Nursing Home’s Arbitration Agreement Declared Void Based Upon “Dense And Meandering” 200 Word First Sentence

The New Jersey Appellate Division declared a nursing home’s arbitration agreement to be void based upon the agreement’s “dense and meandering first sentence” of more than 200 words, among other problematic features. Estate of Bright v. Aristacare at Cherry Hill.

Maureen Bright was discharged from the hospital to Aristacare after undergoing a second leg amputation. Maureen arrived at Aristacare in the early afternoon accompanied by her daughter, Charmaine Bright. Charmaine was not Maureen’s guardian and did not hold any power of attorney concerning Maureen’s affairs. Upon admission, Maureen “was on several medications to treat pain, depression, anxiety, and other medical conditions.” During the admission process, Charmaine and Maureen were both “emotionally upset.” An Aristacare nurse told Charmaine that Maureen “was not aware of where she was; and that [her] mother was not aware of time.” The nurse also stated that Maureen “was confused” and “was having hallucinations.”

The next day, Charmaine went to visit her mother and, upon arriving at the facility, a receptionist told her that an Aristacare social worker had “left paperwork for [her] to sign so that [Maureen] could be admitted into” the facility. Shortly thereafter, the receptionist handed Charmaine a “stack” of documents and told Charmaine to sign and return them.

The admission documents consisted of at least two dozen pages, with a section labeled “Arbitration” appearing on page ten. The first sentence of the arbitration clause was over two hundred words in length, making it difficult, if not impossible to follow. While the provision purported to bar the patient from seeking redress in court, the same prohibition does not apply to Aristacare, which remains free to bring collection actions outside the arbitration process. The provision also improperly barred the patient from seeking punitive damages, in violation of law. In addition, the provision stated that arbitration will be conducted “according to the rules of the American Arbitration Association” (AAA) even though the AAA stopped conducting arbitrations in nursing home cases years ago.

Maureen died while still residing at Aristacare. Thereafter, the estate filed a complaint against Aristacare, asserting that the facility was negligent and provided inadequate care to Maureen.

Aristacare filed a motion to compel arbitration. After oral argument, the trial judge determined that the arbitration agreement could not be enforced. Aristacare appealed.

In a per curiam decision, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision. The appeals court found that there was no meeting of the minds between Charmaine and Maureen on the one side, and Aristacare on the other. Charmaine had no legal authority to bind Maureen to anything set forth in the agreement because she did not hold Maureen’s power of attorney. While Maureen’s signature was later added to the form on an unspecified date, Aristacare provided no details concerning how that was accomplished. Aristacare did not give a copy of the agreement to Charmaine or her mother, and did not explain the forms to either of them. Aristacare also did not advise Charmaine that she could consult with an attorney before signing the documents.

Importantly, the court held that the arbitration provision was written in a way that would not lead to a nursing home patient obtaining a “clear and mutual understanding of the ramifications of” agreeing to it. “The dense and meandering first sentence is simply too lengthy to ensure comprehension, especially in the absence of any assistance from the facility.” Aristacare directed Charmaine to sign the forms where indicated even though she was emotionally distraught by her mother’s condition. Although we do not know when Aristacare obtained Maureen’s signature, the record indicated that at the time of her admission, the facility’s nursing staff was aware that Maureen was heavily medicated, suffering hallucinations, and unaware she was in a nursing home. Also, the court held that when the arbitration forum the parties select in the arbitration agreement is not available at the time the contract is formed, there is no meeting of the minds.

As a result, the appeals court concluded that “there was never a meeting of the minds between the parties and, therefore, the judge properly denied Aristacare’s motion to dismiss the estate’s complaint.”

The case is annexed here – Estate of Bright v. Aristacare at Cherry Hill

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