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Davis v. Joseph J. Magnolia

July 31, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Emmet G. Sullivan United States District Judge


Plaintiff Blyden A. Davis has filed discrimination and retaliation claims against defendant Joseph J. Magnolia, Inc., his former employer, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the District of Columbia Human Rights Act ("DCHRA"), D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq. After conducting limited discovery, the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on the question of whether they entered a binding agreement to arbitrate plaintiff's claims. Upon consideration of the motions, the responses and replies thereto, the applicable law, and the entire record, and for the reasons stated herein, the Court GRANTS plaintiff's motion for summary judgment on the issue of arbitration and DENIES defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment and dismissal pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA").


Plaintiff, an African-American male, was employed as an equipment operator by defendant, a for-profit Maryland corporation headquartered in the District of Columbia. Compl. ¶¶ 2, 12. He began his employment with defendant in March 2005 and worked continuously for the company through his termination in May 2006. Compl. ¶ 12. Plaintiff alleges that in July 2005, he heard his Caucasian supervisor refer to him as a "Nigger." Compl. ¶ 13. On or about October 17, 2005, he complained to defendant's human resources office about the alleged incident and the hostile work environment he believed he was being subjected to based on his race. Compl. ¶ 14. Approximately one week later, plaintiff was transferred to work under a different supervisor. Compl. ¶ 15.

Around January 6, 2006, plaintiff filed a complaint with the District of Columbia Office of Human Rights ("OHR") alleging discrimination and retaliation. The complaint was cross-filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") pursuant to a work-sharing agreement between those agencies. Compl. ¶ 5. Plaintiff alleges that he was reprimanded and issued warnings by defendant for unfounded reasons as a result of the complaints he made to defendant's human resources office and the OHR. Compl. ¶ 17. Defendant admits that plaintiff was reprimanded, but maintains that the warnings were performance-related. Answer at 7.

Around April 20, 2006, plaintiff was summoned at the end of the workday to collect his paycheck and sign a two-page document titled "Receipt and Acknowledgment of The Magnolia Companies Employment Benefits and Guidelines Manual" ("Form"). Mem. P. & A. Supp. Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. ("Pl.'s Mem.") at 2. The arbitration policy was referenced on the first page of the Form only, and plaintiff claims that he was only shown the second page. See Pl.'s Mem. at 3; Def.'s Mem. Supp. Summ. J. & Dismissal ("Def.'s Mem.") at Ex. 1. Nevertheless, plaintiff does not dispute that he did sign the Form. Def.'s Mem. at Ex. 2; Reply Br. Further Supp. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. & Dismissal ("Def.'s Reply") at 7.

Plaintiff alleges that human resources refused to release his paycheck unless he immediately signed the Form. Pl.'s Opp'n Def.'s Mot. Dismiss at Ex. 1 ("Davis Aff.") ¶ 5; Pl.'s Mem. at 2. Defendant's human resources director and manager both state, however, that they did not overhear their assistant, who distributed the paychecks, demand a signature in return for the paycheck and that plaintiff did not approach them to complain about a withheld paycheck. Def.'s Mem. at Ex. 5 ("Tormo Aff.") ¶ 10; Def.'s Mem. at Ex. 7 ("Woldemichael Aff.") ¶ 10.

Plaintiff contends, and defendant does not dispute, that on all other occasions he received his paycheck at the beginning of the day. Davis Aff. ¶ 11. Defendant asserts the late paycheck distribution was timed to coincide with the distribution of the revised Employee Manual ("Manual") for administrative efficiency. Tormo Aff. ¶ 5; Woldemichael Aff. ¶ 4. Moreover, defendant asserts that, upon request, employees were given additional time to review the Manual before signing the Form. Tormo Aff. ¶¶ 6-7; Woldemichael Aff. ¶¶ 5-6. In support of this assertion, defendant points to evidence of one employee who requested and received additional time.*fn1 Tormo Aff. ¶ 8; Woldemichael Aff. ¶ 7.

Around May 4, 2006, two weeks after plaintiff signed the Form, defendant terminated plaintiff's employment. Davis Aff. ¶ 12. Plaintiff subsequently supplemented his OHR complaint to include an additional retaliation claim based on his termination. Id. at ¶ 13. In December 2006, the OHR mailed a Letter of Determination to plaintiff dismissing his claims, and the EEOC adopted the OHR's decision. Compl. ¶¶ 7, 9.

On February 20, 2008, plaintiff filed a three-count complaint in this Court alleging violations of Title VII and the DCHRA. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss the complaint pursuant to the FAA, which the Court denied on the basis that plaintiff was entitled to some discovery on the issue of whether a binding arbitration agreement exists. The parties have conducted that discovery and filed cross-motions for summary judgment.*fn2 Those cross-motions are now ripe for decision by this Court.


A. The FAA

The FAA provides that

[a] written provision in . . . a contract evidencing a transaction involving commerce to settle by arbitration a controversy thereafter arising out of such contractor transaction, or the refusal to perform the whole or any part thereof, or an agreement in writing to submit to arbitration an existing controversy arising out of such a contract, transaction, or refusal, shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.

9 U.S.C. § 2. The FAA's purpose was to "reverse the longstanding judicial hostility to arbitration agreements that had existed at English common law and had been adopted by American courts, and to place arbitration agreements upon the same footing as other contracts." Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 24 (1991). As such, public policy favors arbitration. See EEOC v. Waffle House, Inc., 534 U.S. 279, 289 (2002). Employment contracts, moreover, are covered under the FAA. Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105, 119 (2001). The FAA, however, "does not operate without regard to the wishes of the contracting parties." Mastrobuono v. Shearson Lehman Hutton, Inc., 514 U.S. 52, 57 (1995). To the contrary, because "[a]rbitration under the Act is a matter of consent, not coercion," it is ...

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