George Washington University v. Scott

Decision Date21 May 1998
Docket NumberNo. 96-CV-1178.,96-CV-1178.
PartiesGEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY, Appellant, v. Juanita J. SCOTT, Appellee.
CourtD.C. Court of Appeals

Alfred F. Belcuore, with whom Joseph Montedonico and Patricia M. Tazzara, Washington, DC, were on the brief, for the appellant.

Paul M. Higgins, Rockville, MD, with whom Patrick M. Regan, Washington, DC, was on the brief, for the appellee.

Before FARRELL, KING, and RUIZ, Associate Judges.

KING, Associate Judge:

Appellants George Washington University and George Washington University Health Plan ("GWU") appeal rulings by the trial court denying their Motion to Dismiss the Complaint, or in the Alternative for Summary Judgment, and their Motion to Reconsider and Vacate, Alter, or Amend. GWU argues that a binding arbitration clause contained in a health plan contract bars the trial sought by appellees Juanita S. Scott and Houston E. Ashlock, Jr. ("the Scotts" or "the insureds"), on claims of medical malpractice in the death of their son. For the reasons stated below, we affirm the rulings of the trial court.


The Scotts were employees of the federal government during the relevant times, and as such had access to the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program administered by the Office of Personnel Management ("OPM"). Through this program, they were members of the GWU Health Plan in 1994, a health maintenance organization or "prepaid comprehensive medical plan" providing health care and insurance to its members. Membership in the plan is automatically renewed each year, unless the member opts out pursuant to instructions promulgated by OPM, which also provide: "If you decide NOT to change your enrollment, you do not need to fill out a form. Your enrollment will be continued automatically. . . ." The Scotts allowed their policy with GWU to renew in this manner for January 1995. Any changes in the conditions and coverage of the plan, and in the premium rates paid by the member, took effect on January 1, 1995.

On December 19, 1994, the Scotts' seven-year-old son, who was suffering from a fever and other symptoms, was taken to GWU Pediatrics Center for treatment. After examination and testing, he was sent home with treatment instructions.1 The boy's condition worsened, however, and, after his parents took him to Children's National Medical Center, he died on the morning of December 20, 1994. One year later, the Scotts filed the instant wrongful death and survival civil action against GWU, alleging medical malpractice by the GWU treatment staff.2

GWU filed its motion to dismiss or for summary judgment on February 5, 1996, arguing that a valid binding arbitration clause, which was part of the health plan agreement covering the Scotts, deprived the court of jurisdiction over this dispute. The clause mandating binding arbitration was added to the agreement effective January 1, 1995, and read in its entirety:

Any claim for damages for personal injury, mental disturbance or wrongful death arising out of the rendition or failure to render services under this contract must be submitted to binding arbitration.

This clause appeared twice in the twenty-four pages of the 1995 agreement, once under the heading "General Limitations" and once under the heading "How the George Washington University Health Plan Changes January 1995." The 1995 agreement with the arbitration clause was distributed to plan members in November 1994. It is uncontested that the 1994 health plan agreement contained no arbitration provision relating to claims such as this one.

The trial court denied GWU's motion to dismiss or for summary judgment on June 3, 1996. In its order, the court stated that "it is uncontroverted that the purported binding arbitration provision at issue did not become effective until January 1, 1995," and that "there is no indication in the 1995 health plan contract that the purported binding arbitration provision should be construed to apply retroactively to medical treatment rendered prior to January 1, 1995." The trial court also ruled that "the language in the arbitration clause refers to claims arising out of `this contract' which the Court interprets to mean the 1995 health plan contract." The court denied GWU's timely motion for reconsideration, filed pursuant to Super. Ct. Civ. R. 59(e), on June 20, 1996, and this appeal followed.3


GWU contends that the long-standing "presumption in favor of arbitration" requires the court to order arbitration in this case. A long line of cases in this jurisdiction favors this presumption when there is an ambiguity in "the interpretation or construction of an agreement containing an arbitration clause." Masurovsky v. Green, 687 A.2d 198, 200 (D.C.1996). The rule in this jurisdiction is that "where the contract contains an arbitration clause, there is a presumption of arbitrability in the sense that an order to arbitrate the particular grievance should not be denied unless ... the arbitration clause is not susceptible of an interpretation that covers the asserted dispute." Id. at 201-02 (citing Carter v. Cathedral Ave. Coop., Inc., 566 A.2d 716, 717 (D.C.1989)).

GWU also argues that the trial court misconstrued the nature of the health plan agreement. In its order, the trial court found that there were two separate contracts, one providing coverage for 1994 and one providing coverage for 1995. In the trial court's view only the latter agreement, taking effect on January 1, 1995, included a valid arbitration clause which, the court ruled, could not be applied "retroactively" to claims arising from events taking place in 1994 under the 1994 agreement, even if the action was not brought until 1995. In response, GWU argues that the 1994 and 1995 health plan agreements are not "successive, multiple contracts," but rather a single contract subject to subsequent modifications. As there is no controlling precedent in the District of Columbia, GWU cites Maryland case law to the effect that "the renewal of an insurance policy is not a new contract, but an extension of the policy's life when made pursuant to a policy provision concerning renewal." Benner v. Nationwide Mut. Ins. Co., 93 F.3d 1228, 1238 (4th Cir.1996) (citing Maryland law); see also World Ins. Co. v. Perry, 210 Md. 449, 124 A.2d 259, 262 (1956). GWU asserts that, as a modification of the Scotts' contract with the health plan, the arbitration clause is valid and binding. Therefore, GWU argues that because the claim was made, i.e., this action was filed, after January 1, 1995, the arbitration provision governs.4

On the other hand, the insureds argue that the 1995 health plan agreement is a completely integrated document, a "new and separate contract" that replaced the 1994 agreement. As the "rendition of services" by the GWU treatment staff was in December 1994, before the 1995 agreement containing the arbitration clause took effect, the insureds contend that their claim arose under that contract and arbitration is not required. The insureds also rely upon Maryland authority, arguing that "under Maryland law, the renewal of an insurance policy is a new contract." Bahn v. Chicago Motor Club Ins. Co., 98 Md.App. 559, 634 A.2d 63, 67 (1993) (citation omitted). Moreover, "as a matter of fairness and of assuring mutual assent to what is, in reality, a new contract, the law requires that reasonable notice be given to the insured if the insurer intends to make a significant change in the new policy." J.A.M. Assocs. v. Western World Ins. Co., 95 Md.App. 695, 622 A.2d 818, 822 (1993). The Scotts averred in affidavits filed in response to GWU's motion, which were not controverted, that they had no notice of the arbitration clause beyond receiving a copy of 1995 plan, and that this clause represented a significant change in the policy. Therefore, appellees assert, a new contract had been formed and the presumption in favor of arbitration should not operate in this instance.


We note at the outset that courts have widely differing views on the question whether, as a general rule, an insurance contract is a new and separate contract upon each renewal, or a single contract subject to subsequent modifications.5See generally COUCH ON INSURANCE 3d §§ 29:33-38 (3d ed.1995). We need not decide here whether insurance contract renewals are, or are not, in the ordinary course new and separate contracts. Rather, we conclude that under the circumstances presented the arbitration provision did not apply to claims, such as the one made by the Scotts, with respect to treatment provided before the effective date of the 1995 contract that included that provision.

We begin our analysis by rejecting GWU's reliance on Masurovsky, and the presumption of arbitrability. In that case we said that

the presumption in favor of arbitration attaches only after the trial court has determined that a valid agreement to arbitrate exists. Put another way, "the scales tip in favor of arbitration when we construe an arbitration clause, but only after we find, as an initial matter, that an enforceable arbitration clause exists."

Masurovsky, supra, 687 A.2d at 205 (quoting Adamovic v. METME Corp., 961 F.2d 652, 654 (7th Cir.1992)). Thus, the presumption applies only to the interpretation or construction of an agreement containing an arbitration clause, not to the preliminary determination of the existence and validity of an agreement to arbitrate. Id. at 200. Here, the trial court determined that the arbitration clause, while valid, came into existence only with respect to claims arising from treatment under the 1995 agreement. As to claims arising from treatment during 1994, in other words, no "enforceable arbitration clause existed." Id. We agree.

We find support for this view in the fact that the arbitration clause was identified in the renewal material as one of the "changes" in the 1995 health plan—clearly implying that the arbitration clause was new in 1995 and did...

To continue reading

Request your trial
15 cases
  • Steiner v. Am. Friends of Lubavitch
    • United States
    • D.C. Court of Appeals
    • 1 Febrero 2018
    ...the Law of Contracts § 13:26 (4th ed. 2009).8 E.g. Schoonover v. Chavous , 974 A.2d 876, 882 n.5 (D.C. 2009) ; George Wash. Univ. v. Scott , 711 A.2d 1257, 1260 n.5 (D.C. 1998) ; Napoleon v. Heard , 455 A.2d 901, 903 (D.C. 1983).9 Ellis v. James V. Hurson Assoc., Inc. , 565 A.2d at 618 & n.......
  • Nanosolutions Llc v. Prajza
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Columbia
    • 2 Junio 2011
    ...agreement in the AIP, and explicitly restrict arbitration to claims arising under the contract. See, e.g., George Washington University v. Scott, 711 A.2d 1257, 1259 (D.C.1998) (parties agreed to arbitrate “any claim ... under this contract”); Security Watch Inc. v. Sentinel Systems, 176 F.......
  • Coffman v. Provost ★ Umphrey Law Firm
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of Texas
    • 5 Abril 2001
    ...when alleged fraudulent conduct occurred before plaintiff executed contract with arbitration clause); George Washington University v. Scott, 711 A.2d 1257, 1260-61 (D.C.Ct.App. 1998) (conduct that occurred before arbitration clause took effect was not A second reason that the arbitration cl......
  • Watson Wyatt & Co. v. Sbc Holdings, Inc.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • 28 Enero 2008
    ...encompass prior invoice and lacked legal and logical nexus between source of dispute and arbitration provision); George Washington University v. Scott/ 711 A.2d 1257 (D.C.1998) (arbitration clause stated that it applied to claims arising out of this contract, did not state it applied to pri......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT