State Supreme Court Finds Federal Law Preempts Illinois Nursing Home Care Act

As mediation and arbitration attorneys in Chicago, we were interested to see an Illinois Supreme Court decision from this year that clarifies state law’s relationship with the Federal Arbitration Act. Carter v. SCC Operating Company, No. 106511 (Ill. April 15, 2010) (PDF). The plaintiff, Sue Carter, is administering the estate of Joyce Gott, who was a resident of Odin Healthcare Center, a nursing home, for two months in 2005 19 more days in January of 2006. She died in the home that month. Carter, acting as Gott’s legal representative, signed an agreement on Gott’s original admission to the home agreeing to binding arbitration; Gott signed the same agreement herself on her second admission. The agreement also specifically mentioned that it is governed by the Federal Arbitration Act.

After Gott’s death, Carter filed a lawsuit in Marion County alleging Odin violated the state Nursing Home Care Act and the Wrongful Death Act by failing to provide proper care and supervise caregivers, resulting in juries that led to Gott’s death. Odin answered the complaint and then moved to compel arbitration under the arbitration agreement and then FAA. Carter answered that the arbitration agreement is null because it is against Illinois public policy under the Nursing Home Care Act, and the FAA allows arbitration agreements to be voided for “grounds that exist at law or in equity to void any contract.” At an evidentiary hearing, the trial court accepted that argument and others made by Carter and voided the arbitration agreement. Odin appealed, and the Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision, but only as to the FAA argument. In essence, the appeals court said the Nursing Home Care Act is an ordinary defense available for all contracts under state law, putting it outside the FAA.

Odin appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which initially denied the appeal but changed its mind after the Second District split with the Fifth on this issue and the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari to Odin. Attorney General Lisa Madigan was also permitted to intervene.

In its analysis, the state Supreme Court had only to consider the idea that the Nursing Home Care Act’s anti-waiver provision is a defense to any contract dispute in Illinois. It did not accept that argument. While the court noted that there was no express or implied preemption in the FAA, it said preemption can also be found where state law specifically conflicts with federal law. After examining how the FAA and the Nursing Home Care Act have been interpreted, it concluded that this is such a case. It cited Southland Corp. v. Keating, 465 U.S. 1, 79 L. Ed. 2d 1, 104 S. Ct. 852 (1984), in which the Supreme Court found that the FAA applies in state court and preempts conflicting state laws. The majority opinion specifically addressed the issue at hand, saying a state law governing investment contracts was not a “ground… for revocation of any contract,” but only for contracts that fall under that law. Similarly, in Preston v. Ferrer, 552 U.S. 346, 169 L.Ed. 2d 917, 128 S. Ct. 978 (2008), the Supreme Court found that an arbitration contract was enforceable even though state law referred the underlying dispute to an administrative agency.

Thus, the Supreme Court said, the lower courts were wrong to believe that the Nursing Home Care Act (or other state laws) could only be preempted by the FAA if it singled out arbitration. It also rejected an argument from the Attorney General that the right to a jury trial is too fundamental to be waived, noting that “it is axiomatic” that parties may make arbitration agreements. However, the court noted that there are numerous other issues in this case, including whether the nursing home contract constituted interstate commerce under the FAA. Thus, it reversed and remanded the case to the Fifth District for consideration of those issues.

The Illinois alternative dispute resolution attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle offer arbitration and mediation services to parties in Chicago and throughout Illinois. And our Schaumberg arbitration lawyers can represent parties as advocates in ADR proceedings. To learn more or tell us about your case, please call our law firm for a free consultation today, at 630-333-0333, or contact us through the Internet.

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