Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced new law to correct the unfair impact of forced arbitration clauses on consumers. There are several reasons consumers are gravely disadvantaged when large companies and service providers easily win in arbitration. Forced arbitration agreements are derived in concept from the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), enacted in 1925. The FAA was not originally intended to be used to compel consumers to settle disputes in arbitration when they would otherwise have access to the courts. The new law, the Restoring Statutory Rights Act, would protect consumers and change the course of the law. This legislation is timely and many consumer rights advocates are upset by the recent U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) decisions upholding forced arbitration agreements imposed on consumers.
Consumers are significantly disadvantaged by forced arbitration clauses.
Forced arbitration clauses are found in the fine print of contracts, in click through agreements online, and in the literature sometimes included in a consumer’s monthly billing statement. In many cases, the consumer is never asked whether they voluntarily consent to having any disputes settled in binding arbitration. Simply by continuing to use a service or make payments on a home or car, the consumer may be consenting to the arbitration clause. Most consumers are unaware that they are limited in arbitration and they will never see a courtroom or judge, even if they have a significant complaint against the lender or service provider seeking to collect a disputed amount of money. In one case we wrote about in Arbitration clauses prevent consumers from suing in court, but might not end the fight, a consumer was sued and lost in arbitration over a debt he did not owe.
Adding another layer of disadvantage on the consumer, the companies writing forced arbitration clauses into their consumer agreements are also the ones to select the panel of arbitrators. There are limits on the rules of law and procedure in arbitration. There is no jury in arbitration, no elected or appointed judge, simply a panel of arbitrators who are not necessarily lawyers or people with legal experience.
The Federal Arbitration Act was never intended to force individual consumers into arbitration.
The FAA statute was written to help companies with equal bargaining power an opportunity to use voluntary arbitration for dispute resolution.[i] The law was not written to compel individual consumers to arbitration, especially when they are forced into arbitration by a clause in the fine print they never read. Recent SCOTUS decisions interpreted the FAA statute as applying to individual consumers who are forced to settle disputes in arbitration and have no right to go to court with their own claims against consumer protection violations or other wrongdoing by the company suing them.
The Restoring Statutory Rights Act could protect consumers from binding arbitration.
Congress is asked to pass the Restoring Statutory Rights Act[ii] to redirect a legal path going in the wrong direction, in the opinion of its authors and supporters.[iii] Lobbying for the necessary changes in the law to protect consumers from abusive and unfair collection practices and lawsuits, there will likely be strong support for this proposed legislation among individual consumers and small business owners. The new law would directly correct some of the current problems and inequities in arbitration.
- The Restoring Statutory Rights Act would make claims by individuals and small businesses, arising out of violations of state or federal law or constitution, exempt from the FAA statute, allowing these claims to proceed in a traditional court of law.
- State and federal courts can apply the laws in their jurisdictions to contract interpretations, arbitration clauses and challenges to the enforceability of forced arbitration clauses, if the Restoring Statutory Rights Act becomes law.
- The enforceability of an arbitration clause would be a decision for the court, not the arbitrators, under the Restoring Statutory Rights Act.
Contacting your U.S. Senator to ask them to support the Restoring Statutory Rights Act is a step you can take to help fight back against forced arbitration.
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The Zamparo Law Group, P.C. is a consumer protection law and litigation firm, representing consumer plaintiffs. Zamparo Law Group in the northwest suburbs of Chicago sues and wins against the companies who refuse to follow the law.
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[iii] The Hill, New bill aims to restore rights lost in forced arbitration clauses, by Lisa Gilbert, contributor, and Sonia Gill. Feb. 11, 2016.