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.