For more than forty years, the Supreme Court’s conservatives have been engaged in a campaign to shut the courthouse door to consumers, working people, small businesses and others seeking redress for corporate wrongdoing.
In recent years, and especially since Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito joined the Court, a major weapon in this campaign has been the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) of 1925. The conservatives have used the act to prevent victims of such abuses from seeking redress in the courts, forcing them into pre-dispute arbitration instead. In doing so, they lose a public trial, a jury and a neutral judge, as well as an appeal to a higher court; in many cases they may also have to give up discovery rights. It is not uncommon for them to wind up before an arbitrator who is dependent upon the defendant’s business community for work and fees, and who may not even be legally trained. Not surprisingly, those forced into arbitration almost always fare much worse than they would in court.
This past term the Court paused in its campaign to keep ordinary people—but no for-profit corporation “persons”—out of the courts, though it did make it harder to bring class actions by victims of securities fraud. Instead, it concentrated on overturning or undercutting long-established rulings protecting women’s reproductive rights, unions, affirmative action and church-state separation.
The Court didn’t need to issue any more arbitration decisions. Two reports issued at the end of last year show how effective the Court’s arbitration rulings have been. Last December, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued a preliminary report, which found that contract clauses mandating pre-dispute arbitration are a “common feature of consumer financial contracts”; a final report is due by year’s end. The agency found such clauses in over 50 percent of credit card loans, 81 percent of prepaid charge cards and in checking accounts covering 44 percent of all insured deposits.
The CFPB found further that about 90 percent of such contracts, including almost all credit card loans, insured deposits and prepaid cards, also prohibit participation in current or future class or other joint actions in both judicial and arbitration proceedings. This usually forces consumers who have been injured in small amounts to drop the matter entirely, even though the defendant may have harmed many others the same way, for too little is at stake for each individual to justify the time, trouble and expense of individual arbitration.
These two clauses are not just in consumer financial contracts, but are standard in cellphone and nursing home contracts, individual employment contracts, shipping agreements, passenger tickets and in many other areas. They have also been imported into the exploding commercial traffic on Internet websites. When consumers click their assent to the conditions imposed by a seller online, few if any realize they are often acceding to these limitations on their rights to a judicial resolution and a class action. Some merchants have gone so far as to claim that just opening a box for a computer, for example, is enough to constitute the necessary assent to such conditions in an “agreement” placed in the box.