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Granger v. Rent-A-Center Inc.

Court of Appeals of Missouri, Western District, Third Division

November 8, 2016

MARLON GRANGER, Respondent,
v.
RENT-A-CENTER, INC., Appellant.

         Appeal from the Circuit Court of Jackson County, Missouri The Honorable Wesley Brent Powell, Judge

          Before: Alok Ahuja, P.J., Victor C. Howard, and James Edward Welsh, JJ.

          James Edward Welsh, Judge.

         Rent-A-Center, Inc. ("RAC") and former RAC store manager Kelli Stangle (collectively, the "Appellants") appeal the circuit court's judgment denying their motions to compel arbitration and to stay proceedings in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Marlon Granger. We affirm.

         Background

         In December 2014, Granger filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Appellants pursuant to section 537.080(1), RSMo, [1] for the death of his father, Kenneth Johnson. Granger alleged that, on August 25, 2012, former RAC employee Eric Patton, "posing" as an employee of RAC, used his RAC identification, apparent authority, and previous in-home relationship with Johnson to gain entry into Johnson's home. Patton then robbed, assaulted, and beat Johnson. Johnson never recovered and died on May 27, 2014.

         Granger alleged that, by renting merchandise to Johnson that included in-home "delivery, setup, and service" and by "regularly" sending its employees, including Patton, to Johnson's home with express authority to conduct business on its behalf, Appellants created and maintained a "special business relationship" with Johnson. He further alleged that this "special relationship" imposed a duty on Appellants to properly hire, train, monitor, and, if necessary, terminate its employees to ensure Johnson's safety.[2] Granger alleged that Appellants breached that duty when, in early August 2012, RAC terminated Patton for dangerous criminal behavior but took no action to alert Johnson that Patton was no longer an employee, that he was fired for criminal behavior, that he was dangerous, and that he should not be allowed back into Johnson's home.

         In response to Granger's petition, Appellants filed motions to compel arbitration and to stay proceedings. Appellants based these motions on two rental agreements between Johnson and RAC, both of which include an arbitration agreement. The arbitration agreements state that the parties agree to arbitrate any "claims, " interpreted broadly to mean tort claims or any other claims, arising out of or relating to the rental agreements. Appellants claimed that, because the rental agreements are the source of the duty to Johnson that Granger alleges was breached, Granger is "estopped" from arguing that the arbitration agreements do not apply to him.

         The circuit court denied the motions to compel arbitration and to stay proceedings. The court found that Granger cannot be compelled to arbitrate his claims against Appellants because his wrongful death claim is separate and distinct from any cause of action that belonged to the decedent, [3] and Granger is not bound by any agreements signed by Johnson.

         Standard of Review

         In Appellants' two points on appeal, they contest the denial of their motion to compel arbitration and their motion to stay proceedings.[4] Both are questions of law that we review de novo. Lawrence v. Beverly Manor, 273 S.W.3d 525, 527 (Mo. banc 2009); Baier v. Darden Restaurants, 420 S.W.3d 733, 736 (Mo. App. 2014). In assessing the validity and applicability of arbitration agreements, we apply the "usual rules of state contract law and canons of contract interpretation." Nitro Distrib., Inc. v. Dunn, 194 S.W.3d 339, 345 (Mo. banc 2006).

         Discussion

         In Point I, the Appellants contend that the circuit court erred in denying their motion to compel arbitration because the arbitration agreements are valid and encompass the parties' dispute, and Granger is estopped from opposing their application because he "has sought the benefits of the contracts and so must honor their obligations."

         The gist of Appellants' argument is that Granger must arbitrate his wrongful death claim because (1) Johnson entered into valid arbitration agreements with RAC; (2) the agreements apply to Granger under an estoppel theory; and (3) the agreements expressly cover any statutory or tort claims. Appellants acknowledge that Granger is not a signatory to any of the rental or arbitration agreements. They argue, nevertheless, that he is estopped from claiming that the arbitration agreements do not apply to him because, "without the rental agreements, there is no relationship" between them and Johnson and, "by ...


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