Superior Court says woman didn't have authority to sign arbitration agreement for father before he died

By Charmaine Little | Apr 30, 2019


HARRISBURG — The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has ruled that a woman did not have the authority in the state to sign an arbitration agreement for her father who later passed away.

Judge James Gardner Colins authored the opinion on April 22, with judges Anne Lazarus and Deborah Kunselman concurring.

Chalena McIlwain, who is the administratrix of the estate of her late father, Norman James Frank, filed an appeal after a lower court sustained a nursing home, Saber Healthcare Group Inc. LLC’s preliminary objections coming from a lawsuit McIlwain filed after her father passed away at the facility. 

The issue is whether McIlwain should be sent to arbitration. McIlwain signed documents for her father that would require arbitration for any disputes when he moved into Saber, just days after she was appointed as his temporary conservator in California. 


The legal question is if she had the authority to sign the documents in Pennsylvania. 

The answer would determine if her signature was valid. Saber objected to the lawsuit, arguing McIlwain did have the authority, making the lawsuit moot. While a lower court agreed and sustained the objection, McIlwain appealed, and the appeals court reversed the initial ruling.

It stated that the Uniform State Laws answered this issue via the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act in 2007. That act was created to determine jurisdiction for transferring guardianship between states.

“While Saber produced a copy of the letters of temporary conservatorship from California, Saber has not alleged, nor is there any basis to conclude based on the proceedings below that McIlwain petitioned the court in California to transfer the conservatorship,” Colins wrote.

Since McIlwain never followed up to transfer the documents to Pennsylvania, the appeals court said she wasn’t authorized to sign the arbitration agreement for her father. The court then ruled there wasn’t an agency relationship that would develop an independent authority for McIlwain to be able to sign on behalf of Franks.

“It is clear that there was no express, implied or apparent authority, nor authority by estoppel to establish an agency relationship between McIlwain and Franks in relation to signing the arbitration agreement,” Colins wrote. The opinion noted that Saber didn’t raise any issue that Franks was there when McIlwain signed the arbitration agreement or even gave his express permission for her to sign it to begin with.

Considering this, the appeals court said the trial court should not have ruled that McIlwain had the authority to sign the arbitration for Franks. It reversed the order.

Initially, McIlwain’s father, Norman James Franks, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and dementia. The Superior Court of California gave McIlwain conservatorship over Franks in May 9, 2013. It was scheduled to expire the following July. 

Just days after the California court granted McIlwain conservatorship, Franks checked into Saber nursing home, which is located in Pennsylvania, on May 13, 2013. McIlwain signed the admissions papers as the authorized representative, including the Resident and Facility Arbitration Agreement, which said the parties would settle any legal dispute with arbitration. 

In July 2013, the Court of Common Pleas of Montgomery County, Orphans’ Court Division gave McIlwain permanent guardian status over Franks. He ended up staying at Saber until September 28, 2016. While there, he experienced several falls and UTIs. He passed away on October 24, 2016 after he hit his head while at Saber.

McIlwain sued Saber for negligence, wrongful death and survival. Saber filed a preliminary objection, referring to the entry documents McIlwain signed on behalf of Franks that said the parties would have to go to arbitration. The lower court sustained the objections. Now, McIlwain appeals, asking the court, if “the trial court err[ed] in finding that Chalena McIlwain had sufficient legal authority in Pennsylvania to enter into an arbitration agreement on behalf of her father, Norman James Franks,” according to the lawsuit. 

The appeals court ultimately determined she doesn’t.

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