New Push Coming for Familiar Arbitration Bills?

By Vincent Sauvet

Democrats in Congress late last month announced their intention to focus their efforts on passing new legislation to ban mandatory arbitration in several types of disputes. A package of bills, some still awaiting introduction, would target the arbitration of employment, consumer, antitrust and civil rights disputes.

The bills are mostly updates of long-running efforts, some dating back to the 1990s, that seek to limit processes that interfere with consumers’ and workers’ abilities to file suits against product and service providers, and employers—especially those that targeted class actions.

Now, at least some of the bills appear to be gaining more publicity and increasing support in the wake of controversy over mandatory processes.

This legislative effort will be spearheaded by the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal, which its sponsors are referring to as the FAIR Act of 2019. It was announced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D., Conn., and Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga., both longtime opponents of mandatory arbitration, with the bill’s introduction on Feb. 28.

H.R.1423 and S.610 would “amend title 9 of the United States Code with respect to arbitration.” The flagship of the current crop of proposals targeting arbitration, the bill is co-sponsored by 32 Senate Democrats along with independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.  The number of House Democrats co-sponsoring the legislation has risen to 171 in the month since it was introduced, from 147.

The FAIR Act would ban arbitration in employment, consumer and antitrust disputes, as well as in civil rights disputes. The bill is a rebranding of the previous Congress’s Arbitration Fairness Act of 2018, also by Blumenthal and Johnson, covering the same issues.

In conjunction with the broad FAIR Act, several bills tackling more specific issues have also been announced.

The first is the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment Act of 2019, sponsored by Rep. Cheri Bustos, D., Ill., a reintroduction of her bill from the previous session, which had been co-sponsored by Pramila Jayapal, D., Wash., and, on the Senate side, New York Democrat and presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand.  Jayapal is co-sponsoring the new bill, along with—significantly–a New York Republican, Elise Stefanik.

The bill would ban mandatory arbitration of sex discrimination disputes by banning any predispute arbitration agreement between an employer and employee arising out of conduct that would form the basis of a claim based on sex under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although this would be subject to some limitations, the prohibition would not apply to arbitration provisions contained in a contract between an employer and a labor organization, or between labor organizations.

Another bill, the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, would go even further than ending the arbitration of sexual harassment claims. It would establish an outright ban of mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts.

The bill was introduced in the previous 115th Congress, last October, by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D. N.Y., and Sen. Patty Murray, D., Wash., seeking to make illegal any predispute arbitration agreement when related to an employment dispute, which would include sexual harassment. It also would pose further restrictions on post-dispute arbitration agreements.

The proposal was an immediate Congressional reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S. Ct. 1612 (May 21, 2018), which it would have overturned. But the bill had trouble getting bipartisan support, and likely will suffer the same issues in the current Congress, where it has not yet been introduced.

A bill announced and introduced with the FAIR Act included the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act, S.630, sponsored by Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, which would tackle the specific issue of mandatory arbitration in financial adviser and broker contracts.

While Brown has focused primarily on student loans and credit card agreements, the bill is in fact broader in scope.  It would prohibit any predispute arbitration agreement and joint-action waivers related to any consumer financial product or service dispute.

Another bill introduced with the FAIR Act, the Safety Over Arbitration Act would render void any predispute agreement compelling the arbitration of claims alleging facts relevant to a public health or safety hazard. The bill, S.620, was introduced by Rhode Island Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse.

As an interesting side note, the bill would also compel the arbitrator of such a claim to provide to the parties a written explanation of the factual and legal basis for his decision. While most arbitrators provide such explanation already, there is no legal requirement to do so.

Under the sponsorship of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D., Vt., the Restoring Statutory Rights and Interests of the State Act, S.635, was also reintroduced. The bill would prohibit any predispute arbitration agreement providing for the arbitration of claims brought by an individual or small business concern and arising from the alleged violation of a state or federal statutory or constitutional provision. The bill is nearly identical to its previous iterations, which were introduced but ultimately died in the 114th and 115th Congresses, and is most likely to suffer the same fate.

The Justice for Servicemembers Act also should be reintroduced soon by Reps. David Cicilline, D., R.I., and Connecticut’s Sen. Blumenthal. Like the versions in the previous three Congressional sessions, the bill aims to end the use of arbitration in cases under the Uniform Services Employment Rights Act.

Finally, the Fairness in Long-Term Care Arbitration Act was also announced by Rep. Linda Sanchez, D., Calif. While there is no text available yet, the bill would end the use of arbitration clauses in nursing home agreements.

These announced attempts at legislative change regarding arbitration use come up at a time when arbitration has suffered from bad press. The #MeToo movement made arbitration, which usually is conducted out of the public’s view, appear as a tool to silence victims. Although the broader controversy over mandatory arbitration in employment and labor disputes traditionally has been the legislative target of Democrats, the specific issue of sexual harassment moved the subject into broader view, drawing attention from a larger section of the political spectrum.

Still, the broader bills, such as the FAIR Act, the Restoring Justice for Workers Act and the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act are unlikely to gather enough support in order to pass in the current Congress. They will, for the most part, face the same Republican opposition that have defeated similar proposals.

But new, more-specific bills–those providing small incremental changes that exhibit more potential for bipartisan support–are more likely to succeed. Given the current political climate, the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Harassment stands a good chance of advancing. Several businesses such as Google, Microsoft, Uber and Lyft have effectively banned the arbitration of sexual harassment claims and sometimes other employment matters.

Though there are only three co-sponsors, the early appearance of a House Republican could indicate the bill’s broader appeal.

These moves, collectively, provide at least some momentum. “I’m encouraged that some of the leading companies are voluntarily changing their practices… but we can’t rely on everyone to do the right thing voluntarily” Sen. Blumenthal said.

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The author, an international LLM student at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, is a 2019 CPR Institute spring intern.

Roundup: Legislation with Mediation or Arbitration…Maybe for the future?

By Elena Gurevich

According to Congress.gov, the official website for U.S. federal legislative information, and Govtrack.us, an organization that tracks legislation and votes, several bills have been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate this year that touch upon arbitration or mediation.

Out of five bills introduced, only one deals with mediation as well as arbitration. Although (according to Govtrack) it is highly unlikely that these bills will be passed by the present Congress, they might get a shot in the future under a different Congress.

H.R. 156—Labor Relations First Contract Negotiations Act of 2017. The bill, introduced on Jan. 3 by Rep. Gene Green, D., Texas, has a prognosis of passage of 1%, according to Govtrack, whose projection estimates are supplied by Skopos Labs, a New York software company. The bill amends the National Labor Relations Act to address initial contract negotiation. Specifically, the bill requires mediation if an employer and a newly certified union have not reached a collective bargaining agreement within 60 days. “Either the employer or the union may request binding arbitration if the parties have not reached an agreement within 30 days of selecting a mediator.”

See https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/156.

H.R. 832—Arbitration Transparency Act of 2017, with a 3% chance of passage, requires that an arbitration proceeding between a consumer and a financial institution, in a dispute involving a consumer financial product or service, must be open to the public. It was introduced Feb. 2 by Rep. Michael Capuano, D., Mass.

See: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/832?r=10

H.R. 1374—Arbitration Fairness Act of 2017 was introduced on March 7. The bill prohibits a predispute arbitration agreement from being valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of an employment, consumer, antitrust, or civil rights dispute. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson, D., Ga., has a 3% chance of passing, according to Govtrack.

See: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/1374?r=7

  1. 542—Safety Over Arbitration Act of 2017 was introduced on March 7, with a current prognosis of 9%. The Congress.gov summary says the bill “prohibits the use of arbitration whenever a contract between an individual and another party requires arbitration to resolve a claim or controversy alleging facts relevant to a hazard to public health or safety unless all parties to the controversy consent in writing after the controversy arises.” The sponsor is Sheldon Whitehouse, D., R.I.

See: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/542?r=22

  1. 647—Mandatory Arbitration Transparency Act of 2017. The bill has only a 2% chance of passing in this Congress, according Govtrack and Skopos Labs. The bill amends U.S.C. Title 9 on arbitration. According to the Congress.gov summary, the bill “prohibits predispute arbitration agreements from containing a confidentiality clause regarding an employment, consumer, or civil rights dispute that could be interpreted to prohibit a party from: (1) making a communication in a manner such that the prohibition would violate a whistle-blower statute; or (2) reporting or making a communication about tortious conduct, unlawful conduct, or issues of public policy or public concern. But the prohibition shall not apply if a party can demonstrate a confidentiality interest that significantly outweighs the private and public interest in disclosure.” Richard Blumenthal, D., Conn., is the sponsor.

See: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/647

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The author is a CPR Institute 2017 Fall Intern.

Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA): An Overly Simplistic Approach?

The Arbitration Fairness Act of 2015 (AFA), recently introduced by Senator Al Franken and Representative Hank Johnson, would amend the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. §§ 1 et seq. (FAA), to eliminate mandatory, pre-dispute arbitration clauses in employment, antitrust or civil rights matters—as well as all nearly all consumer contracts, for such things as cars, credit cards and cell phones. Allowing parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has arisen, the AFA would apply to “any dispute or claim that arises on or after” the date of AFA’s passing. The legislation would also give federal courts—instead of arbitrators—the authority to rule on an agreement’s validity and enforceability.

This is not the first legislative effort to narrow the use of pre-dispute arbitration agreements; somewhat similar bills were introduced in 2011 and then again in 2013, but neither made it out of committee. While some are applauding this step towards banning what they refer to as “forced” arbitration, others have expressed concerns that requiring parties to agree to arbitration only after a dispute has already arisen might take away the parties’ critical ability to utilize arbitration preventatively, planning for it in order to avoid disputes in the first place. Others question the wisdom of transferring these responsibilities away from arbitrators and to an already beleaguered court system. Finally, while the AFA does not expressly prohibit businesses from entering into pre-dispute arbitration agreements with other businesses, some question the effect this might have on the enforceability of arbitration in business contexts where there is potential consumer application.

Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution (CPR) President & CEO Noah Hanft observed that, “Just as with litigation, there are circumstances where arbitration may be abused. But, if practiced properly and thoughtfully, as it should be, arbitration remains a  more effective, efficient and less costly way to resolve certain disputes—a result from which consumers can clearly benefit as well.”

Hanft concluded, “Care must be taken that any legislation aimed at protecting abuses in the use of arbitration not be overly simplistic or condemn a practice that has brought real benefits in a multitude of circumstances around the world. Even advocates of tort reform that decry litigation abuses don’t propose sweeping bans on certain types of litigation.”