Tuesday, September 21, 2004
Worker Who Challenged Firing Must Submit Related Tort Claims to Arbitration, Appeals Court Rules
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A worker whose defamation and emotional distress claims against his employer were related to a disciplinary proceeding governed by an arbitration agreement must submit the tort allegations to binding arbitration, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. One Friday certified for publication its Sept. 8 opinion overturning a San Diego Superior Court judge’s ruling that the claims by Ernie Ruiz against Sysco Food Services were exempt from arbitration.
Ruiz alleged that the San Diego-based company had falsely accused him of brandishing a knife and threatening a supervisor in an argument over a jacket that the employee had previously lent the supervisor.
The company had terminated Ruiz over the incident, but he was reinstated after an arbitrator ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove the supervisor’s claim that he had been threatened. The arbitrator noted that the knife had never been recovered and that there was conflicting testimony as to how big it was and how it was used.
Ruiz charged that the company’s internal investigation was improperly conducted. He noted that a police investigation had been conducted and that no criminal charges had been filed.
Sysco responded to the complaint with a motion to compel arbitration. It argued that the suit was related to a “difference of opinion or dispute between the Employer and...employee...regarding the interpretation of” the collective bargaining agreement or to a “disputed...suspension, dismissal or discharge of” the employee, and thus was subject to the arbitration clause of the CBA.
Judge Wayne Peterson denied the motion. He reasoned:
“Here the gravamen of the complaint does not concern conduct contemplated by the CBA. Further, a critical distinction exists in the instant matter because Plaintiff alleges, and Defendant does not dispute, statements regarding Plaintiff were made to the police and employees outside Defendant’s investigation. Because these statements were unnecessary to perform the investigation they are reasonably characterized as falling outside Defendant’s right to conduct an investigation in the resolution of a grievance. As such, Plaintiff’s instant claims are not inextricably intertwined with consideration of the terms of the CBA, and said claims are not contemplated by the CBA.”
But Justice Richard Huffman, writing for the Court of Appeal, disagreed. He noted that Ruiz’s tort allegations dealt with the way the internal investigation had been conducted and the supposed filing of a false report with the police.
Since the company was obligated under the CBA to conduct a reasonable investigation of the incident prior to imposing discipline, any suit arising from that investigation necessarily falls within the scope of the arbitration clause, Huffman insisted.
The justice elaborated:
“Specifically, to be supportable under the CBA, a termination for ‘just cause’ must be made after a ‘fair and complete investigation.’ The arbitrator in the termination proceedings decided that the investigation was inadequate. However, that determination was not concerned with and did not dispose of the current defamation and emotional distress allegations, which address different primary rights. In his response to the petition to compel, Ruiz mainly argued that his tort claims were not arbitrable under...the CBA, because it does not specifically address the subjects of defamation or emotional distress. However, this argument fails to recognize that an interpretation of the CBA is required to evaluate those specific claims. The CBA language is broad enough to cover the subject matter of this complaint.”
Huffman also rejected the argument that the Federal Arbitration Act provision exempting transportation workers from compulsory arbitration under the act applies to Ruiz.
While the parties disputed whether Ruiz’s specific duties placed him under the federal definition of a transportation worker, the justice explained, the dispute was irrelevant. Because the arbitration agreement was enforceable under California law, Huffman said, there was no need to determine whether it was also enforceable under the FAA.
The case is Ruiz v. Sysco Systems, 04 S.O.S. 5100.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company