When you are asking a court to deprive someone of a fundamental constitutional right, saying that you “believe” the person “likely” agreed to that surrender isn’t a very persuasive argument.

It certainly didn’t pass muster with the California Court of Appeal in a recent case involving the tragic death of a resident at a home for the elderly (Rogers v Roseville).

Claude Rogers was 82 years old in December of 2017 when he moved into Meadow Oaks of Roseville, a senior care facility near Sacramento. His family complained to the staff about allegedly neglectful care, which they said resulted in him suffering several falls and being unattended in a wheelchair that he was unable to maneuver.

On June 14, 2018, Claude was left outside for several hours and suffered heatstroke. He died two weeks later.

His wife, Kathryn, and his sons Jeffrey, Phillip, and Richard sued the facility and its parent company, Roseville, for elder abuse, fraud, and wrongful death.

Roseville asked the Sacramento County Superior Court to compel the family to arbitrate their complaint. It said the dispute was governed by an arbitration agreement that was part of the Residency Agreement that Richard had signed as Claude’s representative.

The trial court ruled that Richard did not have the authority to act as his father’s agent when he signed the arbitration agreement, and denied the company’s request to compel arbitration. Roseville then appealed.

The appellate justices noted that when Claude moved into the facility, Richard signed the required Residency Agreement as his father's “representative,” affirming that he had “read and understood” the agreement, and that acknowledging that he was “legally authorized to be Resident’s Representative.” Claude did not sign the document.

Richard also signed an appendix to the Residence Agreement, titled “Arbitration Agreement,” identifying himself as Claude’s “representative.”

The appendix state that “If someone other than the resident signs this arbitration clause, he/she understands and agrees that he/she is agreeing to arbitrate on behalf of the resident and on behalf of him/herself as an individual. You give up your constitutional right to have any such dispute decided in a court of law or equity before a judge or jury, and instead accept the use of arbitration.”

But Claude’s family argued that the arbitration agreement was invalid for several reasons.

They pointed out that Roseville did not provide any evidence that Richard had been authorized to sign the arbitration agreement on behalf of his father, mother, and/or brothers.

They also said the arbitration agreement did not apply to Richard’s individual claims because he did not sign the agreement in his personal capacity.

In addition, there was no evidence that Claude was so incapacitated that Richard would have had the authority to act on Claude’s behalf under an advanced health care directive.

Richard told the court that he was present when his father was admitted to the care facility and that Claude had mild cognitive impairments at that time, but did not have dementia and could read, understand, and sign documents.

Claude had not asked him to sign anything on behalf of his father, Richard said, and never told Richard he had the authority to sign any medical documents for him or to waive Claude’s right to a jury trial.

According to Richard, an administrator at the facility asked Richard to sign the documents without asking whether he had a power of attorney. He only signed them, he said, because the administrator said he had to sign them in order to admit Claude to the facility.

The company focused on what the family had not done. When the admission documents were being signed, neither Claude nor Richard told facility personnel that Richard did not have the authority to sign them.

“Claude allowed Richard and Meadow Oaks staff to believe that Richard possessed the authority to sign the admissions documents on Claude’s behalf,” it said, and “Claude likely knew that Richard signed the admissions papers on his behalf.”

That wasn’t good enough, the justices said. “The right to compel arbitration depends on the existence of an agreement to arbitrate,” they pointed out, and whether a valid agreement to arbitrate exists is determined by the laws that govern all contracts.

If Claude had authorized Richard to act as his agent for purposes of the arbitration agreement, the agreement would be binding. But Roseville could not simply presume Richard had that authorization, even if they thought his behavior – such as signing the admission agreement – made him seem like he was Claude’s agent.

Agency “cannot be created by the conduct of the agent alone,” the justices pointed out; “conduct by the principal [i.e. Claude] is essential to create the agency.” Because Claude did nothing to lead Roseville to believe Richard had authority to act as his agent, the arbitration agreement was unenforceable.

The justices affirmed the ruling of the lower court and ordered Roseville to pay the family’s costs on appeal.

By Laurie Murphy