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Caldwell v. UniFirst Corp.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Eastern District, Fourth Division

April 2, 2019

SCOTT CALDWELL, Respondent,
v.
UNIFIRST CORPORATION and MICHAEL DEAN SEEVER, II, Appellants.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court of St. Louis County Honorable Joseph L. Walsh, III Filed: April 2, 2019

          LAWRENCE E. MOONEY, JUDGE

         In this action brought by Scott Caldwell alleging employment discrimination by his former employer and supervisor, the defendants appeal from the circuit court's order denying their motion to compel arbitration. Defendants contended that Mr. Caldwell had signed a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement that required them to arbitrate Mr. Caldwell's claims. And most critically, defendants argued that the arbitration agreement delegated all threshold issues, including formation and enforcement issues, to the arbitrator for determination. Mr. Caldwell argued that the agreement and delegation provision lacked consideration. The circuit court agreed with Mr. Caldwell and denied defendants' motion. In light of the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Missouri in Soars v. Easter Seals Midwest, 563 S.W.3d 111 (Mo. banc 2018), we must reverse and remand.

         Factual & Procedural Background

         Mr. Caldwell filed a petition against the defendants with the following allegations. Mr. Caldwell began working for UniFirst as a District Service Manager in May of 2012. His job duties included supervising and managing route drivers, scheduling, customer service, territory and route sales, and other general managerial responsibilities.

         In January of 2014, Mr. Caldwell's lower back began to cause him great discomfort and pain. His physician diagnosed him as having a lumbar disc protrusion, a lumbar disc herniation that impinged on nerve roots, and severe intractable back and leg pain. Mr. Caldwell's physician recommended restrictions on lifting and repetitive bending. At first, UniFirst accommodated these restrictions. Mr. Caldwell satisfactorily performed his job duties with the limited accommodations in place.

         The work environment changed at the end of 2014. In mid-December, with Mr. Caldwell still experiencing severe pain, Mr. Caldwell's physician ordered Mr. Caldwell to take eleven days off work, and then to return to light duty. Over the next several months, the physician ordered further limitations on weight-lifting, bending, stooping, squatting, climbing, twisting, and kneeling. He also advised against long periods of sitting, and recommended frequent rest breaks from standing, sitting, or walking.

         Michael Seever, Mr. Caldwell's supervisor, protested, calling Mr. Caldwell's need for time off "unacceptable." Further, he disregarded Mr. Caldwell's repeated requests for accommodation. Instead, he repeatedly assigned Mr. Caldwell, a district service manager, to the more physically strenuous tasks of a route sales representative. In March, Mr. Seever outright denied Mr. Caldwell's accommodation requests and unilaterally placed Mr. Caldwell on extended non-paid medical leave, telling Mr. Caldwell he had done so because Mr. Caldwell had filed a workers' compensation claim.

         Mr. Caldwell underwent surgery at the end of May 2015. His physician informed UniFirst that Mr. Caldwell could return to work at the end of June with restrictions, and that he could return to full duty without restrictions at the beginning of August. UniFirst, however, did not allow Mr. Caldwell to return to work. Instead, the company denied Mr. Caldwell's requests for accommodation and unilaterally extended his non-paid medical leave to the end of July. UniFirst fired Mr. Caldwell by letter dated July 27, 2015.

         Mr. Caldwell sued UniFirst and Mr. Seever for employment discrimination, in violation of the Missouri Human Rights Acts. He alleged that UniFirst and Mr. Seever refused to accommodate his disability, that they discharged him because of his disability, and that they retaliated against him because he complained of discrimination and requested accommodations for his disability. Mr. Caldwell also alleged that UniFirst discriminated against him and wrongfully discharged him because he had filed a workers' compensation claim.

         UniFirst and Mr. Seever moved to compel arbitration of Mr. Caldwell's claims. They asserted that the parties had entered into a mutually-binding and enforceable arbitration agreement that required them to arbitrate, not litigate, disputes arising out of Mr. Caldwell's employment with UniFirst. Defendants further argued that the arbitration agreement delegated all formation and enforcement issues, including all threshold issues, to the arbitrator for determination.

         When Mr. Caldwell began working for UniFirst, he signed an Employment Agreement and Restrictive Covenant. That agreement provided that Mr. Caldwell was hired for a two-week period that automatically renewed every two weeks, unless terminated by either party, for any reason, upon two weeks' notice. The short-duration employment agreement also contained a non-compete clause, a number of restrictive covenants regarding the protection of UniFirst's trade secrets and confidential information, and the following arbitration clause;

9. Arbitration of Disputes
Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this Agreement or the breach thereof or otherwise arising out of the EMPLOYEE'S employment or termination of that employment (including, without limitation, any claims of unlawful employment discrimination whether based on age or otherwise) shall, to the fullest extent permitted by law, be settled by arbitration in any forum and form agreed upon by the parties or, in the absence of such an agreement, under the auspices of the American Arbitration Association ("AAA") in the city of the AAA office nearest the location of the EMPLOYEE'S most recent employment with the COMPANY, in accordance with the Employment Dispute Resolution Rules of the AAA, including, but not limited to, the rules and procedures applicable to the payment and selection of arbitrators. Judgment upon the award rendered by the arbitrator may be entered in any court having jurisdiction thereof. This Section 9 shall be specifically enforceable. Notwithstanding the foregoing, this Section 9 shall not preclude either party from pursuing a court action for the sole purpose of obtaining a temporary ...

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