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Poole-Ward v. Affiliates for Women's Health, P.A.

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Houston Division

September 7, 2017



          Lee H. Rosenthal, Chief United States District Judge.

         The plaintiff, Dr. Rebecca Poole-Ward, worked as an obstetrician and gynecologist for Affiliates for Women's Health, a medical practice in Brazos County, Texas. She alleges that Affiliates denied her reasonable accommodations for her disabilities and eventually terminated her because of discrimination based on her disabilities. Dr. Poole alleged that Affiliates violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., and her written employment agreement. She sued under the Act and state contract law. (Docket Entry No.1). Affiliates moved to dismiss in favor of arbitration, Dr. Poole responded, Affiliates replied, and Dr. Poole sur-replied. (Docket Entry Nos. 7, 10, 11, and 13). The court held a hearing at which counsel presented oral argument on the motion to dismiss. The court indicated its belief that the motion should be granted under applicable clear law and that an opinion would issue analyzing the motion and responses in detail.

         After the hearing, Dr. Poole filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. (Docket Entry No. 17, Ex. 1). She then filed a motion to reconsider or stay the execution of the not-yet-issued order dismissing in favor of arbitration, (Docket Entry No. 17), asking the court to rule that the arbitration agreement violates the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151 et seq. Affiliates filed a response in opposition to that motion, and Dr. Poole filed a reply. (Docket Entry Nos. 17-18).

         Based on the filings, arguments, and applicable law, the motion to dismiss in favor of arbitration under the parties' employment agreement is granted. Because the motion to reconsider or stay execution of the order was filed before the court ruled on the motion to compel arbitration, it is denied as moot.

         I. Background

         This employment disability-discrimination and contract dispute requires the court to consider the intersection of the Federal Arbitration Act and the National Labor Relations Act. In this litigation, Dr. Poole alleged that she has a number of disabilities, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, and posttraumatic stress disorder due to an assault. Dr. Poole alleged that her disabilities have substantially impaired her capacity to work, sleep, care for herself, and interact with others, and that she has headaches, weight loss, difficulty sleeping, emotional anxiety, paranoia, flashbacks, and fear in certain circumstances. She alleged that she asked for the following accommodations from Affiliates: time off to rest or recuperate from her migraine episodes, to take medication for her disabilities, and to go to doctor's appointments; that one Affiliates employee not wear a wristwatch that was similar to the one worn by Dr. Poole's assailant; that Affiliates employees not discuss the details of Dr. Poole's assault; a reduction in the number of hours she was on call after hours for emergencies; and that Affiliates allow her to switch on-call coverage if she experienced a posttraumatic-stress-disorder event that resulted in the loss of sleep.

         Dr. Poole alleged that Affiliates granted some of her requested accommodations but denied others. She alleged that Affiliates ridiculed and questioned her accommodation requests and did not explain, document, or engage in interactive dialogue when it denied her requests. She alleged that her termination for failing to perform her duties was a pretext for terminating her based on disability discrimination. She alleged that Affiliates violated the Americans with Disabilities Act by denying her reasonable accommodations for, and terminating her on the basis of, her disabilities. She also alleged that Affiliates breached their written employment agreement by terminating her.

         Dr. Poole's employment agreement contains an arbitration clause. The clause covers, with an exception not relevant here, any “dispute, claim or controversy arising out of or relating to this Agreement, the employment of the Doctor by the Association or the relationships between the Doctor and any member of the Association or its employees . . . pursuant to the Texas Arbitration Act, [Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 171].” (Docket Entry No. 7, Ex. 1). Dr. Poole does not dispute that the agreement exists or that it encompasses the claims she asserted in the complaint. (Docket Entry No. 10).

         In its motion to dismiss and compel arbitration, Affiliates argues that this lawsuit must be dismissed in favor of the arbitration the parties contracted for. (Docket Entry No. 7). Dr. Poole responds that although she signed the employment agreement with a generally enforceable broad arbitration clause encompassing her claims, the arbitration clause is nonetheless unenforceable because it unlawfully interferes with her rights under the National Labor Relations Act. (Docket Entry No. 10). She argues that the arbitration clause is so broad that an employee would reasonably interpret it to prohibit the filing of an unfair labor practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. She argues that the Board and Fifth Circuit have held that employers may not maintain or enforce arbitration agreements that violate the Act, and that the “lawfulness of the arbitration term is to be decided independently of Dr. Poole's actions.” (Docket Entry No. 17 at p.2). Affiliates responds that Dr. Poole did not raise any claim under the National Labor Relations Act in her original complaint; Dr. Poole was either a supervisor or a professional, not an employee covered by the Act; the arbitration agreement is not a company-wide agreement, which distinguishes it from the agreements discussed in the cases Dr. Poole cited; Dr. Poole presented no authority supporting her claim that the arbitration agreement is invalid as to her; and Dr. Poole filed her National Labor Relations Board complaint too late to make it a basis to refuse arbitration. (Docket Entry No. 18).

         The parties' arguments and responses are analyzed under the applicable legal standards.

         II. The Legal Standards

         In Texas, a party asking a court to compel arbitration must show “(1) an agreement to arbitrate; and (2) the opposing party's refusal to arbitrate.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 171.021; see, e.g., G.T. Leach Builders, LLC v. Sapphire V.P., LP, 458 S.W.3d. 502, 520 (Tex. 2015). When a contract contains a clause specifying Texas law (as here), but does not exclude the applicability of the Federal Arbitration Act, both the Federal and Texas Arbitration Acts apply. Freudensprung v. Offshore Technical Servs., Inc., 379 F.3d 327, 338 n.7 (5th Cir. 2004).

         Under the Federal Act, a written agreement to arbitrate “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. The Act reflects “a liberal policy favoring arbitration agreements, ” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333, 346 (2011), and places arbitration agreements “upon the same footing as other contracts, ” Schnabel v. Trilegiant Corp., 697 F.3d 110, 118 (2d Cir. 2012) (quoting Scherk v. Alberto-Culver Co., 417 U.S. 506, 511 (1974)).

         Enforcement of an arbitration agreement involves two threshold analytical steps governed by state contract law. Kubala v. Supreme Prod. Servs., Inc., 830 F.3d 199, 201 (5th Cir. 2016). The first step is contract formation-to determine whether the parties entered into “any arbitration agreement at all.” Id. While arbitration agreements, like other contracts, may be invalidated by contract defenses like fraud, duress, unconscionability, or waiver, none applies here. Doctor's Assocs., Inc. v. Casarotto, 517 U.S. 681, 687 (1996). Because of the strong presumption in favor of arbitration, “a party seeking to invalidate an arbitration agreement bears the burden of establishing its invalidity.” Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 297 (5th Cir. 2004). It is undisputed that Dr. Poole and Affiliates agreed to arbitrate. The second analytical step is contract interpretation-to determine whether the claim at issue is covered by the arbitration agreement. Kubala, 830 F.3d at 201. The Fifth Circuit has “instructed that ‘a court is required to enforce a party's commitment to arbitrate his federal statutory claims.'” Reyna v. Int'l ...

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