On May 15, 2017, the US Supreme Court  issued its opinion in Kindred Nursing Centers, L.P. v. Clark. This case addressed the issue of whether an agent acting pursuant to a power of attorney could bind an estate to an arbitration agreement.

The Court’s summary is as follows:

Respondents Beverly Wellner and Janis Clark—the wife and daughter, respectively, of Joe Wellner and Olive Clark—each held a power of attorney affording her broad authority to manage her family member’s affairs. When Joe and Olive moved into a nursing home operated by petitioner Kindred Nursing Centers L. P., Beverly and Janis used their powers of attorney to complete all necessary paperwork. As part of that process, each signed an arbitration agreement on her relative’s behalf providing that any claims arising from the relative’s stay at the facility would be resolved through binding arbitration. After Joe and Olive died, their estates (represented by Beverly and Janis) filed suits alleging that Kindred’s substandard care had caused their deaths. Kindred moved to dismiss the cases, arguing that the arbitration agreements prohibited bringing the disputes to court. The trial court denied Kindred’s motions, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals agreed that the suits could go forward.

The Kentucky Supreme Court consolidated the cases and affirmed. The court initially found that the language of the Wellner power of attorney did not permit Beverly to enter into an arbitration agreement on Joe’s behalf, but that the Clark document gave Janis the capacity to do so on behalf of Olive. Nonetheless, the court held, both arbitration agreements were invalid because neither power of attorney specifically entitled the representative to enter into an arbitration agreement. Because the Kentucky Constitution declares the rights of access to the courts and trial by jury to be “sacred” and “inviolate,” the court determined, an agent could deprive her principal of such rights only if expressly provided in the power of attorney.

Held: The Kentucky Supreme Court’s clear-statement rule violates the Federal Arbitration Act by singling out arbitration agreements for disfavored treatment. Pp. 4–10.

(a) The FAA, which makes arbitration agreements “valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract,” 9 U. S. C. §2, establishes an equal-treatment principle: A court may invalidate an arbitration agreement based on “generally applicable contract defenses,” but not on legal rules that “apply only to arbitration or that derive their meaning from the fact that an agreement to arbitrate is at issue,” AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 563 U. S. 333, 339. The Act thus preempts any state rule that discriminates on its face against arbi- tration or that covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavor- ing contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.

The Kentucky Supreme Court’s clear-statement rule fails to put arbitration agreements on an equal plane with other contracts. By requiring an explicit statement before an agent can relinquish her principal’s right to go to court and receive a jury trial, the court did exactly what this Court has barred: adopt a legal rule hinging on the primary characteristic of an arbitration agreement. Pp. 4–7.

(b) In support of the decision below, respondents argue that the clear-statement rule affects only contract formation, and that the FAA does not apply to contract formation questions. But the Act’s text says otherwise. The FAA cares not only about the “enforce[ment]” of arbitration agreements, but also about their initial “valid[ity]”—that is, about what it takes to enter into them. 9 U. S. C. §2. Precedent confirms the point. In Concepcion, the Court noted the impermissibility of applying a contract defense like duress “in a fashion that disfavors arbitration.” 563 U. S., at 341. That dis- cussion would have made no sense if the FAA had nothing to say about contract formation, because duress involves “unfair dealing at the contract formation stage.” Morgan Stanley Capital Group Inc. v. Public Util. Dist. No. 1 of Snohomish Cty., 554 U. S. 527, 547. Final- ly, respondents’ view would make it trivially easy for States to un- dermine the Act. Pp. 7–9.

(c) Because the Kentucky Supreme Court invalidated the Clark- Kindred arbitration agreement based exclusively on the clear- statement rule, the court must now enforce that agreement. But because it is unclear whether the court’s interpretation of the Wellner document was wholly independent of its rule, the court should de- termine on remand whether it adheres, in the absence of the rule, to its prior reading of that power of attorney. Pp. 9–10.
478 S. W. 3d 306, reversed in part, vacated in part, and remanded.

Posted by Lewis J. Saret, Co-General Editor, Wealth Strategies Journal.