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Laswell v. AG Seal Beach

November 9, 2010

LOUISE LASWELL, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
AG SEAL BEACH, LLC ET AL., DEFENDANTS AND APPELLANTS.



APPEAL from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County. Amy Hogue, Judge. Reversed and remanded. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BC416708).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rothschild, J.

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

Defendants AG Seal Beach, LLC, AG Facilities Operations, LLC and Country Villa Service Corporation appeal from the trial court's order denying their petition to compel arbitration of plaintiff Louise Laswell's action against them for elder abuse and related claims. Because we conclude that the trial court erred in denying the petition to compel arbitration, we reverse the order and remand the matter for entry of a new order granting the petition.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

1. The Complaint, Answer and the Trial Court's Grant of Trial Preference

On June 26, 2009, Laswell, by and through her daughter Susan Lyons, under a power of attorney, filed a complaint alleging that Laswell had received improper care and treatment at the 24-hour health facility in Seal Beach where she resided from October 21, 2008 to December 10, 2008. Laswell was admitted into the facility at age 92 for post-operative rehabilitative care following hip surgery. In her complaint, she named as defendants AG Seal Beach, LLC, the licensee and operator of the health facility doing business as Country Villa Seal Beach Healthcare Center; AG Facilities Operations, LLC, the owner of AG Seal Beach, LLC and Country Villa Seal Beach Healthcare Center; and Country Villa Service Corporation, doing business as Country Villa Health Services, the management company of Country Villa Seal Beach Healthcare Center in charge of the day-to-day operation, patient care and maintenance of the health facility (collectively, defendants).

According to the complaint, while Laswell resided at Country Villa Seal Beach Healthcare Center, she was neglected, abandoned and abused, resulting in injuries to her body, severe anemia, an infection in the coccyx area, right lower lobe pneumonia and malnutrition. Laswell alleged causes of action against all defendants for elder abuse under the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act (Welf. & Inst. Code, § 15600 et seq.); negligence; willful misconduct; and violation of Penal Code section 368, and an additional cause of action against AG Seal Beach, LLC, as the licensee of the health facility, for violation of Health and Safety Code section 1430, subdivision (b).*fn1 Laswell sought compensatory and punitive damages, statutory remedies, attorney fees and costs.

On August 13, 2009, defendants filed the operative amended answer to Laswell's complaint, asserting numerous affirmative defenses, including that the matter is subject to binding arbitration.

Soon thereafter, on September 10, 2009, Laswell filed a motion for trial preference under Code of Civil Procedure section 36, subdivisions (a) and (d), on grounds that she was 93 years old and had been certified twice by a physician for hospice care as terminally ill with a life expectancy of less than six months and, as a result, that trial preference was necessary to preserve her interests and prevent prejudice in the matter. After a case management conference, the trial court granted the motion, noting that Laswell was 93 years old and terminally ill, and set a trial date of February 1, 2010.

2. The Petition to Compel Arbitration and the Trial Court's Denial of the Petition

On or about November 19, 2009, defendants moved to compel arbitration, asserting that a valid arbitration agreement provided for arbitration of "any and all disputes or claims . . . arising out of the provision of services by the [f]acility," defined as Country Villa Seal Beach Healthcare Center, or that "allege violations of the Elder Abuse and Dependent Adult Civil Protection Act." According to defendants, the arbitration agreement complied with all of the requirements specified in Health and Safety Code section 1599.81 for arbitration clauses in contracts of admission to health facilities,*fn2 Laswell had signed the agreement consenting to arbitration, and the agreement had never been revoked. Defendants thus asserted the matter was required to proceed in arbitration, but Laswell refused to arbitrate the dispute.

Laswell opposed the petition, arguing, as relevant to this appeal, that (1) the arbitration agreement was invalid and unenforceable because Laswell lacked the capacity to execute it; (2) the presence of third-party defendants not subject to arbitration and the possibility of conflicting rulings on common issues of law and fact rendered arbitration inappropriate; and (3) the causes of action for elder abuse and violation of Health and Safety Code section 1430, subdivision (b), are not arbitrable.

In reply, defendants conceded that, as specified in Health and Safety Code section 1599.81, subdivision (d), the cause of action for violation of Health and Safety Code section 1430, subdivision (b), was not subject to arbitration, but argued it was a small component of Laswell's case, could be litigated in court to determine any statutory remedies and attorney fees after arbitration and should not operate as a pleading tactic to defeat a valid arbitration agreement and undermine the public policy in favor of arbitration. Defendants also asserted that Laswell had not demonstrated mental incapacity and that all defendants were related Country Villa entities, represented by the same counsel, and would consent to arbitration.

Although the trial court concluded that defendants had made a "prima facie case for arbitration," it denied the petition to compel arbitration. Viewing whether to compel arbitration as a discretionary question, the court decided that it would not "make[] sense to send the matter to arbitration" because (1) there were parties who would not participate in the arbitration given that they were not part of the agreement; (2) there were some causes of action not subject to arbitration; (3) the trial date was set for less than two months away and the case would proceed just as expeditiously in court as in arbitration; (4) Laswell was 93 years old and there need not be two proceedings under the circumstances; and (5) the question ...


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