Arbitration: Is It Fair When Forced?

“Arbitration: Is It Fair When Forced?” was the subject of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing held on Thursday, Oct. 13.

Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), sponsor of the Arbitration Fairness Act (S. 987) focused his questions and comments on the ways in which mandatory arbitration clauses put everyday Americans at a disadvantage in seeking justice against large corporations. Mandatory arbitration clauses, often embedded deep in the fine print of a contract, compel parties to give up their right to sue in court when they have a dispute. Instead of going before a judge and a jury, people who sign those contracts -- such as cell phone or employment contracts -- to appear before privately hired arbitrators... who are often hired by the corporation.

Among witnesses testifying was Dr. Deborah Pierce, a physician specializing in emergency medicine. Dr. Pierce described the forced arbitration process she underwent when she brought a claim against her employer for gender-based employment discrimination. Because an arbitration clause was a mandatory part of her employment contract, Dr. Pierce was barred from bringing her complaint in a court of law; instead, she was forced to take part in an arbitration process that was skewed in favor of her employer, who had a prior relationship with the organization appointing the arbitrator. Dr. Pierce was required to pay over $200,000 in arbitration costs, including half of the $450/hour fee charged by the arbitrator. People of lesser means simply would not have been able to afford to arbitrate their claims at all. When Dr. Pierce lost her case and argued that the arbitrator did not correctly apply the law to her case, the organization supplying the arbitrator responded that it “does not certify or attest to the abilities, competence, or performance of its arbitrators, and that it does not make any ‘warranties about the ability of the arbitrator to weigh facts and law.’”

Witnesses opposing the Arbitration Fairness Act attempted to argue that forced arbitration was beneficial to ordinary people, claiming that without it companies might not be willing to offer services like credit cards at all.

Questioning Victor Schwartz, a lawyer representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Sen. Franken asked whether he thought it was fair to have people sign contracts with hidden mandatory arbitration clauses.  The Chamber lawyer simply replied “fairness is in the eyes of the beholder,” and other witnesses argued that people wishing to avoid mandatory arbitration could simply avoid opening bank accounts, buying mobile phones, or engaging in any activity that involves signing contracts. Under further questioning by Sen. Franken and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), they were forced to concede that it was nearly impossible, in the 21st century to avoid the clauses which appear in the vast majority of credit card contracts, car financing arrangements, cell phone contracts, nursing home residency agreements, and in almost every agreement to purchase a good or service online.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), pointed out that the right to a court trial was a right held to be essential to the working of our American democracy by the Founders—so much so that a system to provide for courts of law and the right to a trial by jury in certain situations are written into the Constitution.  He described the situation posed by mandatory arbitration clauses as one in which citizens are unknowingly forced to sign away their rights to a fundamental freedom guaranteed in the Constitution, and wondered if the opinions of some of his colleagues about such clauses might be different if, within the fine print of a contract, people were forced to agree to give up their 2nd Amendment right to bear arms.

The Arbitration Fairness Act, introduced by Senator Franken and co-sponsored by Senators Blumenthal, Whitehouse, and others, would amend the Federal Arbitration Act to state that “no predispute arbitration agreement shall be valid or enforceable if it requires arbitration of an employment dispute, consumer dispute, or civil rights dispute.” This act would return arbitration to its original intent under the law—as a process into which parties of equal power and standing could voluntarily choose to enter when a dispute arose and they both wanted to seek an alternative to litigation. Alliance for Justice is one of many organizations that signed a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee supporting the Arbitration Fairness Act.

To learn more about the dangers of mandatory arbitration and the ways in which recent decisions by the Supreme Court to uphold forced arbitration clauses are benefiting corporations in evading justice when they violate the rights of ordinary people, download Alliance for Justice’s new report, Arbitration Activism: How the Corporate Court Helps Business Evade Our Civil Justice System.