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Brumfield v. Kindred Healthcare Inc.

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

July 2, 2018

AMANDA BRUMFIELD, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
KINDRED HEALTHCARE INC., KINDRED HEALTHCARE OPERATING INC d/b/a Kindred at Home, Defendants.

          ORDER

          DAVID C. NORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the court on Kindred Healthcare, Inc. and Kindred Healthcare Operating Inc's (“defendants”) motion to transfer case or in the alternative to compel arbitration, strike collective claims, dismiss, and transfer, ECF No. 17, and defendant's motion to stay proceedings, ECF No. 19. For the reasons set forth below, the court grants in part and denies in part the motion to compel, strike, dismiss, and transfer, negating the need for the court to rule on the motion to stay.

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case is a collective action brought by Amanda Brumfield (“Brumfield”), a licensed practical nurse, against defendants for their alleged failure to pay her and other similarly situated employees overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. Brumfield is joined by four other licensed practical nurses and physical therapy assistants who argue that defendants have failed to properly compensate them for overtime work. The court lists the five plaintiffs along with pertinent information for each for ease of reference: (1) Brumfield, who last worked in Tyler, Texas and is allegedly bound by an arbitration agreement; (2) Andrew Tyler (“Tyler”), who last worked in North Charleston, South Carolina and is bound by an arbitration agreement, ECF No. 18-4; (3) Cynthia Scoon (“Scoon”), who last worked in Selma, Alabama and is bound by an arbitration agreement, ECF No. 18-5; (4) Terra Jackson (“Jackson”), who last worked in Selma, Alabama and is bound by an arbitration agreement, id.; and (5) Cynthia Harris (“Harris”), who last worked in Marietta, Georgia and is not bound by an arbitration agreement.

         Brumfield filed suit on March 1, 2018, and the rest of the opt-in plaintiffs joined the case between March 1, 2018 and March 26, 2018. On April 10, 2018, Brumfield filed a motion to certify the collective action. On April 24, 2018, defendants filed the present motion to transfer the case, ECF No. 17, and motion to stay proceedings, ECF No. 19. On May 8, 2018, Brumfield filed responses in opposition to both motions. On May 15, 2018, defendants filed their respective replies. On May 29, 2018, Brumfield filed a sur reply, and on June 8, 2018, defendants filed their sur reply. The motions have been fully briefed and are ripe for the court's review.

         II. STANDARD

         Section 4 of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) provides that a “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.” 9 U.S.C. § 4. Section 2 of the FAA states that a written arbitration agreement “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. “[Q]uestions of arbitrability must be addressed with a healthy regard for the federal policy favoring arbitration . . . [and] any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration.” Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Const. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 23-24 (1983). To that end, “the heavy presumption of arbitrability requires that when the scope of the arbitration clause is open to question, a court must decide the question in favor of arbitration.” Peoples, 867 F.2d at 812 (citing United Steelworkers of Am. v. Warrior & Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 583 (1960)). Thus, the court may not deny a party's request to arbitrate an issue “unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the dispute.” Id. Despite these policies favoring arbitration, federal courts have the authority to evaluate the validity of arbitration agreements. See Prima Paint Corp. v. Flood & Conklin Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 395, 403-04 (1967) (“[A] federal court may consider only issues relating to the making and performance of the agreement to arbitrate.”). “If a party challenges the validity under § 2 of the precise agreement to arbitrate at issue, the federal court must consider the challenge before ordering compliance with that agreement under § 4.” Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 561 U.S. 63, 71 (2010). However, when the arbitration agreement includes a provision that delegates to the arbitrator exclusive authority to resolve any disputes regarding the validity and enforceability of the agreement, the court must defer to that provision and leave disputes about the validity of the agreement to the arbitrator. Id. at 67-72.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendants asks the court to transfer the case to the Eastern District of Texas to allow that court to compel Brumfield to individual arbitration and make rulings regarding the case and the other opt-in Plaintiffs. In the alternative, defendants seek an order: (1) compelling Tyler to arbitration as the sole opt-in plaintiff subject to this court's jurisdiction; (2) dismissing Brumfield, Scoon, and Jackson with prejudice under Rule 12(b)(3), so that they may pursue their claims in individual arbitration, if at all, in their respective jurisdictions; and (3) transferring venue of the remaining plaintiff, Harris, to the Northern District of Georgia.

         A. Validity of the Class / Collective Action Waiver

         Four out of the five named plaintiffs appear to be bound by arbitration agreements. These agreements are not all identical, but they do all contain the following relevant requirements: (1) to arbitrate all suits related to wages and overtime, rather than resolve the disputes through litigation; (2) to arbitrate in the city in which the employee is or was last employed by defendants; (3) that disputes about the enforceability and validity of the arbitration agreement or any portion of the agreement, except for the class / collective action waiver, are covered by the agreement, meaning that it is up to the arbitrator to determine whether the arbitration agreement itself is valid and binding; and (4) a class / collective action waiver. The class / collective action waivers provide that the parties may only bring disputes in arbitration and on an individual basis, not on a class or collective basis.

         The court must first determine whether the class and collective action waivers, which would preclude plaintiffs from bringing this suit in its current state as a collective action, are valid and enforceable. The court finds that they are. Brumfield cites the Seventh Circuit's decision in Lewis v. Epic Sys. Corp., 823 F.3d 1147, 1154 (7th Cir. 2016) in support of her argument that the collective action waivers contained in each of the agreements violate the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) and are therefore unenforceable. ECF No. 31 at 20. However, the Seventh Circuit's decision in Epic Systems was appealed, and since the filing of the motion to transfer, the Supreme Court has ruled on this exact issue, finding that the NLRA in no way displaces the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). In support of its holding, the Court discusses how the FLSA does not prohibit agreements for individualized arbitration or invalidate class / collective action waivers:

The employees' underlying causes of action involve their wages and arise not under the NLRA but under an entirely different statute, the Fair Labor Standards Act. The FLSA allows employees to sue on behalf of “themselves and other employees similarly situated, ” 29 U.S.C. §216(b), and it's precisely this sort of collective action the employees before us wish to pursue. Yet they do not offer the seemingly more natural suggestion that the FLSA overcomes the Arbitration Act to permit their class and collective actions. Why not? Presumably because this Court held decades ago that an identical collective action scheme (in fact, one borrowed from the FLSA) does not displace the Arbitration Act or prohibit individualized arbitration proceedings. Gilmer v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 32 (1991) (discussing Age Discrimination in Employment Act). In fact, it turns out that “[e]very circuit to consider the question” has held that the FLSA allows agreements for individualized arbitration. Alternative Entertainment, 858 F.3d, at 413 (opinion of Sutton, J.) [ ]. Faced with that obstacle, the employees ...

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