Fifth District concludes arbitration is proper in sexual harassment lawsuit against Captain D’s

By Heather Isringhausen Gvillo | Jan 26, 2015

The Fifth District Appellate Court has held that arbitration is proper in resolving a former Captain D’s employee’s complaint claiming she was sexually assaulted by her supervisor.

Justice Thomas M. Welch delivered the Rule 23 judgment on Jan. 14, affirming in part and reversing in part. Justices Bruce D. Stewart and S. Gene Schwarm concurred.

The appellate court concluded that St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert LeChien properly found an arbitration agreement valid but erred when it ruled that plaintiff Eulescia Willis’s claims were not within the scope of the arbitration agreement.

Welch explained that Willis was hired by Captain D’s as a cashier in Belleville on Feb. 10, 2011. She had been previously employed by the defendant in 2008 and signed an arbitration agreement prior to both employments.

By signing the agreement, the plaintiff waived any right to have a jury decide any legal claim against Captain D’s and its management, and vice versa, according to court documents.

The plan outlined a three step process for handling legal matters, which included an internal complaint process, mediation and final and binding arbitration.

However, Willis filed a complaint in circuit court against a former Captain D’s employee, James Soberalski (who is no longer a party in this action), her general manager, Derek Santiago, and Captain D’s.

In her complaint, Willis claims Soberalski intentionally and inappropriately touched the plaintiff by pinching, hitting, groping and making uninvited advances towards her at Captain D’s during working hours from March 2011 until June 24, 2011.

She alleges that over time Soberalski’s advancements escalated to inappropriately groping her and directing inappropriate, sexually offensive and sexually harassing language at her.

She accuses Captain D’s and Santiago of failing to take any action to investigate or resolve her complaints concerning Soberalski’s alleged misconduct, which ultimately lead to her permanently leaving Captain D’s.

Willis claims that on June 24, 2011, Soberalski ordered her to clean the women’s bathroom. While she was cleaning, he allegedly entered the bathroom, cornered her and began assaulting her. After the alleged assault, Willis quit her position at Captain D’s.

The defendants filed a motion to compel arbitration.

Then on April 30, 2014, after a hearing on the matter, the circuit court found the arbitration agreement valid, but refused to compel arbitration, concluding that the alleged claims did not arise out of or relate to her employment.

“The court opined that it was inappropriate, poor public policy, and ‘equally obvious’ that sexual claims of assault and battery would not arise out of or relate to the performance of the plaintiff’s job,” Welch wrote.

On appeal, the defendants assert that the claims are subject to arbitration according to the signed Employee Dispute Resolution Agreement, which contained the arbitration agreement.

The appellate court held that under Illinois law, a party who signs an agreement is charged with knowledge of and assent to its contents.

The court concluded that by accepting employment, the plaintiff assented to be bound by the agreement.

Willis argues that she did not understand the terms in the agreement and was never actually shown a copy of the agreement when she signed.

“We note, and found it particularly significant, that two times Captain D’s offered the plaintiff employment contingent on the agreement’s terms, and thus, she had two separate occasions to ask questions and become familiar with arbitration and the rights she would waive under this particular dispute resolution process,” Welch wrote. “Therefore, she cannot now plead ignorance after accepting the terms on two separate occasions by claiming she was never shown the plan, had no opportunity to read the details, and was never provided a copy of the rules of the American Arbitration Association. We find there was a meeting of the minds between the parties.”

Additionally, the appellate court points to a statement in all caps located directly above the signature line in the agreement: “I UNDERSTAND THAT I MAY CONSULT AN ATTORNEY PRIOR TO SIGNING THIS AGREEMENT.”

Addressing the circuit court’s conclusion that Willis’s claims do not fall within the arbitration agreement, the appellate court held that because Soberalski is no longer a party in the case, the assault and battery claims are not at issue against the employer and the general manager.

“We believe that the plaintiff cannot deny that each and every claim asserted against Captain D’s and Santiago concerns events that occurred at her place of employment while she was working, hence arising out of and relating to her employment,” Welch stated.

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