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Futurecare Northpoint, LLC v. Peeler

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

July 28, 2016


          Eyler, Deborah S., Arthur, Wilner, Alan M. (Retired, Specially Assigned), JJ.


          Arthur, J.

         FutureCare NorthPoint, LLC, filed a petition to compel Valerie Peeler to arbitrate a wrongful death claim that Ms. Peeler had asserted in a separate lawsuit. FutureCare contended that Ms. Peeler should be required to arbitrate her wrongful death claim, because the decedent, Ms. Peeler's mother, had signed an arbitration agreement upon being admitted to a FutureCare nursing facility. The circuit court denied FutureCare's petition to compel arbitration.

         FutureCare appealed. It presents an issue that both parties characterize as a matter of first impression in Maryland: "Whether wrongful death beneficiaries are bound by a valid and enforceable agreement signed by their decedent."

         On its own motion, this Court raised the issue of whether a party has the right to appeal from an order denying a petition to compel arbitration when, as in this case, it is brought as an independent action, and not as a motion in the existing action commenced by the person whom the party seeks to compel to arbitrate.

         On the threshold issue, we hold that an order denying an independent, freestanding petition to compel arbitration is a final judgment from which the aggrieved party has the right to appeal. On the merits, we hold that a decedent's arbitration agreement ordinarily does not bind the decedent's family members to arbitrate a claim under the Maryland wrongful death statute. Because the circuit court correctly refused to compel arbitration, we affirm the judgment.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         A. The Arbitration Agreement Between FutureCare and Peeler's Mother

         In February 2012, Phyllis Butz was admitted as a resident at the FutureCare NorthPoint skilled nursing facility in Baltimore County. At the time of her admission, Mrs. Butz executed a written agreement to resolve a broad range of potential controversies by binding arbitration pursuant to the Maryland Uniform Arbitration Act (MUAA). The scope of the agreement extended to "any action, dispute, claim or controversy of any kind . . . now existing or hereafter arising between the parties in any way arising out of, pertaining to or in connection with or relating to" the provision of services by FutureCare, acts or omissions of FutureCare's agents, as well as "any survival action or wrongful death claim[.]"

         Another section of the agreement stated it would "inure to the direct benefit of and bind the parties and their respective personal representatives, heirs, successors and assigns, including . . . all persons whose claims derive through, or on behalf of, the Resident, including those of any parent, spouse, child, guardian, executor, administrator, legal representative, or heir of the Resident, as well as any survivor or wrongful death claim [sic] . . . ." The agreement further stated that the parties were "each relinquishing and waiving their right under applicable law to have any claim decided in a court of law before a judge and/or a jury."

         While she was a resident at the facility, Mrs. Butz received medical care from FutureCare employees. Mrs. Butz died on March 24, 2012. She was survived by her daughter, Ms. Peeler.

         In pre-litigation discussions, FutureCare informed Ms. Peeler of the arbitration agreement that Mrs. Butz had signed. Ms. Peeler declined FutureCare's request to resolve claims arising from her mother's death through arbitration.

         B. Peeler's Wrongful Death Action Against FutureCare

         On August 1, 2014, Ms. Peeler filed a complaint against FutureCare in the Circuit Court for Baltimore County. The action was designated as Valerie Peeler v. 1046 North Point, LLC, Case No. 03-C-14-8301.

         Ms. Peeler's complaint contained a single count for wrongful death as a result of medical malpractice. Ms. Peeler sought to recover damages under Maryland's wrongful death statute for the mental anguish, emotional pain and suffering, and loss of society, comfort, advice, and guidance that she claimed to have experienced as a result of her mother's death. She requested a jury trial.

         As an affirmative defense, FutureCare asserted that Ms. Peeler's wrongful death claim was "subject to an enforceable binding arbitration agreement[.]" FutureCare moved to stay the proceedings pending the outcome of a separate petition to compel arbitration.

         C. FutureCare's Separate Petition to Compel Arbitration

         On August 25, 2014, FutureCare commenced a separate and independent action in the circuit court by filing a petition for an order to arbitrate pursuant to Md. Code (1974, 2013 Repl. Vol.), § 3-207 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article ("CJP"). This action, FutureCare North Point, LLC v. Valerie Peeler, was assigned case number 03-C-14-9157.

         In its petition, FutureCare asserted that it had entered into a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement with the decedent, Mrs. Butz. FutureCare asked the court to "enforce the parties' Arbitration Agreement and [o]rder [Ms. Peeler] to arbitrate the medical negligence claim against [FutureCare]."

         Ms. Peeler opposed the petition. She denied the existence of an agreement between herself and FutureCare. She asserted that she had never signed the agreement, had never intended to be bound by the agreement, had never given her mother authority to enter an agreement on her behalf, was not a third-party beneficiary of the agreement, and had never attempted to enforce any of its provisions.

         On its own motion, the court consolidated the wrongful death action with the action to compel arbitration. Nonetheless, the court maintained separate files for the two actions.

         D. Denial of the Petition to Compel Arbitration

         On January 13, 2015, the circuit court held a hearing in the two, consolidated cases to determine whether Ms. Peeler should be compelled to arbitrate. At the hearing, the court rejected the argument that Ms. Peeler was bound by Mrs. Butz's agreement to arbitrate. On that basis, the court announced that the "Petition for Order of Arbitration [wa]s denied."

         FutureCare requested clarification about whether the court intended to issue a final order in its freestanding action to compel arbitration. The hearing judge concluded that the two actions had been consolidated for a "limited purpose, " but that the cases were "not joined for the merits" and ultimately would "be treated separately[.]"

         After the hearing, the judge signed an order stating that FutureCare's petition to compel arbitration was denied and that that action was no longer consolidated with the tort litigation in Case No. 03-C-14-8301. The order included language, which had been drafted by FutureCare, stating that the order would "constitute a final, appealable order as to the issue of arbitration pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-602(b) in case No. 03-C-14-9157."

         On January 27, 2015, the clerk docketed the order in FutureCare's freestanding action to compel arbitration. A week later, FutureCare filed a notice of appeal from that order.

         Separately, FutureCare moved to stay proceedings in Ms. Peeler's wrongful death case pending the outcome of its appeal in the other case. The court granted that motion.

         Appellate Jurisdiction

         Except in a case involving one of the narrow exceptions under CJP § 12-303, the collateral order doctrine, or Rule 2-602(b), a party may appeal only from a final judgment on the merits. See, e.g., Addison v. Lochearn Nursing Home, LLC, 411 Md. 251, 273 (2009); CJP § 12-301. An appellate court has the power to dismiss an appeal on its own motion if the appeal is not allowed by rule or by other law. See Md. Rule 8-602(a)(1). This Court must resolve any serious question as to its jurisdiction even if the parties have overlooked the issue or would prefer an immediate appellate determination. See, e.g., Baltimore Cnty. v. Baltimore Cnty. Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 4, 439 Md. 547, 561-62 (2014); Zilichikhis v. Montgomery Cnty., 223 Md.App. 158, 172, cert. denied, 444 Md. 641 (2015).

         After the parties submitted their appellate briefs, this Court ordered them to show cause in writing why the appeal "should not be dismissed as an impermissible interlocutory appeal" and to address "whether the circuit court's January 27, 2015 order complied with both the procedure and the substance of Rule 2-602(b)[.]" In pertinent part, that Rule provides: "If the court expressly determines in a written order that there is no just reason for delay, it may direct in the order the entry of a final judgment . . . as to one or more but fewer than all of the claims or parties[.]" Md. Rule 2-602(b)(1).

         FutureCare responded that the appeal should not be dismissed because the order denying the petition to compel was not an interlocutory order in Ms. Peeler's wrongful death case, but rather the final judgment in FutureCare's separate, freestanding action under the MUAA. According to FutureCare, the order had mentioned Rule 2-602(b) only "to avoid any shadow of doubt" about whether the court intended to render a final decision. Ms. Peeler did not dispute the contention that FutureCare had the right to appeal from the order denying the MUAA petition.

         We conclude that, although Rule 2-602(b) does not apply in this case, the order was nevertheless appealable under CJP § 12-301 as the final judgment entered in a civil case.

         "[A] party may appeal from a final judgment entered in a civil or criminal case by a circuit court." CJP § 12-301. An order of the circuit court is a final judgment if it has three attributes: "(1) it must be intended by the court as an unqualified, final disposition of the matter in controversy, (2) unless the court acts pursuant to Maryland Rule 2-602(b) to direct the entry of a final judgment as to less than all of the claims or all of the parties, it must adjudicate or complete the adjudication of all claims against all parties; (3) it must be set forth and recorded in accordance with Rule 2-601." Metro Maint. Sys. South, Inc. v. Milburn, 442 Md. 289, 298 (2015) (citing Rohrbeck v. Rohrbeck, 318 Md. 28, 41 (1989)). In addition, each judgment must be set forth on a separate document signed by the judge or clerk. See Md. Rule 2-601(a); Hiob v. Progressive American Ins. Co., 440 Md. 466, 478-79 (2014).

         The order that denied FutureCare's freestanding petition to compel arbitration easily satisfies most of the elements of a final judgment. The judge signed a document that denied all relief in unqualified terms, and the clerk memorialized the denial of relief in a proper docket entry. The document, consistent with the oral comments at the hearing, expressed the judge's subjective intention that the order would "constitute a final, appealable order as to the issue of arbitration[.]" The remaining question is whether the court's ruling was sufficiently final in its nature so that it could have been entered as a final judgment.[1]

         By way of dicta, the Court of Appeals has commented that "[a]n order denying a claim that arbitration should be compelled in an action in which that is the sole claim asserted is an appealable judgment." Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Scarlett Harbor Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 346 Md. 122, 126 n.5 (1997) (citing Litton Bionetics, Inc. v. Glen Constr. Co., 292 Md. 34, 41-42 (1981)). This Court, also in dicta, has similarly observed that:

[B]y statute, a petition to compel arbitration may properly be filed as a freestanding action against the party refusing to submit the dispute to arbitration. In that situation, a court's order deciding such an action disposes of the action in its entirety, regardless of whether the order grants or denies the petition. Once the court orders arbitration, or denies it, there is nothing left for it to do. Accordingly, the court's order is a final judgment under [C]P §] 12-301.

NRT Mid-Atlantic, Inc. v. Innovative Props., Inc., 144 Md.App. 263, 277 (2002) (citation omitted); see All State Home Mortg., Inc. v. Daniel, 187 Md.App. 166, 178, cert. denied, 410 Md. 560 (2009); Essex Corp. v. Susan Katharine Tate Burrowbridge, LLC, 178 Md.App. 17, 30 (2008); Rourke v. Amchem Prods., Inc., 153 Md.App. 91, 107 (2003), aff'd, 384 Md. 329 (2004); Commonwealth Equity Servs., Inc. v. Messick, 152 Md.App. 381, 392, cert. denied, 378 Md. 614 (2003).[2]

         If the Maryland appellate decisions are any indication, most litigants do not attempt to compel another party to arbitrate by filing a separate, independent, and freestanding petition to compel as FutureCare did in this case, but by filing a motion to compel in an existing action commenced by the party who is allegedly required to arbitrate. In a series of decisions between 2009 and 2013, the Court of Appeals held that when a court denies a motion to compel in an existing action commenced by the person who is ...

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