to arbitration under the Program, such as a change in the allocation of fees and costs, the Disputes covered, or the limitations on remedies." A "Non-Material Amendment" was defined as "any change to the Program which is not a Material Amendment." The agreement provided:

1. [Altria] may make a Non-Material Amendment at any time with or without notice.
2. [Altria] may make a Material Amendment at any time, provided that:
a) no such amendment will apply to a Dispute previously submitted to arbitration under the Program; and
b) no such amendment will be effective until notice of the amendment is published to Employees in a reasonable manner, such as electronically through [Altria's] Intranet or electronic mail system (proof of ...

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