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Coleman v. United Health Services of Georgia, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Second Division

February 23, 2018


          MILLER, P. J., ELLINGTON, P. J., and ANDREWS, J.

          ANDREWS, JUDGE.

         Marvin Coleman sued numerous defendants for negligence, medical malpractice, fraud, and other claims relating to his care at a nursing home. The defendants subsequently moved to dismiss or stay the proceedings and compel arbitration. The trial court granted the motion, staying the lawsuit pending conclusion of the arbitration. We granted Coleman's application for interlocutory review, and for reasons that follow, we reverse.

         On appeal, we review the record de novo to determine whether the trial court's order compelling arbitration is correct as a matter of law. See Ashburn Health Care Center v. Poole, 286 Ga.App. 24, 24 (648 S.E.2d 430) (2007). So viewed, the record shows that Coleman lived with his sister and brother-in-law, Charles Biggerstaff. On September 7, 2009, Coleman signed an Advance Directive for Health Care appointing his sister and Biggerstaff as health care agents authorized "to make health care decisions for [him]." The directive permitted the Biggerstaffs to render any health care decisions that Coleman could make, including:

To authorize [Coleman's] admission to or discharge (including transfers) from any hospital, skilled nursing facility, hospice, or other health care facility or service;
To request, consent to, withhold, or withdraw any type of health care; and
To contract for any health care facility or service for [Coleman], and to obligate [Coleman] to pay for these services.

         In April 2013, Coleman was admitted to Heritage Healthcare of Forsyth for long-term nursing care. Coleman signed his admission documents, including a voluntary arbitration agreement with the Forsyth facility, and indicated on various forms that Biggerstaff was his "representative" or "responsible party." At some point, however, Coleman began exhibiting memory and behavioral issues that the Forsyth facility could not address, and he was transferred to the memory unit at Heritage Healthcare of Macon[1] in March 2014.

         Biggerstaff signed Coleman's admission paperwork at the Macon facility as "Patient/Resident Representative, " executing, among other things, a voluntary arbitration agreement. Pursuant to that agreement, the parties - designated as the Macon facility, Coleman, and Biggerstaff - purportedly agreed to waive their right to a jury trial and resolve any disputes through binding arbitration. Coleman did not sign the Macon arbitration agreement and was not present when Biggerstaff executed it.

         In December 2014, Coleman filed suit against the Macon facility and other defendants for injuries he allegedly sustained while residing at the home. The defendants answered and moved to compel arbitration, pointing to the arbitration agreement signed by Biggerstaff. The trial court granted the motion, but issued a certificate of immediate review, and we granted Coleman's application for interlocutory appeal.

         1. As the parties seeking arbitration, the defendants bear the burden of establishing that a valid and enforceable arbitration agreement exists. See Triad Health Mgmt. of Ga., III v. Johnson, 298 Ga.App. 204, 206 (2) (679 S.E.2d 785) (2009). "Whether there is a valid agreement to arbitrate is generally governed by state law principles of contract formation, and is appropriate for determination by the court." Id. A contract is valid only if the parties assented to the contract terms. See United Health Svcs. of Ga. v. Alexander, 342 Ga.App. 1, 2 (2) (802 S.E.2d 314) (2017). "Thus, a party cannot be required to submit to arbitration any dispute which he has not agreed so to submit." Id. (citation and punctuation omitted).

         Although Coleman did not personally sign the arbitration document, "traditional principles of agency law may bind a nonsignatory to an arbitration agreement." Id. at 3 (citation and punctuation omitted). This "relation of principal and agent arises wherever one person, expressly or by implication, authorizes another to act for him or subsequently ratifies the acts of another in his behalf." OCGA § 10-6-1. In granting the defendants' motion, the trial court found that Coleman authorized Biggerstaff to sign the arbitration agreement for him. We disagree.

         (a) Express Authority. According to the defendants, Coleman expressly permitted Biggerstaff to sign the agreement by executing the Advance Directive for Healthcare. That document, however, appointed Biggerstaff as Coleman's agent for health care decisions. Undoubtedly, he was authorized to sign the admission agreement and take other action necessary to admit Coleman to the Macon facility. By its terms, however, the arbitration agreement was voluntary and "not a precondition to admission, expedited admission, or the furnishing of services." Biggerstaff's decision to execute the arbitration agreement cannot be viewed as a health care decision. See Life Care Centers of America v. Smith, 298 Ga.App. 739, 743-744 (1) (681 S.E.2d 182) (2009) ("[T]he execution of an arbitration agreement is considered a health care decision within the authority of a health care surrogate, only when that arbitration provision is required for admission to the nursing home.") (emphasis in original). The advance directive, therefore, did not authorize Biggerstaff to sign the agreement for Coleman. See id.

         The defendants also contend that Coleman expressly authorized his brother-in-law to enter the Macon arbitration agreement by naming Biggerstaff as his representative or "responsible party" in the Forsyth admission papers. Biggerstaff, however, denied that Coleman gave him broad agency authority, noting that he was only Coleman's agent with respect to health care issues. And the record contains no evidence that Coleman expressly permitted Biggerstaff to make anything other than health care decisions. Accordingly, the defendants have not shown express authority. See United Health Svcs. of Ga., supra at 4 (2) (a) (although mother may have authorized daughter to sign medical forms for her, there was no evidence that she gave daughter express authority to enter arbitration agreement on her behalf); Life Care Centers of America, supra ...

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