The CFPB’s Arbitration Rule is Overturned by the Senate

By Elena Gurevich and Russ Bleemer

Just a day after the U.S. Treasury Department issued a report criticizing a controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule that prohibited class waivers requiring consumers use mandatory predispute arbitration for disputes, the U.S. Senate voted on October 24 to overturn the rule.

The House in July had voted to overturn the rule under the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress 60 legislative-session days to reverse administrative rulings it disagrees with.

The bill will go to President Trump, who is expected to sign it.

The legislative moves will overturn five years’ worth of efforts to roll back the use of class waivers accompanied by arbitration by the CFPB, which was designated by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act to examine the utility of the ADR process in consumer disputes.

A 728-page 2015 study by the independent Washington agency said that arbitration was ineffective in vindicating consumers’ rights in financial services contracts, which are under the CFPB’s jurisdiction. The agency vowed to regulate arbitration.

After the report, Republicans, who long said the agency was too powerful, used the CFPB’s moves to increase calls to eliminate the agency in last year’s presidential campaign.

Late last night, Jeb Hensarling, R., Texas,  who as House Judiciary Committee chair led the fight against the rule, congratulated the Senate, noting in a statement on his social networks that the vote “is a victory for consumers, a defeat for the wealthy trial lawyers lobby and a rejection of the unchecked, unconstitutional and unaccountable CFPB.”

The CFPB had finalized its rule and published it July 19. It would have fully taken effect next year after a 180-day waiting period.

The rule, however, didn’t outlaw arbitration, though it increased the CFPB’s scrutiny by requiring reporting. The rule instead required that class processes, in either litigation or arbitration, be made available to consumers signing financing contracts or purchasing financial services.

Business lawyers, lobbyists and trade groups said the rule would wipe out financial services arbitration, because companies would rather face class action in courts, under familiar federal rules, than class arbitration with few outlets for appeal.

The Senate didn’t follow the House’s quick lead because it didn’t have the votes to overturn the rule, with some Republicans fearing a backlash for voting to support a banking industry-approved bill in the wake of scandals that invoked arbitration.

In fact, the Senate was split evenly, with two Republicans, Lindsay Graham, of South Carolina, and John Kennedy, of Louisiana, joining the Democrats. Vice President Mike Pence joined fellow Republicans to cast the deciding vote.

Treasury might have brought a senator or two to the side of overturning the law. On Monday, in a highly unusual move, the Treasury Department issued a 17-page report blasting the rule. See “Limiting Consumer Choice, Expanding Costly Litigation: An Analysis of the CFPB Arbitration Rule,” U.S. Dept. of the Treasury (Oct. 23)(available at http://bit.ly/2h0N7VB).

According to the Washington Post, Jaret Seiberg, an analyst with Cowen and Co.’s Washington Research Group, said that the Treasury Department report “[p]rovides some needed political cover for the few Senate Republicans who have been reluctant to vote in favor of the banks.” See Renae Merle, “Treasury Department sides with Wall Street, against federal consumer watchdog agency on arbitration rule,” Washington Post (Oct. 23)(available at http://wapo.st/2zxMABI).

It wasn’t the first Washington institution to fire back at one of its own on arbitration.  Earlier this month, the CFPB report and rule had been the subject of a heated argument between Keith A. Noreika, the acting U.S. Comptroller of the Currency, and Richard Cordray, the CFPB’s director.

Noreika slammed the CFPB’s action in an article on the Beltway website The Hill.  See “Senate should vacate the harmful consumer banking arbitration rule,” The Hill (Oct. 13)(available at http://bit.ly/2izENzT).

According to Noreika, the CFPB failed to support its case and “failed to disclose the costs to consumers that will likely result from the rule’s implementation.”

Soon after Noreika’s post, Cordray responded, stating that Noreika’s claims were “bogus” and “out of the blue.” See “The truth about the arbitration rule is it protects American consumers,” The Hill (Oct. 16)(available at http://bit.ly/2gIHbk2).

Added Cordray, “Why should Wells Fargo be able to block groups of customers from suing over fake accounts? Why should Equifax be able to force people to surrender their legal rights when the company put their personal information at risk?”

For more on yesterday’s vote, see Jessica Silver-Greenberg, “Consumer Bureau Loses Fight to Allow More Class-Action Suits,” N.Y. Times (Oct. 24)(available at http://nyti.ms/2yL9eHn).

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Gurevich is a CPR Institute 2017 Fall Intern. Bleemer edits Alternatives for the CPR Institute.

SEC Office of Investor Advocate Praises Securities Arbitration Clinics

By Jill Gross

Congress created the Office of the Investor Advocate of the Securities and Exchange Commission in the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010 to, among other things, “(A) assist retail investors in resolving significant problems such investors may have with the Commission or with self-regulatory organizations (SROs); (B) identify areas in which investors would benefit from changes in the regulations of the Commission or the rules of SROs…” Exchange Act §  4g(4). In turn, the Investor Advocate appointed an Ombudsman to “act as a liaison between the Commission and any retail investor in resolving problems that retail investors may have with the Commission
or with SROs.” Exchange Act § 4(g)(8)(A). Both the Investor Advocate and the Ombudsman are required to submit reports to Congress on their activities. This week, the Office of the Investor Advocate submitted its Report on Objectives for fiscal year 2018, which included the Ombudsman’s Report.

In her Report, the Ombudsman addresses several items of interest to the dispute resolution community. First, the Report (p. 23) describes how her office is monitoring whether recommendations from the FINRA Dispute Resolution Task Force Report have been implemented in ways that help retail investors. She expresses concerns about elements of customer arbitrations at FINRA, offering another voice to the ongoing efforts to improve the fairness of securities arbitration.

Second, in recommending that the FINRA Investor Education Foundation support ongoing operations of law school securities clinics, the Ombudsman details (p. 24) the value that these clinics offer retail investors:

The Ombudsman is concerned about the challenges faced by investors—especially pro se investors who face sophisticated opposing counsel representing broker-dealer firms in a forum that has become increasingly complex—when the life savings of the investor are at stake and there is little ground for appeal. Investor rights clinics fill a critical void by supplying information and advocacy services to vulnerable retail investors in need. Competent representation of retail investors in FINRA’s dispute resolution forum is a critically important step in helping vulnerable retail investors protect their rights. These clinics and the investors they serve merit the Foundation’s support.

Third, the Ombudsman describes (p. 24) her Office’s new outreach program to the clinics, including visits with students at Pace Law’s Investor Rights Clinic and the University of Miami School of Law Investor Rights Clinic.  The Report praises the investor education work of the students, and emphasizes the importance of providing investors with representation in arbitration. The SEC’s spotlight on these law school securities clinics celebrates the tremendous work that law students do in representing investors in their disputes with their brokerage firms!

Jill I. Gross is a nationally known expert in the field of securities dispute resolution and a professor at Pace Law School. Her complete bio can be found HEREThis post was originally published in Indisputably and is reprinted with permission.  

DOJ to NLRB: You’re On Your Own in the Supreme Court

CLASS WAIVER/MANDATORY ARBITRATION CASES

By Nicholas Denny

In the clearest illustration so far of the Trump Administration’s evolving hands-off policy toward mandatory arbitration clauses and class action waivers, the U.S. Solicitor General authorized the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week to represent itself in one of three consolidated arbitration cases to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this fall.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Justice, which had been representing the board in NLRB v. Murphy Oil USA Inc., No. 16-307 (U.S. Supreme Court docket page at http://bit.ly/2kOPxal) until last week, switched sides in the case, filing an amicus brief backing the employer in the matter.

Justice, via the friend-of-the-court briefs, is now advocating against the NLRB, and against its previous position.

The case—along with its companions, Ernst & Young v. Morris, No. 16-300 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kLxCEg) and Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285 (Docket page at http://bit.ly/2kFVxm6)—asks whether mandatory arbitration clauses as a condition of employment bar individual employees from pursuing work-related claims on a collective or class basis under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Mandatory arbitration clauses are used throughout employment settings and apply to employees regardless of titles or union affiliation; two of the three cases involve white-collar office workers.

The Supreme Court will hear the consolidated cases in the term beginning in October.

The issue in the consolidated cases is whether employers can continue to unilaterally require that employees agree to a mandatory arbitration clause in employment contracts. Often, these clauses are non-negotiable: either employees accept the employer’s terms or the employer finds someone else to hire.

The Supreme Court must decide which of two laws controls: the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 151, et seq., or the Federal Arbitration Act, at 9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq. Under the NLRA, an employee’s rights to collective bargaining and action are protected. Under the FAA, however, an employment contract that includes a mandatory arbitration clause binds the worker to arbitrate with the employer instead of litigating in court, and is accompanied by a waiver barring the employee from bringing a class-action suit in favor of an individualized process.

As a result, arbitration clauses can deliver a one-two punch: (1) workers arbitrating individually may have less power, because they are not operating as part of a collective whole as contemplated by the NLRA, and (2) a worker may be less likely to find counsel because arbitration awards are perceived to be much smaller than court and class-action outcomes—meaning a lawyer working for a portion of the settlement would be less likely to take the case.

On the other hand, employers contend that mandatory arbitration clauses protect the company and benefit the employee. They argue that arbitration clauses ensure a speedier and more cost-effective conclusion to conflicts: class actions are harder and more costly to fight than arbitrations.

The disagreement over the use of mandatory arbitration clauses has arisen in the political arena, too. While the Obama Administration focused on pro-employee, anti-mandatory arbitration policies that prohibited employers from unilaterally waiving workers’ rights to concerted action under the NLRA, the Trump Administration is leaning toward an employer-centric policy by permitting mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts and as a condition of hiring.

This drastic shift in policy culminated with Friday’s news that the NLRB will represent itself, and that the Department of Justice would switch sides. The NLRB, as an autonomous government entity, is tasked with protecting “the right of employees to engage in protected concerted activities—group action to improve wages, benefits, and working conditions and to engage in union activities and support a union,” according to its website, as well as protecting the right of workers to refrain from engaging in protected concerted or union activities.

While the Justice Department prosecutes on behalf of the nation as well as defends government agencies, it is exceedingly rare for it to withdraw its representation of an agency it had been representing and subsequently file a brief in opposition to the position had it previously taken.

The Justice Department amicus brief switching sides in Murphy Oil is available at http://bit.ly/2sUnFbL.  The NLRB’s June 16 announcement that it would represent itself without Justice Department support can be found on the board’s website at http://bit.ly/2traH2s.

The move, however, is consistent with another recent Trump Administration policy shift on arbitration. In early June, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, withdrew a 2016 Obama Administration position prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in long-term care nursing home contracts.

CMS’s new position allows arbitration agreements provided that the provisions are written in plain language, and explained to and accepted by the applying resident.  Among other conditions, the CMS requires that the nursing home retain a copy of the signed agreement and post a notice that details the nursing home’s arbitration policy.

In addition, House Republicans introduced the “Financial CHOICE Act” earlier this month, a proposed law that aims to dismantle the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Dodd-Frank is an extensive law that was passed to ensure higher accountability in the U.S. financial sector after the economic recession of 2008 and it was endorsed by former President Obama.

Among its many goals, Dodd-Frank pointed its then-new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at pre-dispute mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer finance contracts. A lengthy study concluded last year by the CFPB resulted in a promise to finalize regulations that would ban the use of predispute mandatory arbitration in consumer financial contracts, such as cellphone agreements.

But should the “Financial CHOICE Act” become law, it likely would allow financial institutions to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their consumer contracts and agreements, and negate the CFPB efforts.

President Trump’s stance on mandatory arbitration clauses is becoming clear. Whether the clauses are legal in the employment context, and whether they will withstand Supreme Court scrutiny, are developing issues that are expected to be answered within the year. Watch CPR Speaks for updates.


The author is a CPR Institute Summer 2017 intern.