Sunday, October 11, 2020

Marcia Rankin, et al. v. Brinton Woods of Frankford, LLC, et al. (Ct. of Special Appeals)

Filed: June 27, 2019

Opinion by: J. Sharer

Holding: A contract was held to be procedurally and substantively unconscionable for failing to highlight arbitration, mediation and waiver of jury trial provisions through formatting; using misleading, contradictory, and undefined terms; and including an arbitration deposit requirement and loser-pay-all provision that could preclude recourse for parties lacking financial resources. 

Facts: Plaintiff filed a negligence suit for survival and wrongful death against the Defendant, a care center where the deceased allegedly developed serious health concerns. Defendant filed a motion to compel arbitration pursuant to the admission contract. The circuit court granted the motion as to the survival claims and stayed the wrongful death proceedings. On appeal, Plaintiff argued that the admission contract was unconscionable. 

Analysis: In order to decline to enforce an arbitration agreement, a court must find both procedural and substantive unconscionability. Doyle v. Fin. Am., LLC, 173 Md. App. 370, 383 (2007). The Court held that the contract was procedurally unconscionable because it was a standard-form contract, drafted entirely by Defendant. The first paragraph misleadingly stated that the contract contains financial obligations and residents’ rights. It failed to mention that the contract also contained a waiver of a constitutional right to a jury trial. Another section of the contract stated that it was impossible to cover all important matters in that document and that additional important documents were attached as exhibits. However, no attachments were included in the record, and there were no attachments regarding arbitration, mediation, and waiver. Additionally, the mediation and arbitration provisions were simply numbered paragraphs in the same format as the other paragraphs. They were not emphasized by bold, underlined or italicized font. The failure to highlight the arbitration, mediation and waiver provisions supported a finding of unconscionability. 

The Court held that the contract was substantively unconscionable because it did not provide criteria for the selection of mediators or scheduling and timing details for mediation. It did not address allocation of fees or costs of mediation. The arbitration provisions lacked clarity and were conflicting. The arbitration process would be consistent with the “American Arbitration Associate (sic)”. The terms “Arbitration Committee” and “subcommittee of three” were not defined; the latter was used only once. The word “binding” is used for the first and only time in section D of the clause. The last two paragraphs of section D present conflicting terms: the first paragraph states that the losing party can submit the matter to a state court. The next paragraph states that the “judgement” shall not be appealable; this is the first and only time the term “judgment” is used. Defendant is a sophisticated party, and these errors and ambiguities support a finding of unconscionability. Furthermore, there is no guidance on any estimated range of fees and costs, in addition to a loser-pays-all provision. A party who cannot pay the $1,000 arbitration deposit may have to forgo arbitration. These clauses could preclude recourse for a party lacking financial resources.

The circuit court had held that the admission contract was not unconscionable, but provided no factual support for its finding. See Henry v. Gateway, Inc., 187 Md. App. 647, 658 (unconscionability issues are often fact-intensive and the burden is on the party opposing arbitration). On appeal, Plaintiff also argued that the circuit erred in granting the motion based on its finding of apparent agency theory; the Court agreed. 

Full opinion available in PDF

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