“Arbitration in America” – A Summary of the Senate Judiciary Committee Meeting

By Echo K.X. Wang 

An April 2 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, “Arbitration in America,” chaired by North Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, examined the values of the practice, focusing on mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer contracts.

The Senate is closely divided on the subject. Democrats have pushed strongly against mandatory arbitration clauses in reaction to Supreme Court decisions. In the past two months, several bills limiting or eliminating mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer contracts have been introduced.

In February, Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga., joined Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D., Conn., to introduce the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act–the FAIR Act–in the House (H.R. 1423), which would “prohibit predispute arbitration agreements that force arbitration of future employment, consumer, antitrust, or civil rights dispute.” (Text and information can be found at https://bit.ly/2UTQoeO.)

More recently, on April 10, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D. Ohio, introduced another bill, Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act (S. 630), which would restrict mandatory arbitration and class action waivers in contracts that relate to a “consumer financial product or service.” (S.630 can be found at https://bit.ly/2UvCuQs).

The bill would reverse last fall’s vote by the Senate to overturn Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rules that barred mandatory pre-dispute arbitration combined with class processes in litigation and arbitration in consumer financial services contracts. The CFPB rule, which had been in the works for more than four years, was rescinded by a 51-50 Senate vote, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.

For more details on these bills and more, see Vincent Sauvet, New Push Coming for Familiar Arbitration Bills? CPR Speaks blog (April 3) (available at https://bit.ly/2UynZeJ).

While the proposals are facing pushbacks from Republicans and business owners, the committee meeting provided a venue for the two sides to engage in discussions. Most important, the fact that Sen. Graham organized and led this meeting signals that there is a bipartisan opening for negotiation on arbitration reform.

In his initial statement, Graham noted that while arbitration has a place in society, everything good for business is not necessarily best for society. The hearing, he said, therefore sought to address the applicability of arbitration where it conflicts with social issues, in matters including sexual harassment and employment disputes.

Sen. Blumenthal followed, noting that “a right without remedy is [a] dead letter.” Throughout the meeting, Chairman Graham repeatedly stated he wanted to find a “middle-ground” solution to allow businesses to thrive while at the same time provide consumer protection.

But during the two-hour hearing, the divergent views clashed more than they found common ground. The Judiciary Committee listened to testimony from a small business owner, a Navy Reservist, practitioners on both sides, and business owners, all focusing on whether there should be a limit or bar to the use of “forced” arbitration agreements.

The hearing participants discussed the degree to which mandatory arbitration harms consumers, the effects of class-action waivers, and the way that businesses can be affected by mandatory arbitrations.

Sens. Graham and Blumenthal, as well as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D., Calif., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D., R.I., spoke in favor of establishing limits to the arbitration use.

Kevin Ziober, a Newport Beach, Calif., Navy reservist and federal employee, spoke about his experience in which he was forced to arbitrate an employment dispute. Ziober worked as a federal employee for six months when he signed a mandatory arbitration agreement as a condition to keep his job.

When Ziober left his job to join the Navy Reserve, he was fired from his position on the last day of work. As a result, he was forced to arbitrate his rights under the Uniformed Services Employment & Reemployment Rights Act. Ziober argued that “no Americans should be denied the choice to enforce their rights.”

In response to a question from Sen. Joni Ernst, R. Iowa, on the impact of being forced into arbitration, Ziober described the anxiety and hardship he faced after being fired, knowing that he would not have a job after serving in the military. Ziober advocated that “an option to go to court should be something all servicemen be allowed.”

Prof. Myriam Gilles, a professor at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, argued that when the Federal Arbitration Act was enacted in 1925, Congress intended to help ensure businesses so that their “agreements to arbitrate with each other can be enforced.” But, she said, the FAA was never meant to be applied to massive employment arbitrations that strip away individuals’ rights under state and federal law, providing a litigation shield for companies. Nor was it meant to be used in take-it-or-leave-it boilerplate agreements against individuals with no bargaining power, according to Gilles.

In response to a question from Sen. Graham, Gilles clarified that she does not wish to “do away” with arbitration. “We only want to get rid of arbitration clauses that are forced upon consumers and employees who have no choice,” she said.

Prof. Gilles also spoke extensively against class action bans, noting that it is often too expensive and time intensive for each individual to arbitrate their cases alone. As a result, forced arbitration provisions are shielding companies from liability, she said.

Alan Carlson, an owner and chef of Italian Colors Restaurant in Oakland, Calif., described his experiences with arbitration clauses as a small business owner. Carlson said he was forced to arbitrate a claim with the credit card company American Express, which took more than 10 years to conclude, and included a trip to the U.S. Supreme Court that sent him to arbitration. (See American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 559 U.S. 1103 (2010) (available at http://bit.ly/2Zb41FD).)

He said he was “shocked” when he learned that the documents he signed included a mandatory arbitration clause. He noted that small businesses like his have no bargaining power to negotiate contracts with credit card companies, while big companies like Walgreens and Safeway have the power to negotiate and remove mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts with those same companies.

Carlson stated that “small businesses do not get their day in court because they have no power,” and that it is impossible for small businesses to hold large corporations accountable for their actions.

Carlson’s statement evoked strong empathy in Sen. Blumenthal, who echoed the unfairness that the big companies had their day in court, but Carlson was denied his. In response to questions from Blumenthal and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D., Minn., Carlson stated that mandatory arbitration handcuffs and prevents small businesses from “getting a fair shot of leveling the playing field.” In addition, Carlson stated that the companies often don’t give contracting parties enough time to get through all the fine print “unless you have an attorney on hand.”

  1. Paul Bland, Jr., executive director of Washington,, D.C., public interest law firm Public Justice, argued that forced arbitration clauses are “rigged and unfair.” He notes that it is getting harder to challenge arbitration clauses, and the clauses are often written to the disadvantage of consumers.

As examples, Bland cited to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report that suggests even when a person is directed to read an arbitration provision, only 9% of the people knew it means they cannot go to court.

Furthermore, Bland cited an instance where a rape victim was forced to arbitrate, and was given a choice to select from a list of arbitrators. But, explained Bland, all of the arbitrators were defense attorneys that he said presumptively are pro-corporations.

Previous witnesses Kevin Ziober and Alan Carlson affirmed this point, stating that neither of them had a choice in selecting their arbitrators. Chairman Lindsey Graham expressed concern about this practice, and stated that he will look into the issue.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Cory Booker spoke passionately against arbitration provisions, arguing that it unfairly stacks the deck against consumers and impedes individuals’ ability to seek redress. Citing a study suggesting that big corporations win 98% of arbitrations, Booker exclaimed, “This is not justice. This is not equal justice. This is corporate favoritism.”

Finally, Sen. Dick Durbin, D. Ill., suggested that mandatory arbitration clauses should be barred from student agreements to attend for-profit college, especially those that guarantee job placement. He said that in these situations, the arbitration clauses especially harm middle-income people.

Durbin noted that that if a student starts with a busboy job, goes to a for-profit school paying tens of thousands of dollars yet still comes out a bus boy, the school considers that a “placement” and can’t be sued for misrepresentation.

Arbitration proponents then had a chance to fire back, demanding that consumer arbitrations be allowed to continue.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R., Iowa, advocated to have more transparency in arbitration clauses to help bring accountability. He said that “consumers should know what they are agreeing to.” He raised the concern that banning mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses may impose extraordinary costs to corporations, which may in turn result in the costs being passed down to consumers.

Alan Kaplinsky, a partner at Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia and longtime business arbitration advocate, argued that arbitration under the FAA is important for companies. He said that the arbitration system is dynamic, and most of the times it works for both companies and individual consumers. He also rejected the argument that arbitration provisions offer no choices for consumers.

When questioned by Sen. Grassley about best practices to enforce transparency in arbitration clauses, Kaplinsky noted that it is important to draft arbitration agreements to “create fundamental fairness, give the consumer or employee the right to reject or opt out of the arbitration within some reasonable period of time.” He notes that these are not practices “required” under existing arbitration rules such as those issued by providers like the American Arbitration Association and JAMs.

Kaplinsky agreed with Sen. Grassley’s point that banning arbitration would create billions of dollars in costs for corporations, in addition to costs in defending against potential influxes of class action suits.

Victor E. Schwartz, a co-chair at the Public Policy Practice Group of Shook, Hardy, & Bacon, and a well-known as a Washington tort reform advocate and a supporter of class-action restrictions, also argued for consumer arbitration. He said that arbitration is generally a cheaper and faster alternative to litigation.

Schwartz also argued that consumers have the duty to read contracts and agreements, even if the clause is buried within the agreement. He rejected the view that consumers lack choice, noting that consumers enter binding arbitrations willingly. “You can choose to go to an employment office that does not require you to sign binding arbitration,” he said.

In addressing the argument that mandatory class action waivers harm the ability to address smaller claims, Schwartz countered that most employees are not eligible for class action anyway, given that the cases are usually factually different, and therefore class action is not a viable alternative.

Finally, Schwartz criticized plaintiffs’ attorneys, noting that since they usually are not paid by the hour, they are unlikely to accept litigation cases to represent employees in small claims cases. Thus, he said, in cases involving claims of $20,000-$30,000, arbitration is likely the only way for employees to get their claims addressed.

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To read further about this committee meeting from a different perspective, see Ellis Kim, “Arbitration Gets the Spotlight at Senate Judiciary Hearing,” Law.com (April 2) (available at https://bit.ly/2Ug7KxU).

A video of the hearing, as well as transcripts of the individuals’ remarks, is available from the Senate Judiciary Committee here: http://bit.ly/2KBiB6c.

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The author is a Spring 2019 CPR Institute intern, and a student at Brooklyn Law School.

 

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