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White v. Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 23, 2017

LISA WHITE, Plaintiff,


          JAMES E. BOASBERG United States District Judge.

         Plaintiff Lisa White is an esthetician who believes that her former employer, Defendant Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts, discriminated against her on the basis of her race and pregnancy. After White filed suit and Four Seasons successfully moved to compel arbitration, an Arbitrator selected by the parties held an eleven-day hearing and decided in favor of Defendant. White now moves to vacate the arbitration award pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3), arguing that the Arbitrator improperly allowed Four Seasons both to withhold relevant information and to provide incomplete and inaccurate evidence. As a result, Plaintiff contends that the hearing was rendered fundamentally unfair to her. Not surprisingly, Defendant disagrees and asks the Court to confirm the award.

         The Hotel's position carries the day, as the Court concludes that the Arbitrator's discovery-related decisions did not amount to misconduct such that White was denied a fundamentally fair hearing. Because she cannot meet the very demanding standard for vacatur, the Court will deny her Motion to Vacate the Arbitration Award and grant Defendant's Motion to Confirm the Award.

         I. Background

         Lisa White is a black woman who worked as an esthetician in the spa at the Four Seasons Hotel here in Washington from September 2007 to August 2012. See ECF No. 42-1, Exh. K (Award) at 2. Initially hired for part-time work, she became a full-time employee in July 2008. Id. In August 2012, she filed a charge of discrimination against Four Seasons with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the D.C. Office of Human Rights. Id. at 3; Pl. Mot. at 4. White alleged that the Hotel had discriminated against her on the basis of race and pregnancy by depriving her of client bookings and opportunities for promotion, subjecting her to a hostile work environment, and retaliating against her for voicing her concerns. See Award at 1; Pl. Mot. at 3. She accordingly asserted violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e, et seq., Section 1977 of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, 42 U.S.C. § 1981, and the D.C. Human Rights Act of 1977, D.C. Code § 2-14. See Award at 1.

         After the EEOC issued White a Notice of Right to Sue, she brought this action in the Superior Court for the District of Columbia in August 2013. See ECF No. 1-1. Four Seasons then removed the case to federal court and moved to compel arbitration. See ECF Nos. 1, 5. This Court granted the motion in November 2013 and stayed the case pending arbitration, which lasted for almost three years. White v. Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, 999 F.Supp.2d 250 (D.D.C. 2013).

         As provided for in White's employment contract, Four Seasons began the process by filing a request for arbitration with the American Arbitration Association. See Def. Mot. at 2-3. The parties received names of possible arbitrators and selected Patricia Horan Latham, an individual with more than 30 years of experience as an arbitrator/mediator and more than 40 years of experience as an attorney. Id.; ECF No. 43-1 (Résumé of Patricia Horan Latham) at 1.

         After selecting the Arbitrator, the parties engaged in written discovery, document production, and the taking of depositions. This was no simple task. In fact, they produced 10, 912 pages of documents, Four Seasons responded to 67 Interrogatories and took two depositions, and White took eleven depositions. See Def. Mot. at 3. Among those individuals deposed were: Brian Simon, White's manager at the Spa; Julia Boeminghaus, who succeeded White as Spa manager; Laura Hatala, a white esthetician at the Spa; Christian Clerc, President of Hotel Operations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; Carolina Baldi, Spa Supervisor; Stacey Coppel, Human Resources Director; Craig Statham, Regional Director of Information Technology; and Ella Stimpson, the Spa's expert witness on spa operations. See ECF No. 42-1, Exhs. A, B, D, F, L, P, W, KK.

         The arbitration hearing took place over the course of eleven non-consecutive days, beginning on February 29 and ending on August 18, 2016. See ECF No. 42-1, Exh. AA (Tr. Arbitration Hearing, Day 1, Feb. 29, 2016); id., Exh. II (Tr. Arbitration Hearing, Aug. 18, 2016). “Eleven witnesses testified during the hearing, resulting in a record consisting of 3, 035 pages of testimony and 1, 166 pages of exhibits.” Def. Mot. at 1. The parties then submitted post-hearing briefs. See ECF No. 42-1, Exhs. C, GG. On October 19, 2016, the Arbitrator issued an award in favor of Defendant. See Award. After discussing some of White's claims - including that she was unfairly denied appointments and promotion opportunities, harassed by her co-workers and supervisors, and subjected to surveillance because of her complaints - and finding them to be without sufficient support, the Arbitrator concluded that Four Seasons had not engaged in discrimination and denied all of her claims. Id. at 3-9.

         Plaintiff then timely filed the instant Motion, seeking to vacate the award on the ground that the Arbitrator “refus[ed] to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy.” 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3). This purported misconduct relates only to her disparate-treatment claim; she asserts no arguments as to the remainder of her unsuccessful counts. Defendant, in turn, filed an Opposition and Cross-Motion to Confirm the Award. Those Motions are now ripe.

         II. Legal Standard

         In enacting the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., Congress “replace[d] judicial indisposition to arbitration with a ‘national policy favoring [it] and plac[ing] arbitration agreements on equal footing with all other contracts.” Hall St. Assocs., L.L.C. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U.S. 576, 578 (2008). The FAA “establish[es] an alternative to the complications of litigation, ” Revere Copper & Brass Inc. v. Overseas Private Inv. Corp., 628 F.2d 81, 83 (D.C. Cir. 1980), and provides for “expedited judicial review to confirm, vacate, or modify arbitration awards.” Hall St. Assocs., 552 U.S. at 578.

         As the D.C. Circuit has repeatedly emphasized, “[J]udicial review of arbitral awards is extremely limited.” Kanuth v. Prescott, Ball & Turben, Inc., 949 F.2d 1175, 1178 (D.C. Cir. 1991). “Courts thus do not sit to hear claims of factual or legal error by an arbitrator as an appellate court does in reviewing decisions of lower courts.” Id. (quoting United Paperworkers Int'l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 38 (1987)); see also Kurke v. Oscar Gruss & Son, Inc., 454 F.3d 350, 354 (D.C. Cir. 2006). Consequently, a party seeking to challenge an arbitrator's award under any of the FAA's four limited grounds, see 9 U.S.C. § 10(a), “must clear a high hurdle.” Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int'l Corp., 559 U.S. 662, 671 (2010). Even a serious legal or factual error on the part of the arbitrator will not, standing alone, justify vacatur of an award. Id.

         Here, Plaintiff invokes 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3), which authorizes vacatur of an award “where the arbitrator[ was] guilty of misconduct . . . in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy.” “The scope of review under this provision is narrow.” Howard Univ. v. Metro. Campus Police Officer's Union, 512 F.3d 716, 721 (D.C. Cir. 2008). This is because, “in making evidentiary determinations, ” arbitrators “need not follow all the niceties observed by the federal courts.” Id. (quoting Lessin v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 481 F.3d 813, 816 (D.C. Cir. 2007)). In submitting to arbitration, litigants lose, for example, the right to the extensive discovery afforded by the courts. See Shearson/Am. Exp., Inc. v. McMahon, 482 U.S. 220, 259 n.18 (1987). An arbitrator may determine whether or not certain evidence would prove relevant to her determination. See Lessin, 481 F.3d at 817. She thus has substantial leeway to admit any evidence that she finds useful - even hearsay evidence. See Barker v. Gov't Emps. Ins. Co., 339 F.Supp. 1064, 1067 (D.D.C. 1972). An arbitrator may likewise opt to expedite a proceeding by excluding evidence and testimony that she finds irrelevant or duplicative. See Lessin, 481 F.3d at 817; Fairchild & Co. v. Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Ry. Co., 516 F.Supp. 1305, 1314-15 (D.D.C. 1981). ...

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