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McLeod v. General Mills, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

April 14, 2017

Elizabeth McLeod; Heidi O'Sullivan; Sherri Slocum; Ivette Harper; Robert West; Kevin Stemwell; Stephen Miller; Peggy Maxe; Karalyn Littlefield; Colleen Friedrichs; Arlene Hornilla; Marilyn Epp; Dwight Sevaldson; Ann Carlson; Michael Baehr; Gabriele Bauer; Mark Davis; Susanne Dehnke; Frank Delaney; Paula Freeman-Brown; Barbara Fuglie; Richard Fugile; Christopher Gunn; Michelle Laurence; Robert Morris; Vicki Nellen-Jungers; Heidi Neumann; Greg Norman; Michelle Racepla; Susan Ryan; Timothy Schroeder; Diane Sundquist; Greg Zimprich, for and on behalf of themselves and other persons similarly situated Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
General Mills, Inc. Defendant-Appellant Equal Employment Advisory Council; Chamber of Commerce of the United States Amici on Behalf of Appellant(s) AARP; Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Amici on Behalf of Appellee(s)

          Submitted: November 16, 2016

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before BENTON and SHEPHERD, Circuit Judges, and STRAND, District Judge. [1]

          BENTON, Circuit Judge.

         The Age Discrimination in Employment Act, as amended by the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act, permits waivers of ADEA rights and claims-but only if they are "knowing and voluntary" as defined by statute. 29 U.S.C. § 626(f)(1). In a waiver dispute, "the party asserting the validity of a waiver shall have the burden of proving in a court of competent jurisdiction that a waiver was knowing and voluntary." § 626(f)(3). Here, General Mills, Inc., terminated employees and offered them benefits in exchange for releasing all ADEA claims and arbitrating release-related disputes. Thirty-three employees who signed releases request a declaratory judgment that the releases were not "knowing and voluntary." They also bring collective and individual ADEA claims. General Mills moved to compel arbitration, and the district court denied that motion. Having jurisdiction under 9 U.S.C. § 16(a)(1)(B), this court reverses and remands.

         I.

         In June 2012, General Mills announced it was terminating about 850 employees. General Mills offered them severance packages in exchange for signing release agreements. By the agreements' terms, employees release General Mills from all claims relating to their terminations-including, specifically, ADEA claims. The agreements also state that claims covered by the agreements will be individually arbitrated:

[I]n 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.

         Thirty-three former General Mills employees who signed agreements sued General Mills under the ADEA. They allege, first, that their ADEA claim waivers were not "knowing and voluntary" as defined by § 626(f)(1) and related regulations, and request a declaratory judgment that the agreements do not waive their ADEA rights. They also allege that the terminations discriminated on the basis of age, and bring disparate-treatment and disparate-impact claims, both collectively and individually. General Mills moved to dismiss and compel arbitration on an individual basis. The district court denied the motion.

         II.

         "This court reviews a determination concerning the arbitrability of a dispute de novo." Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1052 (8th Cir. 2013). The Federal Arbitration Act "requires courts to enforce agreements to arbitrate according to their terms . . . unless the FAA's mandate has been 'overridden by a contrary congressional command.'" CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S.Ct. 665, 669 (2012) (citation omitted), quoting Shearson/American Express Inc. v. McMahon, 482 U.S. 220, 226 (1987). "[I]f a dispute presents multiple claims, some arbitrable and some not, the former must be sent to arbitration even if this will lead to piecemeal litigation." KPMG LLP v. Cocchi, 132 S.Ct. 23, 24 (2011) (per curiam).

         A.

         Plaintiffs assert, for the first time on appeal, that the agreements do not cover their ADEA claims. They argue that the agreement to arbitrate applies only to claims "relating to" the release of claims, and their substantive ADEA claims are not related to the release of claims. They are wrong. The agreements' "relating to" sentence shows the parties' intent to arbitrate both disputes about the release and substantive ADEA claims. The arbitration provision applies to "any . . . claim . . . relating to the above release of claims, including . . . the assertion of any claim covered by the release." The agreements explicitly state that a claim "relates to" the release of claims if it asserts a claim covered by the agreements. ADEA claims ...


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