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Shields v. General Mills, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

January 2, 2018

William Shields et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
General Mills, Inc., Defendant.

          Stephen J. Snyder, Craig A. Brandt and Brent C. Snyder, Snyder & Brandt, P.A., Steven A. Smith, Lucas J. Kaster and Michelle L. Kornblit, Nichols Kaster, LLP, Counsel for Plaintiffs.

          Marko J. Mrkonich, Kathryn Mrkonich and Susan K. Fitzke, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Keith C. Hult, Littler Mendelson, P.C., Aaron D. Van Oort, Jeffrey P. Justman and Peter C. Magnuson, Faegre Baker Daniels LLP, Counsel for Defendant.

          Susan M. Coler, Halunen Law, Counsel for Amicus Curiae AARP and AARP Foundation. This matter is before the Court on Defendant's motion to dismiss and to compel arbitration.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael J. Davis Judge

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are former employees of Defendant General Mills, Inc. (“General Mills”). General Mills terminated their employment in a 2014-15 company-wide reorganization and employee termination program that it called “Project Catalyst.” (Amended Complaint ¶ 3.) Hundreds of employees were terminated through this program, which followed an earlier 2012 employee termination program called “Project Refuel.” (Id.) In both programs, Plaintiffs allege that General Mills informed the employees targeted for termination that they would not receive any severance pay unless they signed a contract, drafted by General Mills, called the “Release Agreement.” (Id. ¶ 5.)

         The Release Agreements contain a waiver of all claims and a separate arbitration provision, which also includes a collective action waiver. (Id.)

In consideration of the transition support referenced above and described in more detail in my severance packet, I hereby release [General Mills] its subsidiaries and affiliates, . . . from all causes of action, claims, debts or other contracts and agreements which I or my heirs may have for any cause up to this date, including, but not limited to, any and all claims directly or indirectly relating to my employment, or to my separation from employment. This release includes any and all claims under federal, state, and local laws prohibiting employment discrimination, . . . and specifically includes . . . claims arising under the Age Discrimination In Employment Act [“ADEA”] . . .

(Velcheck Decl., Ex. 1 at 1.)

         The Release Agreements further provide:

I agree that, in the event there is any dispute or claim arising out of or relating to the above release of claims, including, without limitation, any dispute about the validity or enforceability of the release or the assertion of any claim covered by the release, all such disputes or claims will be resolved exclusively through a final and binding arbitration on an individual basis and not in any form of class, collective, or representative proceeding. I agree that this arbitration provision is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. § § 1-16) [“FAA”] and that it is not intended to cover claims that cannot by law be required to be arbitrated or to prevent me from filing a complaint with a governmental administrative agency. I agree that the American Arbitration Association's Employment Arbitration Rules and Mediation Procedures (“AAA Employment Rules”) will govern any arbitration proceeding brought under this provision and that no other rules or procedures (including AAA's Supplementary Rules for Class Arbitrations) will be applied to any such proceeding.

(Id.)

         All plaintiffs but Linda Kloeckner signed a Release Agreement. Those plaintiffs that signed the Release Agreement (herein referred to as the “Settled Plaintiffs”) are asserting a declaratory judgment claim in Count 1, asking that the Court find the waiver provision set forth in the Release Agreement was and is invalid because General Mills failed to comply with the statutory requirements to obtain a knowing and voluntary waiver as set forth in the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act (“OWBPA”), 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)[1]. (Id. ¶ 7.)

         In all, nine claims have been asserted in this action. Count 1: ADEA Collective Action - Declaratory Judgment - ADEA/OWBPA; Count 2: ADEA Collective Action - Disparate Treatment Age Discrimination; Count 3: Individual Claims of ADEA Disparate Treatment; Count 4: ADEA Collective Action - Disparate Impact; Count 5: Individual Claims of ADEA Disparate Impact; Count 6: MHRA Disparate Treatment Age Discrimination for Plaintiff Kloeckner; Count 7: MHRA Disparate Impact Age Discrimination for Plaintiff Kloeckner; Count 8: Minn. Stat. § 181.81 Dismissal for Age for Plaintiff Kloeckner; Count 9: Declaratory Judgment - National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”).

         II. ...


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