“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 The CFPB rule, which had been in the works for more than four years, was rescinded by a 51-50 Senate vote, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the deciding vote.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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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

 

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.

* * *

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