Update: An Influx of Arbitration Legislation

By Tamia Sutherland

The passage and March 3 signing of H.R. 4445, Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 has inspired the introduction of more than 170 bills involving arbitration.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R., S.C., called H.R. 4445 the most significant workplace reform since the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, and said he is open to further arbitration law changes, on a bipartisan basis. Lindsay Wise and Jess Bravin, Senate Approves Bill Barring Forced Arbitration in Sexual-Assault, Harassment Claims, Wall Street Journal (Feb. 10)(available at https://on.wsj.com/38tmR3Q).

Of the current arbitration-related proposals, there are some duplicates with House and Senate introductions. Still, many facets of arbitration, in and out of government, are covered by the bills.

Activity on some is possible this year.

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In an April 6 Securities Arbitration Alert blog post, George Friedman, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, discussed Congress and the rise in arbitration legislation:

The recent pace of legislative activity prompted us to look up how many bills have been introduced in the 117th Congress that in some way, shape, or form, refer to arbitration.

search we conducted using the non-partisan www.govtrack.us Website shows that 171 bills have been introduced so far that contain the term “arbitration” or “arbitrate” – 106 in the House and 65 in the Senate.

Not all bills are anti-arbitration, although the majority would amend the Federal Arbitration Act, other federal laws, or both, to curb pre-dispute arbitration agreement use. Democrats introduced all but four bills.

The Securities Arbitration Alert post can be found here.

A few days after the passage of H.R. 4445, the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a March 8 hearing on arbitration’s effects on consumers’ financial services contracts. The purpose was to introduce another arbitration bill.

Chairman Sherrod Brown, D., Ohio, presided over the hearing, and in his opening statement said that:

Big companies should not decide on behalf of Americans how they should pursue justice. Consumers–not corporations–should be able to decide whether they want to go through the public court system, through mediation, or through arbitration. . . . That’s why I introduced the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act last week with 21 cosponsors in the Senate, many of whom serve on this Committee.”

The Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act would prohibit arbitration clauses in consumer financial products by amending the Consumer Financial Protection Act of 2010. Chairman Brown explained that the bill “gives consumers the right to decide how they want to pursue justice.” Brown’s website lists this press release and one-pager regarding the bill.

Following the opening statement, Ranking Member Patrick J. Toomey, R., Pa., provided background on Congressional attempts at arbitration restrictions in consumers’ financial services contracts:

In 2017, the CFPB issued a rule that would’ve banned these agreements for consumer financial products. However, Congress overturned this rule under the Congressional Review Act. Since then, Democrats have introduced bills that would undo Congress’ sensible decision.

Then, witnesses representing consumer interest groups Public Justice and Public Citizen, and the business-backed U.S. Chamber of Commerce, provided opposing testimony regarding the regulation of arbitration clauses in consumers’ financial services contracts.

In addition, law professors Todd J. Zywicki and Myriam Gilles from, respectively, Arlington, Va.’s George Mason University Antonin Scalia School of Law and Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York also provided expert testimony, with Zywicki anti-legislation and Gilles strongly supporting the proposal.

A video of the March 8 hearing and the witness statements are available here. Since its introduction, no further action has occurred on the Arbitration Fairness for Consumers Act.

There’s more. The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal (FAIR) Act of 2022, a broad bill that would void all pre-dispute mandatory arbitration agreements in employment, antitrust, consumer, and civil rights passed the House by a 222-209 vote on March 17. That vote’s margin is much narrower than the 335-97 vote the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act received in the House in February.

The FAIR Act passed the House despite strong opposition. Two reports from the Institute for Legal Reform, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce unit that lobbies for tort reform on behalf of businesses and has long opposed arbitration restrictions, concluded that consumers and workers typically do better in arbitration. A November 2020 Institute for Legal Reform report is available here, updated from 2019, and an even more recent November 2021 update is available here.

Consumer organizations, on the other hand, were elated. Following the FAIR Act’s passage Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, noted:

“…Today, in an important step forward, the House passed the FAIR Act, a measure that would end the tricks and traps that are endemic in form contracts, including those you enter by clicking ‘I agree’ on the internet.

Hundreds of millions of contracts contain forced arbitration provisions and class-action waivers, denying consumers and workers the ability to file lawsuits in court and preventing them from joining with other similarly situated people to sue together…Today, the House finally stated: No more.”

Gilbert’s full statement is available here.

The FAIR Act was introduced by longtime mandatory arbitration opponent Hank Johnson, D., Ga., who has introduced this legislation in the past. For a discussion of the act’s September 2019 House passage–it later stalled in the Senate–and the controversy over the Institute for Legal Reform’s original 2019 arbitration report, is available at Andrew Garcia, The Fairness Agenda: Arbitration Legislation Advances in the Wake of a Critical Report , 37 Alternatives 157 (November 2019) (available at https://bit.ly/3LSoG93).

The House Committee on the Judiciary published this press release following last month’s passage of the FAIR act.  There has been no action yet on the Senate version, which is before the Judiciary Committee.

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Other arbitration bills have attracted attention, and could gain traction in the wake of H.R. 4445’s passage and signing.  They include:

  • The Justice for Servicemembers Act,
  • Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act, and
  • The Investor Choice Act.

The Justice for Servicemembers Act aims to amend Title 9 of the U.S. Code—the Federal Arbitration Act—to prohibit pre-dispute agreements that require arbitration of certain disputes arising from claims of servicemembers and veterans.  The disputes are claims brought under chapter 43 of U.S.C. Title 38 relating to employment and reemployment rights of members of the uniformed services, and under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (50 U.S.C. 3901–4043).

The Fairness in Nursing Home Arbitration Act was introduced to amend titles XVIII and XIX of the Social Security Act “to prohibit skilled nursing facilities and nursing facilities from using pre-dispute arbitration agreements with respect to residents of those facilities under the Medicare and Medicaid programs, and for other purposes.”

The Investor Choice Act attempts to amend the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 to prohibit mandatory pre-dispute arbitration in investment adviser agreements.

Also, H.R. 5974, the Veterans and Consumers Fair Credit Act, was introduced in both the House and Senate to amend the Truth in Lending Act to extend to all consumers the consumer credit protections provided to U.S. Armed Forces members and their dependents under title 10 of the U.S. Code. The bill garnered a joint letter in support signed by 188 civil rights, community, consumer, faith, housing, labor, legal services, senior rights, small business, veterans’ organizations, and academics representing all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Some of the signatories include Main Street Alliance, Minority Veterans of America, the NAACP, National Fair Housing Alliance, and Public Citizen. The joint letter is available at the website of Public Justice, a Washington nonprofit law consumer- and employee-side law firm, here.

Many of these proposals are riding H.R. 4445’s coattails and have the potential to be framed as an extension of the bill ahead of the midterm elections.

For more background information on H.R. 4445, and how it restricts arbitration use for certain employment matters, see Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer, Senate Sends Bill Restricting Arbitration for Workplace Sexual Assault Victims for Biden’s Signature, CPR Speaks (Feb. 10) (available here).

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The author, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C., is a CPR 2021-22 intern.

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Senate Sends Bill Restricting Arbitration for Workplace Sexual Assault Victims for Biden’s Signature

By Tamia Sutherland & Russ Bleemer

The U.S. Senate passed H.R. 4445, Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021, this morning on a voice vote.

The bill had bipartisan support in both legislative chambers and quickly cleared the 60-vote procedural step to advance in the Senate. The House had passed the bill on Monday by a vote of 335-97.

President Biden has signaled he will sign the bill, which will take effect immediately. The Office of Management and Budget expressed the administration’s support in a Statement of Administration Policy letter, published Feb. 1, noting, “This bipartisan, bicameral legislation empowers survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment by giving them a choice to go to court instead of being forced into arbitration.”

The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act invalidates pre-dispute arbitration agreements and waivers of joint proceedings for individuals alleging conduct constituting a sexual harassment dispute or sexual assault. It effectively overrides employment contracts that require arbitration and allows all cases which include sexual assault or harassment claims to be resolved in court, despite the signed agreement containing an arbitration clause.

The language targets predispute arbitration agreements and predispute joint-action waivers, but not ad hoc or post-dispute processes. In fact, the law apparently allows employees an option to stay in existing arbitration agreements, noting at the outset that an arbitration clause will not be valid “at the election of the person alleging conduct constituting a sexual harassment dispute or sexual assault dispute, or the named representative of a class or in a collective action alleging such conduct. . . .” The law focuses on the filing of cases; a determination of the arbitrability of matters is sent by the law to courts, not arbitrators. . . .”

In introducing the bill this morning, Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D., N.Y., noted the bipartisan agreement on the bill, and emphasized that it will apply retroactively.  The law states that it “shall apply with respect to any dispute or claim that arises or accrues on or after the date of enactment of this Act.” Said Schumer, “That’s an important point that hasn’t gotten enough attention.”

The text of the bill is available here.

Arbitration clauses in employment contracts have been characterized by legislators as “forced” and were discussed in depth at the Nov. 16 House Judiciary hearing, “Silenced: How Forced Arbitration Keeps Victims of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment in the Shadows.” A blog post about the Nov. 16 hearing can be accessed here, and the hearing can be viewed in its entirety at https://bit.ly/3wTDLkf.

Some legislators and attorneys were worried that the proposed reforms could unwittingly fail in practice. There is concern because litigation can be more expensive; the bill does not prevent companies from forcing people to sign nondisclosure agreements that also could hide sexual misconduct allegations, and plaintiffs’ attorneys could be incentivized to include sexual harassment allegations in cases that have nothing to do with sexual harassment to evade arbitration.

“Unfortunately, some of the language in the statute is potentially ambiguous,” says Christopher C. Murray, a shareholder in the Indianapolis office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, and co-chair of the firm’s Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution Practice Group. He explains:

Specifically, the statute bars enforcement of certain arbitration agreements with respect to “cases” relating to sexual harassment and sexual assault disputes.  The statute probably should state it bars enforcement of agreements with respect to ‘claims’ relating to sexual harassment and sexual assault disputes. Some plaintiffs’ counsel may try to make hay out of this ambiguous use of ‘cases’ and seek to expand the scope of the statute to bar the arbitration of other types of claims that happen to be in the same case. I expect that effort by plaintiffs’ counsel will ultimately be unsuccessful under cases like CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, but the ambiguity may still result in some extra litigation in the short term. . There’s no indication the new law is intended to change the “Congressional command” analysis for claims under other federal statutes that have nothing to do with a sexual harassment or sexual assault dispute.

In CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 565 U.S. 95 (2012), the Supreme Court held that because the Credit Repair Organizations Act is silent on whether claims can be arbitrated, the Federal Arbitration Act required the plaintiff’s arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms. Moreover, the case stands for the proposition that an arbitration agreement should be enforced if the claims at issue are federal statutory claims, unless the mandate of the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq., has been overridden by a contrary Congressional command. Parties likely will dispute whether the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act, which specifically amends the FAA, changes that analysis in any way for claims under federal statutes that do not relate to sexual harassment or assault.

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The Senate also was concerned about the misuse of sexual assault and harassment claims to piggyback arbitrable claims into court, and this morning addressed the issue. 

Sen. Joni Ernst, R., Iowa, emphasized that the act should not be used for other workplace disputes. “Those claims are meaningfully different,” she said, emphasizing that if an employment agreement has a predispute arbitration provision and a sexual assault or harassment claim is brought with another claim, and the assault or harassment claim is later dismissed, “the court should remand the other claim back to the arbitration” system.

Ernst told the Senate that the presence of sexual assault or harassment claims “should not effectively destroy arbitration in employment litigation.”

Ernst pledged to work with Schumer and other senators, she said, “if there are indications that there is gaming of the system” by claimants or lawyers.

Sponsor Kirsten Gillibrand, D., N.Y., expressed appreciation for work on the bill by Ernst and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R., S.C., and agreed with Ernst’s cautions. “I do not believe that survivors of sexual assault and harassment will use the claims” to avoid arbitration, she said, adding, “If those claims on assault or harassment are dismissed, [victim claimants] will go back to arbitration.”

“But,” continued Gillibrand, “it is important that all claims related to assault or harassment are dealt with at the same time” to avoid sending victims to multiple forums. “If victims and attorneys break those rules, they can be sanctioned in court,” she said.

Ahead of the voice vote, Lindsey Graham said, “It does not hurt business to make sure that people harassed in the workplace [get justice]. It helps business.  . . . Arbitration has its place in business.  . . . [But] you’re not going to sign away your life.”

He concluded, “This is not bad for business. This is good for America.”

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The passing of the Ending Forced Arbitration Act marks a significant national reform in the fight against sexual misconduct in the workplace that emerged from the bravery of the #MeToo movement.  It also may be a harbinger of more to come in terms of arbitration restrictions. The White House statement supporting the legislation, which now goes to the president’s desk to be signed into law, ended by noting,

The Administration also looks forward to working with the Congress on broader legislation that addresses these issues as well as other forced arbitration matters, including arbitration of claims regarding discrimination on the basis of race, wage theft, and unfair labor practices.

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Sutherland, a second-year law student at the Howard University School of Law, in Washington, D.C., is a CPR 2021-22 intern.  Bleemer edits Alternatives to the High Cost of Litigation for CPR.

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