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Petersen v. Kindred Healthcare, Inc.

Superior Court of Pennsylvania

February 1, 2017

MARY P. PETERSEN, BY AND THROUGH HER ATTORNEY-IN-FACT, KATHLEEN F. MORRISON Appellee
v.
KINDRED HEALTHCARE, INC., AND PERSONACARE OF READING, INC., D/B/A KINDRED TRANSITIONAL CARE AND REHABILITATION-WYOMISSING, AND KINDRED NURSING CENTERS EAST, LLC, AND KINDRED HEALTHCARE OPERATING, INC., AND MONIQUE COLE, NHA Appellants

         Appeal from the Order Entered September 5, 2014 In the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County Civil Division at No(s): 12-26079

          BEFORE: PANELLA, J., LAZARUS, J., and PLATT, J. [*]

          OPINION

          LAZARUS, J.

         Kindred Healthcare, Inc., Personacare of Reading, Inc., d/b/a Kindred Transitional Care and Rehabilitation-Wyomissing, Kindred Nursing Centers East, LLC, Kindred Healthcare Operating, Inc., and Monique Cole, NHA (collectively, "Kindred"), appeal from the order entered in the Court of Common Pleas of Berks County, overruling Kindred's preliminary objections to the complaint filed by Mary P. Petersen, by and through her attorney-in-fact, Kathleen F. Morrison ("Petersen"). Upon careful review, we affirm.

         This action involves claims of negligence on the part of Kindred in relation to care rendered to Petersen during her stay as a patient at a Kindred facility. Petersen filed a complaint on July 5, 2013. Kindred filed preliminary objections on July 26, 2013, seeking, inter alia, to enforce an arbitration agreement signed by Petersen's daughter, Darlene Uriarte, pursuant to a power of attorney ("POA") appointing Uriarte as successor agent in the event her sister, Kathleen Morrison, was unwilling or unable to act. Petersen filed a response, in which she asserted that the agreement was "unenforceable, void, unconscionable, and/or a contract of adhesion." Plaintiff's Answer to Preliminary Objections, 8/15/13, at 3. Petersen also claimed that the agreement "was signed under duress or by someone without proper legal authority." Id. The parties engaged in limited discovery on the issue of arbitration and filed supplemental briefs. Following oral argument, the trial court issued an order on September 8, 2013, overruling Kindred's preliminary objections and directing Kindred to file a response to Petersen's complaint.

         This timely appeal follows, [1] in which Kindred raises the following issues for our review:[2]

1. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in overruling Kindred's preliminary objections seeking to enforce an [a]lternative [d]ispute [r]esolution [a]greement signed by [Petersen's] daughter, Darlene Uriarte, as she had authority to execute the ADR [a]greement pursuant to a written [p]ower of [a]ttorney?
2. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred by failing to conclude that Ms. Uriarte had the capacity, and, in fact, did have a basic understanding of alternative dispute resolution when she signed the [a]greement?
3. [Whether t]he [t]rial [c]ourt erred in failing to conclude that by signing various other medical-legal documents on behalf of her mother during her stay at the Kindred facility that [Petersen] is estopped from disavowing the ADR [a]greement?
4. Whether the [t]rial [c]ourt erred in failing to apply the policies favoring arbitration contained in the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1-16 ("FAA"), the Pennsylvania Uniform Arbitration Act ("PUAA"), [3] and extensive case law interpreting same?

Brief of Appellants, at 4.

         We begin by noting that our review of a claim that the trial court improperly denied preliminary objections in the nature of a petition to compel arbitration is limited to determining whether the trial court's findings are supported by substantial evidence and whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying the petition. Gaffer, 936 A.2d at 1112. As contract interpretation is a question of law, our review of the trial court's decision is de novo and our scope is plenary. Id., citing Bucks Orthopaedic Surgery Associates, P.C. v. Ruth, 925 A.2d 868, 871 (Pa. Super. 2007).

         Kindred first claims that the trial court erred in concluding that Petersen's daughter, Darlene Uriarte, lacked authority to execute the arbitration agreement pursuant to Petersen's power of attorney. Specifically, Kindred challenges the court's findings that: (1) as the named successor agent, Uriarte did not have authority to act on behalf of Petersen until it was determined that the primary agent, Kathleen, was unable or unwilling to act; and (2) the power of attorney document in question did not authorize the agent to enter into ADR agreements on behalf of the principal.

         We first address the question of whether Uriarte possessed the authority to act on Petersen's behalf under the POA. Kindred asserts that the trial court erred in concluding that "before Darlene Uriarte could validly execute the ADR agreement, there must first have been a specific finding that her sister, Kathleen, was unwilling or unable to sign [it]." Brief of Appellants, at 23. Kindred argues that Uriarte's deposition testimony demonstrates that she and Kathleen agreed that she (Uriarte) had the authority to execute the documents necessary to admit Petersen into Kindred's facility. Kindred asserts that Uriarte "presented the POA to Kindred, and represented herself as having authority to act" on Petersen's behalf. Kindred claims that "the [t]rial [c]ourt's decision would require [Kindred] to make an on-the-spot determination that [Kathleen] was unwilling or unable to sign admissions papers on her [Petersen's] behalf, despite there being no reason to question ...


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