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BALDEO v. DARDEN RESTAURANTS

January 11, 2005.

RUTH BALDEO, Plaintiff,
v.
DARDEN RESTAURANTS, INC. d/b/a RED LOBSTER, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN GLEESON, District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Plaintiff Ruth Baldeo brought this diversity action against her former employer, Red Lobster, asserting claims of discrimination in violation of the New York State Human Rights Law and the New York City Human Rights Law. In addition, Baldeo asserts claims of defamation, libel, slander, and tortious interference with prospective contractual relationships under New York law. Baldeo seeks both injunctive relief (specifically, to enjoin Red Lobster employees from making certain allegedly defamatory statements about her) and money damages. Defendant Darden Restaurants, Inc. ("Red Lobster") moves to dismiss the complaint and to compel arbitration.

  For the reasons set forth below, the motion is granted. The action is stayed while the parties resort to the alternate dispute resolution procedure to which they agreed.

  FACTS

  A. Background

  In June 2000, Red Lobster hired Baldeo as a manager-trainee. During her tenure at Red Lobster, Baldeo became a general manager ("GM"), and worked at several restaurants in Red Lobster's Long Island region, including restaurants in Huntington, Carle Place, Stony Brook, and Brooklyn. Baldeo alleges that beginning in approximately September 2003, after Gregory Corbly became the Director of Operations for the Long Island Region of Red Lobster, Baldeo began to observe and experience gender discrimination against female managers and supervisors, and was subject to a hostile work environment. In addition, Baldeo alleges that she was subject to other harassive behavior, in particular the circulation of false statements concerning a purported sexual relationship between Baldeo and a vendor or contractor, a relationship which would be contrary to Red Lobster policy.

  In approximately November 2003, Baldeo spoke to her former supervisor Timothy Eames about the discrimination she was facing, and he advised her to speak directly to Gregory Corbly (one of the people allegedly participating in the discrimination) and Suzanne Hanna, the Senior Vice President supervising Red Lobster's Big East division. Baldeo alleges that when she met with Corbly, he was angry at her for speaking to Eames, and told her that she should quit. That same evening, Baldeo spoke with Hanna and William Chillianis, a Director of Operations, about the alleged discrimination. Baldeo alleges that after these discussions, she was retaliated against in several ways, including: the undermining of her authority as the GM of the Brooklyn restaurant; being asked questions about her sexual activity with contractors; being suspended on January 6, 2004; and finally, being terminated on January 11, 2004.

  On January 6, 2004, after Baldeo was informed of her suspension, she contacted Christopher Heinbloch, the Senior Vice President for Crew Relations. Heinbloch told Baldeo that an investigation into Baldeo's conduct was being conducted, and that the results of the investigation would be communicated to her. Neither Heinbloch nor anyone else at Red Lobster called Baldeo to discuss the results of this investigation. About a month after her termination, Baldeo again called Heinbloch to stop Red Lobster employees from circulating false rumors about Baldeo. During that conversation, Baldeo informed Heinbloch of the discrimination, harassment, and retaliatory conduct that she had faced. In response, Heinbloch told Baldeo in effect that she could do whatever she wanted but would not get her job back. Heinbloch never told Baldeo that she "would have to proceed through arbitration or follow any step of the [Dispute Resolution Process]." Baldeo Aff. ¶ 25.

  On May 25, 2004, Baldeo commenced this action.

  B. The Dispute Resolution Procedure at Red Lobster

  On the day Baldeo was hired, she was given a packet of documents, which included a brochure regarding Red Lobster's dispute resolution procedure ("DRP") entitled "Can we talk?" Baldeo was told to review the packet and sign various documents, including the DRP brochure, a process which took between 45 and 75 minutes. Baldeo alleges that the DRP process was not explained to her on the day she was hired or at any time thereafter, nor did anyone "carefully explain the DRP brochure's implications as to the various legal rights [Baldeo] would have to waive in order to be a Red Lobster manager trainee [or to] remain employed by [Red Lobster.]". (Baldeo Aff. ¶ 12.)

  1. The DRP Brochure

  The Red Lobster "Can we talk?" brochure "gives [employees] an overview of the [dispute resolution] procedure." The brochure explains that Red Lobster has a four-step dispute resolution process. Step one is the "open door policy," where employees are encouraged to talk over problems such as discrimination. The brochure states: "The manager's door is ALWAYS open, and you can speak up totally without fear . . . they'll listen to you openly and honestly and you never have to worry about reprisal or retaliation." (emphasis in original.) The brochure states that an employee can also call an Operations Director, division Senior Vice President or Crew Relations representative to discuss her problem.

  If resort to the open door policy does not resolve the problem to the employee's satisfaction, she may proceed to step two of the DRP, which is "peer review." A request form to commence peer review is available from a general manager (the position Baldeo occupied). At the peer review stage, a panel of employees listens to both sides, ...


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