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SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC v. Hinton

Supreme Court of Alabama

March 30, 2018

SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC, d/b/a Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum, et al.
v.
Johnnie Hinton

          Appeal from Jefferson Circuit Court (CV-16-903234)

          BRYAN, Justice.

         SCI Alabama Funeral Services, LLC, d/b/a Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum ("SCI"); Service Corporation International; SCI Funeral Services, LLC; Elmwood Cemetery Co.; Phyllis Pesseackey; and Jonathan Wheatley (hereinafter referred to collectively as "the defendants") appeal from an order denying their motion to compel arbitration. The circuit court denied the motion to compel because it concluded that the relevant arbitration provision is unconscionable and thus unenforceable. We conclude that the arbitration provision is not unconscionable, and we reverse and remand.

         In 2004, Johnnie Hinton ("Johnnie") signed a contract with SCI to purchase the interment rights to two burial spaces in Elmwood Cemetery. The contract contains an arbitration provision stating that "any claim" that Johnnie "may have" against SCI must be resolved by arbitration. The arbitration provision further provides that it

"also applies to any claim or dispute between or among the seller, you as the purchaser, any person who claims to be a third party beneficiary of this agreement, any of the seller's employees or agents, any of the seller's parent, subsidiary, or affiliate corporations, and any of the employees or agents of those parent, subsidiary or affiliate corporations."

         In August 2016, Johnnie's husband, Nathaniel Hinton, passed away. Johnnie began to make arrangements to have Nathaniel buried in one of the two burial spaces to which she had acquired interment rights in 2004. SCI then informed Johnnie that someone else had mistakenly been buried in Nathaniel's space. According to Johnnie's complaint, the space she acquired for Nathaniel is next to the space where her father is buried. At Johnnie's request, SCI disinterred the deceased who was buried in the space Johnnie had acquired and buried him elsewhere so that Nathaniel could be buried in the space; Nathaniel was subsequently buried there.

         In September 2016, Johnnie sued SCI and the other defendants, alleging breach of contract and several other claims. Johnnie alleged that the corporate defendants were either owners, subsidiaries, or affiliates of each other and that the noncorporate defendants were employees at Elmwood Cemetery.

         The defendants moved to compel arbitration, citing the arbitration provision in the contract. Johnnie argued that the arbitration provision is unenforceable because, she said, the contract does not evidence a transaction affecting interstate commerce and the arbitration provision is unconscionable. The circuit court denied the motion to compel, concluding that the arbitration provision is unconscionable. The circuit court based its denial of the motion to compel on the ground of unconscionability alone. The defendants appealed to this Court under Rule 4(d), Ala. R. App. P., which allows an appeal from an order granting or denying a motion to compel arbitration.

"'This Court's review of an order granting or denying a motion to compel arbitration is de novo. ...'
"United Wisconsin Life Ins. Co. v. Tankersley, 880 So.2d 385, 389 (Ala. 2003). Furthermore:
"'"A motion to compel arbitration is analogous to a motion for summary judgment. TranSouth Fin. Corp. v. Bell, 739 So.2d 1110, 1114 (Ala. 1999). The party seeking to compel arbitration has the burden of proving the existence of a contract calling for arbitration and proving that that contract evidences a transaction affecting interstate commerce. Id. 'After a motion to compel arbitration has been made and supported, the burden is on the non-movant to present evidence that the supposed arbitration agreement is not valid or does not apply to the dispute in question.'"
"'Fleetwood Enters., Inc. v. Bruno, 784 So.2d 277, 280 (Ala. 2000) (quoting Jim Burke Auto., Inc. v. Beavers, 674 So.2d 1260, 1265 n. 1 (Ala. 1995) (emphasis omitted)).'
"Vann v. First Cmty. Credit Corp., 834 So.2d 751, 753 (Ala. ...

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