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Fortson v. Quality Restaurant Concepts

United States District Court, Middle District of Alabama, Northern Division

May 12, 2015

LORRAINE FORTSON, Plaintiff,
v.
QUALITY RESTAURANT CONCEPTS, dba APPLEBEE’S, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

W. KEITH WATKINS CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

In a prior Order, the court ordered Plaintiff Lorraine Fortson and her former employer, Quality Restaurant Concepts, to arbitrate Plaintiff’s dispute with respect to the termination of her employment and stayed this action until the conclusion of the arbitration proceedings. (Doc. # 25.) Pending is Defendant’s Motion to Lift the Stay and to Enforce the Settlement. (Doc. # 31.) Plaintiff responded in opposition (Doc. # 33), asserting that she did not agree to settle her termination dispute, and Defendant replied to the contrary (Doc. # 34). The parties’ submissions did not address, however, whether this court or the arbitrator should decide whether the parties reached a valid settlement agreement; therefore, the court ordered additional briefing on this threshold issue.

In the briefing, Plaintiff advocates that the issue is for the arbitrator to decide, while Defendant contends that the issue is for the court. (Docs. # 36–37.) After careful consideration of the parties’ arguments, the court finds that the court, not the arbitrator, must decide whether the parties reached a valid settlement agreement.

I. BACKGROUND

On June 18, 2013, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit, alleging that Defendant terminated her employment because of her age in violation of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621–24. Defendant moved to compel arbitration of the claim based upon its Internal Dispute Resolution Policy, which contains an Arbitration Agreement.[1] On January 21, 2014, the court granted Defendant’s motion to compel arbitration of Plaintiff’s ADEA claim and stayed this action.

Thereafter, the parties resorted first to Defendant’s internal dispute review (“IDR”), which by agreement must precede arbitration. After the completion of the IDR, but prior to formal arbitration, the parties engaged in settlement talks through a series of informal emails. The gist of those emails is that Plaintiff inquired whether Defendant would be “interested in some resolution” of the dispute surrounding her termination whereby her personnel file would reflect that her separation from Defendant’s employment was the result of a voluntary resignation, not a termination. (Doc. # 31-1, at 2.) Defendant responded seeking clarification as to whether that proposal would include a release, to which Plaintiff replied, “[T]hat is an accurate description of the proposal.” (Doc. # 31, at 3.) Defendant subsequently “agree[d] to this proposal as clarified” by the earlier email. (Doc. # 31, at 3.) Defendant mailed Plaintiff a copy of a settlement document, consisting of three, single-spaced, type-written pages. (Doc. # 33-1, at 2–4.) Plaintiff’s counsel refused to tender the document to his client for her signature, however, indicating that Plaintiff “ha[d] decided not to accept the resignation proposal at this time, ” that Plaintiff “ha[d] always sought a financial component to a settlement, ” and that the settlement document contained additional terms not discussed between the parties. (Doc. # 31-5, 31-6, at 2–3.)

The parties dispute whether the emails and exchanges culminated in a valid settlement agreement of the underlying arbitrable dispute relating to Plaintiff’s termination. Defendant says that they did, but Plaintiff says that they did not. As a result of this disagreement, Plaintiff initiated the arbitration process under the Arbitration Agreement’s provisions, while Defendant filed the present motion in this court to lift the stay and enforce the alleged settlement agreement. Defendant’s motion to enforce the settlement agreement rests here only if the issue of whether the parties entered into a valid settlement agreement is not within the scope of the Arbitration Agreement.

The Arbitration Agreement provides that, “[w]ith the exceptions listed below, binding arbitration is the final, exclusive, and required forum for the resolution of all employment-related disputes which are based on a legal claim.” It defines a “dispute” as follows:

A dispute is based on a legal claim and is subject to [arbitration] if it arises [out of][2] or involves a claim under any federal, state, or local statute, regulation, or common law doctrine regarding or relating to employment discrimination, terms or conditions of employment, or termination of employment including, but without limitation: . . . the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

(Doc. # 36-1, at 3.) The exceptions referenced above include the following paragraph:

The Policy does not require that [Defendant] initiate the arbitration process with respect to any dispute. In addition, [Defendant] is not required to follow the steps of either IDR [Internal Dispute Resolution] or the Policy before initiating or implementing any disciplinary action, or before asserting any claim, demand, or action against an employee for breach of any restrictive covenant, wrongful demand, or action against an employee for breach of any restrictive covenant, wrongful disclosure of confidential information, or any other actions which may constitute a breach of contract, a breach of a common law duty, or a breach or violation of either civil or criminal law.

(Doc. # 36-1, at 4.)[3]

II. LEGAL STANDARD

The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1, et seq., which generally governs the validity of arbitration agreements, evinces a “liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.” Hill v. Rent-A-Center, Inc., 398 F.3d 1286, 1288 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting Moses H. Cone Mem. Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24 (1983)). “There is a presumption of arbitrability in the sense that ‘[a]n order to arbitrate the particular grievance should not be denied unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute. Doubts should be resolved in favor of coverage.’” ...


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