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Lancaster v. Comcast Communications Management LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

August 23, 2017




         I. BACKGROUND

         On December 22, 2016, Plaintiff Jonathan Lancaster (“Lancaster”) filed a Complaint against Defendant Comcast Communications Management LLC (“Comcast”) alleging Violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1991, as amended (Count I) and Violation of Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (Count II). On March 6, 2017, Comcast filed the instant Motion to Compel Arbitration and to Stay or Dismiss Judicial Proceedings. (Doc # 8) On April 5, 2017, Lancaster filed a Response. (Doc # 11) On April 19, 2017, Comcast filed a Reply. (Doc # 13) The Court held a motion hearing on May 17, 2017.

         This case arises out of the employment and subsequent termination of Lancaster by Comcast. Lancaster began his employment with Comcast on June 9, 2003 as a Communications Technician. In October 2008, Lancaster was promoted to Supervisor of Installation and Maintenance. In November 2013, Lancaster became Information Technology (“IT”) Manager within Comcast's IT department. Lancaster is African American, and he alleges that Comcast fostered a racially hostile work environment in which supervisors and workers routinely made racists comments with no consequence. Lancaster complained to the appropriate Human Resources (“HR”) personnel, and he was interviewed by an HR Manager (the Complaint does not specify when).

         In March 2015, Lancaster was advised that one of his supervisees had filed allegations that Lancaster and another supervisor had been unfair in the supervisee's annual review. The Complaint alleges that, in addition to interviewing this supervisee, HR actively solicited other complaints regarding Lancaster's management style in an effort to build a case against him. Subsequently, Lancaster was accused of misconduct and of creating a hostile work environment, and he was placed on administrative leave. On April 10, 2015, Lancaster filed an internal complaint alleging that he was being targeted because he is African American. On April 29, 2015, Lancaster was terminated because he had allegedly created a hostile work environment and was not trusted by his employees. That same day, Lancaster's supervisor and long-time employee, Richard Kroger, who is also African American, was also terminated by the same individuals who terminated Lancaster. Lancaster and Kroger were allegedly the only African American managers within Comcast's IT department. Both positions were reassigned to white employees.

         Lancaster alleges that he was terminated due to his race and in retaliation for his complaints of race discrimination and of a racially hostile work environment in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1991, as amended, and Michigan's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. In lieu of an answer, Comcast filed the instant Motion to Compel Arbitration.

         According to a Declaration of Lynn Collins (“Collins”), Vice President of Comcast Solutions, in October 2012, Comcast rolled out an alternative dispute resolution program called Comcast Solutions that included mandatory arbitration of employment-related disputes. (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 54, 65-66, 72) The Comcast Solutions program description was posted on the TeamComcast company intranet site in October 2012 and was accessible to Lancaster during his employment. Id. at 54. Comcast Solutions was specifically introduced to the Heartland Region, which includes Michigan employees, in July 2013. Id. at 55. The TeamComcast site was updated to specifically identify a rollout to the Heartland Region. Collins presented two webinars to management and supervisors in the Heartland Region. Comcast also mailed a Comcast Solutions brochure to employees' home addresses in the Heartland Region. Id.

         Comcast Solutions was rolled out as an opt-out program. Id. at 56. If an employee did not want to participate, he was required to opt out by submitting a designated form for that purpose by the August 28, 2013 deadline. Id. at 91. Comcast's records indicate, and Lancaster does not dispute, that Lancaster did not opt out of the program. Id. at 57.

         Lancaster asserts in his Response, without including a sworn statement or any other supporting documentation, that he had no knowledge of Comcast Solutions program or the need to opt out and that he never received the program materials. According to Collins, Lancaster attended a webinar presented by Collins to managers and supervisors on July 16, 2013. The attendance sheet from the webinar shows, and Lancaster does not dispute, that Lancaster participated for the duration of the webinar. (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 100) According to Collins, the Comcast Solutions program was discussed in detail during the webinar, including the Comcast Solutions Frequently Asked Questions (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 71-76), the Program Guide for Comcast Solutions Early Dispute Resolution Program (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 78-85), the Comcast Solutions Initial Filing Form (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 87-89), the Comcast Solutions Opt-Out Request Form (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 91), and the Comcast Solutions Brochure (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 60-67). (Doc # 8-2, Pg ID 58) The aforementioned program materials specify that claims of discrimination based on race are covered claims under the Comcast Solutions program. Id. at 62, 66, 73. According to Lancaster, he did not receive the program materials at the webinar, and he does not recall the webinar.

         Comcast also tracked the brochure mailings to employees' home addresses, and Comcast records indicate that the letter and brochure mailed to Lancaster's address was not returned as undeliverable. Id. at 57, 69. This brochure included information about the opt-out requirement. Id. at 60. It also included a bolded “important note, ” stating as follows.

If you agree to participate in the program, both you and the company waive the right to bring a civil action or have a jury trial for any covered legal claims. You also waive the right to bring or participate in a class action or collective or representative action on covered claims. All covered claims will be handled through the above three-step Comcast Solutions process; both you and the company will be bound by the final decision of the arbitrator.

Id. at 65 (emphasis in original). The brochure stated that claims of discrimination based on race were covered claims under Comcast Solutions. Id. at 62. The brochure urged employees to read the Program Guide, Frequently Asked Questions, and other materials, and listed how employees could access these materials through the TeamComcast site or through local HR representatives, etc. Id. at 65, 67.

         Collins also sent an e-mail to Lancaster about Comcast Solutions on August 22, 2013. Id. at 93-95. Comcast has a record of employees who deleted this email without opening it or who were out of the office when this e-mail was sent, but Lancaster's name does not appear on either list, indicating that he opened this e-mail. Id. The e-mail asked employees to review the program materials and consider whether they would like to participate by the opt-out deadline. It included a link to the program materials posted on the TeamComcast site. The e-mail further stated as follows.

Please note that if you wish to participate in the program, you do not have to do anything further. However, if you do not wish to participate in the program, you will need to complete and return an “opt out” form (available at the link above) to this email address by no later than August 28, 2013, if you have not already done so.

Id. at 95. Lancaster does not dispute that he received this e-mail or that he had access to the TeamComcast intranet site where the Comcast Solutions materials were posted.

         II. ...

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