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Royal v. CEC Entertainment, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

May 24, 2019

KIERA ROYAL, Plaintiff,
v.
CEC ENTERTAINMENT, INC., Defendant.

          ORDER

          R. STAN BAKER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Presently before the Court is Defendant CEC Entertainment, Inc.'s Motion to Dismiss and to Compel Arbitration. (Doc. 4.) Plaintiff Kiera Royal, proceeding pro se, filed a Response in opposition, (doc. 10), Defendant filed a Reply, (doc. 12), and Plaintiff filed a Sur Reply, (doc. 13). For the reasons set forth herein, the Court GRANTS Defendant's Motion to Dismiss, (doc. 4), and DISMISSES without prejudice Plaintiff's Complaint. The Court DIRECTS the Clerk of Court to enter an appropriate judgment of dismissal and to CLOSE this case.

         BACKGROUND

         This action arises out of an employment dispute between Plaintiff Kiera Royal and her employer, Defendant CEC Entertainment, Inc. (Doc. 1-1). Defendant does business through the operation of Chuck E. Cheese restaurants throughout the United States. (Doc. 4-1, p. 2.) Plaintiff was hired to work at Defendant's restaurant in Savannah, Georgia on January 5, 2015. (Doc. 1-1, p. 3.) As a part of Defendant's new-hire process, Plaintiff was required to review and sign various documents. (Doc. 4-1, p. 3.) One of these documents was a “Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims” (hereinafter the “Arbitration Agreement” or “Agreement”) wherein the parties agreed “to use final and binding arbitration to resolve any and all ‘Covered Disputes' as defined in [the document]” and that such disputes “shall be decided by a neutral arbitrator and not by way of court or jury trial.” (Doc. 4-2, p. 6.) The Agreement provides that “Covered Disputes shall include, without limitation, all claims arising out of . . . employment with [Defendant], ” such as “[c]laims for retaliation” and “[c]laims for harassment or discrimination on the basis of, without limitation, race, sex, . . . or any other characteristic protected by law.” (Id.) However, administrative charges filed with agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) are not considered “Covered Disputes” and are not subject to mandatory arbitration. (Id. at p. 7.) The Agreement also states that a signature indicates a party's understanding that they have given up “the right to resolve a Covered Dispute in court, ” and that Defendant will pay “the fees and costs of the Arbitrator;” however, the signing party is responsible for paying “an administrative fee in an amount that will not exceed the fee that [he or she] would otherwise pay to file a lawsuit asserting the same claim(s) in court.” (Id. at p. 8.) According to the affidavit of Nancy Harris, Defendant's current Director of Human Resources, Plaintiff signed the Arbitration Agreement on January 5, 2015, and the document remained in Plaintiff's personnel file since that time. (Id. at pp. 3-4.) Defendant submitted, and the Court has reviewed, a copy of the signed agreement, which was authenticated by Ms. Harris in her affidavit.[1] (Id. at pp. 6-9.)

         Pursuant to her rights under the Agreement, Plaintiff filed discrimination, harassment, and retaliation-based charges with the EEOC on one or more occasions. (Doc. 10, p. 9.) She received a Notice of Right to Sue from the EEOC on July 3, 2018, (doc. 1-3, p. 13), and subsequently filed this action in the Superior Court of Chatham County on September 28, 2018, (doc. 1-1). She alleges that Defendant subjected her to ongoing sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and retaliation during her time as an employee. (Id. at p. 1.) Defendant removed the case to this Court on December 17, 2018 and filed its Motion to Dismiss and to Compel Arbitration four days later. (Doc. 1; doc. 4.) In its Motion, Defendant points to the Arbitration Agreement and argues that because Plaintiff's claims are “Covered Disputes, ” she is obligated to resolve them through arbitration. (Doc. 4-1, p. 5.) Specifically, Defendant contends that “Plaintiff is contractually bound to submit to arbitration as the exclusive forum for adjudication, ” and the Court should dismiss Plaintiff's claims against it and compel arbitration or, in the alternative, stay the case until arbitration is complete. (Id. at p. 2.) In response, Plaintiff does not dispute that she signed the Arbitration Agreement and does not challenge the Agreement's validity or enforceability. (Doc. 10; doc. 13)

         DISCUSSION

         I. Jurisdiction

         The Federal Arbitration Act (the “FAA”), 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16, generally governs the validity of an arbitration agreement. Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1367 (11th Cir. 2005). However, it is well-established that “the FAA does not confer subject matter jurisdiction on federal courts.” Baltin v. Alaron Trading Corp., 128 F.3d 1466, 1469 (11th Cir. 1997). Instead, some independent basis of subject matter jurisdiction is necessary. Id.

         Here, Defendant asserts that the Court has federal question jurisdiction over this action. (Doc. 1.) Subject matter jurisdiction based on claims arising under federal law is grounded in 28 U.S.C. § 1331, which grants district courts jurisdiction over “all civil actions arising under the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States.” Such actions are removable under § 1441(a). “Whether a claim arises under federal law for purposes of federal question jurisdiction is governed by the ‘well-pleaded complaint' rule, which provides that federal jurisdiction exists only when a federal question is presented on the face of the complaint.” Abele v. Tolbert, 130 Fed.Appx. 342, 343 (11th Cir. 2005) (per curiam); see Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987). All pleadings “must be construed so as to do justice.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(e). That principle “applies with greatest force in cases filed by pro se litigants, whose filings are liberally construed.” Torres v. Miami-Dade County, 734 Fed.Appx. 688, 691 (11th Cir. 2018). “Liberal construction, in more concrete terms, means that federal courts must sometimes look beyond the labels used in a pro se party's complaint and focus on the content and substance of the allegations.” Id.

         In her Complaint, Plaintiff asserts that Defendant is liable for sex discrimination and retaliation, both in violation of “Georgia labor code.” (Doc. 1-1, pp. 13-14.) She does not cite any federal law as grounds for recovery. (Id.) However, Plaintiff's Complaint contains repeated references to her dealings with the EEOC, and specifically notes that she had previously filed charges of “sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and retaliation.” (Doc. 1-1, p. 14.) She further states that the EEOC gave her “the right to sue” and that “all conditions precedent to the bringing of this lawsuit have been satisfied and fulfilled.” (Id. at p. 13.) Applying the lenient standards relevant to pro se pleadings, it is clear that Plaintiff intended to bring her claims pursuant to Title VII. The sexual harassment and retaliation claims asserted in her Complaint mirror those that she filed with the EEOC-a federal agency tasked with investigating potential violations of federal employment laws. See 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-(2)-(5). Additionally, her Complaint includes information routinely supplied by parties alleging violations of Title VII. For example, Plaintiff states that the sexual harassment she endured at work “was so severe that it affected a term, condition, or privilege of employment, ” and that after she filed harassment charges with the EEOC, her manager retaliated “by trying to destroy her character” in the workplace. (Doc. 1-1, pp. 10- 11, 13.) Both allegations mirror elements of Title VII claims. See Kidd v. Mando Am. Corp., 731 F.3d 1196, 1211 (11th Cir. 2013) (plaintiff asserting claim for retaliation must show that: (1) she engaged in statutorily protected activity; (2) she suffered materially adverse action; and (3) a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse action); Mendoza v. Borden, Inc., 195 F.3d 1238, 1245 (11th Cir. 1999) (“To establish a hostile-environment sexual-harassment claim under Title VII, an employee must show . . . the harassment was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the terms and conditions of employment . . . .”). Plaintiff also notes that Defendant “continuously had at least 500 or more employees” at all relevant times, (doc. 1-1, p. 13), a fact relevant to the calculation of damages in federal employment discrimination actions. 42 U.S.C. § 1981(b)(3)(D). Further evincing her intent, Plaintiff's “Response to Defendant's Reply” explicitly states that “the case was filed with the court system due to [v]iolations of Title VII.” (Doc. 13, p.1.)

         Finally, although her Complaint references the “Georgia labor code, ” the Court is unaware of any state law in Georgia that would entitle Plaintiff to the relief she seeks. While a plaintiff may sue a state employer for such conduct, Georgia law does not contain a statutory basis for a sexual harassment or retaliation claim against a private employer. O.C.G.A. § 45-19-22 through § 45-19-29; see, e.g., Guilford v. MarketStar Corp., No. 1:08-CV-0336-CC-SSC, 2009 WL 10664954, at *9 (N.D.Ga. Jan. 30, 2009), report and recommendation adopted, No. 1:08-CV-0336-CC-SSC, 2009 WL 10664951 (N.D.Ga. Feb. 19, 2009) (noting that Georgia law does not provide state law remedy for employment discrimination against non-state employers). The Court must assume that Plaintiff did not intend to allege violations of a law that does not permit her to recover. Because it is clear from the face of Plaintiff's Complaint that she intended to assert claims arising under federal law, the Court finds that it has federal question jurisdiction over this action.

         II. Analysis

         Having determined that jurisdiction is proper, the Court must consider whether, under the FAA and the parties' Arbitration Agreement, Plaintiff is required to arbitrate her claims. The FAA was enacted in 1925 “as a response to judicial hostility [towards] arbitration . . . and seeks to relieve congestion in the courts and to provide parties with an alternative method for dispute resolution that is speedier and less costly than litigation.” Walthour v. Chipio Windshield Repair, LLC, 745 F.3d 1326, 1329 (11th Cir. 2014) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). The FAA “reflect[s] both a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration and the fundamental principle that arbitration is a matter of contract. In line with these principles, courts must place arbitration agreements on an equal footing with other contracts and enforce them according to their terms.” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 339 (2011) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted).

         In relevant part, the FAA provides that a written agreement to arbitrate a controversy “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. If a party bound by an arbitration agreement refuses to arbitrate, the FAA permits the party aggrieved by such a refusal to petition a court of competent jurisdiction for an order directing the parties to proceed to arbitration. See id. at § 4. Before directing the parties to arbitration, however, the Court must be “satisfied that the making of the agreement for arbitration . . . is not in issue.” Id. “[A]rbitration is a matter of contract and a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit.” AT&T Techs., Inc. v. Commc'ns Workers of Am., 475 U.S. 643, 648 (1986) (citation omitted). Thus, the Court must first “determine whether the parties agreed to arbitrate that dispute.” Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler-Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 626 (1985). While ...


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