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Watkins v. Duke Medical Center

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

September 9, 2014



JAMES A. BEATY, Jr., District Judge.

Defendants Duke Medical Center and Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center[1] (collectively "Defendants") instituted this action in federal court by filing a Petition for Removal [Doc. #1], requesting to remove this action from the Superior Court of Durham County, on November 13, 2013. Plaintiff Annette C. Watkins ("Plaintiff"), pro se, subsequently filed her Complaint [Doc. #6] in this Court on November 15, 2013. The matter currently before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Confirm Arbitration Award and Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint [Doc. #9]. Defendants argue that the Court should confirm the Award entered by Arbitrator Howard Cohen on July 18, 2012 (see Arbitration Award [Doc. #10-1]) and dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint because the claims raised in this action were the subject of a "final and binding arbitration [award]." (Mot. to Confirm Arbitration Award [Doc. #9], at 1.) Furthermore, Defendants argue that to the extent Plaintiff asserts a claim under § 1983, which was not the subject of the arbitration award, that claim should be dismissed because Plaintiff does not allege any state action. On August 11, 2014, the Court held a hearing on Defendants' Motion to Confirm Arbitration Award and Dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint [Doc. #9]. For the reasons discussed herein, and stated in open Court on August 11, 2014, the Court will grant Defendants' Motion to Confirm Arbitration Award and the Court will dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint.


Plaintiff asserts in her Complaint that Sherry Strader ("Strader"), a nurse manager at Defendant Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center, violated her federal rights under § 1983. Plaintiff asserts that Strader "wrote [her] up on several occasions with inaccurate write ups, due to hearsay from other employees." (Compl. at p. 1.) Plaintiff also alleges that Strader and Mary Ann Petrosky ("Petrosky"), a new director employed with Defendant Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center, "set up" Plaintiff by allegedly accusing Plaintiff of breaking an instrument that Plaintiff asserts was broken on Plaintiff's day off from work. (Id.) Plaintiff asserts that this accusation was made approximately three days before she was fired. It appears that Plaintiff asserts that she worked for Defendants Duke Medical Center and Davis Ambulatory Center for a total period of twenty years prior to her termination. Plaintiff asserts that Petrosky wrote on Plaintiff's termination papers that Plaintiff should not "be re-hired by Duke Hospital in the future." (Id. at p. 5.) Plaintiff asserts that she asked Petrosky to remove this statement from her termination papers but that Petrosky did not remove the statement. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that she was never trained for her position while employed with Defendant Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center. It appears that Plaintiff alleges that she was "wrongfully terminated, discriminated against, and retaliated against by" Strader and Petrosky, and that the actions of Strader and Petrosky "had a direct and proximate result of [n]eg[ligence], causing [p]ersonal injury & [e]motional [d]istress." (Id.) Plaintiff requests damages for (1) pain and suffering, (2) "loss of enjoyment of life" and "inability to engage in usual activities, " (3) emotional distress, (4) "mental anguish, invatied [sic] [her] reputation as a[n] employee, " (5) "loss of wages and services, " (6) "cost of medicines, " (7) "cost of medicaide [sic], (8) "future damages and injunctive relief[, ] [b]ack pay, promotions, [n]o merit raises for 3 years, " and (9) "[r]easonable [a]ttorney [sic] [f]ees." (Compl. at p. 4.) Plaintiff alleges that she was injured in many ways, including (1) that her credit was affected; (2) that her name "was damaged at Duke, " (3) that her health was affected and she "was put on medications, " (4) that she suffered financially, (5) that her son suffered in college after Plaintiff informed him that she had been terminated, (6) that she was "degraded" and her family "was put in proverity [sic], " (7) that her retirement "was affected, " (8) that she initially could not receive unemployment benefits "because she was lied on" by Strader and Petrosky but the Unemployment Security Commission of North Carolina subsequently determined that Plaintiff qualified for unemployment benefits (see Response [Doc. #14], at 15-17). In light of the allegations discussed above, Plaintiff requests $1, 500, 000.00 in damages from Defendant Duke Medical Center and $1, 200, 000.00 in damages from Defendant Davis Ambulatory Surgical Center.

Defendants argue that Plaintiff, in her Complaint, is attempting to seek "a second bite at the apple'" in attempting to litigate her claims in this lawsuit. (Defs.' Mem. [Doc. #10], at 1.) Specifically, Defendants assert that Plaintiff's claims arising from Plaintiff's termination were the subject of binding arbitration. Defendants first allege that Plaintiff was hired in October 2002.[2] (Id. at 1-2 (citing Evans Decl. ¶ 1).) Defendants assert that during Plaintiff's employment, Plaintiff was "at all times covered by Duke policies, including the Duke University Dispute Resolution Process [("Resolution Process")]." (Id. at 2 (citing Evans Decl. ¶ 1).) Defendants assert that the Resolution Process includes a multi-step grievance process, up to and including, arbitration.[3] (Id. (citing Evans Decl., Attachment A).) Specifically, Defendants purport to cite to the portion of the copy of the Resolution Process that it argues states that "any dispute or controversy arising out of or related to my employment or termination with Duke University or Duke University Health System, including any claim based in whole or in part on federal, state, or local laws, whether statutory or common law, shall be subject to final and binding resolution through the applicable grievance or dispute resolution procedure." (Id. at 3 (citing Evans Decl., Attachment A, p. 6).) However, upon review of the copy of the Resolution Process, the Court has not found this exact language. The closest language that the Court has found that is consistent with the language referenced by Defendants is:

Any claim arising out of or relating to employment policies will be settled in accordance with this [Resolution Process] procedure. The arbitration step of this procedure will be governed by the United States Arbitration Act. Both the staff member and Duke are required to utilize this procedure to resolve disagreements falling within its scope.

(Evans Decl., Attachment A, p. 6.)[4] Defendants also cite to the portion of the copy of the Resolution Process that states that the "arbitrator's decision will be final and binding between the parties as to all claims which were or could have been raised in connection with the dispute.'" (Def.'s Mem. [Doc. #10], at 3 (citing Evans Decl., Attachment A, p. 10).)

Defendants also argue that Plaintiff agreed to submit her disputes through the Resolution Process. Specifically, Defendants assert that in 2006, it reissued its Duke Staff Handbook ("the Handbook"). Defendants assert that Plaintiff received a copy of the Handbook and signed an Acknowledgment of Receipt form, stating that she received the Handbook. (Evans Decl. ¶ 5, Attachment B, p. 12).) Indeed, Defendants cite to Exhibit Attachment B, which contains a document titled "Acknowledgment of Receipt, " which is a form acknowledging that the reader and signer received the Handbook. (See id.) The document appears to be initialed and signed by Plaintiff and her former supervisor Sherry Strader and the document is dated June 21, 2006. (Id.) Additionally, the Acknowledgment of Receipt form contains a table with three headers titled (1) "Policy/Document", (2) "Initials", (3) "Date." (Id.) As Defendants assert, the Acknowledgment of Receipt Form shows Plaintiff's initials next to the phrase "Dispute Resolution Process, " which falls under the "Policy/Document" header. (Id.) Defendants also cite to Exhibit Attachment C, (Evans Decl., Attachment C, p. 14), which contains a form signed by Plaintiff that requests that Plaintiff's termination dispute be submitted to the American Arbitration Association. Additionally, the form shows Plaintiff's choice of arbitrators to be David B. McCormick or Howard M. Cohen, with Mr. Cohen being the person who was ultimately the arbitrator over the claims that Plaintiff submitted to arbitration. (See Evans Decl., Attachment C, p. 14.)

Finally, Defendants cite to the Arbitration Award itself.[5] (Arbitration Award [Doc. #10-1].) Specifically, Defendants cite to the portion of the Arbitration Award where Arbitrator Cohen discussed that Plaintiff "contended that she was subjected to discrimination and retaliation as evidenced by a charge she filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission" under the "Issues and Relief Sought" portion of the Award. (Arbitration Award at ¶ 8.) Additionally, per the Arbitration Award, Arbitrator Cohen stated that Plaintiff "also sought additional damages including compensatory and punitive damages and loss of future wages." (Id.) Ultimately, Arbitrator Cohen found "no evidence of discrimination or retaliation and no violation of the law in this regard, " as Plaintiff only referenced her EEOC charge in arguing that Defendants discriminated against her. (Id. at ¶ 12.) Arbitrator Cohen concluded that "[Plaintiff's] termination from employment was justified and consistent with the Duke policies and guidelines. She was given a Written Warning and two Final Written Warnings.... She failed to comply with the terms of the Warnings and the issues cited in the Termination Notice are supported by the facts."[6] (Id. at ¶ 23.) Ultimately, Arbitrator Cohen's Award was in favor of the Respondent, Duke University, and Arbitrator Cohen denied Plaintiff's request for reinstatement and denied back pay or damages. Finally, Arbitrator Cohen noted that the Award was "in full settlement of all claims submitted to this Arbitration. All claims not expressly granted herein are hereby denied." (Arbitration Award, p. 6.)

The Court notes for the record that at the Motion hearing in this case, Plaintiff acknowledged that she agreed to submit her claims to arbitration, to the extent she participated in the arbitration proceeding at issue in this case. Plaintiff also acknowledged that she filed the instant lawsuit in response to Plaintiff discovering that the Arbitration Award had been entered and the Award was unfavorable to Plaintiff. Furthermore, the Court notes that at the Motion hearing, Plaintiff acknowledged that the same issues that she raised in the arbitration proceedings are the basis of the claims she has raised in the instant lawsuit. To the extent Plaintiff raises the claims that are currently in her Complaint, Plaintiff has only asserted, at the Motion hearing in this case, that she disagreed with the Arbitration Award and that she felt that her claims should not be dismissed because she has no support after working for 20 years at Duke University.


A. Whether the Court should Confirm the Arbitration Award issued in favor of Defendants.

In this case, Defendants request that the Court confirm the Arbitration Award issued in favor of Duke University by Arbitrator Cohen pursuant to 9 U.S.C. § 9 of the Federal Arbitration Act ("FAA"). At the Motion hearing, Plaintiff stated that the Court should not confirm the Arbitration Award because she disagreed with the Award and that she believed that the arbitrator ...

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