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Wilson v. Willis

Court of Appeals of South Carolina

March 2, 2016

Richard Wilson, Michael J. Antoniak, Jr., Marsha L. Antoniak, Anita L. Belton, Prescott Darren Bosler, Johnny Calhoun, Sallie Calhoun, Cynthia Gary, Robert Wayne Gary, Eugene P. Lawton, Jr., Jeanette Norman, James Robert Shirley, Robert W. Spires, Crystal Spires Wiley, Lewis S. Williams, Janie Wiltshire, Benjamin Franklin Wofford, Jr., and Rebecca Hammond Wofford, Respondents,
v.
Laura B. Willis and Jesse A. Dantice, individually and as agents and/or brokers for Southern Risk Insurance Services, LLC, Travelers Casualty Insurance Company of America, Allied Property and Casualty Insurance Company, Peerless Insurance Company, Montgomery Mutual Insurance Company, Safeco Insurance Company of America, and Foremost Insurance Company; Southern Risk Insurance Services, LLC, Travelers Casualty Insurance Company of America, Allied Property and Casualty Insurance Company, Peerless Insurance Company, Montgomery Mutual Insurance Company, Safeco Insurance Company of America, and Foremost Insurance Company, Defendants, Of whom Peerless Insurance Company, Montgomery Mutual Insurance Company, and Safeco Insurance Company of America are the Appellants, And Of whom Laurie Williams is a Respondent. Appellate Case No. 2014-000946

Heard December 8, 2015

Appeal From Abbeville County Eugene C. Griffith, Jr., Circuit Court Judge

C. Mitchell Brown, William C. Wood, Jr., Allen Mattison Bogan, and Miles Edward Coleman, of Columbia; and Robert Curt Calamari, of Myrtle Beach, all of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP, for Appellants.

Thomas E. Hite, Jr., of Hite and Stone, of Abbeville, for Respondents Richard Wilson, Cynthia Gary, Robert Wayne Gary, Robert W. Spires, Crystal Spires Wiley, Lewis S. Williams, Michael J. Antoniak, Jr., Marsha L. Antoniak, Eugene P. Lawton, Jr., Anita L. Belton, Jeanette Norman, James Robert Shirley, Johnny Calhoun, Sallie Calhoun, Benjamin Franklin Wofford, Jr., Rebecca Hammond Wofford, Prescott Darren Bosler, and Janie Wiltshire; and Jane Hawthorne Merrill, of Hawthorne Merrill Law, LLC, of Greenwood, for Respondent Laurie Wilson Williams.

WILLIAMS, J.

Peerless Insurance Company (Peerless), Montgomery Mutual Insurance Company (Montgomery), and Safeco Insurance Company (Safeco) (collectively "the Insurers") appeal the circuit court's denial of their motions to dismiss the claims and compel arbitration in fourteen related actions. The Insurers argue the court erred in (1) ruling no valid contract containing an arbitration provision existed between the parties, (2) determining the arbitration provision at issue was too narrow to encompass the causes of action, (3) refusing to compel arbitration of claims brought by nonsignatories, (4) finding the claims against the Insurers were not encompassed by the arbitration provision because their alleged actions constituted illegal and outrageous acts unforeseeable to a reasonable consumer in the context of normal business dealings, and (5) holding the Insurers waived their right to compel arbitration. We reverse and remand.

FACTS/PROCEDURAL HISTORY

This appeal arises from fourteen related lawsuits-filed in Abbeville County, South Carolina, between November 1, 2012, and August 28, 2013-against two local insurance agents, Laura Willis and Jesse Dantice, and their agency, Southern Risk Insurance Services, LLC (Southern Risk). Willis's customers (the Insureds) brought twelve of the suits, [1] alleging causes of action for violation of the South Carolina Unfair Trade Practices Act, [2] common law unfair trade practices, fraud, and conversion. The Insureds also named the Insurers as defendants in the action, arguing they were liable under a respondeat superior theory for failure to supervise or audit Willis and Southern Risk.

The Insureds allege that, while customers of Willis and Dantice, they were "victims of many illegal and improper tactics used by [Willis, Dantice, and the Insurers] to corner the retail insurance market in Abbeville County, South Carolina[, ] and destroy all competition." The claims and allegations in all of the suits include, inter alia, that Willis forged insurance documents; issued policies on unsigned applications; changed or omitted information on insurance applications, without the Insureds' permission, to reduce quoted premiums; submitted applications using her own personal identifying information, such as driver's license and Social Security numbers, to reduce quoted premiums; accepted cash payments she converted to her own use; and issued fake policies to customers.

According to the Insureds, Willis's actions resulted in harm to them as well as their credit rating within the insurance industry. The Insureds seek to recover from Dantice, Southern Risk, and the Insurers because these parties-as principals of their agent, Willis-had a duty to investigate, train, and supervise Willis, particularly after she "was fined, publicly reprimanded[, ] and placed on probation for dishonesty by the South Carolina Insurance Commission in October 2011."

Richard Wilson and Robert Shirley (collectively "the Agents")-both of whom were local competitors of Willis and Southern Risk-filed the other two suits at issue in this case. The Agents alleged Willis, Dantice, Southern Risk, and the Insurers engaged in illegal business practices that effectively prohibited them from competing in the local insurance market, resulting in a substantial loss of clients and revenue. Further, the Agents argued the Insurers owed a duty to properly investigate, train, and supervise Willis; failed to detect and stop her wrongdoing; and engaged in statutory unfair trade practices, common law unfair trade practices or unfair competition, and tortious interference with existing and prospective contractual relations.

In their answers, the Insurers denied the majority of the Insureds' substantive claims and set forth the following defenses: failure to state a claim, statutory bar by section 39-5-40(c) of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2015), comparative fault, intervening actions of third parties, scope of agency, set off, failure to properly allege special damages, unconstitutionality of punitive damages, and limitation or bar to punitive damages. The Insurers, however, did not raise arbitration as a defense in their answers to the Insureds.

Likewise, in answering the Agents' complaints, the Insurers denied each of the factual allegations set forth and raised a number of defenses. The Insurers, for example, denied that Willis was their "authorized and acting agent and/or servant" and denied that she acted with their permission. Nevertheless, the Insurers did not assert arbitration as a defense in their answers to the Agents.

On October 31, 2013, the Insurers filed motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the suits, seeking to apply against the Insureds and Agents an arbitration provision from a 2010 agency agreement (the 2010 Agency Agreement) the Insurers entered into with Southern Risk.[3] The main thrust of the Insurers' argument in these motions was that each of the Insureds and Agents' claims was premised on alleged duties that would not exist but for the Insurers' contractual relationship with Southern Risk and, thus, the court should compel arbitration based upon the arbitration provision found in the 2010 Agency Agreement. According to the Insurers, the Insureds and Agents could not rely on-and seek to recover damages from the Insurers based upon-some provisions, while ignoring the arbitration provision in the agreement.

The circuit court heard arguments on the motions on January 21, 2014, and the Insureds and Agents filed memoranda in opposition to the Insurers' motions that same day. In their memoranda, the Insureds and Agents asserted no valid or enforceable agreement to arbitrate existed because the agreement upon which the Insurers based their motion was not signed by any representative of Southern Risk. The Insureds and Agents further alleged they were not signatories or parties to the 2010 Agency Agreement, and their claims against the Insurers did not fall within the arbitration clause in the agreement. The Insurers subsequently filed reply memoranda in support of their motion on February 11, 2014.[4]

On March 25, 2014, the circuit court issued an order in which it denied the Insurers' motions to compel arbitration and dismiss the suits. The Insurers then filed motions to alter or amend the court's ruling, and the court denied these motions on April 21, 2014. This appeal followed.[5]

ISSUES ON APPEAL

I. Did the circuit court err in ruling no valid contract containing an arbitration provision existed between the parties?

II. Did the circuit court err in determining the arbitration provision was too narrow to encompass the causes of action raised by the Insureds and Agents?

III. Did the circuit court err in refusing to compel arbitration of claims against the Insurers because the Insureds and Agents were nonsignatories?

IV. Did the circuit court err in finding the claims were not encompassed by the arbitration provision because the Insurers' alleged actions constituted illegal and outrageous acts unforeseeable to a reasonable consumer in the context of normal business dealings?

V. Did the circuit court err in holding the Insurers waived their right to compel arbitration?

STANDARD OF REVIEW

"The question of the arbitrability of a claim is an issue for judicial determination, unless the parties provide otherwise." Zabinski v. Bright Acres Assocs., 346 S.C. 580, 596, 553 S.E.2d 110, 118 (2001). "Arbitrability determinations are subject to de novo review." Dean v. Heritage Healthcare of Ridgeway, LLC, 408 S.C. 371, 379, 759 S.E.2d 727, 731 (2014) (emphasis omitted). "Nevertheless, a circuit court's factual findings will not be reversed on appeal if any evidence reasonably supports the findings." Gissel v. Hart, 382 S.C. 235, 240, 676 S.E.2d 320, 323 (2009). "It is the policy of this state and federal law to favor arbitration[, ] and 'any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration.'" Landers v. Fed. Deposit Ins. Co., 402 S.C. 100, 109, 739 S.E.2d 209, 213 (2013) (quoting Am. Recovery Corp. v. Computerized Thermal Imaging, Inc., 96 F.3d 88, 92 (4th Cir. 1996)). "[T]he party resisting arbitration bears the burden of proving that the claims at issue are unsuitable for arbitration." Hall v. Green Tree Servicing, LLC, 413 S.C. 267, 271, 776 S.E.2d 91, 94 (Ct. App. 2015) (alteration in original) (quoting Dean, 408 S.C. at 379, 759 S.E.2d at 731).

LAW/ANALYSIS

I. Existence of a Valid Contract with an Arbitration Provision

First, the Insurers contend the circuit court erred in ruling no valid contract containing an ...


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