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Disputed signature keeps case out of arbitration

Applying a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling, the Court of Appeals Western District declined to compel arbitration for a man who claims not to have co-signed his grandson’s title loan.

Glenn James Duncan had sued TitleMax of Missouri Inc. for conversion after the company repossessed a 2004 Pontiac Bonneville co-owned by him and his grandson, Travis Eacret. In December 2018, Eacret had taken out a loan through TitleMax using the title to the vehicle as security. Eacret later defaulted.

TitleMax responded to the suit by seeking to compel arbitration, citing a provision in the loan contract that it insists Duncan signed. The name “Jim Duncan” appears on the signature line, and according to an affidavit from the general manager of the Claycomo branch, it was the store’s policy to have verified the identity of the “person who had accompanied” Eacret to the store.

Duncan, however, insists he was never there and never agreed to the contract. Eacret supplied his own affidavit alleging that the employee gave him the loan and told him to have his grandfather come back within a few days to sign it “or she would get into some real trouble.” But Duncan repeatedly refused to sign anything, Eacret said.

Clay County Associate Circuit Judge Louis Angles declined to send the case to arbitration, and the Western District agreed. Generally, Missouri law gives few outs to those who are subject to arbitration clauses. The Supreme Court frequently has enforced such clauses, even those that allow the arbitrator to determine whether or not the arbitration agreement is valid.

But in January, the court held in Theroff v. Dollar Tree Stores Inc. that a blind woman wasn’t bound by a workplace arbitration agreement her employer insisted she had signed electronically when she was hired. An assistant manager allegedly had helped the employee complete the paperwork, and she said she didn’t know what she was signing.

TitleMax argued that Eacret’s affidavit left open the possibility that the grandfather had signed the loan document at some other time. But the appeals court said it provided substantial evidence that Duncan didn’t sign alongside his grandson on the date TitleMax said he did.

“Simply stated, the trial court disbelieved TitleMax’s evidence, which it was entitled to do,” Judge Edward R. Ardini Jr. wrote. Judges Thomas H. Newton and Mark D. Pfeiffer concurred.

Jon Krebbs of Liberty, who represented Duncan along with Bruce B. Brown of Kearney, said it’s still not enough for a plaintiff to avoid arbitration by claiming that he was tricked or didn’t understand what he read.

“But in this case there was no existence, no contract at all,” Krebbs said.

Anthony Durone of Berkowitz Oliver in Kansas City, who argued for TitleMax, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The case is Duncan v. TitleMax of Missouri Inc., WD83330.