Some arbitration topics just never die. This post strings together new cases on three of those topics: 1) whether arbitration agreements that call for the now-defunct National Arbitration Forum (NAF) are enforceable; 2) formation fights in nursing home agreements; and 3) the continuing fight between the NLRB and the courts over class action waivers in employment agreements .
In a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania refused to enforce an arbitration agreement that called for administration by the NAF. Wert v. Manorcare of Carlisle PA, 2015 WL 6499141 (Pa. October 27, 2015). In the context of a wrongful death claim against a nursing home, the parties disputed the enforceability of an arbitration agreement in the admission paperwork. Pennsylvania’s highest court adopted a 2010 decision from its intermediate appellate court finding that the incorporation of the National Arbitration Forum Code was an essential term, such that if the NAF was unavailable, the entire arbitration agreement was unenforceable. The court found the subjective intent of the Appellee (who admitted she did not read the agreement) was irrelevant. Relying on its analysis of the NAF rules, the court found “the provision integral and non-severable.” For good measure, the court also noted that its result was not preempted by federal law because it was “based on settled Pennsylvania contract law principles that stand independent of arbitration.” State courts, as well as federal courts, are now split on how to handle arbitration clauses incorporating NAF rules.
In another nursing home case, the Alabama Supreme Court found an arbitration agreement was not validly formed because the person who signed it did not have proper authority. Diversicare Leasing Corp v. Hubbard, 2015 WL 5725116 (Ala. Sept. 30, 2015), involved a mother’s claim about the wrongful death of her son in a long-term care facility. When the adult son, whose mental capacity had not progressed beyond that of a toddler, was admitted, his mother signed the admission agreement as the “responsible party” and “resident’s representative.” After she brought suit, the nursing home moved to compel arbitration. However, the Alabama trial and appellate courts found that no valid arbitration agreement had been formed. Critically, the son had never been mentally competent to authorize his mother to act on his behalf, and she had never been given his power of attorney, or health care decision-making rights, or been appointed his legal guardian after his 18th birthday. Therefore, the mother’s signature did not bind the son. The Alabama decision is in line with other state court decisions that have strictly interpreted the legal authority of relatives who sign arbitration agreements in nursing home contracts.
Finally, the third case taught me a new legal doctrine: nonacquiescence. And who is not acquiescing to federal authority? Well, the NLRB, at least according to the 5th Circuit. In its D.R. Horton decision in 2013, the Fifth Circuit had rejected the NLRB’s analysis that federal labor laws override the FAA and preclude class action waivers. Despite D.R. Horton, the NLRB applied its same analysis in Murphy Oil, just ten months later. On review, the Fifth Circuit forcefully reaffirmed its earlier holding. Murphy Oil USA v. NLRB, 2015 WL 6457613 (5th Cir. Oct. 26, 2015). However, the court was not willing to hold the NLRB in contempt or otherwise penalize the Board. Because the Board only has to acquiesce to circuit court rulings when a case will be reviewed by that same circuit, and the Murphy Oil case could have been reviewed in multiple circuits, the court noted “[w]e do not celebrate the Board’s failure to follow our D.R. Horton reasoning, but neither do we condemn its nonacquiescence.”