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Jefferson v. Baptist Health System, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Southern Division

February 2, 2017

CHRISTOPHER JEFFERSON, PLAINTIFF
v.
BAPTIST HEALTH SYSTEM, INC. DEFENDANT BAPTIST HEALTH SYSTEM, INC., APPLICANT,
v.
CHRISTOPHER JEFFERSON, RESPONDENT.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE, CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This arbitration matter, in which two cases have been consolidated, is before the court on five applications. Christopher Jefferson has filed two application to confirm the arbitration award: “Respondent's Opposition to Application to Vacate and Request for Confirmation of Interim Award” (doc. 5 in 16-1094), and “Respondent's Application for Confirmation of Final Award and for Entry of Final Judgment” (doc. 9 in 16-1094); and Baptist Health System, Inc. (“BHS”) has filed three applications to vacate: “Application to Vacate Arbitration Award” (doc. 1 in 16-1094), “Application to Vacate Punitive Damages Arbitration Award” (doc. 12 in 16-1094), and “Application for Writ Vacating Arbitration Award” (doc. 13 in 16-1094). The applications have received responses (doc. 5 in 16-1094-Jefferson's opposition to doc.1; doc 10 in 16-1094-BHS's response to doc. 9; doc. 15 in 16-1094-Jefferson's response to docs. 12 & 13); and some have replies (doc. 11 in 16-1094-reply re doc. 9; doc. 16 in 16-1094-BHS's reply re docs. 12 & 13).

         For the reasons stated in this Memorandum Opinion, the court WILL DENY BHS's applications to vacate (docs. 1, 12, & 13 in 16-1094) and Mr. Jefferson's application to confirm the Interim Award (doc. 5 in 16-1094); further, the court WILL GRANT Mr. Jefferson's application to confirm the final award and to enter final judgment in his favor (doc. 9 in 16-1094).

         FACTS

         On March 11, 2013, Mr. Jefferson began working for BHS as a security guard. BHS has a Dispute Resolution Program (“DRP”) that is a multi-page document purporting to bind BHS and its employees to arbitration “as the sole means of dispute resolution.” The DRP lists claims under the ADA, among others, as disputes covered by the DRP. The DRP states that “your decision to accept employment . . ., after receiving notice of this Program, will mean that you have agreed to and are bound by the terms of the Program.” (Doc. 8-1 in 14-1028, at 2-4). One sentence of the DRP states that “arbitration must be initiated within the applicable statute of limitations, ” and two sentences later, the DRP states that the employee “should submit a demand for arbitration within the applicable limitations period provided by law.” (Doc. 8-1, at 5).

         As part of his employment application process, Mr. Jefferson had electronically signed a one-page document entitled “Baptist Health System Dispute Resolution Program” that was not the DRP itself but that referred to the existence of the DRP and acknowledged his agreement to submit all claims against BHS to binding arbitration. That one-page document that Mr. Jefferson electronically signed stated that the DRP includes all claims for violation of federal statutes, including the ADA, but it did not notify Mr. Jefferson that he must file an arbitration demand within the statute of limitations period provided by law nor did it state what the applicable statute of limitations period would be. (Doc. 8-2 in 14-1028).

         On April 18, 2013, just over a month after Mr. Jefferson began working for BHS, BHS terminated him. Mr. Jefferson timely filed a charge of discrimination with the EEOC, and, on March 3, 2014, the EEOC issued a right to sue letter to him. (Doc. 1-2 in 16-1094). The ADA provides for a 90-day statute of limitations after the issuance of a right to sue letter, as it expressly incorporates the enforcement mechanisms contained in Title IV. See 42 U.S.C. § 12117(a) (ADA); 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-5 (Title VII); Zillyette v. Capital One Fin. Corp., 179 F.3d 1337, 1339 (11th Cir. 1999). On May 30, 2014, within 90 days of the issuance and receipt of the right to sue letter, Mr. Jefferson filed the Complaint against Baptist Health System, Inc. in civil action number 14-1028, alleging disability discrimination in violation of the ADA and ADAAA and acknowledging receipt of the right to sue letter. (Doc. 1 in 14-1028). Although BHS's DRP provides that an employee should submit an arbitration demand within the applicable statute of limitations for the claim, Mr. Jefferson did not submit an arbitration demand to AAA within 90 days of receipt of the right to sue letter.

         On June 26, 2014, more than 90 days after Mr. Jefferson's receipt of the right to sue letter, BHS filed a motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss the civil action without prejudice, but BHS did not at that time raise any timeliness issues with arbitration or indicate that the statute of limitations barred the arbitration procedure. (Doc. 8 in 14-1028). On August 15, 2014, Mr. Jefferson responded to the motion by consenting to arbitration conditioned upon the magistrate judge's retention of jurisdiction over the matter. (Doc. 10 in 14-1028). On October 22, 2014, more than seven months after the EEOC issued the right to sue letter, and 116 days after BHS filed its motion to compel arbitration, Jefferson filed an arbitration demand with the AAA dated October 17, 2014, attaching the Complaint filed May 30, 2014. (Doc. 1-5 in 16-1094).

         The magistrate judge entered a Report and Recommendation on October 23, 2014, which did not note that any party had raised a statute of limitations bar, and the opinion did not address timeliness as to arbitration. On November 13, 2014, the district court judge granted BHS's motion to compel arbitration and stayed the original action pending arbitration (doc. 13 in 14-1028), in accordance with the magistrate judge's recommendation (doc. 12 in 14-1028).

         On November 28, 2014, BHS filed an Answer in the arbitration matter, asserting that the statute of limitations was a bar to the arbitration. (Doc. 1-8 in 16-1094). On December 22, 2014, Mr. Jefferson submitted an Amended Complaint in the arbitration matter, asserting claims for disparate treatment and reinstatement claims as well as a failure to accommodate claim. (See Doc. 1-9 in 16-1094). On October 2, 2015, BHS filed a motion for summary judgment in the arbitration matter that discussed the merits of the ADA claims and only raised the statute of limitations issue on the last page of the thirty-page brief. (Doc. 1-9, 16-1094). Mr. Jefferson did not expressly address the statute of limitations issue in his response. However, when BHS focused more heavily on that issue in its reply, Mr. Jefferson asked for leave to file a sur-reply, arguing that he had timely invoked arbitration. (Doc. 1-11 & 5-1 in 16-1094). The record does not reflect that the arbitrator gave Mr. Jefferson leave to file the sur-reply, and the arbitrator's opinion addressing the motion for summary judgment stated that Mr. Jefferson did not expressly argue against BHS's limitations claim, indicating that the arbitrator did not allow the sur-reply.[1](Doc. 1-11, at 14-15 in 16-1094).

         On November 18, 2015, the arbitrator granted BHS's motion for summary judgment as to Mr. Jefferson's disparate treatment termination and reinstatement claims and denied it as to his accommodation claim. As to the timeliness issue, the arbitrator reviewed the language of the DRP and found an inconsistency in the DRP's statements about the necessity to initiate arbitration within the statute of limitations, noting one statement using the word “must” and another using the word “should” when addressing initiating arbitration within the statute of limitations period. The arbitrator interpreted the “should” language as implying that making a demand outside the statutory limitations period would be permissible, and rejected BHS's argument that Mr. Jefferson's arbitration demand outside the statutory limitations period was untimely.

         The arbitrator also noted that BHS had not filed its motion to compel arbitration until after the 90 day period had expired. Therefore, to accept BHS's argument and to bar Mr. Jefferson's claim even though he had timely filed suit would “in essence, enable an employer to thwart discrimination claims by delaying its response to a Federal/State court complaint until the applicable limitations period had lapsed.” The arbitrator pointed out that the motion to compel arbitration sought dismissal of the federal lawsuit without prejudice, which would appear to be inconsistent with BHS's position during arbitration proceedings that the claim may proceed only through arbitration and that arbitration is time-barred.

         Finally, the arbitrator rejected BHS's argument that Mr. Jefferson did not dispute its limitations claim, noting that while he “did not expressly argue against its limitation claim, ” his statements that the claims were continuous in nature and that the lawsuit filed within the limitations period was removed to arbitration disputed by implication BHS's limitations claim. Further, the arbitrator noted that the record reflected that Mr. Jefferson had asked the federal court to retain jurisdiction and stay that case, and that, while the record did not include the federal court's order on the parties' motions regarding arbitration, the granting of the stay would toll the limitations period and Mr. Jefferson's claims would relate back to the timely-filed complaint. (Doc. 1-11 in 16-1094; timeliness discussion at 14-15).

         On April 4, 2016, the arbitrator issued “Opinion and Interim Award.” (Docs. 1-12 and 9-1 in 16-1094). As stated in that Opinion, the arbitrator determined that Mr. Jefferson had established that BHS had violated the ADA, finding that he has a disability within the meaning of the ADA; that he was a “qualified individual” able to perform the essential duties of his job with or without reasonable accommodation; that Mr. Jefferson had requested an accommodation and that his supervisor and the HR Director were aware of his condition and his request for accommodation; that a reasonable accommodation existed; that BHS terminated Mr. Jefferson without attempting to reasonably accommodate his disability; and that Mr. Jefferson is entitled to back pay. The arbitrator retained jurisdiction over the issue of whether punitive damages were warranted and the calculation of compensatory damages. (Doc. 9-1 in 16-1094).

         On June 14, 2016, the arbitrator issued “Opinion and Interim Award for Punitive Damages” (doc. 9-2 in 16-1094), awarding to Mr. Jefferson punitive damages in the amount of $65, 000 and reasonable attorneys fees and costs, to be awarded based on agreement of the parties, or, if the parties could not agree, to be determined after a petition for further proceedings. The arbitrator retained jurisdiction “over the issue of attorney fees and any remaining question over the calculation of damages.” (Id. at 5).

         On August 1, 2016, the arbitrator issued “Final Award for Attorney's Fees, ” ordering BHS to pay attorney fees and costs to Mr. Jefferson's counsel in the amount of $81, 745. The arbitrator found that the following expenses “are to be bourne as incurred”: AAA's administrative fees and expenses totaling $1, 900; and ...


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