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Bixler v. Elkhart Operating, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

July 12, 2017

KEITH BIXLER, as Special Personal Representative of the Estate of Paula Bixler, Deceased, Plaintiff,
v.
ELKHART OPERATING, LLC, d/b/a Golden Living Center-Elkhart, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          Michael G. Gotsch, Sr. United States Magistrate Judge

         On June 2, 2017, Defendant, Elkhart Operating, LLC d/b/a Golden Living Center-Elkhart (“Golden”), filed its Motion to Compel Arbitration and to Stay the Lawsuit Pending Alternative Dispute Resolution Proceedings. Plaintiff, Keith Bixler, as Special Personal Representative of the Estate of Paula Bixler, filed his response in opposition on June 20, 2017. Golden's motion became ripe on June 27, 2017, when Golden filed its reply brief. The undersigned may enter a ruling on this motion based on the parties' consent and 28 U.S.C. § 636(c).

         I. Relevant Background

         On March 26, 2015, Paula Bixler was admitted to Golden for care related to health issues. As part of the admission process, Mrs. Bixler signed and executed an Admission Agreement, the Preamble of which reads:

This Admission Agreement is a legally binding contract that defines the rights and obligations of each person (or party) who signs it. Please read this Agreement carefully before you sign it. If you have any questions, please discuss them with LivingCenter staff before you sign the Agreement. You are encouraged to have this Agreement reviewed by your attorney, or by any other advisor of your choice, before you sign it.
If you are able to do so, you must sign this Agreement in order to be admitted to this LivingCenter. If you are not able to sign this Agreement, your Legal Representative, who has been given authority by you to admit you to the LivingCenter, must sign it on your behalf. . . . You are not required to sign any other document as a condition of admission to the LivingCenter.

[DE 28-1 at 3]. In addition, Mrs. Bixler signed and executed a separate Alternative Dispute Resolution Agreement (“ADR Agreement”), which explicitly started with the statement in all caps that “THIS AGREEMENT IS NOT A CONDITION OF ADMISSION TO OR CONTINUED RESIDENCE IN THE FACILITY.” [DE 28-2 at 1].

         The ADR Agreement begins by identifying Mrs. Bixler as the “Resident” governed by the Agreement and defines the term “Resident” as follows:

The term “Resident” as used in this Agreement shall refer to the Resident, all persons whose claim is or may be derived through or on behalf of the Resident, including any next of kin, guardian, executor, administrator, legal representative, or heir of the Resident, and any person who has executed this Agreement on the Resident's behalf.

[Id.]. As relevant here, the ADR Agreement, which includes a provision incorporating it into the Admission Agreement, required that the parties pursue mediation, or if unsuccessful, binding arbitration to resolve any disputes “arising out of or in any way relating to [the ADR] Agreement or to the Resident's stay at the Facility [i.e., Golden] or the Admissions Agreement between the Parties . . . .” [Id. at 1-2]. As defined in the ADR Agreement, disputes subject to the parties' voluntary agreement to participate in ADR

include but are not limited to all claims in law or equity arising from one Party's failure to satisfy a financial obligation to the other Party; a violation of a right claimed to exist under federal, state, or local law or contractual agreement between the Parties; tort; breach of contract; consumer protection; fraud; misrepresentation; negligence; gross negligence; malpractice; and any alleged departure from any applicable federal, state, or local medical, health care, consumer, or safety standards.

[Id. at 2].

         While residing at Golden, Mrs. Bixler developed a Stage IV decubitus ulcer, which led to sepsis and ultimately Mrs. Bixler's death on August 26, 2015. On August 11, 2016, Plaintiff, in his capacity as Mrs. Bixler's husband and as Special Representative of her estate, initiated this action with a complaint in Indiana state court alleging wrongful death under Ind. Code § 34-23-1 et seq. [DE 5]. In his complaint, Plaintiff specifically alleges that Golden was careless and negligent and breached the applicable standard of care in its treatment of Mrs. Bixler. [Id. at 4, ¶¶ 13-14]. Plaintiff further alleges that he suffered injury in the form of lost love, affection, companionship, and services of his wife as a direct and proximate result of Golden's carelessness and negligence. [Id.].

         On September 16, 2016, Golden removed the case to this Court. On October 3, 2016, Golden filed its answer asserting three affirmative defenses, including lack of subject matter jurisdiction based on the ADR Agreement's arbitration requirement. [DE 7 at 5]. On November 18, 2016, the parties filed their Rule 26(f) Report of Parties' Planning, which made no mention of the arbitration requirement but reported the parties' agreement to a trial before a United States Magistrate Judge and the parties' preference for “use of a settlement conference presided over by a magistrate judge rather than a privately arranged alternative dispute resolution” with a statement that “if the need for privately arranged alternative dispute resolution arises, the ...


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