United States District Court, D. Minnesota
JOAN N. ERICKSEN, District Judge.
This matter is before the Court on Plaintiff Angela Riniker's motion to vacate an arbitration award and Defendants' motions to confirm the arbitration award. Defendants also seek attorneys' fees. For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's motion to vacate is denied and Defendants' motions to confirm are granted. Defendants' requests for attorneys' fees are denied.
This section recounts the facts as the arbitrator found them. In January 2008, Riniker began working for Defendant UnitedHealth Group (UHG). In July 2011, she was promoted to a position where she reported directly to Rosemary Leone and indirectly to Hilary Lyon. Before and after her promotion, Riniker suffered from back pain. On September 30, 2011, Riniker had back surgery. While Riniker was on leave after her surgery, Leone reviewed the status of Rinker's work projects and discovered that Riniker had performance issues. Leone and Lyon determined that Riniker's performance could be best managed if she were physically present in the office. On October 6, Rinker was informed that, once she returned to work, she would no longer have the privilege of working from home and was expected to work from the office.
Riniker returned to work in the office on October 10. She was in pain and left work early. On October 11, Riniker requested a medical accommodation, supported by a doctor's note, of working from home until November 11. Leone approved the request. Riniker returned to work full-time from home on October 14. On October 26, Riniker requested intermittent leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 29 U.S.C. § 2601 et seq., to attend doctors' appointments and other recovery efforts. These requests were approved on November 8 and 17. Riniker was later granted an extension of her FMLA intermittent leave. Because Riniker's work performance did not improve after her return from surgery, Leone placed Riniker on an Elevated Corrective Action Plan (CAP) on November 2. Nine days later, Riniker was placed on a Final CAP. During those nine days, Riniker took no FMLA leave. In December 2011, Riniker sought a second accommodation to work from home three days per week. This request was granted.
In January 2012, Leone and Lyon terminated Riniker for violating UHG's drug policy based on an incident that occurred in November 2011. At the time of the incident, Riniker was working in her office cubicle. She overheard a conversation between a colleague and Defendant Tiffany Bredeson, a consultant from Defendant PricewaterhouseCoopers working with UHG. Bredeson mentioned to the colleague that she had a headache. The colleague offered some Tylenol or Advil. Riniker then offered Bredeson prescription pain medication. Riniker showed Bredeson baggies containing pills that Riniker kept in her cabinet and listed the prescription drugs she possessed. Bredeson believed Riniker's offer was serious, and Bredeson declined.
Later in November 2011, Bredeson told Leone about this incident. On January 5 or 6, 2012, Leone and Lyon asked Bredeson to memorialize the incident, which she did in a brief memo. After receiving the memo, Leone and Lyon talked with Riniker, who said she did not recall offering the drugs to Bredeson and asserted that, "if [she] did, it was a joke." Leone and Lyon understood Riniker's response to be an admission. They terminated her for violation of UHG's workplace drug policy, which prohibits "the unlawful... dispensing... or other distribution of... prescription drugs."
Riniker filed this lawsuit in state court, and UHG removed to this Court on November 14, 2012. The complaint alleges that UHG violated the FMLA and the Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA), Minn. Stat. § 363A.01 et seq. The complaint also alleges defamation against all Defendants, though the defamation claim is not at issue before the Court. On January 15, 2013, the Court stayed the action pending binding arbitration administered by the American Arbitration Association, in accordance with the terms of the arbitration agreement between UHG and Riniker. On November 20, 2014, the arbitrator denied Riniker's claims and rendered a decision in favor of Defendants. On January 8, 2015, Riniker filed a motion to vacate the arbitration decision. Defendants have filed motions to confirm the arbitration award.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
Arbitration awards are typically entitled to "an extraordinary level of deference." Medicine Shoppe Intern., Inc. v. Turner Investments, Inc., 614 F.3d 485, 488 (8th Cir. 2010) (quotation marks omitted). "Courts have no authority to reconsider the merits of an arbitration award, even when the parties allege that the award rests on factual errors or on a misinterpretation of the underlying contract." Id. Courts "may not set an award aside simply because we might have interpreted the agreement differently or because the arbitrators erred in interpreting the law or in determining the facts." Stroh Container Co. v. Delphi Indus., Inc., 783 F.2d 743, 751 (8th Cir. 1986). A reviewing court must confirm an arbitrator's award even if it is "convinced that the arbitrator committed serious error, so long as the arbitrator is even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority." McGrann v. First Albany Corp., 424 F.3d 743, 748 (8th Cir. 2005) (quotation marks omitted). An "arbitral award may be vacated only for the reasons enumerated in the [Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq ]." Medicine Shoppe, 614 F.3d at 489. The relevant provisions of the FAA permit a district court to vacate an arbitration award where the arbitrators "refus[ed] to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy, " 9 U.S.C. § 10(a)(3), and "where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made." Id. at § 10(a)(4).
Riniker argues that this extraordinary deference should not apply because the arbitration agreement has a clause on the judicial standard of review, which provides: "In actions seeking to vacate an award, the standard of review to be applied to the arbitrator's findings of fact and conclusions of law will be the same as that applied by an appellate court reviewing a decision of a trial court sitting without a jury." Riniker maintains that, under this contractual provision, the Court should review the arbitrator's factual findings for clear error and the legal conclusions de novo. However, the Supreme Court has held that "§§ 10 and 11 provide exclusive regimes for the review provided by the [FAA], " and these review provisions are not "open to expansion by agreement" of the parties. Hall Street Associates, L.L.C. v. Mattel, Inc., 552 U.S. 576, 583-84, 590 (2008). Thus, if the FAA governs, the less deferential standard of review contemplated in the agreement does not apply.
Riniker argues that the Minnesota Uniform Arbitration Act (MUAA), Minn. Stat. § 572B, and not the FAA, applies and that Minnesota law allows for agreements that alter the judicial standard of review for arbitral awards. Riniker is correct that Hall Street left open the possibility that different scopes of review are possible under state law. However, "the construction of an agreement to arbitrate is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act unless an agreement expressly provides that state law should govern." ING Financial Partners v. Johansen, 446 F.3d 777, 779 (8th Cir. 2006). If the parties wish to preclude application of the FAA, their intent must be "abundantly clear." UHC Mgmt. Co., Inc. v. Computer Sciences Corp., 148 F.3d 992, 997 (8th Cir. 1998) (holding that the FAA and not the MUAA applied in large part because the "agreement makes no reference to the Minnesota Uniform Arbitration Act or to Minnesota case law interpreting the allocation of powers between arbitrators and courts").
Here, the agreement does not make abundantly clear that the FAA does not apply. There is no provision expressly providing that the arbitration laws of Minnesota or any other state should govern construction, and the agreement makes no reference to the MUAA or Minnesota case law. There is a choice-of-law provision dictating that the "arbitrator will be bound by the applicable law of the jurisdiction under which the dispute arises." However, a generic choice-oflaw clause is not sufficient to support an inference that the parties intended for a ...