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Jenna Oliver v. Nordstrom King of Prussia

December 14, 2010

JENNA OLIVER PLAINTIFF,
v.
NORDSTROM KING OF PRUSSIA,
DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Schiller, J.

MEMORANDUM

Jenna Oliver is suing her former employer, Nordstrom, Inc., alleging that it unlawfully fired her in April of 2009 based on her gender.*fn1 She also contends that Nordstrom barred her from entering its property and thus interfered with the contractual relations she had with her subsequent employer. Nordstrom seeks to stay the proceedings before this Court and to compel arbitration based on an agreement between Oliver and Nordstrom. Oliver argues that the arbitration agreement is invalid and unenforceable under Pennsylvania contract law. The Court concludes that the parties have validly agreed to arbitrate certain claims. The scope of the agreement is not, however, as broad as Nordstrom believes. Accordingly, the Court grants Defendant's motion in part and denies it in part.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Oliver's Allegations

Oliver began working for Nordstrom in March of 2009 as a Business Manager for Philosophy, a cosmetics product line. (Compl. ¶ 6.) Shortly after beginning her job, Oliver learned that one of her co-workers was being stalked. (Id. ¶ 7.) During the investigation into her co-worker's claim, Oliver informed Nordstrom's security personnel that she had a Protection from Abuse Order against her ex-boyfriend. (Id. ¶ 8.) Upon request, she brought a copy of the order to work. (Id. ¶ 9.) On April 1, 2009, Oliver called the police because she received a threatening phone call from her ex-boyfriend's sister prior to work. (Id. ¶ 10.) That same day, Oliver was questioned about the Protection from Abuse Order. (Id. ¶ 12.) Nordstrom asked Oliver about her relationship with her ex-boyfriend and assured her they would maintain a safe working environment for her. (Id. ¶¶ 13-14.) During this questioning, Oliver informed Nordstrom that her ex-boyfriend had been arrested the previous day. (Id. ¶ 15.)

On April 11, 2009, a human resources manager told Oliver that her ex-boyfriend had posted bail and instructed Oliver not to return to work for three days. (Id. ¶ 20.) When Oliver called into work three days later, Nordstrom informed her that they did not believe they could keep her and her co-workers safe and she was therefore fired. (Id. ¶ 21.)

Oliver further alleges that Nordstrom excluded her from the premises after she was hired by Kinerase, a cosmetics company that had assigned her to a trade show on Nordstrom's property. (Id.¶¶ 24-27.) The refusal to permit Oliver to enter Nordstrom's property has cost her money and employment opportunities. (Id. ¶ 30.) Plaintiff's Complaint includes claims for sex discrimination under Title VII and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), wrongful termination, and intentional interference with contractual relations.

B. The Agreement to Arbitrate

On February 17, 2009, Oliver signed a document that spelled out the Nordstrom Dispute Resolution Program. Her signature was "required to be considered for employment. It also acknowledge[d] [she] . . . read, underst[ood] and agree[d] to the information." (Def.'s Mot. to Stay Judicial Proceedings Pending Arbitration Ex. A [Prospective Employee Information].) The agreement states:

I understand that Nordstrom uses a Dispute Resolution Program to resolve many disputes and claims between employees and the Company and its agents that arise from employees' application for employment with Nordstrom, the termination of their employment with Nordstrom as well as other disputes or claims that arise from the employment relationship. I also understand that this means that certain disputes and claims must be resolved through Internal Company procedures or through final and binding arbitration. Such disputes and claims include claims under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Equal Pay Act, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act . . . the Rehabilitation Act of 1974, the Fair Labor Standards Act and any other federal, state or local statute, regulation or common law doctrine governing employment discrimination, conditions of employment, or termination of employment. Should I be employed by Nordstrom, I understand that I may not pursue courtroom litigation as a means to resolve disputes or claims between myself and the Company that are covered by the Dispute Resolution Program. My signature below acknowledges that I am aware of and agree to abide by the Company's Dispute Resolution Program. (Id.)

After she was hired, Oliver signed an Employee Acknowledgment and Agreement Form, which highlighted the Nordstrom Dispute Resolution Program and stated that Oliver agreed to the program and understood that she waived the right to proceed against Nordstrom in court with covered claims and that she was instead required to pursue such claims through arbitration. (Id. Ex. B [Employee Acknowledgment and Agreement Form].) Nordstrom also provided Oliver a document entitled "Nordstrom Dispute Resolution Program Important Information for Pennsylvania Employees." (Id. Ex C [Pennsylvania Information].) This document informed Oliver that she was required to use Nordstrom's dispute resolution process "instead of a court proceeding, including a jury trial, to resolve covered claims against Nordstrom . . . that arise from or are in any way connected with your current or future employment." (Id.) Nordstrom was also required to use the process in lieu of court proceedings. The process covered harassment and discrimination claims arising under Title VII and the PHRA; wage claims; contract claims; claims for damage to persons or property, including assault and battery, defamation, and emotional distress; and claims for unlawful discharge. (Id.) Unless the parties agreed, claims not covered by the program were not subject to arbitration. (Id.)

Oliver "recognizes the documents attached" to Nordstrom's motion although she claims they were presented to her on "a take it or leave it basis." (Pl.'s Resp. in Opp'n to Def.'s Mot. to Stay Judicial Proceedings [Pl.'s Resp.] Ex. 1 [Oliver Certification] ¶¶ 1, 3.) She also claims that one of Nordstrom's human resources employees told her that the policy was designed to resolve internal disputes or issues between employees. (Id. ¶ 5.) She did not understand that she was waiving her right to a jury trial. (Id. ¶ 6.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) provides that arbitration agreements are "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. Any "party aggrieved by the alleged failure, neglect, or refusal of another to arbitrate under a written agreement for arbitration may petition any United States district court . . . for an order directing that such arbitration proceed in the manner provided for in such agreement." Id. § 4. The FAA establishes the strong federal policy in favor of arbitration. Puleo v. Chase Bank USA, N.A., 605 F.3d 172, 178 (3d Cir. 2010). The presumption in favor of ...


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