Making the Mandatory Argument: Arbitration, Class Waivers and the Practitioners’ Role

By Russ Bleemer

Legislative and court arguments over whether ADR processes can be used to defray class litigation are moving toward a decisive 2017 conclusion.

New regulations barring the use of class waivers associated with mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial contracts, like credit card agreements or wireless telephone service agreements, are due for release soon by the Washington, D.C.-based Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  The CFPB had issued a proposal in May and accepted public comments until August.

In the December Alternatives, Sanford Jaffe and Linda Stamato, longtime conflict resolution process theorists, designers, and practitioners at the Center for Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., backed the move.  They argue that the mandatory arbitration processes that prohibit class litigation that the CFPB targets indeed should go.

But with the intervention of last month’s election, the prospects for the vitality and longevity of the coming regulation has dimmed.

So the authors also argue that the responsibility for preserving the integrity of alternative dispute resolution processes by breaking the link between mandatory processes and class waivers lies with practitioners themselves.

“Rarely seen are misgivings about mandatory arbitration expressed by dispute resolution professionals,” the authors write. “But we ought to be heard in the hearings and rule-making processes, and in social and print media, to support the proper use of the processes we have worked to design, develop, apply and evaluate.  We need . . . to defend the principles upon which this field is grounded, not the least of which is choice. We need to return to the attitudes and beliefs with which the field started decades ago, to fulfill the promises of the architects of the field.”

In addition to discussing mandatory arbitration in contracts over which the CFPB regulates, Jaffe and Stamato discuss mandatory arbitration in the employment context, noting the line of cases involving the clash between the Federal Arbitration Act and the National Labor Relations Act.

Three federal circuit courts have held that the FAA permits employers to use class waivers in requiring arbitration to resolve workplace disputes, while two circuits have gone the other way, saying that the NLRA preserves a right to class processes, including litigation, under the law which says that employees may “engage in . . . concerted activities.” See CPR Blog post from Aug. 23 HERE.

Since the December issue of Alternatives was released (HERE free on CPR’s website for members logged in; HERE with archives on publisher John Wiley’s site) , the U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled five FAA-NLRA cases for discussion at its Jan. 6 case conference.

Experts believe the Court will accept one or more of the cases—perhaps one favoring the defense view upholding mandatory arbitration with a class waiver, and one backing the National Labor Relation Board’s ruling that class processes must be preserved—to finally decide the matter, which has been brewing since the NLRB struck the mandatory arbitration/class waiver provision it found in D.R. Horton Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184, 2012 WL 36274 (Jan. 3, 2012)(PDF download link at http://1.usa.gov/1IMkHn8), enforcement denied in relevant part, 737 F.3d 344 (5th Cir. 2013)(Graves, J., dissenting)(PDF download link at http://bit.ly/1XRvjrM), reh’g denied, No. 12-60031 (Apr. 16, 2014).

Meantime, the viability of the CFPB’s yet-to-be-released regulations is in doubt in light of President-elect Trump’s anti-regulation views, including his loathing of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which authorized the CFPB.  While the agency is committed to a forthcoming final regulation, it’s unlikely it will stand without attack.

In the forthcoming January issue of Alternatives, available at the links above on or around Jan. 4, Philadelphia-based Ballard Spahr partner Alan Kaplinsky will counter the December Alternatives commentary discussed above with an outline of the options to challenge to the CFPB’s regulation, which some analysts say may emerge before Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration.

As Kaplinsky points out, a Congressional repeal may not even be necessary.  A new Trump appointee replacing current CFPB Director Richard Cordray could roll back the roll-out, restore (or reassert) mandatory arbitration and class waivers, and delay or change the regulations via the Administrative Procedure Act.

The December Alternatives commentary, “Private Justice: Losing Our Day in Court,” by Sanford M. Jaffe and Linda Stamato, is available now for all readers HERE.

The author edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for the CPR Institute.

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