In June 1998, Goodyear hired Nance to work on a tire assembly line. While in that position, she injured her neck and shoulder and was diagnosed with a spinal vertebrae condition. Following surgery in May of 2002 she was required to take a medical leave until March of 2003. Upon her return from leave, both Nance's physician and Goodyear's physical therapist concluded that Nance could not perform her previous duty. Some time later she was deemed capable of working as a stock trucker and began that job in June of 2003. She removed herself from that position after a few weeks, claiming the work aggravated pain in her neck and shoulder.
Nance took another medical leave from July through October 2003 for a hysterectomy. In October, Nance was re-analyzed, and found to qualify for a chemical mixer attendant position with minor accommodations. Nance left that position after four days with various complaints. She was diagnosed with a psychological disorder in December of 2003, and in January 2004, Goodyear placed Nance on medical leave again for her stated inability to work.
While on leave, Nance did not call in to report her absences as required by her collective bargaining agreement (CBA), and after unsuccessfully attempting to reach her, Goodyear considered her to have voluntarily resigned without notice per that agreement. The record showed that Nance was aware of the reporting requirement and abided by it on previous leaves. Nance filed a grievance which was arbitrated in June of 2004. The arbitrator found that Nance violated terms of the CBA and that her discharge was proper. In November of 2004, Nance filed a suit alleging, in part, that Goodyear terminated her because of her disability and failed to provide the reasonable accommodations she requested, in violation of the ADA. The district court decided that her claim was barred by the arbitrator's earlier decision. Nance appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Nance argued that the lower court erred in finding her ADA claims were barred by the arbitrator's conclusion that Nance “resigned without notice.” She relied on the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Alexander v. Gardner-Denver Co. (1974), concluding that arbitration of contractual claims under a CBA does not bar the court from reviewing related statutory claims de novo (i.e., without giving deference to the findings of the administrative decision). Goodyear also argued that even if Nance's claims were not barred, they were meritless because she had voluntarily chosen to leave her job.
The Sixth Circuit ruled that when an employee seeks contractual rights under a CBA, she is not barred from later raising that issue in a subsequent statutory claim based on the same conduct. Arbitration over a contractual issue under a CBA is of a “distinctly separate nature” from a lawsuit seeking to enforce rights granted by enacted laws. While an arbitrators' expertise lies in applying facts to the terms of the CBA, it is the courts that must apply facts to federal laws; courts may, however, consider prior arbitration as a factor.
When the court considered the merits of Nance's claims, however, it upheld summary judgment for the employer. This was because Nance had effectively quit her job rather than being terminated.
In Nance, the court reasoned that there was not a great risk of creating inconsistent judgments because a review of the arbitrator's decision interpreting the CBA has little to do with civil rights claims. Although caution is still encouraged, plaintiffs can feel freer to litigate CBA issues in arbitration proceedings without losing or otherwise jeopardizing ADA claims.