Doe v. Cedars Academy, LLC, 2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 559Posted: April 2, 2012
Doe v. Cedars Academy, LLC, 2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 559
John Doe and Jane Doe, individually, and as Guardian and Next Friend of John Doe, a minor, Plaintiffs, v. Cedars Academy, LLC, and Aspen Education Group, Inc., Defendants.
C.A. No. 09C-09-136 JRS
Superior Court of Delaware, New Castle
2010 Del. Super. LEXIS 559
July 20, 2010, Submitted
October 27, 2010, Decided
This opinion has not been released for publication. Until released, it is subject to revision or withdrawal.
SUBSEQUENT HISTORY: Reargument denied by Doe v. Cedars Acad., LLC, 2011 Del. Super. LEXIS 18 (Del. Super. Ct., Jan. 19, 2011)
PRIOR HISTORY: [*1]
Upon Consideration of Defendants’ Motions to Dismiss.
PROCEDURAL POSTURE: The court considered a motion to dismiss (Del. Super. Ct. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6)) filed by the defendants, a limited liability company (LLC) and a corporation, seeking an order dismissing a complaint filed by plaintiffs, a mother and her son, in which plaintiffs alleged the mother entered into a contract with the LLC to enroll her son in a boarding school and that, while a student there, he was sexually assaulted and threatened by a fellow student.
OVERVIEW: A fair reading of the complaint indicated plaintiffs alleged defendants were liable for damages for breach of the contract and for breach of common law duties of care. The court found a reasonable person would conclude that the mother objectively manifested her assent to be bound by the terms of the contract by paying tuition to the school and entrusting her son to the school as contemplated by the contract. The son, a minor, was also bound by the agreement, entered into on his behalf. Even if a pre-injury release was invalid, it would not render the entire agreement unenforceable. After reviewing the provisions within the four corners of the contract, the court concluded the parties intended to consent to the exclusive jurisdiction of California courts or arbitration panels to litigate their claims, based on a forum selection clause. Other than arguing that the contract was invalid because it was unconscionable, plaintiffs did not provide any support for their claim that the court should ignore the forum selection clause. Given the law in Delaware that choice of forum provisions were enforceable absent a showing of unreasonableness, the court declined to exercise jurisdiction.
OUTCOME: The motion to dismiss was granted.
COUNSEL: Joseph J. Rhoades, Esquire, Stephen T. Morrow, Esquire, LAW OFFICE OF JOSEPH J. RHOADES, Wilmington, Delaware. Attorneys for Plaintiffs.
Norman H. Brooks, Jr., MARKS, O’NEILL, O’BRIEN & COURTNEY, P.C., Wilmington, Delaware. Attorney for Defendants.
JUDGES: Joseph R. Slights, III, Judge.
OPINION BY: Joseph R. Slights, III
Before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss filed by the Defendants, Cedars Academy, LLC (“Cedars”) and Aspen Education Group, Inc. (“Aspen”) (collectively “the Defendants”). The motion seeks an order dismissing the Complaint filed by John Doe and his mother Jane Doe (collectively “Plaintiffs”), 1 in which Plaintiffs allege that Jane Doe entered into a contract with Cedars to enroll her son in the Cedars Academy Boarding School (“Cedars Academy”) and that, while a student there, John Doe was sexually assaulted and threatened by a fellow student. 2
1 Plaintiffs have used pseudonyms, presumably because of the sensitive nature of the allegations.
2 Compl. ¶ 7.
The Complaint contains five counts: three counts raise tort-based claims including negligence, gross negligence, and recklessness; 3 one count raises a [*2] breach of contract claim, 4 and one count raises a claim that Defendants violated John Doe’s substantive due process right to bodily integrity. 5 Defendants move to dismiss all counts for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and improper venue, and also based on a pre-injury release signed by Jane Doe. Defendant Aspen also moves to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction. Upon review of the motion, and the responses thereto, the Court determines that the forum selection clause of the operative contract (selecting California as the exclusive forum) is enforceable as to all of the parties and, as such, the motion to dismiss this action must be GRANTED.
3 Compl. ¶¶ 11-20, 26-29, 30-31.
4 Compl. ¶¶ 21-25.
5 Compl. ¶¶ 32-39.
On September 15, 2007, Jane Doe entered into a contract with Cedars (hereinafter “the Agreement”) to enroll her minor son, John Doe, as a full time student at the Cedars Academy in Bridgeville, Delaware. 6 Cedars Academy is a private preparatory boarding school for students who demonstrate a need for academic and social skill development. 7 The Agreement between Ms. Doe and Cedars contained the following provisions relevant to the controversy sub judice:
5. Assumption of [*3] the Risks; Releases and Indemnities: Sponsor acknowledges serious hazards and dangers, known and unknown, inherent in the Program, including but not limited to vocational activities, emotional and physical injuries, illness or death that may arise from strenuous hiking, climbing, camping in a natural environment, exposure to the elements, plants and animals, running away from the Program, “acts of God” (nature), physical education activities, water sports, stress, involvement with other students, self-inflicted injuries, and transportation to and from activities. Sponsor understands that in participating in the Program Student will be in locations and using facilities where many hazards exist and is aware of and appreciates the risks, [sic] which may result. Sponsor understands that accidents occur during such activities due to the negligence of others, which may result in death or serious injury. Sponsor and Student are voluntarily participating in the Program with knowledge of the dangers involved and agree to accept any and all risks. In consideration for being permitted to participate in the Program, Sponsor agrees to not sue, to assume all risks and to release, hold harmless, [*4] and indemnify Cedars and any and all of its predecessors, successors, officers, directors, trustees, insurers, employees … including, but not limited to, Aspen Education Group, Inc. (collectively all of these above persons and entities shall be referred to as the “Released Parties” hereafter) who, through negligence, carelessness or any other cause might otherwise be liable to Sponsor or Student under theories of contract or tort law. Sponsor intends by this Waiver and Release to release, in advance, and to waive his or her rights and discharge each and every one of the Released Parties, from any and all claims for damages for death, personal injury or property damage which Sponsor may have, or which may hereafter accrue as a result of Student’s participation in any aspect of the Program, even though that liability may arise from negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities being released, from dangerous or defective property or equipment owned, maintained, or controlled by them, or because of their possible liability without fault. Additionally, Sponsor covenants not to sue any of the Released Parties based upon their breach of any duty owed to Sponsor or Student [*5] as a result of their participation in any aspect of the Program. Sponsor understands and agrees that this Waiver and Release is binding on his or her heirs, assigns and legal representatives. 8
15. Binding Arbitration: Any controversy or claim arising out of or relating to this contract, except at Cedars’ option the collection of monies owed by Sponsor to Cedars, shall be settled by binding arbitration conducted in the State of California in accordance with the rules of the American Arbitration Association; 9 and
21. Governing Law/Venue: This Agreement, and all matters relating hereto, including any matter or dispute arising between the parties out of this Agreement, tort or otherwise, shall be interpreted, governed and enforced according to the laws of the State of California; and the parties consent and submit to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the California Courts in Los Angeles County, California, and any qualified (American Arbitration Association-approved) arbitration service in the State of California, County of Los Angeles, to enforce this Agreement. The parties acknowledge that this Agreement constitutes a business transaction within the State of California. 10
6 Compl. [*6] ¶ 2.
7 Pls.’ Resp. Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss Ex. A.
8 Agreement ¶ 5.
9 Agreement ¶ 15.
10 Agreement ¶ 21.
On September 21, 2007, John Doe began attending Cedars Academy and residing in one of its dormitories. 11 While there, John Doe was propositioned by another student to perform sexual acts. According to the Complaint, on one or more occasion, the other student (not named as a defendant or otherwise in the Complaint) entered John Doe’s dormitory room, threatened him and sexually assaulted him. 12 Plaintiffs allege that these sexual assaults resulted in physical and emotional injuries to John Doe and economic damages to both Plaintiffs. 13 A fair reading of the Complaint indicates that Plaintiffs allege Defendants are liable for their damages both as a result of having breached the Agreement and having breached common law duties of care. 14
11 Compl. ¶ 7.
13 Compl. ¶¶ 7-10.
14 See Id. (Counts I through IV).
In support of their motion, Defendants argue that the Agreement is enforceable against Jane Doe as the signatory and John Doe as a third party beneficiary. 15 Because both parties are bound by the Agreement, Defendants argue that Delaware’s preference for enforcing choice of forum provisions [*7] should prevail when, as here, the selected jurisdiction (California) has a “material connection” with the transaction. 16 Finally, Defendants assert that the arbitration provision of the Agreement should be honored because Jane Doe freely entered into the Agreement for the benefit of her minor son and John Doe received the benefit of the Agreement in the form of student housing, meals, and education. 17 According to the Defendants, he “who accepts the benefits of the contract, is also bound by any burdens or restrictions created by it.” 18
15 Defs.’ Letter Mem. pgs. 1-4.
16 Id. at 5.
17 Id. at 4.
In response, Plaintiffs first argue that the Agreement is not enforceable as to Jane Doe or John Doe because its “assumption of the risks; releases and indemnities” provision is invalid as a matter of law. According to Plaintiffs, Delaware courts look with disfavor upon clauses which exculpate a party from the consequences of that party’s own negligence. 19 Moreover, Plaintiffs argue that parents do not have the authority to execute a pre-injury release on behalf of their children. Such pre-injury releases “deprive children of the legal relief necessary to redress negligently inflicted injuries,” [*8] according to Plaintiffs, and are thus void as against public policy. 20 Because the Agreement contains a pre-injury release provision that purports to release a minor’s claim, and an invalid indemnification provision, Plaintiffs contend that the entire Agreement is unenforceable. 21
19 Pls.’ Resp. Defs.’ Letter Mem. pg. 2.
20 Id. at 7.
21 Id. at 6-7.
Plaintiffs next argue that even if the Agreement is enforceable against Jane Doe, it is not enforceable against John Doe because he is not a party to the Agreement. In this regard, Plaintiffs contend that the Agreement fails to identify John Doe as a party to the Agreement, that John Doe is not a signatory to the Agreement, and that there is no language in the Agreement to suggest that Jane Doe was contracting on John Doe’s behalf. 22 Thus, according to the Plaintiffs, the Agreement is between Jane Doe and Cedars only and does not bind John Doe. 23 Plaintiffs further contend that even if John Doe is considered a third party beneficiary, he is still not bound to the Agreement because he did not sign it. 24
22 Id. at 4.
24 Id. at 6.
Finally, Plaintiffs assert that the choice of forum and arbitration provisions of the Agreement are unenforceable [*9] against both Plaintiffs because the Agreement is over-broad and unconscionable. 25 The Plaintiffs contend that the Agreement is too broad because there is no evidence that the parties contemplated “Cedars’ common law duty to prevent sexual assaults on John Doe or the manner in which breaches of that duty would be redressed when they entered into the Agreement.” 26 In addition, they argue that the Agreement is unconscionable because “John Doe was in need of specialized care and Cedars purported to be uniquely qualified to render such care,” leaving Jane Doe with little choice but to “sign on the dotted line.” 27
25 Id. at 8-10.
26 Id. at 9.
27 Id. at 10.
[HN1] In evaluating a Motion to Dismiss under Superior Court Civil Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must assume all well plead facts in the complaint to be true. 28 A complaint will not be dismissed unless the plaintiff would not be entitled to recover under any reasonable set of circumstances susceptible of proof. 29 Stated differently, a complaint may not be dismissed unless it is clearly not viable, which may be determined as a matter of law or fact. 30
28 Ramunno v. Cawley, 705 A.2d 1029, 1034 (Del. 1998).
29 Nix v. Sawyer, 466 A.2d 407, 410 (Del. Super. 1983).
30 Diamond State Tel. Co. v. Univ. of Del., 269 A.2d 52, 58 (Del. 1970).
Plaintiffs’ [*10] Motion and the Defendants’ response implicate the following issues, which the Court will address seriatim: (A) whether the Agreement is binding as to Jane Doe; (B) whether the Agreement is binding as to John Doe; (C) whether the pre-injury release provision renders the entire Agreement unenforceable; and, if not (D) whether the choice of law, choice of forum, and/or arbitration provisions of the Agreement are controlling.
A. Jane Doe Is Bound By The Agreement She Entered Into With Cedars On Behalf Of Her Son
[HN2] Both Delaware and California measure the formation of a contract by an objective test. 31 Specifically, a contract is formed if “a reasonable person would conclude, based on the objective manifestations of assent and the surrounding circumstances, that the parties intended to be bound to their agreement on all essential terms.” 32 At the outset, the Court notes that [HN3] it is counter-intuitive to seek enforcement of an agreement that one alleges to be invalid. Stated differently, a party cannot “simultaneously seek to avoid the contract … and at the same time sue for damages for breach of [that] contract ….” 33 And yet, this is precisely what the Plaintiffs are attempting to do in [*11] this case. 34
31 The Court has considered both Delaware and California law in construing the Agreement given the Agreement’s choice of California law. See Leeds v. First Allied Conn. Corp., 521 A.2d 1095, 1097 (Del. Ch. 1986); Founding Members of Newport Beach Country Club v. Newport Beach Country Club, Inc., 109 Cal. App. 4th 944, 955, 135 Cal. Rptr. 2d 505 (Cal. Ct. App. 2003).
32 Leeds, 521 A.2d at 1101. See also Founding Members, 109 Cal. App. 4th at 955 (“California recognizes the objective theory of contracts, under which [it] is the objective intent, as evidenced by the words of the contract, rather than the subjective intent of one of the parties, that controls interpretation.”).
33 In re Verilink Corp., 405 B.R. 356, 378 (N.D. Ala. 2009).
34 Compl. ¶¶ 21-25.
Moreover, a reasonable person would conclude that Jane Doe objectively manifested her assent to be bound by the terms of the Agreement by paying tuition to Cedars Academy as required by the Agreement and entrusting her son to the school as contemplated by the Agreement. 35 As a person with the capacity to contract, and in the absence of allegations of fraud, duress, or undue influence, Jane Doe is bound to the Agreement she signed with Cedars so that [*12] her son could attend Cedars Academy. 36
35 Compl. ¶¶ 5 and 22.
36 2 Williston on Contracts § 6:44 (4th ed.) (“Because the offeree’s action naturally indicates assent, at least in the absence of an invalidating cause such as fraud, duress, mutual mistake, or unconscionability, where an offeree signs a document it is generally held to be bound by the document’s terms, even if the offeree signs in ignorance of those terms.”). See, e.g., Indus. Am., Inc v. Fulton Indus., Inc., 285 A.2d 412, 415 (Del. 1971) (“Where an offeror requests an act in return for his promise and the act is performed, the act performed becomes the requisite overt manifestation of assent if the act is done intentionally; i.e., if there is a ‘conscious will’ to do it.”); Main Storage & Trucking Inc. v. Benco Contracting and Eng’g Inc., 89 Cal. App. 4th 1042, 1049, 107 Cal. Rptr. 2d 645 (Cal. Ct. App. 2001)( [HN4] “Every contract requires mutual assent or consent, and ordinarily one who signs an instrument which on its face is a contract is deemed to assent to all its terms.”).
B. John Doe Is Bound By The Agreement Entered Into On His Behalf By His Mother
The parties focused much of their energy on whether John Doe should be considered a third party [*13] beneficiary of the Agreement. This focus, however, misses the mark in that it ignores the realities of the relationship between parent and child. As a matter of law, and as a practical matter, John Doe, a minor, could not obtain a private boarding school education from a facility like Cedars Academy without his mother contracting for such services on his behalf. 37 As the guardian of John Doe, Jane Doe was authorized to provide for her minor son’s education in the manner she saw fit. 38
37 6 Del. C. § 2705 ( [HN5] A person does not have the capacity to contract until he or she reaches the age of majority); Cal. Fam. Code Ann. § 6700 (West 1994)(“A minor may make a contract … subject to the power of disaffirmance.”); Cal. Fam. Code Ann. § 6500 (“A minor is an individual who is under 18 years of age.”).
38 Ide v. Brown, 178 N.Y. 26, 70 N.E. 101, 102 ( N.Y.1904) (“As guardian, we assume that [father] had the power to provide for her support and maintenance during [daughter’s] minority.”); Pierce v. Soc’y of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus & Mary, 268 U.S. 510, 534-35, 45 S. Ct. 571, 69 L. Ed. 1070 (1925) (Parents have the liberty “to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control.”); Hohe v. San Diego Unified Sch. Dist., 224 Cal. App. 3d 1559, 1565, 274 Cal. Rptr. 647 (Cal. Ct. App. 1990)(same).
To [*14] conclude that John Doe is not bound by the Agreement’s otherwise enforceable terms, as Plaintiffs contend, simply because he is a minor would be tantamount to concluding that a parent can never contract with a private school (or any other service provider) on behalf and for the benefit of her child. As a practical matter, no service provider would ever agree to a contract with a parent if a child could ignore the provisions of the contract that pertain to him without recourse. 39 Such a result is inconsistent with the law’s concept of the family which “rests on a presumption that parents possess what a child lacks in maturity, experience, and capacity for judgment required for making life’s difficult decisions.” 40 In this case, as a parent, Jane Doe was authorized to enter into the Agreement with Cedars on behalf of her minor son and to bind him to its enforceable terms.
39 For instance, in this case, Cedars reserved the right to terminate John Doe’s enrollment in Cedars Academy if he engaged in “illegal, uncontrollable, or dangerous behavior” or “for any other reason … deem[ed] necessary for the protection of [John Doe], any other student(s) or the integrity of Cedar’s program.” [*15] Agreement, ¶ 9. This provision implicitly imposes upon John Doe certain obligations to behave in an appropriate manner. If this obligation was deemed by the Court to be non-binding upon John Doe simply because he is a minor, then Cedars, in turn, would lose its authority to discharge him or any other student whose behavior justified termination from the program. No private school would ever enroll a student under such circumstances.
40 Parham v. J.R., 442 U.S. 584, 602, 99 S. Ct. 2493, 61 L. Ed. 2d 101 (1979).
C. Even If The Pre-Injury Release Provision Is Invalid, It is Severable and Does Not Affect The Overall Enforceability Of The Agreement
Plaintiffs argue that parents do not possess the authority to bind their children to pre-injury releases. 41 According to Plaintiffs, the pre-injury release is invalid, 42 and, therefore, John Doe should not be bound by the balance of the Agreement’s terms. 43
41 Agreement ¶ 5.
42 Pls.’ Resp. Defs.’ Letter Mem. pg. 7.
43 Pls.’ Resp. Defs.’ Mot. to Dismiss ¶ 8.
It appears that no Delaware court has specifically addressed whether parents can bind their children to a pre-injury release. Further, it appears that there is a split among those jurisdictions that have addressed the issue. 44 This [*16] Court need not weigh in on behalf of Delaware, however, because even if the pre-injury release is invalid, the presence of the provision would not render the entire Agreement unenforceable. 45 [HN6] When “determining whether a contract is divisible … the essential question … is ‘did the parties give a single assent to the whole transaction, or did they assent separately to several things?'” 46 If there is evidence that clearly shows that the parties intended to enter into an integrated contract, then the contract should be read in its entirety. 47 In this regard, Delaware courts recognize that “[t]he parties’ intent to enter into a divisible contract may be expressed in the contract directly, through a severability clause.” 48 The Agreement between the parties in this case contains a clear and unambiguous severability clause. 49 Accordingly, the invalidity of the pre-injury release would not render the remainder of the Agreement unenforceable.
44 Compare Cooper v. Aspen Skiing Co., 48 P.3d 1229 (Colo. 2002)(holding that Colorado’s public policy affords minors significant protections which preclude parents or guardians from releasing a minor’s own prospective claim for negligence); Hawkins ex rel. Hawkins v. Peart, 2001 UT 94, 37 P.3d 1062 (Utah 2001)(holding [*17] that a parent cannot release a child’s causes of action against a third party before or after an injury); with Sharon v. City of Newton, 437 Mass. 99, 769 N.E.2d 738 (Mass. 2002)(holding that releases of liability for ordinary negligence involving private parties are valid as a general proposition in the Commonwealth and, thus, it was not contrary to the purposes of the Tort Claims Act to allow city to use releases as a precondition for student’s participation in voluntary, nonessential activities, such as cheerleading at public school activities); Zivich v. Mentor Soccer Club, Inc., 82 Ohio St. 3d 367, 1998 Ohio 389, 696 N.E.2d 201 (Ohio 1998) (Holding that mother had authority to bind her minor child to exculpatory agreement in favor of volunteers and sponsors of nonprofit soccer organization, where cause of action sounded in negligence; agreement could not be disaffirmed by child on whose behalf it was executed).
45 See McInerney v. Slights, 1988 Del. Ch. LEXIS 47, 1988 WL 34528, *7 (Del. Ch. Apr. 13, 1988)(“… where a contract as negotiated cannot be enforced by reason of a legally-recognized policy, a court should simply [imply] a severability clause in the contract if to enforce such an implied term may be done sensibly.”); Abramson v. Juniper Networks, Inc. 115 Cal. App. 4th 638, 658-59, 9 Cal. Rptr. 3d 422 (Cal. Ct. App. 2004)(“Where [*18] a contract has several distinct objects, of which one at least is lawful, and one at least is unlawful, in whole or in part, the contract is void as to the latter and valid as to the rest.”).
46 Orenstein v. Kahn, 13 Del. Ch. 376, 119 A. 444, 446 (Del. Ch. 1922) (“Although the consideration is apportioned on the face of a contract, if there be a special agreement to take the whole or nothing, or if the evidence clearly shows that such was the purpose of the parties, the contract should be entire.”).
48 15 Williston on Contracts § 45:6 (4th ed.). See also Evans, 872 A.2d at 552 (“Generally, a severability clause is enforceable.”).
49 Agreement ¶ 22 (“In the event that any provision of this agreement, or any operation contemplated hereunder, is found by a court of competent jurisdiction to be inconsistent with or contrary to any law, ordinance, or regulation, the latter shall be deemed to control and the Agreement shall be regarded as modified accordingly and, in any event, the remainder of this agreement shall continue in full force and effect.”).
D. The Choice of Forum Provision is Controlling
Having determined that the pre-injury release provision may be excised, the Court now turns to the balance of [*19] the Agreement to determine if any remaining provisions support the Defendants’ motion. In this regard, the Court’s attention is drawn immediately to provisions of the Agreement which suggest that the parties intended to resolve their disputes in California, not Delaware. Not surprisingly, Defendants interpret these provisions as requiring the Court to dismiss this action so that Plaintiffs’ claims may be brought in California as intended. Plaintiffs, not surprisingly, argue that the Agreement’s arbitration and choice of forum provisions do not apply here. The parties’ differing views of these provisions require the Court to interpret the Agreement and to determine in which forum this controversy belongs.
[HN7] Both Delaware and California courts honor the parol evidence rule. 50 This rule provides that “[w]hen two parties have made a contract and have expressed it in a writing to which they have both assented as to the complete and accurate integration of that contract, evidence . . . of antecedent understandings and negotiations will not be admitted for the purpose of varying or contradicting the writing.” 51 To ensure compliance with the parol evidence rule, the court first must determine [*20] whether the terms of the contract it has been asked to construe clearly state the parties’ agreement. 52 In this regard, the court must remember that a contract is not rendered ambiguous simply because the parties disagree as to the meaning of its terms. 53 “Rather, a contract is ambiguous only when the provisions in controversy are reasonably or fairly susceptible of different interpretations or may have two or more different meanings.” 54 Upon concluding that the contract clearly and unambiguously reflects the parties’ intent, the court’s interpretation of the contract must be confined to the document’s “four corners.” 55 The court will interpret the contract’s terms according to the meaning that would be ascribed to them by a reasonable third party. 56
50 See Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chem. Co. v. American Motorists Ins. Co., 616 A.2d 1192, 1196 (Del. 1992); Wolf v. Walt Disney Pictures & Television, 162 Cal. App. 4th 1107, 1126, 76 Cal. Rptr. 3d 585 (Cal. Ct. App. 2008).
51 26 Corbin on Contracts § 573 (1960).
52 Comrie v. Enterasys Networks, Inc., 837 A.2d 1, 13 (Del. Ch. 2003)(citing In Re. Explorer Pipeline Co., 781 A.2d 705, 713 (Del. Ch. 2001)); Wolf, 162 Cal. App. 4th at 1126 (“[w]hen a contract is reduced [*21] to writing, the intention of the parties is to be ascertained from the writing alone, if possible….”)(citation omitted).
53 See Rhone-Poulenc Basic Chem. Co. v. American Motorists Ins. Co., 616 A.2d 1192, 1196 (Del. 1992)(“A contract is not rendered ambiguous simply because the parties do not agree upon its proper construction.”); Curry v. Moody, 40 Cal. App. 4th 1547, 1552, 48 Cal. Rptr. 2d 627 (Cal. Ct. App. 1995)(“When the parties dispute the meaning of a contract term, the trial court’s first step is to determine whether the term is ambiguous … “).
54 Id. (citation omitted).
55 See O’Brien v. Progressive Northern, Ins. Co., 785 A.2d 281, 288-89 (Del. 2001); Wolf, 162 Cal. App.4th at 1126.
56 Comrie, 837 A.2d at 13 (citations omitted); Wolf, 162 Cal. App. 4th at 1126.
As directed by the parol evidence rule, the Court looks first to the Agreement itself (the text within the “four corners”) to determine if it unambiguously reflects the parties’ intent with respect to choice of forum. To discern the parties’ intent, the Court has utilized certain settled tenets of contract interpretation. 57 The first, and [HN8] perhaps most fundamental, tenet of contract interpretation requires the court to render a “reasonable, [*22] fair and practical” interpretation of the contract’s clear and unambiguous terms. 58 In addition, the court must be mindful that “[a] contract should be read as a whole and every part should be interpreted with reference to the whole, and if possible should be so interpreted as to give effect to its general purpose.” 59 In this regard, the court must interpret the contract “so as to conform to an evident consistent purpose” and “in a manner that makes the contract internally consistent.” 60
57 “An abstract distinction exists between ‘construction’ and ‘interpretation,’ in that ‘construction’ is the drawing of conclusions from elements known from, given in, and indicated by the language used, while ‘interpretation’ is the art of finding the true sense of the language itself ….” 17A Am. Jur. 2d Contracts §328.
58 Id. at §338.
59 Id. at §376.
Here, the Agreement’s choice of law and choice of forum provisions are combined in one paragraph, and together they state, in pertinent part, as follows: “This Agreement, and all matters pertaining hereto, including any matter or dispute arising between the parties out of this Agreement, tort or otherwise, shall be interpreted, governed and enforced [*23] according to the laws of the State of California; and the Parties consent and submit to the exclusive jurisdiction and venue of the California Courts … to enforce this Agreement.” 61 After reading this provision, the Court can mine only two sources of possible ambiguity in relation to the facts sub judice: (1) whether the choice of forum provision applies only to actions “to enforce the Agreement;” and, if not (2) whether Plaintiffs’ claims, including their tort claims, “aris[e] out of the Agreement” such that they implicate the choice of law and choice of forum provisions. As discussed below, neither of these phrases render the Agreement ambiguous.
61 Agreement ¶ 21.
As the Court considers whether Plaintiffs’ claims implicate the Agreement’s choice of forum provision, the Court takes notice of the placement of the semicolon to separate the choice of law and choice of forum provisions. At first glance, the semicolon might suggest an intent to separate the two provisions such that one will not modify the other. And, if the provisions are separated, one might read the choice of forum provision as applying only to actions “to enforce the Agreement.” But this reading would run counter to [*24] the theme of the entire Agreement, which is designed to ground all aspects of the parties’ relationship in California. For instance, the Agreement provides that payments, notices, and correspondence between Jane Doe and Cedars are to be mailed to a California location; 62 disputes between the parties are to be resolved by arbitration that must occur in California; and California law is to apply to all disputes between the parties, whether based in tort or contract. 63 Given the parties’ clear intent to base their relationship in California, the Court will not read the placement of a semicolon as an intent to limit the scope of the choice of forum provision. 64
62 Id. at ¶ 17.
63 Id. at ¶ 21.
64 See Reliance-Grant Elevator Equipment Corp. v. Reliance Ball-Bearing Door Hanger Co., 205 A.D. 320, 199 N.Y.S. 476, 478 (N.Y. App. Div. 1923) (“If for the comma we substitute a period, and make the phrase an independent sentence, all ambiguity will disappear, and the cancellation proviso will clearly refer to the duration of the agreement, and not to the making of extensions.”). See also 11 Williston on Contracts § 32:9 (4th ed.) (“Attention is often paid to grammar and punctuation in determining the proper interpretation [*25] of a contract, but a court will disregard both grammatical constructs and the punctuation used in the written agreement where the context of the contract shows that grammatical or punctuation errors have occurred.”); 17A Am. Jur. 2d Contracts § 365 ( [HN9] “while a court, in construing a contract, will give due force to the grammatical arrangement of the clauses, it will disregard the grammatical construction if it is at variance with the intent of the parties as indicated by the contract as a whole.”).
The semicolon issue aside, the choice of law/choice of forum paragraph, according to its terms, applies to all actions that “aris[e] out of the Agreement.” The question, then, is whether Plaintiffs’ tort and contract claims may properly be said to “aris[e] out of the Agreement.” [HN10] “Where there is a contractual relationship between the parties, a cause of action in tort may sometimes arise out of the negligent manner in which the contractual duty is performed, or out of a failure to perform such duty.” 65 The Agreement mandates that “[o]n the arrival date, [Jane Doe] shall transfer, by a Power of Attorney … temporary custody of the Student [John Doe] to Cedars ….” 66 From the moment Jane Doe [*26] dropped her son off at Cedars Academy, therefore, the school was entrusted with “duties correspondent to the role of a caregiver.” 67 All of Plaintiffs’ claims, based as they are on an alleged failure to protect John Doe while he resided in a Cedars Academy dormitory, directly involve Cedars’ contractual undertaking to care for John Doe as “temporary custod[ian].” As such, the Court is satisfied that the claims “aris[e] out of the Agreement.”
65 Eads v. Marks, 39 Cal. 2d 807, 810-11, 249 P.2d 257 (Cal.1952). See also N. Am. Chem. Co. v. Superior Court, 59 Cal. App. 4th 764, 775, 69 Cal. Rptr. 2d 466(Cal. Ct. App. 1997); Southgate Recreation & Park Dist. v. California Assn. for Park & Recreation Ins., 106 Cal. App. 4th 293, 301-02, 130 Cal. Rptr. 2d 728 (Cal. Ct. App. 2003).
66 Agreement ¶ 3.
67 People v. Toney, 76 Cal. App. 4th 618, 621-22, 90 Cal. Rptr. 2d 578 (Cal. Ct. App. 1999)(citing People v. Cochran, 62 Cal.App. 4th 826, 832, 73 Cal. Rptr. 2d 257 (Cal. Ct. App. 1998))(” The terms ‘care or custody’ do not imply a familial relationship but only a willingness to assume duties correspondent to the role of a caregiver.”).
After reviewing all of the provisions within the four corners of the Agreement, the Court concludes that the parties intended to consent to the exclusive jurisdiction [*27] of California courts or arbitration panels to litigate their claims. [HN11] When “there is a forum selection clause in a contract, even when the venue where the suit is filed is proper, the court should decline to proceed when the parties freely agreed that litigation should be conducted in another forum.” 68 Unless the forum selection clause “is shown by the resisting party to be unreasonable under the circumstances,” such clauses are prima facie valid. 69 A choice of forum provision will be deemed “unreasonable” only when its enforcement would seriously impair the plaintiff’s ability to pursue its cause of action.” 70 Mere inconvenience or additional expense is not sufficient evidence of unreasonableness. 71
68 Eisenmann Corp. v. Gen. Motors Corp., 2000 Del. Super. LEXIS 25, 2000 WL 140781, *7 (Del. Super. Jan. 28, 2000) (citing Elia Corp. v. Paul N. Howard Co., 391 A.2d 214, 216 (Del. Super. 1978)).
69 Id. (citing M/S Bremen v. Zapata Off-Shore Co., 407 U.S. 1, 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513 (1972)). Defendants have argued that the forum selection provision should be enforced if California has a “material connection” to the controversy. This inquiry is implicated by a choice of law analysis, but not by a choice of forum analysis. See Weil v. Morgan Stanley DW, Inc., 877 A.2d 1024 (Del. Ch. 2005).
71 Elia Corp., 391 A.2d at 216.
Other [*28] than arguing that the Agreement is invalid in its entirety because it is unconscionable, Plaintiffs do not provide any support for their contention that the Court should ignore the forum selection clause. 72 They have not, for instance, pointed to any circumstance that would suggest that litigating their claims in California “would seriously impair [their] ability to pursue [their] cause of action.” 73 Having determined that the Agreement is valid and enforceable as to both Jane Doe and John Doe, the Court is left with no basis in fact or law to suggest that the forum selection clause seriously impairs the Plaintiffs’ ability to pursue their cause of action. 74 Accordingly, given the well settled law [HN12] in Delaware that choice of forum provisions are enforceable absent a showing of unreasonableness, the Court must enforce the provision here and decline to exercise jurisdiction in this matter.
72 Beyond the pre-injury release provision, Plaintiffs have pointed to nothing in the Agreement to support an unconscionability argument, and the Court has discerned no basis for the argument on its own.
73 Eisenmann Corp., 2000 Del. Super. LEXIS 25, 2000 WL 140781 at 7 (citing M/S Bremen, 407 U.S. 1 at 10, 92 S. Ct. 1907, 32 L. Ed. 2d 513).
74 Here again, Plaintiffs [*29] have not argued that their ability to pursue their claims in California would be “seriously impaired,” e.g. by virtue of a statute of limitations that would bar their claims there or otherwise, and the Court can fathom no reason why the identical claims sub judice could not be raised in California.
Since the Court has determined that it should decline to exercise its jurisdiction over this dispute for the reasons set forth above, the Court need not decide the validity of the mandatory arbitration provision, nor whether Aspen should be dismissed based upon a lack of personal jurisdiction. These questions will be left to the California forum (be it a court or arbitration panel) that ultimately decides this case.
Based on the foregoing, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss is hereby GRANTED.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Joseph R. Slights, III
Joseph R. Slights, III, Judge