The First Circuit Court of Appeals recently rejected a party’s argument that an arbitration agreement was unenforceable because the contract containing the arbitration clause had been allegedly terminated and superseded. The court explained that arbitration clauses are generally freestanding and survive the termination of a contract, and concluded that the narrow circumstances in which a later agreement might terminate an arbitration clause were not satisfied in this case.
Kara Biller and her mother Joan McKenna sued Brookdale Greenwich Bay, an assisted living facility, for a variety of tort claims related to allegedly inadequate medical treatment McKenna received while she was a resident at Brookdale.
Brookdale moved to compel arbitration under the terms of a “residency agreement” that Biller signed on McKenna’s behalf when McKenna moved into Brookdale.
In response, Biller and McKenna argued, among other things, that the residency agreement and its arbitration clause expired when McKenna was subsequently moved to a new unit within Brookdale and a new implied-in-fact contract was created that superseded the residency agreement.
The district court declined to compel arbitration. The First Circuit reversed.
As an initial matter, the court rejected Brookdale’s argument that the arbitrator should decide gateway issues of arbitrability rather than the court. The residency agreement’s arbitration clause did not establish that such issues were for the arbitrator in clear and unmistakable language.
The court therefore considered Biller and McKenna’s arguments, including their contention that the residency agreement and its arbitration clause were void because the agreement contained a clause allowing either party to terminate the agreement if McKenna had to “be relocated due to [her] health.” The court noted that it was up to the arbitrator, not the court, to interpret that clause to determine what “relocate” meant and whether McKenna’s move within Brookdale qualified as a relocation that triggered that clause.
That did not end the matter, however, because Biller and McKenna argued that no agreement to arbitrate existed because the agreement had terminated when McKenna “relocated.” The court rejected that agreement. It explained that unless an agreement provides otherwise, arbitration clauses are freestanding and severable and that an argument that an arbitration clause is invalid on a ground that affects the entire agreement is generally for the arbitrator to decide. The court also explained that there is a presumption that arbitration clauses survive the underlying contract. There was no evidence that the arbitration clause was not severable in this case.
The court then rejected Biller and McKenna’s other arguments that the relocation had created an entirely new agreement that superseded the residency agreement and its arbitration clause and that the arbitration clause was unconscionable. Although the court noted that parties could extinguish arbitration clauses, there was no evidence that the parties did so in this case by, for example, entering into a new contract that completely covered the same subject matter as the original contract and that was inconsistent with that agreement. Nor was the agreement unconscionable under Rhode Island law, which sets a “daunting” standard for unconscionability.
Biller v. S-H Opco Greenwich Bay Manor, LLC, No. 19-1865 (1st Cir. June 5, 2020).