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Britto v. Prospect Chartercare Sjhsri, LLC

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

November 30, 2018

SYLVESTER J. BRITTO, JR., Plaintiff, Appellant,
v.
PROSPECT CHARTERCARE SJHSRI, LLC; PROSPECT CHARTERCARE, LLC; SANDRA NASTARI; ADDY KANE, Defendants, Appellees.

          APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF RHODE ISLAND [Hon. William E. Smith, U.S. District Judge]

          Richard A. Sinapi, with whom Joshua D. Xavier and Sinapi Law Associates, LTD. were on brief, for appellant.

          Jillian S. Folger-Hartwell, with whom Alexsa A. Marino and Littler Mendelson, P.C. were on brief, for appellees.

          Before Howard, Chief Judge, Selya and Thompson, Circuit Judges.

          THOMPSON, Circuit Judge.

         We are asked to referee yet another arbitration controversy "in which the parties are litigating whether or not they should be litigating."[1] Rejecting Sylvester Britto's claims about the (supposed) unenforceability of the arbitration agreement before us, we affirm the district judge's order sending his case to arbitration.

         Setting the Stage

         Arbitration Agreement

         The key facts are undisputed and easily stated. Britto is an African-American. In March 1987, when he was 26, he began working as an at-will employee for St. Joseph Health Services of Rhode Island ("St. Joseph," to save keystrokes). Decades later, in June 2014, Prospect Chartercare SJHSRI, LLC and Prospect Chartercare, LLC (collectively called "Prospect," following Britto's convention) acquired St. Joseph.[2] During the transition, Prospect gave Britto an offer letter outlining the terms for his continued at-will employment.[3] Among its many provisions, the letter noted that Prospect could "change the terms of [his] employment, including compensation and benefits, at any time." The letter also instructed him, as a condition of his continued employment, to sign on a line in the letter below the words "ACCEPTED AND AGREED TO" - which would "acknowledge [his] acceptance of the above terms of employment" - and to sign two "additional documents" included with the letter, one of which was an arbitration agreement.

         As relevant here, the arbitration agreement said that it was subject to the Federal Arbitration Act (the "FAA" from now on). And the agreement declared that "[t]o the fullest extent allowed by law, any controversy, claim or dispute between [Britto] and [Prospect] . . . relating to or arising out of [Britto's] employment or the cessation of that employment will be submitted to final and binding arbitration." Taking a belt-and-suspenders approach, the agreement added that it "cover[ed] all employment-related claims including, but not limited to, claims for . . . violation of public policy, discrimination, harassment, or any other employment-related claim under any state or federal statutes or laws relating to an employee's relationship with his/her employer." In its penultimate sentence, the arbitration agreement said:

BY AGREEING TO THIS BINDING MUTUAL ARBITRATION PROVISION, BOTH YOU AND THE COMPANY GIVE UP ALL RIGHTS TO A TRIAL BY JURY.

         And the agreement's last sentence proclaimed:

BY SIGNING BELOW, I CONFIRM THAT I HAVE READ, UNDERSTAND AND AGREE TO THIS ARBITRATION AGREEMENT.

         Prospect's employee handbook also emphasized that it "reserve[d] the right to revise, modify, delete or add to any and all policies, procedures, work rules or benefits stated in this [h]andbook or in any other document, except for the policy of at-will employment set forth herein." The handbook also mentioned arbitration, explaining that "[a]ll employees are required to sign an agreement to arbitrate their employment disputes as a condition of employment."

         Complying with Prospect's instructions, Britto signed the pertinent papers at the end of a five-minute meeting with his supervisor.[4] The supervisor never asked him to read the documents, never discussed the significance of the arbitration agreement, and never said he could have an attorney look the documents over (Britto had no lawyer with him at the meeting, by the way). The company's vice-president of human resources also signed the arbitration agreement.

         Lawsuit

         A few months later, in January 2015, Prospect fired Britto for (supposedly) violating the company's policies concerning workplace violence and harassment. He was 54 at the time. Prospect replaced him (allegedly) with a younger, non-African-American worker.

         Not willing to take this turn of events lying down, Britto filed charges of age and race discrimination with the appropriate state and federal civil-rights commissions. And after getting right-to-sue letters from them, he filed this federal-court lawsuit against the defendants named in our caption, alleging that his discharge violated a mix of federal and state laws - specifically, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621, et seq.; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e, et seq.; the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act, R.I. Gen Laws §§ 28-5-1, et seq.; and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act, R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 42-112-1, et seq.

         Arbitration ...


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