Ahead of CFPB Rule, Congress Prepares for a Showdown over the Future of Forced Arbitration and Consumer Class Actions

Image credit: Johnny Silvercloud (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Last week, lawmakers laid the groundwork for a battle over consumer rights and forced arbitration that likely will play out through the spring.

First, congressional Democrats introduced several bills to restore consumers’ right to hold corporations accountable in court for wrongdoing. Led by U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), lawmakers on March 7 introduced a slate of bills aimed at ending the use of forced arbitration in various sectors. Forced arbitration provisions, also known as “ripoff clauses,” block consumers from challenging illegal corporate behavior.

Lawmakers were joined at a packed press conference by people who had been harmed by forced arbitration: a veteran illegally fired from his job while serving in the military and blocked from suing his employer; a victim of Wells Fargo fraud whose class action was kicked out of court; and former news anchor Gretchen Carlson, barred from speaking out about sexual harassment she had suffered at Fox News.

Among the bills introduced were Franken’s Arbitration Fairness Act, which would prohibit forced arbitration in consumer, employment, civil rights, and antitrust cases and Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) Justice for Victims of Fraud Act, which would close the “Wells Fargo loophole” by restoring consumers’ right to sue when banks open fraudulent accounts without their knowledge.

However, in stark contrast to this push to strengthen rights and restore corporate accountability, GOP lawmakers began pressing to make it harder for consumers to band together when harmed and take corporations to court.

Two days after the Franken press conference, the House passed H.R. 985, the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act” would effectively kill class actions by imposing insurmountable requirements to file group lawsuits. This would make it nearly impossible for consumers to hold corporations accountable for illegal and abusive behavior.

Among other onerous provisions, H.R. 985 would require that each harmed person suffer the “same type and scope of injury.” Under this absurd standard, a Wells Fargo customer with two fake accounts opened in his or her name could be barred from joining together with customers who had three fraudulent accounts. The bill also would build in costly and unnecessary delays and appeals, limit plaintiffs’ choice of counsel, and drastically restrict attorneys’ fees.

Joining together in a class action often is the only chance real people have to fight back against widespread harm, including corporate fraud and scams – particularly when claims involve small amounts of money, where it would be too costly for an individual to pursue a separate claim. Class actions have also been critical vehicles for overcoming race- and gender-based discrimination and have been instrumental in achieving victories as momentous as desegregation of our schools, as was the case in Brown v. Board of Education.

Beyond protecting the rights of the disadvantaged, class actions act as a crucial check on corporate misbehavior by returning money to harmed consumers and workers. Removing the threat of class liability would encourage systemic fraud, as banks and lenders that pad their bottom lines by committing fraud would have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In the financial sector, the proposed CFPB arbitration rule is a major target of financial industry lobbyists precisely because it would restore the right of consumers to join class action lawsuits. According to the CFPB’s arbitration study, class actions returned $2.2 billion in cash relief to 34 million consumers from 2008-2012, not including attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. While the CFPB rule is expected to be finalized this spring, it would be rendered largely ineffective should H.R. 985 become law.

You can watch our video against H.R. 985 here and follow developments on Twitter using the hashtag, #RipoffClause.

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