House Reintroduces a Proposal to Restrict Arbitration at a ‘Justice Restored’ Hearing

By Mark Kantor

On Thursday, Feb. 11, the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law held a hearing, “Justice Restored: Ending Forced Arbitration and Protecting Fundamental Rights.” 

This hearing was held in connection with the same-day reintroduction of the “Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act” or the “FAIR Act” (See press release here).  That proposed act, co-sponsored by 155 House Members, would ban mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements in cases of employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes. 

In the previous Congress, the FAIR Act passed the House by a 225-to-186 vote, with virtually all Democrats and a number of Republicans in support.  The U.S. Senate, however, then controlled by the Republicans, did not take up the legislation.  The FAIR Act thus died at the end of term in that Congress, to be revived as a proposal in the current Congress that convened last month.

The hearing was chaired by Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga., a leading FAIR Act sponsor.  Johnson strongly supported prohibiting such pre-dispute arbitration agreements.  In addition to employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes, Johnson also criticized the impact of mandatory arbitration on small business disputes with large businesses.

After Johnson’s opening statement, Ranking Minority Member Rep. Ken Buck, R., Colo., made his own opening remarks.  Buck opposed the FAIR Act’s general ban on pre-dispute arbitration clauses, arguing that arbitration is a fair system. 

It is very interesting to note that he did, however, offer support for reviewing coverage of sexual predation claims in arbitration and “doing away with the secrecy provisions in contracts” when workplace predatory conduct exists–“those are two issues I want to make sure we distinguish in the employment context.  . . .” 

Buck stated his particular interest in hearing the testimony from Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News anchor who made public her story of sexual harassment and filed suit against her boss at Fox News.  Other Republican members raised the prospect of excluding “sex and race discrimination” from mandatory arbitration and for overriding class action waivers for a “pattern of behavior” by a “bad actor” rather than individual claims. 

That focus on employment discrimination/harassment claims and overriding related confidentiality provisions may signal a possible path for narrower bipartisan legislation.  A narrower approach may arise if, as many anticipate, the broader approach of the FAIR Act fails again in the Senate for lack of the 60 cloture votes necessary to overcome a filibuster or a Senate decision to eliminate the filibuster.  

Four witnesses testified at the hearing:

  • Gretchen Carlson, Journalist, Author, and Advocate
  • Myriam Gilles, Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law
  • G. Roger King, Senior Labor and Employment Counsel, The HR Policy Association
  • Jacob Weiss, Founder and President, OJ Commerce

Carlson spoke about the adverse impact of “forced arbitration” on her sexual harassment claims, as well as the barrier federal arbitration law poses to implementation of local State laws seeking to move similar claims out of arbitration.

Gilles spoke more broadly in opposition to mandatory arbitration in employment, consumer, antitrust, civil rights and small business/big business disputes, areas of her scholarship for many years. 

Weiss spoke in criticism of Amazon’s arbitration policy in contracts with its small business counterparties.  Notably, Weiss was discussing a category of B-to-B commercial claims where there is an imbalance of bargaining power, not claims involving individuals.

King testified in support of positive aspects of arbitration, the inclusion of due process rights for claimants based on procedures adopted by U.S. arbitral institutions, and reform of class action procedures.  Like Rep. Buck, he contended that concerns about confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements can be addressed separately from arbitration.

Readers should note that other legislation has also been introduced in the new Congress focusing among other matters on banning pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in employment arrangements.  The most notable legislation in that respect is the proposed Protecting the Right to Organize Act.  Among as many as 50 pro-employee proposals in the PRO Act, it would prohibit employers from using mandatory arbitration agreements with employees.

Senate control has shifted to the Democrats in this Congress, even though by the narrowest of margins.  We can therefore anticipate hearings and committee activity in both the House and the Senate for these legislative proposals.  In each case, though, the fundamental political calculus in the U.S. Congress will be driven by the role of the Senate’s filibuster.

A video of the hearing, statements from House Members, witness written testimony and statements from interested parties can be found here.

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Mark Kantor is a member of CPR-DR’s Panels of Distinguished Neutrals. Until he retired from Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, he was a partner in the firm’s Corporate and Project Finance Groups. He currently serves as an arbitrator and mediator. He teaches as an Adjunct Professor at the Georgetown University Law Center (Recipient, Fahy Award for Outstanding Adjunct Professor). He also is Editor-in-Chief of the online journal Transnational Dispute Management. He has contributed frequently to CPR Speaks, and this post originally was circulated to a private list serv and adapted with the author’s permission.

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For more from author Mark Kantor, join CPR’s Employment Disputes Committee and Government & ADR Task Force for a free public online panel discussion on Feb. 24 on labor and employment ADR under the Biden Administration. Kantor and other experts will discuss how the current composition of the Supreme Court, the new Democratic majority in Congress, and the new leadership of the NRLB and EEOC will affect arbitration and mediation of U.S. labor and employment disputes.  For a list of Kantor’s co-panelists and registration information, please visit the CPR website at https://bit.ly/3nV4fgf.

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