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One Year Later: The Consequences of AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion

Douglas Bellows was illegally harassed by a debt collector, but he will never have his day in court. Lourdes Cruz was charged fees for unwanted services by AT&T, but she will never have her day in court. Mack Green was cheated out of wages and benefits by his employer, but he will never have his day in court. Nor will the numerous other individuals with legitimate claims that Bellows, Cruz, and Green each sought to represent. All thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which was issued one year ago today.

On April 27, 2011, the Court’s decision brought one chapter in the Concepcions’ legal saga to an end, but for the millions of Americans who are bound by take-it-or-leave-it contracts with cell phone companies and credit card companies, and with their corporate employers, the profound implications of the decision remained to be seen at that point. Now, a year later, it has become clear that the Court’s decision in Concepcion has had a dramatic effect on everyday Americans’ ability to access justice through the courts.

The Court held in Concepcion that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”)’s favorable treatment of contractual arbitration clauses preempts state laws aimed at protecting consumers and employees from unconscionable class action waivers. As a result, AT&T was able to avoid the legal and financial consequences of defrauding thousands of customers out of $30 for supposedly “free” phones, simply by including a provision in their service contracts that mandated arbitration and forbade class actions. The ruling left customers with no real recourse to recover their money from the company, because no one could reasonably be expected to bring an individual claim to recoup $30.

As feared, the case has had wide-ranging effects on the ability of consumers and employees to vindicate their rights in court and recoup ill-gotten gains from companies. The impact has been felt particularly in the financial services, telecommunications, auto sales, and employment contexts.

For instance, Douglas Bellows filed a class action against Midland Credit Management, a debt collector, alleging the use of harassing and abusive tactics to collect a debt in violation of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. After Concepcion, Bellows was forced into individual arbitration based on a clause in his take-it-or-leave-it credit card agreement.

Lourdes Cruz filed a class action against AT&T Wireless for charging $2.99 per month for “roadside assistance service,” although she had never requested or consented to such a service, under Florida’s unfair trade practices law. The Eleventh Circuit held that in light of Concepcion, Florida law was preempted by federal law and Cruz was forced into individual arbitration.

Mack Green and fellow shuttle bus drivers sued SuperShuttle for misclassifying them as franchisees rather than employees, thereby denying them benefits and overtime pay to which they were entitled, while charging them illegal “franchise fees.” After Concepcion, the Eighth Circuit forced the drivers into individual arbitration by upholding the class action waiver and mandatory arbitration clauses in their employment contracts, which the drivers alleged were unconscionable under state law.

These are just a few of the scores of suits (.pdf download) that have been dismissed by the lower courts in the twelve months since Concepcion was decided.

Of course, Concepcion was not written in a vacuum. Over the past several years, the Roberts Court has issued decision after decision forcing litigants into arbitration, in circumstances far afield from what Congress had in mind when it passed the FAA in 1925. The FAA was intended to counteract judicial hostility toward arbitration, by placing arbitration agreements “upon the same footing as other contracts.” The assumption was that the agreements would exist in negotiated contracts between parties with relatively equal bargaining power.

However, beginning in the 1980s and picking up significantly under the leadership of Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court has radically expanded its interpretation of the FAA, applying it to take-it-or-leave-it (or “adhesion”) contracts in the consumer and employment contexts. Furthermore, rather than treating arbitration agreements as no less valid than other contracts, the Court has privileged arbitration agreements as super contracts not susceptible to ordinary contract defenses (such as unconscionability).

Continuing this trend, in January, the Court upheld the arbitration clause that the so-called credit repair company CompuCredit inserted into its take-it-or-leave-it contracts with consumers, thereby preventing consumers from filing a class action lawsuit in court. This decision, Compucredit v. Greenwood, was particularly outrageous because the statute at issue, the Credit Repair Organization Act (“CROA”), specifically requires companies like CompuCredit to inform their customers: “You have a right to sue a credit repair organization that violates the Credit Repair Organization Act.” Nonetheless, the Court found that this provision of the CROA only creates the right to receive the statement, not an underlying right to sue. As Justice Ginsburg wrote in dissent, in a statute designed to prevent credit repair organizations from unfair and deceptive practices, Congress certainly did not intend to allow those organizations to deceive consumers by telling them they had a right that they do not have – i.e., the right to sue.

As others have documented, when individual arbitration is the only path left open to aggrieved consumers and employees, the result is not a whole lot of arbitration – the result is a whole lot of nothing, as few individuals will choose or be able to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of the arbitration system. Meanwhile, corporations are left to operate with impunity, ripping off Americans in ways big and small.

In the end, the losers are the American system of justice and the American people.