Judge: Arbitration pacts that are signed must be honored

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It doesn’t matter who signs the agreement — it’s valid, judge says.
It doesn’t matter who signs the agreement — it’s valid, judge says.

The U.S. District Court of Massachusetts has ruled that wrongful death plaintiffs must take their claims against nursing homes to arbitration, regardless of whether they or their deceased relatives were the ones to sign the arbitration agreement.

While acknowledging a split among state courts with respect to this issue, U.S. District Court Judge Douglas P. Woodlock ruled in March that Massachusetts would follow other states and the U.S. Supreme Court in allowing nursing homes to enforce arbitration agreements involving survivors.

In this case, Golden Living Center-Heathwood sought to force the daughter of a resident who died there into arbitration.

“This case is an example of the many skirmishes that continue along the recently intensifying — but wavering — battle line between those who support resolution of disputes by arbitration and those who support resolution of disputes by conventional litigation,” he wrote.

The judge ruled the defendant, Jackalyn Schrader, signed an arbitration agreement on behalf of her mother, and that her “failure to read or understand” it did not exempt her from its terms. Without proof that a nursing home resident or guardian's agreement was obtained by “fraud, duress or misrepresentation,” it will be upheld, Woodlock said.

The judge's decision in this case furthers the ongoing controversy around the use of arbitration agreements in nursing homes. Some state courts are still reluctant to rule them valid, yet last year, the U.S. Supreme held that the Federal Arbitration Act preempted a state law that limited the authority of a person, as a resident's power of attorney, to enter into an arbitration agreement for the resident.

In June, CMS proposed that long-term care providers ensure that the language of their arbitration agreement is in plain writing and that it is explained to the resident and his or her representative in a form and manner they understand.