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By Timothy K. Baldwin, Esq., Whelan Corrente & Flanders LLP

Rhode Island, March 2021

In Nuey v. City of Cranston, the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island recently ruled that an employee cannot bring a claim for a particular type of discrimination in court when the employee did not specifically identify that type of discrimination in an administrative complaint before the state agency charged with investigating discrimination.  The employee, a member of a union, had also attempted to arbitrate his claims, and the employer filed a separate complaint seeking a declaration that the dispute was not arbitrable.  The District Court held that the employee did not have to raise his discrimination claims in the arbitration dispute.

Employee Seeks Arbitration Over Denial of Disability Pension in State Court, and Also Files Discrimination Claims in Federal Court

In Nuey v. City of Cranston, after the employee terminated the employee, the employee’s union moved to arbitrate the denial of the employee’s disability pension.  The employer responded with an action in state court seeking a declaration that the dispute was not arbitrable because the employee was retired and therefore not a member of the bargaining unit.  The state court ordered arbitration, reasoning that the employee had not retired and was a member of the bargaining unit.  Meanwhile, in federal court, the employee filed a separate lawsuit that alleged discrimination based on race and national origin under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The employer moved to dismiss the employee’s federal court complaint, arguing that the employee never alleged national origin discrimination before the state agency that investigates discrimination, and that all of the employee’s discrimination claims were barred because he did not allege them in the arbitration case that the employer filed in state court.

Court Rules the Employer Should Have “Checked the Box” for His National Origin Claim, and By Failing to Do So, He Waived the Claim

The Court began its analysis by noting that an employee must first bring all of his complaints of discrimination to the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, and if he fails to do so, it prevents a lawsuit with a Title VII employment discrimination claim in court because it is a precondition to bringing a lawsuit.  The Court observed that the employee’s administrative complaint “did not check off the box for national origin” – this is a reference to the Commission for Human Rights’ administrative form that has a box check-off for different types of discrimination – and therefore the employee could not bring a national origin claim in court.

This part of the District Court’s decision is helpful for employees because employees often argue that they did not waive a specific discrimination claim, even when they do not “check the box” for that type of discrimination.

The Employer’s Filing of a State Court Complaint to Preclude Arbitration Did Not Prevent the Employee from Filing the Federal Court Complaint Alleging Discrimination

Pressing its advantage, the employer also sought to have all of the employee’s discrimination claims thrown out by arguing that they should have been raised in the state court case on arbitration that the employer had filed.  The employer attempted to rely on a doctrine known as “res judicata,” which prevents a litigant from raising claims that either were or should have been litigated in a prior proceeding.  The employer argued that the employee should have litigated his discrimination claims in the arbitration proceeding because they were part of the same series of events.

The District Court rejected the employer’s argument and allowed the employee to litigate his remaining race discrimination claim in federal court.  The District Court reasoned that the legal issue of whether the employee’s termination should be arbitrated is a procedural question that is distinct from the merits of the underlying dispute itself, which focused on whether the employee discriminated against the employee.  The Court also noted that the facts at issue in the federal court case on discrimination were not intertwined with whether the employee’s discrimination was arbitrable, which could be decided with very little factual analysis.  Since arbitration and a Title VII arbitration claim vindicate separate rights, the District Court concluded that the arbitration proceeding did not prevent the employee from bringing a separate suit in federal court.

Timothy Baldwin is a partner with Whelan Corrente & Flanders LLP in Providence, Rhode Island, specializing in appellate litigation, labor and employment, business litigation, and education law. You can reach him at (401) 270-0330 or tbaldwin@whelancorrente.com.

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