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Owen-Williams v. BB&T Investment Services Inc.

July 31, 2006

ADOL OWEN-WILLIAMS, PLAINTIFF,
v.
BB&T INVESTMENT SERVICES, INC., DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Colleen Kollar-kotelly United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Plaintiff Adol Owen-Williams ("Plaintiff") filed this action against Defendant BB&T Investment Services, Inc. ("Defendant" or "BB&T") in Superior Court of the District of Columbia on April 21, 2006, alleging Defendant breached its employment contract with Plaintiff. The case was removed to this Court on May 19, 2006. Presently before the Court is Defendant BB&T Investment Services, Inc.'s Motion to Compel Arbitration and Dismiss or Stay Proceedings ("Defendant's Motion to Compel"), in which Defendant asks the Court to enforce the arbitration clause in its employment contract with Plaintiff. For the reasons set forth below, the Court shall grant Defendant's motion and dismiss without prejudice Plaintiff's present action.

I. BACKGROUND

In January and February of 2006, Plaintiff was interviewed by phone and in person by one of Defendant's recruiters, T.J. Roccograndi, about a position with BB&T. Compl. at 4. Roccograndi decided he "wished to move forward with [Plaintiff]" and asked Plaintiff to fill out a standard industry background form. Def.'s Reply Mem. of BB&T Investment Services, Inc. in Support of Mot. to Compel Arbitration ("Def.'s Reply"), Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 9:4-23; Pl.'s Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Compel Arbitration and Stay Proceedings ("Pl.'s Opp'n") at 2 n.2. At this time, Plaintiff told Roccograndi "he had to fill yes out to one of the questions [regarding involvement in prior litigation] because he said that he was involved in a litigation case with his neighbor . . . ." Def.'s Reply, Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 9:24-10:2. Plaintiff went on to explain the nature of that litigation and that "the judge . . . totally dismissed it." Id. at 10:3-25. Because the incident "had nothing to do with [Plaintiff's] business ethics," Roccograndi was satisfied with Plaintiff's explanation. Id. at 11:1-5. Following the interview, Roccograndi had the form faxed to BB&T's Compliance Department in Charlotte, North Carolina, so that a background check of Plaintiff could be conducted. Id. at 11:17-12:6. The Compliance Department told Roccograndi, based on Plaintiff's initial description of the incident, they wished to proceed in the hiring process, but that they would need Plaintiff to put that description in writing. Id. at 13:17-14:2.

Plaintiff was brought in for his final interview on March 21, 2006, and Plaintiff was offered the position via telephone the following day. Id. at 14:13-23, 46:13-23. On March 23, 2006, Defendant sent two documents to Plaintiff via Federal Express. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 3 (3/23/06 letter from Roccograndi to Pl. re: job offer ("Employment Contract")), (Protective Covenants Agreement ("Covenants Agreement")).*fn1 Roccograndi testified that he sent the letter to Plaintiff communicating the employment offer, accompanied by the Protective Covenants Agreement. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 17:13-18:2. Plaintiff testified that the Covenants Agreement was attached to the Employment Contract. Id. at 59:8-14.

The Employment Contract stated that "[a]ll employment offers are contingent upon standard background checks . . . ," and informed Plaintiff that his employment would begin April 10, 2006. Employment Contract. The Covenants Agreement contained the following arbitration clause:

The parties agree that any and all disputes, disagreements, claims, or other conflicts regarding, relating to, or arising out of this Agreement, the Parties' employment relationship, any termination thereof, any employment-related act or practice by Employer or its employees, representatives, or agents, any breach of this Agreement, or any alleged breach of this Agreement, shall be subject and submitted to arbitration.

Covenants Agreement at 7. The Covenants Agreement also stated that the law of Georgia would govern the agreement. Id. at 6. Plaintiff signed both documents and returned them March 24, 2006, the day he received them. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 47:6-7, 47:24-48:1; Covenants Agreement (signed and dated by Plaintiff 3/24/06).

Roccograndi informed Plaintiff he would need to provide a written record of the incident with his neighbor to ensure Compliance would approve Plaintiff's hiring. Def.'s Reply Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 18:3-6. Roccograndi received Plaintiff's response to this request on March 28, 2006 and was "disappointed" and "shocked" because the letter communicated what Roccograndi considers "a totally different story from what [he] was initially told by [Plaintiff]" and because Roccograndi "put [his] name on the line" communicating Plaintiff's initial version of the story to the Compliance Department. Id. at 18:7-23. Roccograndi passed the letter on to Compliance, and, according to Roccograndi's testimony, various employees did not feel comfortable with proceeding with Plaintiff's hiring based on the contents of the letter. Id. at 19:1-20:2. The next day, Roccograndi was apprised of another incident in Plaintiff's past that Plaintiff did not disclose to Defendant. Id. at 20:3-9. While Plaintiff was in college, he was convicted of trespassing, a conviction that he has since had expunged from his record, and the National Association of Security Dealers sent that information to Defendant in error. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 1 (4/21/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 22:6-13. While Plaintiff and Defendant dispute the precise reason, BB&T eventually decided to rescind its employment offer based on Plaintiff's background check, and Roccograndi communicated this to Plaintiff on April 6, 2006, prior to the date Plaintiff and Defendant had agreed Plaintiff would begin his employment. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 2 (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 22:15-24, Ex. 1 (4/21/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 40:13-18. On April 11, 2006, Roccograndi and Plaintiff spoke again, and Roccograndi confirmed that the Compliance Department was not willing to approve Plaintiff for hiring. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 1 (4/18/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 41:22-42:1.

After unsuccessfully pursuing the matter further with Roccograndi, Plaintiff retained counsel in order to file the instant action in Superior Court of the District of Columbia. Id. at 54:25-55:9; 56:2-57:4. On April 21, 2006, the day the Complaint was filed, Plaintiff also filed an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order ("TRO") to prevent Defendant from filling Plaintiff's position at BB&T so that "maybe somebody with a reasonable mind [at BB&T] could take an objective look at [Plaintiff's] situation again." Def.'s Reply, Ex. 1 (4/21/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 87:8-15. That same day, the first of two evidentiary hearings on Plaintiff's requested TRO was held, in which Plaintiff sought to show he was entitled to injunctive relief. Def.'s Reply, Ex. 1 (4/21/06 Hr'g Tr.) at 82:25-16; 87:8-15. From the bench, Superior Court Judge Robert S. Tignor denied Plaintiff's motion, id. at 102:3-103:13, but three days later, Judge Tignor vacated his denial and issued an order permitting the parties to offer further evidence at an additional hearing, 4/24/06 Order.*fn2 In preparation for that hearing, Defendant served notices of deposition and document requests on Plaintiff. Pl.'s Opp'n at 3. Defendant never held those depositions, Def.'s Reply at 13, though Plaintiff states he produced documents in response to Defendant's requests, Pl. Opp'n at 3. The second hearing was held on May 8, 2006, and the Superior Court again denied Plaintiff's motion. See Def.'s Reply, Ex. B (5/8/06 Hr'g Tr.); 5/8/06 Order.

The day of the second hearing, Defendant filed its first motion to compel arbitration, which the Superior Court denied because Defendant failed to comply with D.C. Superior Court Rule 12. Pl.'s Opp'n at 7 n.8. On May 11, 2006, Defendant filed Defendant BB&T Investment Services, Inc.'s Answer and Affirmative Defenses ("Answer"), in which Defendant stated that "this matter should proceed in arbitration," and that in filing the Answer, Defendant did not intend to waive its right to seek enforcement of the arbitration agreement contained in the Covenants Agreement. Answer at 1. On May 19, 2006, the action was removed by Defendant to this Court. See Defendant BB&T Investment Services, Inc.'s Notice of Removal. One week later, Defendant filed the motion presently before the Court, Defendant's Motion to Compel, in which Defendant seeks enforcement of the arbitration clause in the Covenants Agreement.

II. DISCUSSION

Plaintiff argues that Defendant's Motion to Compel should be denied because the arbitration agreement was not supported by consideration and thus was not part of a binding contract; because Georgia law governs the terms of Plaintiff and Defendant's employment agreement, such that Georgia's policy preference against the enforcement of broad arbitration agreements dictates that the instant arbitration agreement is too broad to be enforced; and because, even if the arbitration agreement were valid and appropriate here, Defendant waived its right to enforce the agreement by acting inconsistently with an intention to arbitrate and actively litigating the action thus far. The Court will address each of Plaintiff's contentions in turn, concluding that the arbitration agreement is a binding contract supported by consideration, that the Federal Arbitration Agreement ("FAA") preempts Georgia law and governs the agreement, and that Defendant has not litigated the merits of this action and thus has not waived its right to enforce the arbitration agreement.

A. The Covenants Agreement, Including the Arbitration Clause, Is a Binding Contract

Plaintiff's primary argument is that the arbitration clause is not enforceable because it was included in the Covenants Agreement and not the Employment Contract. Pl.'s Opp'n at 4-5. According to Plaintiff, the Covenants Agreement was signed by Plaintiff subsequent to his entry into the Employment Contract, such that there was no additional consideration for the provisions of the Covenants Agreement. Id. Plaintiff avers that the terms of the Covenants Agreement are "purely one-sided" and thus, the Covenants agreement is not an enforceable contract, making all of its provisions, including the arbitration clause, unenforceable. Id. at 5. Plaintiff supports his contention that the Covenants Agreement is not a contract by quoting a provision that appears twice in the document:

Employment-at-Will. Employee acknowledges and understands that nothing set forth in this agreement creates or is intended to (or is to be construed to) create any employment contract of any specified term between the parties. Rather, the parties agree that employee's employment is considered at will and may be terminated by either employee or employer at any time, for any reason, and with or without notice.

Covenants Agreement at 2; see also Covenants Agreement at 8.

It is wholly apparent to the Court that the provision that Plaintiff cites, not once in its entirety, is meant to distinguish between at-will employment, in which either party can terminate the employment relationship at any time, and an employment contract for a specified period of time. While the Court acknowledges Plaintiff's efforts to bring this clause to its attention, including quoting it three times, bolded and underlined, the Court would have appreciated Plaintiff quoting the full provision or including ellipses indicating any omitted material, particularly where, as here, the omitted language is material to the meaning of the sentence. Compare Pl.'s Opp'n at 6 n.7 ("Nothing Set Forth In This Agreement Creates or is Intended to Create Any Employment Contract.") and Covenants Agreement at 2 ("Employment-at-Will: Employee acknowledges and understands that nothing set forth in this agreement creates or is intended to (or is to be construed to) create any employment contract of any specified term between the parties."). This provision is clearly not meant to state that the Covenants Agreement was not a binding employment contract, ...


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