Court Enforces Religious Arbitration Agreement, Over Objection of Plaintiff

In Spivey v. Teen Challenge Inc. (Fla. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2013), Pamela Spivey’s son, Nicklaus Ellison, then age 19, “enrolled in a year-long program at Teen Challenge’s substance abuse facility,” which “assist[s] young men in overcoming addiction through the application of biblical principles.” Ellison fell off the wagon several times, and eventually died from a drug overdose. Spivey sued, claiming Teen Challenge essentially committed malpractice by negligently treating Ellison.

But when Ellison entered into the Teen Challenge program, Ellison signed an arbitration agreement that provided for arbitration by Christian conciliation. Under Florida law, in a wrongful death case the plaintiff acts as a representive of the decedent, and “stands in the shoes” of the decedent, being bound by any arbitration agreements that the decedent had signed. Spivey sought to avoid this, largely on the grounds that she hadn’t entered into the arbitration agreement, and that it would violate the First Amendment to require her to go through religious arbitration, which may involve prayer and other religious activity:

Ms. Spivey points to a provision in the Rules providing for prayer as a normal part of the mediation and arbitration process. She argues that she, as personal representative, should not be forced to engage in a process involving a Christian prayer (even though she is a Christian) because to do so violates principles prohibiting governmentally-coerced religious acts. She asserts that her right to the free exercise of her personal religious beliefs is inalienable and cannot be waived, even in the context of her duties as a personal representative.

But the court disagreed:

[A] personal representative generally cannot object that fulfilling the deceased’s wishes offends the religious sensibilities of the personal representative; personal representatives serve the estate’s interest, not vice-versa. See Kasmer v. Guardianship of Limner, 697 So. 2d 220 (Fla. 3d DCA 1997) (personal representative, who objected on religious grounds to cremation, has a duty to administer estate according to decedent’s wishes). This obligation to fulfill the deceaseds’ wishes extends to the judiciary. Because the role of the personal representative is to advance the deceased’s’ expressed desires, those unwilling or unable to fulfill this role must pass along their responsibilities to others…. [I]f a decedent desires that his estate go to his synagogue, be used for the printing of Qu’rans, or be distributed only to heirs who believe in Jesus Christ, the role of the personal representative is an agnostic one: to fulfill the decedents’ express wishes. Under the law, Ms. Spivey must make a choice. She can be the
personal representative of Nicklaus’s estate, but she cannot simultaneously forestall her duties and thwart the agreement of the deceased based on her personal religious objections.

This dispute, of course, is not over the terms of Nicklaus’s will. Rather, the question is whether Ms. Spivey’s obligation as personal representative is to stand in Nicklaus’s shoes and comply with an arbitration agreement that no one disputes Nicklaus voluntarily entered. As discussed above, the Florida Supreme Court … has answered this question in the affirmative: Ms. Spivey is bound by Nicklaus’s decision to enter the Teen Challenge agreement. And it logically follows that she must comply (despite her religious objections) to that agreement or, as in Kasmer, resign and have a replacement appointed as personal representative.

Seems right to me. This isn’t quite the same case as when a party is bound to his own agreement to engage in religious arbitration (agreements such as this are routinely enforced). But, for the reasons the court gives, it seems sufficiently analogous. Under Florida law, Spivey’s rights to sue stem entirely from her acting as her son’s personal representative. If she believes that his promise to engage in religious arbitration is offensive to her religious beliefs, she can’t act as his representative in that respect. (Note that the result should be different in states in which a wrongful death claim can be brought by a decedent’s relatives in their own right, and not as representatives of the decedent’s estate.)

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.