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Johnson v. Rent-A-Center

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, First Division

November 4, 2014

KENNETH JOHNSON, Respondent,
v.
RENT-A-CENTER and KELLI STANGLE, Appellants.

APPEAL FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF JACKSON COUNTY, MISSOURI The Honorable Patrick W. Campbell, Judge

Before Joseph M. Ellis, Presiding, Judge, Karen King Mitchell, Judge and Anthony Rex Gabbert, Judge

OPINION

JOSEPH M. ELLIS, JUDGE

Appellants Rent-A-Center and Kelli Stangle appeal from an order entered in the Circuit Court of Jackson County denying their Motion to Compel Arbitration and Stay Action in a tort case filed against them by Kenneth Johnson. For the following reasons, the circuit court's decision is reversed, and the cause is remanded to the trial court for entry of an order staying the proceedings.

On September 19, 2011, Johnson obtained, under a Rental-Purchase Agreement, a television from a Rent-A-Center store in Kansas City, Missouri managed by Stangle.[1] On June 25, 2012, Johnson acquired a refrigerator from the same store under a similar agreement. Both Rental-Purchase Agreements incorporated, by reference, attached Arbitration Agreements. Of import to our ruling today, both arbitration agreements contained delegation provisions. The 2011 Arbitration Agreement provided that either party may demand that issues related to "the validity, enforceability, arbitrability or scope of th[at] Arbitration Agreement" be determined by an arbitrator. Similarly, the 2012 Arbitration Agreement provided that an arbitrator decide any dispute relating to the "interpretation, applicability, enforceability, or formation" of the Arbitration Agreement. Of equal import to ruling today, Johnson failed to raise any argument challenging the enforceability of either delegation provision.

Pursuant to the Rental-Purchase Agreements, Rent-A-Center was responsible for maintaining and servicing the rented items. On several occasions, Rent-A-Center employee Eric Patton was sent to Johnson's home to service the television and/or refrigerator.

On August 25, 2012, Patton returned to Johnson's home wearing a Rent-A-Center uniform.[2] As a Rent-A-Center employee was expected, Johnson let Patton inside. Once inside, Patton seriously beat and then robbed Johnson.

On April 15, 2013, Johnson filed a Petition for Damages against Appellants in the Circuit Court of Jackson County, claiming that Appellants were negligent in their hiring and supervision of Patton and in failing to warn him of the danger Patton posed. Johnson also included a count requesting punitive damages.

On June 26, 2013, in addition to filing an answer to the petition, Appellants filed their Motion to Compel Arbitration and Stay Action, arguing that the terms of the Rental-Purchase Agreements with Johnson required that this dispute be submitted to arbitration. Appellants first argued that the threshold issue of whether Johnson's claims should be subject to the arbitration agreements was an issue that must be determined by an arbitrator, rather than a court, under the express terms of those Arbitration Agreements. Appellants next argued that, even if the court could properly determine the issue of arbitrability, the claims asserted in Johnson's petition were, indeed, arbitrable under the broad terms of the arbitration agreements.

In response, Johnson filed a Memorandum in Opposition, arguing that, under Missouri case law, the claims he was asserting were not arbitrable because his claims did not have a meaningful relationship to the Rental-Purchase Agreements. Johnson did not address Appellants' principle assertion that the issue of arbitrability was for the arbitrator to determine.

On September 10, 2013, the circuit court entered its order denying the motion to compel arbitration, stating in pertinent part:

Defendant seeks an order of this Court compelling arbitration of Plaintiff's tort claims. Missouri law provides that "[a]t the very least, for a tort claim to be subject to arbitration under a broad arbitration clause, it must first raise some issue the resolution of which requires reference to or construction of some portion of the parties' contract. Where, however, a tort claim is independent of the contract terms and does not require reference to the underlying contract, arbitration is not compelled."[3] Estate of Athon v. Coneco Financial Serv. Corp., 88 S.W.3d 26, 30 (Mo. App. 2002). Plaintiff's tort claims are independent of the contract terms and do not require reference to the parties' underlying contract. That the interests of justice would be served by denying Defendants' Motion to Compel Arbitration and Stay Action filed on June 26, 2013.

The court did not address, in any fashion, Appellants' argument that the issue of arbitrability was for the arbitrator to determine. Appellants bring two points on appeal challenging the trial court's denial of the motion to compel arbitration.[4]

"Whether the trial court should have granted a motion to compel arbitration is a question of law that this Court reviews de novo." Riley v. Lucas Lofts Investors, LLC, 412 S.W.3d 285, 289-90 (Mo. App. E.D. 2013) (internal quotation omitted). "A motion to compel arbitration of a particular dispute should not be denied unless it may be said with positive assurance that the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute." Kohner ...


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