Supreme Court finds arbitration clause unenforceable against nonsignatories
I found it hard to believe the South Carolina Supreme Court took 21 pages to hold an arbitration provision unenforceable against nonsignatories to the contract, but it did! In an April case involving insurance fraud in Abbeville County, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals, which had relied on an equitable estoppel theory to bind individual insureds to a contract between an insurance agency and the insurance companies*.
The case arose out of numerous lawsuits brought by individual insureds against an insurance agent, Laura Willis, her broker, their agency and six insurance companies for which their offices sold policies. The suits alleged Willis engaged in fraudulent conduct including forging insurance documents and converting cash payments to her own use, resulting in the insureds having no coverage or reduced coverage. Two of the lawsuits were brought by other insurance agents, alleging Willis engaged in illegal business practices that effectively blocked them from the local market, resulting in a substantial loss of clients and revenue.
The other defendants were alleged to have failed to properly investigate, train and supervise Willis, especially after she was fined, publicly reprimanded and place on probation for dishonesty by the South Carolina Insurance Commission in 2011. Alternatively, Willis was alleged to have acted with express or implied permission of the other defendants.
A full year into the litigation, three of the insurance companies filed motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the lawsuits. The arbitration clause in question was contained in a 2010 agency contract signed by the insurance companies and the insurance agency. The theory was that the insureds were third-party beneficiaries to the contract or were equitably estopped from asserting their nonparty status. The Circuit Court denied the motion to compel arbitration, but the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, holding equitable estoppel should be applied to enforce arbitration against the nonsignatories because the individuals sought to benefit from other provisions in the agency agreement.
The Supreme Court stated that while arbitration is viewed favorably by the courts, it is predicated on an agreement to arbitrate because parties are waiving their fundamental right to access to the courts. The Court held that whether the provision is enforceable is a state law question, and that South Carolina has recognized several theories that could bind nonsignatories to arbitration agreements under general principles of contract and agency law, including (1) incorporation by reference, (2) assumption, (3) agency, (4) veil piercing/alter ego, and (5) estoppel.
The estoppel argument is based on a direct benefits theory in South Carolina. Under that theory, a nonsignatory may be compelled to arbitrate where the nonsignatory knowingly exploits the benefits of an agreement containing an arbitration clause and receives benefits flowing directly from the agreement.
In this case, according to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs did not allege a claim of breach of the contract, and they were not even aware of the existence of the contract until arbitration was sought a year into the litigation. In the Court’s view, the plaintiffs did not knowingly exploit and receive a direct benefit from the agency agreement. The Agreement was purely for the benefit of its parties, outlining their business relationship.
The Court also stated that equitable estoppel is ultimately a theory designed to prevent injustice, and it should be used sparingly. This litigation will continue!
And I’ve reduced the 21-page case to less than 600 words for your reading pleasure. You’re welcome!
* Wilson v. Willis, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion 27879 (April 10, 2019)