Strain v. Murphy Oil United States, Inc.

Decision Date09 February 2016
Docket NumberCase No. 6:15-cv-3246-MDH
PartiesBONNIE STRAIN, Plaintiff, v. MURPHY OIL USA, INC., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Western District of Missouri
ORDER

Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss or, in the Alternative, To Stay the Proceedings and Compel Arbitration. (Doc. No. 7). Defendant requests that the Court dismiss this action so that the issues raised in Plaintiff's lawsuit can be resolved through arbitration. Plaintiff has filed a response arguing the "arbitration agreement" at issue is not a valid and enforceable contract, and therefore, the matter should not be dismissed or compelled to arbitration. On January 13, 2016, the Court held a hearing and the parties presented evidence on whether a valid arbitration agreement had been formed between the parties. After hearing evidence, and reviewing the record before the Court, the Court finds a valid arbitration agreement was entered into between the parties. Therefore, for the reasons set forth herein, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is granted.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was employed by Murphy USA from January 29, 2013 through May 23, 2014.1 Plaintiff testified that on December 28, 2012 she completed an online application for the position of a part-time cashier in West Plains, Mo. Plaintiff testified she does not remember reading an arbitration agreement during her online application. Plaintiff recalls entering her name and social security number, answering several questions regarding her previous work history and also completing a "personality test" during her online application. Plaintiff testified she does not remember every knowingly checking a box that agreed to an arbitration agreement.

Plaintiff further stated the arbitration agreement was not discussed or mentioned during her interview and that she never heard anything regarding the arbitration agreement before or after she accepted the job. She testified she first learned about the alleged arbitration agreement after she filed this lawsuit. Finally, Plaintiff confirmed she received emails from Murphy Oil after completing her online application and interview, but does not remember any arbitration agreement being mentioned or sent to her. She did not retain any of the emails she received. Plaintiff states she was never given a copy of the arbitration agreement.

Dawn Ross, an employee within Murphy USA's IT department, testified regarding the online application process.2 Ms. Ross testified all job applicants are required to sign an arbitration agreement as part of their application. In fact, if an applicant does not agree to the terms of the arbitration agreement they are not allowed to proceed with the online application. Ms. Ross stated that in order to electronically sign the arbitration agreement an applicant mustenter 4 fields - their name, social security number, an acknowledgment they have read the agreement and the date. While the date is automatically populated, the applicant must fill out the remaining information in order to proceed with the application process.

Defendant admitted into evidence the Arbitration Agreement that Plaintiff electronically signed in December 2012.

The Arbitration Agreement states, in part:

... Company and Individual agree to resolve any and all disputes or claims each may have against the other which relate in any manner whatsoever as to Individual's employment, including but not limited to, all claims beginning from the period of application through cessation of employment at Company...
Individual understands that as consideration for signing this Agreement, the Company agrees to pay all costs of arbitration charged by AAA, other than filing fees, and to be bound by the arbitration procedure set forth in this Agreement.
Company and Individual expressly agree that the Federal Arbitration Act governs the enforceability of any and all of the arbitration provisions of this Agreement.... Questions of arbitrability (that is whether an issue is subject to arbitration under this Agreement) shall be decided by the arbitrator. Likewise, procedural questions which arise out of the dispute and bear on its final disposition are matters for the arbitrator to decide.

Ms. Ross testified she does not believe the arbitration agreement is emailed to the applicant during the application process and she does not believe applicants are given a hard copy of the agreement. However, she testified an applicant can always print the document during the application process.

DISCUSSION

The Supreme Court has stated that arbitration is a matter of contract and a party cannot be required to submit a dispute to arbitration if she did not agree to submit it. Int'l Ass'n of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental & Reinforcing Ironworkers, Shopman's Local 493 v. EFCO Corp. & Const. Products, 359 F.3d 954, 955-56 (8th Cir. 2004); citing, United Steelworkers v. Warrior &Gulf Navigation Co., 363 U.S. 574, 582, 80 S.Ct. 1347, 4 L.Ed.2d 1409 (1960). The Court "must engage in a limited inquiry to determine whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists between the parties and whether the specific dispute falls within the scope of that agreement. Express Scripts, Inc. v. Aegon Direct Mktg. Servs., Inc., 516 F.3d 695, 699 (8th Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). There are two gateway questions of "arbitrability" for the Court to decide. Int'l Ass'n of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental & Reinforcing Ironworkers, Shopman's Local 493 v. EFCO Corp. & Const. Products, 359 F.3d at 956 (internal citations omitted). First, "whether the parties have a valid arbitration agreement that binds them is a question for judicial determination." Id,, citing, First Options of Chicago, Inc. v. Kaplan, 514 U.S. 938, 943-46, 115 S.Ct. 1920, 131 L.Ed.2d 985 (1995). Second, whether "a valid arbitration agreement applies to the subject matter at hand is a question for a court to answer." Id., citing, AT & T Technologies, Inc. v. Communications Workers, 475 U.S. 643, 651-52, 106 S.Ct. 1415, 89 L.Ed.2d 648 (1986).

It is clear federal policy generally favors arbitration and Courts should resolve any doubts regarding issues of arbitrability in favor of arbitration. Keymer v. Mgmt. Recruiters Int'l, Inc., 169 F.3d 501, 504 (8th Cir. 1999) (internal citations omitted). However, the Court must also look to the intent of the contracting parties and determine whether the agreement was reached by consent and not coercion. Id. As previously stated, a party cannot be forced to submit to arbitration a dispute that she has not agreed to arbitrate. Id.

"Arbitration is a matter of contract, and 'arbitrators derive their authority to resolve disputes only because the parties have agreed' to it." Express Scripts, Inc. v. Aegon Direct Mktg. Servs., Inc., 516 F.3d at 700, citing, AT & T, 475 U.S. at 648-49, 106 S.Ct. 1415. If an agreement does exist, the Court can determine whether the dispute falls within the scope of that agreement. United Steelworkers of Am. v. Duluth Clinic, Ltd., 413 F.3d 786, 788 (8th Cir. 2005).Further, unless the parties clearly and unmistakably provide otherwise, the question of whether the parties agreed to arbitrate is to be decided by the court, not the arbitrator. AT & T Technologies, Inc. v. Commcn's Workers of Am., 475 U.S. at 649.

A. CONTRACT FORMATION

First, this Court must determine whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists. Newspaper Guild of St. Louis, Local 36047, TNG-CWA v. St. Louis Post Dispatch, LLC, 641 F.3d 263, 266 (8th Cir. 2011) (internal citations omitted). "Whether an arbitration agreement is valid is a matter of state contract law." Faber v. Menard, Inc., 367 F.3d 1048, 1052 (8th Cir. 2004) (internal citation omitted). Under Missouri law, the elements required to form a valid contract are offer, acceptance, and bargained for consideration. Greene v. Alliance Auto., Inc., 435 S.W.3d 646, 650 (Mo. Ct. App. 2014) (internal citations omitted).

Plaintiff disputes whether a valid contract was formed between Plaintiff and Defendant. Plaintiff argues she did not knowingly enter into the arbitration agreement and therefore a valid contract was never formed.

1. Offer and Acceptance

First, Plaintiff argues she did not accept the terms of the agreement. Plaintiff claims she was unaware of the arbitration agreement, including any specific terms of the arbitration agreement, and therefore she could not accept the contract. Plaintiff cites to Crestwood Shops, L.L.C. v. Hilkene, 197 S.W.3d 641, 649 (Mo. Ct. App. 2006) for the position that Plaintiff did not accept the terms of the agreement. In Crestwood, the court stated, "The existence of a contract requires both an offer and acceptance." Id., citing Walker v. Rogers, 182 S.W.3d 761, 768 (Mo.App. W.D. 2006). Plaintiff's acceptance must be unequivocal and if it includes new or variant terms from the offer is a rejection of the original offer and a counter-offer. Id., citingPride v. Lewis, 179 S.W.3d 375, 379 (Mo.App. W.D. 2005). However, this case is inapplicable to the facts presented here. In Crestwood, the court analyzed whether discussion over the terms of a lease constituted counter-offers or acceptance of the terms. Here, there were no "negotiations" regarding the terms of the agreement. Rather, Plaintiff could accept and sign the arbitration agreement in order to continue with her online application, or she could refuse to accept the arbitration agreement and discontinue her application for employment.

In this case, the evidence establishes Plaintiff entered her social security number, name and checked the acceptance box that completed an online signature of the arbitration agreement. There was both documentation and testimony that Plaintiff had to complete this document in order to continue with her application. Further, under the Individual's name is a "confirmation" that states "I have received notice that I will be subject to an Arbitration Agreement." Based on the evidence before the Court, the Court finds Plaintif...

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