Seventh Circuit Holds EEOC Right-to-Sue Letter Does Not Trump a Binding Arbitration Agreement

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This case involved a dispute between Bruce Melton and his former employer, Pavilion Behavioral Health System, for unlawful discharge after a routine background check revealed Melton’s criminal convictions.

Melton first filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging discrimination based on his carpal tunnel disability, but the investigator found no evidence of discrimination, closed the file, and issued a right-to-sue letter. Melton thereafter sued Pavilion in federal court, claiming he was wrongfully discharged because he was in the process of expunging his criminal record and also because Pavilion discriminated and retaliated against him for taking medical leave for carpal tunnel surgery.

Relying on the parties’ arbitration agreement that required workplace concerns to be resolved through final and binding arbitration, the district court granted Pavilion’s motion to compel arbitration, finding Melton’s claims were covered by the arbitration agreement, which Melton adopted by signing the acknowledgment form and never opting out.

Ruling in favor of Pavilion, the arbitrator found there was no evidence to support Melton’s claims. Pavilion thereafter moved to confirm the award in district court. Melton opposed confirmation, claiming he was entitled to proceed in court under the EEOC’s right-to-sue letter. The district court granted Pavilion’s motion to confirm the award, reasoning that, although the arbitration agreement permitted Melton to file administrative charges with the EEOC, it prohibited him from pursuing any claims in court. Melton appealed, claiming he never signed the arbitration agreement himself but rather merely signed a form that referred to it.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the parties entered into an enforceable arbitration agreement and Melton presented no valid ground to vacate, modify, or correct the arbitration award.

The circuit court noted that it was undisputed that Melton signed a form acknowledging he received a copy of the arbitration agreement, which covered the claims Melton wanted to pursue, and understood that if he did not opt out within 30 days, he was bound by it. “True, the form that he signed was not the arbitration agreement itself, but by signing it he committed himself to that agreement.” The circuit court also found that the EEOC’s right-to-sue letter did not override the arbitration agreement; it merely allowed Melton to move beyond the administrative process and pursue any rights that he may have in court — rights that Melton had waived by previously entering into the binding arbitration agreement.

Melton v. Pavilion Behavioral Health System, No. 20-2399 (7th Cir. Apr. 9, 2021)

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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