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Rodriguez v. Cracker Barrell Old Country Store, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Northern Division, Covington

December 12, 2017





         This action involves an employment discrimination and retaliation dispute concerning the termination of an employee following that employee’s religious accommodation request. Takia Rodriguez (“Plaintiff”) contends that she was racially and religiously discriminated against at one of Cracker Barrel Country Store, Inc.’s (“Defendant”) Florence, Kentucky locations that caused her to seek additional employment and contributed to her February 2016 termination. Particularly, Plaintiff’s amended complaint alleges four (4) counts under Title VII and K.R.S. § 344 including: disparate treatment on the basis of race (Count I), retaliation (Count II), discriminatory hostile work environment (Count III), and conspiracy to engage in continuing discriminatory treatment (Count IV). (Doc. 28, PageID# 119-122). Plaintiff has also brought common law tort and punitive damages claims for grossly negligent hiring and retention (Counts V, VI). (Id. at 122-23).

         The matter is before this Court on Defendant’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, or alternatively, stay the proceedings and compel arbitration. (Doc. 32). The Court previously heard oral argument on this motion and took the matter under advisement. (Doc. 38). Having given this matter further study, the Court now issues the following memorandum opinion and order.


         A. Cracker Barrel Old Country Store’s ADR Policies

         Defendant, a Tennessee corporation licensed to transact business in Kentucky, is a national restaurant company and retail store serving home-style comfort food along with a variety of gifts and music. (Doc. 33, PageID# 189).

         Defendant offers training programs and company policies for its employees through an online interface known as Cracker Barrel University (“CBU”). (Doc. 32-2, PageID# 155). Employees use a unique individual access number to login to a particular module, create their own password, and review a particular unit. (Id.) CBU maintains records of each module that every employee completes. (Id.)

         One of CBU’s modules covers Defendant’s alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policies. In this module, Defendant presents its ADR Policy Guide (“Guide”) which discusses covered employment dispute claims and outlines a three-step resolution process. (Doc. 32-3). The policy specifically identifies that claims arising out of disputes involving harassment, discrimination, or retaliation must be resolved through arbitration if Defendant’s in-house conciliation process fails. (Id. at 161). It explicitly states that claims, including but not limited to, “harassment, discrimination, retaliation . . . and termination . . . that come about through employment laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act . . . and any federal, state, or local laws, or regulations covering the same or similar matters” are covered by the conciliation and arbitration policy. (Id. at 160). Additionally, “ADR also covers any tort, negligence, or contractual claims.” (Id.)

         The Guide spells out in unambiguous terms the effect of compliance with its provisions. It is clear that “[i]f the dispute is not resolved through conciliation, it must be submitted to final and binding arbitration.” (Id. at 159). The Guide goes on to note in bold typeface that “[t]his means that neither you nor the Company may file a lawsuit against the other in a court of law.” (Id.) (emphasis original).

         B. Takia Rodriguez’s Employment & Termination

         Defendant employed Plaintiff as a server at one of its Florence, Kentucky locations beginning in November 2014. (Doc. 32-2, PageID# 159).

         On June 28, 2015, Plaintiff launched the ADR Guide module. (Doc. 32-4, PageID# 167-68). After reviewing the Guide, Plaintiff arrived at a sign-off page entitled “ADR Sign-off” whose purpose was to “ensure that the Employee has read, understands, and will comply with the company’s ADR policy.” (Id.) Plaintiff’s electronic signature memorialized her completion of the module. (Id. at 168).

         On December 15, 2015, Plaintiff approached Associate Manager Tom Gillman informing him that she had recently become a born-again Christian and requested to have Sunday mornings off to attend services. (Doc. 33-2, PageID# 221). Gillman accommodated Plaintiff’s request by adding Saturday shifts to her schedule. (Id.)

         Plaintiff claims that Defendant then proceeded to reduce Plaintiff’s hours gradually from forty to four hours per week. (Doc. 33-1, PageID# 217). As Defendant reduced Plaintiff’s hours, Plaintiff attempted to compensate by acquiring additional shifts from co-workers. (Id.). When Plaintiff did work her shifts, she noticed that Defendant only gave her two poorly positioned tables in the restaurant’s rear to wait on. (Id.)

         The reduced hours compelled Plaintiff to seek separate additional employment. (Doc. 28, PageID# 118). Once Plaintiff secured this employment and Defendant became aware of Plaintiff’s second job, Defendant allegedly began to discriminate against Plaintiff due to Plaintiff’s African American race. Plaintiff claims that management would search Plaintiff, along with a fellow African-American co-worker, before they were allowed to leave the premises after their respective shifts ended. (Id.)

         On February 18, 2016, Defendant terminated Plaintiff’s employment. (Id.). On February 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). (Doc. 33-1, PageID# 217). In November 2016, the EEOC transmitted a “right-to-sue” letter to Plaintiff. (Doc. 33-3, PageID# 229). Plaintiff initially proceeded pro se, bringing this lawsuit in the Southern District of Ohio. (Doc. 1-1). Following transfer to this Court, Plaintiff filed a complaint to which Defendant answered without asserting arbitration as an affirmative defense. (Doc. 7; Doc. 11). After retaining counsel, the parties agreed that Plaintiff would file an amended complaint to clarify her specific claims. (Doc. 28). The parties then engaged in limited discovery, exchanging initial disclosures in May 2017. (Doc. 23; Doc. 24). Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on June 12, 2017, to which Defendant timely filed its answer asserting an arbitration defense on August 11, 2017. (Doc. 28; Doc 30). This motion to dismiss followed in September 2017. (Doc. 32).


         The Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) instructs that arbitration clauses in commercial contracts “‘shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.’” Javitch v. First. Union Sec., Inc., 315 F.3d 619, 624 (6th Cir. 2003) (quoting 9 U.S.C. § 2). Federal courts must compel arbitration if a valid arbitration agreement governs a claim. 9 U.S.C. §§ 3-4. This statutory scheme evidences “a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements” to such a degree that any doubts regarding arbitrability should be resolved in favor of arbitration. Watson Wyatt & Co. v. SBC Holdings, Inc., 513 F.3d 646, 649 (6th Cir. 2008) (quoting Moses H. Cone Mem’l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 24-25 (1983)).

         The burden rests on the party opposing arbitration to show that the agreement is unenforceable. Green Tree Fin. Corp.-Ala. v. Randolph, 531 U.S. 79, 91-92 (2000). The opposing party “must show a genuine issue of material fact as to the validity of the agreement to arbitrate.” Mazera v. Varsity Ford Mgmt. Servs., LLC., 565 F.3d 997, 1001 (6th Cir. 2009) (citation and quotation omitted); see also 9 U.S.C. § 4. In this way, the required showing parallels that required to withstand summary judgment in a civil suit, and the Court draws all facts and inferences in the non-moving party’s favor. Great Earth Cos., Inc. v. Simons, 288 F.3d 878, 889 (6th Cir. 2002).

         The opposing party also cannot adduce “conclusory or unsupported allegations, rooted in speculation,” to satisfy this burden. Bryant v. Commw. of Ky., 490 F.2d 1273, 1275 (6th Cir. 1974). Rather, it must produce “concrete evidence from which a reasonable juror” could determine that the matter should ...

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