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Caire v. Conifer Value Based Care, LLC

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

November 8, 2013

BRANDON CAIRE, Plaintiff,
v.
CONIFER VALUE BASED CARE, LLC, et.al, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Richard D. Bennett United States District Judge

This is an employment discrimination case in which the Plaintiff Brandon Caire asserts claims against Defendants Conifer Value-Based Care, LLC, formerly known as InforMed, LLC[1] (“InforMed”), and InforMed’s Director of Human Resources Janet Camp (“Camp”) (collectively, “Defendants”)[2] for violations of the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (“FMLA”), 29 U.S.C. § 2601, et seq.; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., as amended by the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”); the Maryland Human Relations Act, Md. Code Ann., State Gov’t § 20-606; and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-501, et seq. Pending before this Court are Defendant Janet Camp’s Motion To Compel Arbitration or, in the Alternative, To Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (ECF No. 10) and Defendant Conifer Value-Based Care, LLC’s Motion To Compel Arbitration or, in the Alternative, To Dismiss Counts Three and Four for Failure to State a Claim (ECF No. 11). The parties’ submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary.[3] See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons that follow, Defendants’ Motions (ECF Nos. 10 & 11) are DENIED.

BACKGROUND

This Court accepts as true the well-pleaded, non-conclusory factual allegations in the plaintiff’s’ complaint. See Aziz v. Alcolac, Inc., 658 F.3d 388, 390 (4th Cir. 2011). In August of 2010, the Plaintiff Caire applied for employment with InforMed, and on September 9, 2010 received an offer letter setting forth various details of the terms and conditions of employment. Compl. ¶¶ 12, 73-47, ECF No. 1. The offer letter did not refer to arbitration in any way. Id. ¶ 73. On October 4, 2010, he began working for InforMed as an entry-level telephone customer service representative at company headquarters in Annapolis, Maryland. Id. ¶ 74. On his first day of work, the Plaintiff received an employee handbook, which contained the following arbitration provision:

If an employment dispute arises while you are employed at InforMed, the company requests that you agree to submit any such dispute arising out of your employment or the termination of your employment (including but not limited to, claims of unlawful termination based on race, sex, age national origin, disability, breach of contract or any other bias prohibited by law) exclusively under the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C., Section 1. Similarly, any disputes arising during your employment involving claims of unlawful discrimination or harassment under federal or state statutes shall be submitted exclusively to binding arbitration under the above provisions. This arbitration shall be the exclusive means of resolving any dispute arising out of your employment or termination from employment by InforMed or you, and no other action can be brought by employees in any court or any forum. By simply accepting or continuing employment with InforMed, you automatically agree that arbitration is the exclusive remedy for all disputes arising out of or related to your employment with InforMed and you agree to waive all rights to a civil court action regarding your employment and the termination of your employment with InforMed; only the arbitrator, and not a judge or jury, will decide the dispute.
If you decide to dispute your termination or any other alleged incident during your employment, including but not limited to unlawful discrimination or harassment, you must deliver a written request for arbitration to InforMed within one (1) year from the date of termination, or one (1) year from the date on which the alleged incident(s) or conduct occurred, and respond within fourteen (14) calendar days to each communication regarding the selection or an arbitrator and the scheduling or a hearing. If InforMed does not receive a written request for arbitration from you within one (1) year, or if you do not respond to any communication from InforMed about the arbitration proceedings within fourteen (14) calendar days, you will have waived any right to raise any claims arising out of the termination of your employment with InforMed, or involving claims of unlawful discrimination or harassment, in arbitration and in any court or other forum.
You and InforMed shall each bear respective costs for legal arbitration at any such arbitration. The parties, if any, shall share the cost of the arbitrator and court reporter, equally.

Pls.’ Opp., Decl. of Brandon Caire Ex. 2, ECF No. 18-2 at 10 (“Arbitration Policy”). Caire alleges that he was not given time to read the handbook and further alleges that he did not know it contained an arbitration provision. Id. ¶ 75. Nevertheless, the Plaintiff was required to sign a page of the Employee Handbook containing an “Acknowledgment of and Agreement with InforMed Arbitration Policy, ” which states:

My signature on this document acknowledges I understand the above Arbitration Policy and agree to abide by its conditions. I also acknowledge that I understand my employment is at-will and may be terminated at any time, with or without reason, by either InforMed or myself. I further agree that, in accordance with InforMed’s Arbitration Policy I will submit any dispute - including but not limited to my termination - arising under or involving my employment with InforMed to binding arbitration within one (1) year from the date the dispute first arose. I agree that arbitration shall be the exclusive forum for resolving all disputes arising out of or involving my employment with InforMed or the termination of that employment. I agree I will be entitled to legal representation, at my own cost, during arbitration. I further understand that I will be responsible for half the costs of the arbitrator and any incidental costs of arbitration.

ECF No. 18-2 at 12. This document included signature lines for the employee and a “Designated Manager.” Id. In addition, the Plaintiff was required to sign a “Receipt and Acknowledgment of InforMed Employee Manual” which contained the following language:

Understanding and Acknowledging Receipt of Informed Employee Manual I have received and read a copy of the InforMed Employee Manual. I understand that the policies and benefits described in it are subject to change at the sole discretion of InforMed at any time. * * *
Arbitration I also acknowledge that I have read and understand the Arbitration Policy contained in this Employee Manual and I agree to abide by the policy.

ECF No. 18-2 at 13. The Arbitration Policy, the Acknowledgment of and Agreement with InforMed Arbitration Policy, and the Receipt and Acknowledgment of InforMed Employee Manual collectively form the arbitration agreement at issue in this case.

Shortly after beginning work at InforMed, Caire took time off of work to address health issues including Major Depressive Disorder and severe social anxiety disorder. Id. ¶¶ 17-18. The Plaintiff’s direct supervisor, Kathy Howard, was aware that he was undergoing regular psychiatric treatment, as was InforMed’s Human Resources Director, Defendant Camp. Id. ¶¶ 19-20. Despite his mental health conditions, between his hiring in October 2010 and May 2011, the Plaintiff met or exceeded the level of performance expected of an on-site telephone customer service representative. Id. ¶ 16.

Because telephone customer service representatives are not required to interact face-to-face, InforMed routinely encouraged and allowed employees to telecommute as a cost- saving measure. Id. ¶ 21. In May of 2011, at InforMed’s suggestion, the Plaintiff agreed to telecommute from home. Id. ¶ 22. The Plaintiff signed a “Staff Employee Telecommuting Request Form” and a “Telecommuting Agreement, ” and InforMed approved him to begin telecommuting from home effective on or about June 1, 2011. Id. ¶¶ 23-24. As a result of the new arrangement, the Plaintiff incurred costs for office supplies and services necessary to work from home. Id. ¶¶ 25-27. InforMed paid a flat monthly stipend of $160 to help defray these costs. Id. ¶ 28. In setting up his home office, the Plaintiff changed his land line telephone number so that he could use it for work purposes with minimal interruption from personal calls. Id. ¶ 29. The Telecommuting Agreement did not require telecommuters to maintain multiple phone lines, and it was common for InforMed’s telecommuting employees to use just one phone line for InforMed purposes during business hours and for personal purposes at other times of the day. Id. The Plaintiff alleges that Sarah Doty, a customer service representative at InforMed who began telecommuting approximately one month after the Plaintiff, stated that she and “everyone else in our department” had only one phone line and this fact was known to management. Id. ¶ 30. However, near the end of the Plaintiff’s employment with InforMed, supervisor Ms. Howard sent an email on January 27, 2012 to all telecommuting customer service representatives instructing them, “In the future: Make sure you have a dedicated InforMed line if you are remote and make sure you are not using the InforMed line for personal use.” Id. ¶¶ 60-61.

Similarly, InforMed permitted “incidental and occasional” use of company equipment by employees for personal reasons with prior manager approval; in practice, no manager approval was required. Id. ¶¶ 34-35. In addition, the Plaintiff was not required to maintain an InforMed greeting on his land line voicemail. Id. ¶ 47. InforMed used a self-contained voice mail system, meaning that any time a customer service representative was unavailable to answer a call, the caller would be routed directly to InforMed’s company voicemail box. Id. ¶ 43. However, in or around the fall of 2011, a malfunction in InforMed’s system failed to route calls to the internal voicemail box. Id. ¶ 46. This failure caused InforMed calls to be routed to the Plaintiff’s personal voicemail greeting from his previous land line, dating to a time before he changed the number to begin telecommuting. Id. The Plaintiff contacted his telephone service provider and ensured that no further InforMed-related calls would be routed to a personal voicemail greeting. Id. ¶ 49.

During the Plaintiff’s employment as a telecommuter from his Maryland home, his grandmother began undergoing cancer treatment. Id. ¶ 37. As a result, the Plaintiff requested that he be allowed to telecommute temporarily from his grandparents’ home in Louisiana. Id. ¶ 38. InforMed agreed and on August 15, 2011 the Plaintiff signed a second Telecommuting Agreement which was substantially identical to the first. Id. ¶ 39. To avoid interference between his grandparents’ personal telephone calls and InforMed business, the Plaintiff installed a second phone line at his remote office in Louisiana. Id. ¶¶ 40-41.

In September 2011, Caire’s grandmother in Louisiana, with whom he had been especially close, died. Id. ¶ 51. Within a few days, his other grandmother also died. Id. These losses were very traumatic and the Plaintiff experienced exacerbated mental health issues. Id. The Plaintiff returned to Maryland to resume telecommuting from his home, but his grief led to a worsening of his Major Depressive Disorder and related symptoms. Id. ¶ 54. The Plaintiff alleges that upon his return to InforMed, he noticed that his supervisor Ms. Howard and Defendant Camp treated him differently than they had before. Id. ¶ 52.

In January of 2012, the Plaintiff informed Ms. Howard and Defendant Camp that he needed to take between one and one-and-a-half weeks off, followed by intermittent leave, to treat his depression. Id. ¶ 55. His Family Medical Leave Act certification noted that he had a “lifelong condition” marked by symptoms of “low mood, anhedonia (inability to experience pleasure), anxiety, depression, crying spells, loss of energy, memory and concentration, as well as irritability, restlessness and difficulty sleeping.” Id. ¶ 56. The certification indicated that Caire may need inpatient hospitalization, extended time off for follow-up treatment, and fourteen days or more off per month if he experienced an exacerbation of his illness. Id. ¶ 57. After considering his FMLA certification and Notice of Eligibility and Rights and Responsibilities, Defendant Camp approved the FMLA leave request on January 14, 2012. Id. ¶ 58. The Plaintiff began his FMLA leave period on January 30, 2012. Id. ¶ 59. Just two days later, on February 1, 2012, the Plaintiff was terminated.[4] Id. ¶ 62.

In the termination letter, the Defendants’ stated reasons for terminating the Plaintiff were that he violated the Telecommuting Agreement by failing to install a separate phone line solely for InforMed business, using a personal voicemail greeting for InforMed callers, and using a portion of his expense allowance for his personal phone line. Id. ¶ 63. Ms. Howard informed the Plaintiff that she disagreed with the decision to terminate him. Id. ¶ 69. The Plaintiff, in an email to Defendant Camp, stated, “I do not feel that my termination reason on my letter is accurate with the situation.” Id. ¶ 64. Defendant Camp forwarded a second letter stating that the primary reason for his termination was that he did not install a second phone line for a five-and-a-half month period while telecommuting. Id. ¶ 65. In the second letter, Defendant Camp further stated that if Caire did not cease speaking with InforMed employees, he could be “subject to legal action.” Id.

After being terminated from InforMed, the Plaintiff applied for unemployment benefits through the Maryland Division of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Id. ¶ 70. InforMed challenged his right to unemployment benefits because he had been terminated for “misconduct.” Id. On March 23, 2012, a hearing examiner for the Unemployment Insurance Appeals Division determined that Caire had not committed misconduct and “did not commit a transgression of some established rule or policy of the employer.” Id. The Plaintiff alleges that while working as an InforMed customer service representative, both on-site and telecommuting, he was a model employee who met or exceeded the requirements of the position. Id. ¶¶ 16, 36.

The Plaintiff also filed a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”). Id. ¶ 71. According to the Plaintiff, in filings submitted to the EEOC in August of 2012, the Defendants conceded that the Plaintiff was not required to maintain a separate phone line at his home office for telecommuting. Id. ¶ 72.

On January 31, 2013, the Plaintiff initiated arbitration proceedings with the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”). Id. ¶ 83. Then, on February 14, 2013, counsel for the Defendants sent letters to the AAA and to the Plaintiff indicating their refusal to arbitrate before the AAA. Id. ¶ 85. InforMed indicated that it did not consent to allow the AAA to administrate the arbitration, did not agree to the AAA’s fee structure, and offered to provide a list of retired judges to preside, as well as to review any potential candidates the Plaintiff wished to propose. Opp. Ex. 5, ECF No. 11-6 at 1. The Defendants further proposed that any arbitration proceedings be stayed pending the outcome of the state administrative proceedings ...


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