Fifth District Reverses Decision to Deny Arbitration Clause in Fiduciary Duty Case

Our Illinois alternative dispute resolution lawyers noted an opinion from the Fifth District Court of Appeal reversing a trial court that declined to compel arbitration. In Hollingshead v. A. G. Edwards & Sons, Inc., No. 1-09-0067 (Ill. 5th Jan. 22, 2009), the court ruled there simply was not enough evidence to support the trial court’s decision to deny to compel arbitration. The case pits Carol Hollingshead, independent administrator of the estate of Selma Elliott, against Elliott’s investment company and Leonard Suess, an investment advisor there and Elliott’s son-in-law. Hollingshead sued the defendants for various causes of action related to financial mismanagement, but defendants moved to compel arbitration under several contracts related to the investment accounts. The trial court denied this motion without an explanation or an evidentiary hearing.

Elliott passed away in 2003 at the age of 101. During her lifetime, she had an account at A.G. Edwards, managed by Suess. Her power of attorney was granted to her daughter, Judy Suess, at the time of her death, so that Judy Suess could manage Elliott’s affairs. Those affairs included 11,000 shares of stock in the pharmaceutical company Merck, which had a value of $985,000 in 2001. Around 1994, defendants used that value to open up a margin account and buy other stock. Unfortunately, the value of her portfolio dropped significantly and the defendants began selling off the Merck stock to cover margin calls. Plaintiff claims this triggered tax liabilities that could easily have been avoided if the sale had happened after Elliott’s death. She sued them for breach of fiduciary duty, breach of contract and negligence.

However, Elliott had signed three contracts with Edwards before her death and Judy Suess as power of attorney had signed another, and all of them had an arbitration agreement. Defendants moved to dismiss the case and compel arbitration on this basis. The trial court heard arguments that did not get into the record on appeal, then denied the motion without comment. Defendants filed an interlocutory appeal. They argued that the contracts are the only evidence in the record and clearly apply to the lawsuit. The plaintiff argued in response that the arbitration agreements are substantively and procedurally unconscionable and the product of undue influence, all of which make them unenforceable. Defendants responded that this is a question for an arbitrator to decide.

The Fifth started with this last issue. It did not agree. Under caselaw, arbitrability is an issue for the courts unless the parties have specifically agreed otherwise, it wrote. The plaintiff is not challenging the validity of the contracts as a whole — indeed, she is relying on them in the breach of contract count.

Next, the court examined the plaintiffs’ arguments to invalidate the arbitration agreements. Under the Federal Arbitration Act, arbitration agreements are enforceable except “on such grounds that exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” This includes the plaintiff’s claims of unconscionability and undue influence. However, the court found that generally, there was no support in the record for the plaintiff’s arguments. To support the claims of unconscionability, the plaintiff made allegations in her complaint about Elliott’s age and the relationship between her and the Suesses, but did not provide any evidence, the court said. Nor do the allegations in the complaint, even if taken as true, support those defenses, it added. Under caselaw, advanced age is not enough in itself to show that a person is incapable of signing contracts, the court noted, and there is nothing per se procedurally unconscionable about having a relative for a broker.

Similarly, the Fifth found no evidence in the record to support the undue influence claim, aside from unsubstantiated claims about the familial relationship between Elliott and the Suesses. The plaintiff also made claims for substantive unconscionability, saying the $1,575 cost of arbitration is too high and the forum is biased. Again, the Fifth found, these claims are not supported by sufficient evidence in the record. It also dismissed a claim that waiving judicial review is inherently unconscionable, noting that this is directly contradicted by the FAA. For those reasons, the Fifth found that the trial court should not have declined to compel arbitration without an evidentiary hearing. It reversed that decision and remanded it to the trial court for further proceedings — including an evidentiary hearing, the Fifth said, if the plaintiff requests one.

Based in Chicago and Oakbrook Terrace, Ill., Lubin Austermuehle offers mediation, arbitration and advocacy in all types of out-of-court dispute resolution proceedings.

If your business is involved in out-of-court dispute resolution, or is considering it, Lubin Austermuehle can help. To learn more at a free consultation, you can reach us through our website or call 630-333-0333.

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