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White v. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

November 26, 2013

LISA WHITE, Plaintiff,

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For LISA WHITE, Plaintiff: David W. Sanford, LEAD ATTORNEY, SANFORD HEISLER, LLP, Washington, DC.



JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

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Plaintiff Lisa White is a black woman who works as an esthetician at the Four Seasons Hotel here in Washington. Alleging retaliation, discrimination on the basis of her race and pregnancy status, and a hostile work environment, White brought this suit under the District of Columbia Human Rights Act, D.C. Code § 2-1401.01 et seq., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Having removed her action from the District of Columbia Superior Court to this Court, Defendant Four Seasons now moves to compel arbitration pursuant to the terms of the hiring agreement Plaintiff signed in September 2007 and again in February 2009. White does not dispute the existence of an arbitration provision, but argues both that she was improperly pressured to sign the agreement and that the provision is patently unfair; as a result, she contends the Court should not enforce it. Disagreeing with her arguments as to both procedural and substantive unconscionability, the Court will grant the Motion to Compel Arbitration and stay the case pending completion of those proceedings.

I. Background

Given the involved factual history of this case, an overview of events will be useful in understanding how the parties arrived at the present dispute. In its explication, the Court recounts the facts in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, as is required in a Motion to Compel Arbitration. See Aliron Intern., Inc. v. Cherokee Nation Indus., Inc., 531 F.3d 863, 865, 382 U.S.App. D.C. 134 (D.C. Cir. 2008).

In September of 2007, White was hired by the Four Seasons as an esthetician at its Spa here in the District of Columbia. See Compl., ¶ 1. During the hiring process, White was given a presentation on, and encouraged to sign, the Four Seasons' employee contract, known as " EmPact." See Mot., Declaration of Stacey Coppel, ¶ 6. The contract is a document of over 60

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pages, including a section referred to as " C.A.R.E.," which stands for Complaint, Arbitration & Review for Employees. See Coppel Decl., Exh. A (C.A.R.E. Agreement).

The C.A.R.E. agreement lists five steps that an employee agrees to follow prior to the sixth step of " Mediation/Arbitration" : 1) an informal discussion with the immediate supervisor; 2) the filing of a " written complaint with the Human Resources office within 14 days" of an incident; 3 & 4) a formal investigation and written report by the Director of Human Resources; and 5) an appeal to the General Manager if the employee is not satisfied. Id. This C.A.R.E. agreement, unlike most employee contracts containing arbitration provisions, also provides an opt-out clause, allowing the employee to opt out of the mediation/arbitration step within 30 days of being presented with the agreement or after having " successfully completed" a 90-day probationary period. See Coppel Decl., Exh. B (Opt-Out Verification). This arbitration agreement does not permit the employee to opt out while any legal claim that arose prior to signing the opt-out form is pending. See id.

On the signature page of the EmPact agreement are the employee's and the employer's basic promises, outlined in bulleted plain English. See Coppel Decl., Exh. C (EmPact Signature Page). The employee's promises include a commitment to " Use C.A.R.E. first for all complaints even if [the employee has] exercised [her] right to opt out of the mediation/arbitration provision of C.A.R.E." and to " use the mediation/arbitration procedure" in C.A.R.E. to resolve any termination, discrimination, or harassment disputes unless the employee has exercised the right to opt out. Id.

White avers that, although the Four Seasons conducted a 30-minute presentation covering the EmPact, it hid the existence of the agreement's arbitration provisions and the ability to opt out of those provisions. See Opp., Declaration of Lisa White, ¶ 5. According to White, upon the conclusion of this presentation, Defendant requested that she and her colleagues " immediately sign the EmPact agreement" without giving employees the opportunity to read the agreement or consult with a third party regarding its contents. Id. White signed the agreement, purportedly without realizing the commitment she was making. See id.

In February 2009, White was approached by Assistant Supervisor Steve Ellis, who directed her to again sign the signature page of the EmPact agreement, which he stated was " for [her] benefit" because " it would help to secure [her] employment with Four Seasons." Id., ¶ 6. White states that the EmPact agreement and its arbitration provisions were not included with the document that was presented to her, and that Ellis never informed her of her ability to opt out of the arbitration agreement. See id. White nevertheless again signed this signature page. See Coppel Decl., Exh. D (2009 EmPact Signature Page).

White's employment with the Four Seasons, meanwhile, was hardly proceeding smoothly. In 2008 and continuing through to the filing of this action, she made nearly 30 formal and informal complaints to her supervisors, managers, and Director of Human Resources Stacey Coppel concerning various incidents that she perceived to be harassment, discrimination, or the creation of a hostile work environment. See generally Compl.; see Mot. at 6. These complaints ranged from disputes over client-booking and sales-crediting practices to sabotage by ...

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