Las Vegas POA

When Must Federal Employment Claims Be Arbitrated?

Written on 03/03/2021
Will Aitchison

John Brooks and Gregory Simmons were police officers for the City of Pekin, Illinois. Brooks and Simmons sued the City and a number of Department employees in federal court. They alleged that their problems began when Simmons made an internal harassment complaint against his shift commander, Lieutenant Gregory Burris, which later prompted Officer Jennifer Melton to make a false accusation against Simmons. Brooks, who was ordered to investigate Melton’s complaints against Simmons, believed Melton’s claims were not true. The City eventually terminated both Brooks and Simmons.

The lawsuit filed by Brooks and Simmons contained a number of claims, including retaliation, age discrimination, failure to accommodate Brooks’ disability under the ADA, a Title VII violation, and miscellaneous other statutory and constitutional claims. Before the litigation had progressed too far, the City filed a motion to stay the proceedings as to Simmons, who had filed a grievance under his union’s collective bargaining agreement. The City contended that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) required that the litigation as to Simmons be stayed in its entirety while Simmons’ grievance was being arbitrated.

A federal judge refused to stay the court proceedings pending the arbitration. The Court found that “the problem for the Defendants in this case in arguing that the FAA covers employment agreements that require arbitration to resolve work-related disputes, is that they fail to acknowledge that the work-related dispute in this case simply does not include Simmons’ federal statutory claims.

“Perhaps the Defendants are aware of this, as they blur together in their brief the complaints Simmons made (and remedies sought) in his grievance and the claims he makes (and remedies he seeks) in this federal lawsuit. The Defendants argue that ‘it is self-evident that Plaintiff Simmons’ termination falls with the scope of the upcoming arbitration proceedings,’ that he seeks ‘essentially the same remedies’ in his arbitration and federal litigation, and ‘although Simmons may argue that some of his claims in his pending federal litigation are non-arbitrable, there can be no question they are all intertwined to the same outcome he seeks to achieve through arbitration.’

“It is understandable why the Defendants focus more so on Simmons’ termination as a reason to stay proceedings as to him; the fact of his termination is really the only fact in common between the arbitration proceedings and his federal lawsuit. Simmons seeks relief in his federal lawsuit on substantively different grounds than his Union does in arbitration.

“The facts in Simmons’ grievance are that Defendant Chief Dossey’s three stated reasons for seeking Simmons’ discharge did not amount to just cause to discharge Simmons. Those reasons included that Simmons supposedly lied, that he remarked about the size of a fellow officer’s breasts, and that he secretly recorded conversations. Simmons’ grievance challenged his termination on just cause grounds under several contract provisions. There is not even a suggestion of Simmons’ federal statutory anti-discrimination claims in the facts of his grievance or the provisions of the CBA listed as violated.

“In his grievance, Simmons sought remedies of reinstatement with a make whole remedy including full back pay with reimbursement for all increased health care expenses, all missed pension contributions, reimbursement for all missed benefit leave time, and removal of all mention of discharge from all of his personnel files. In his federal lawsuit, Simmons seeks an injunction prohibiting Defendant City of Pekin from further prohibited discrimination, back pay and front pay, compensatory damages, attorney fees and costs, liquidated damages, damages for emotional distress, actual damages, punitive damages, and prejudgment interest. As Simmons argues, an arbitration decision in his favor would not resolve his federal statutory claims and would only reduce his available damages, not eliminate them.

“The crux of Simmons’ arbitration proceedings (his Union challenging his termination as done in violation of the CBA) is so distinctly different from the crux of his federal lawsuit, (Simmons himself challenging others’ conduct not mentioned in his grievance as a violation of federal law). Thus, it would be inappropriate to find the FAA governs in this case as to Simmons’ claims.

“Here, the Defendants make no showing that the CBA in this case contains a clear and unmistakable waiver of Simmons’ rights to a judicial forum for his federal claims of employment discrimination. Without that showing, the Court does not reach the question whether such a waiver would be enforceable. These unanswered questions preclude the Court from finding the FAA governs in this case.”

Brooks v. City of Pekin, 2020 WL 7390328 (C.D. Ill. 2020).

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