WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, more than 100 members of Congress called on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to proceed with its effort to eliminate forced arbitration.
In two separate letters, 103 members of the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate praised CFPB Director Richard Cordray for his agency's proposed rule prohibiting mandatory arbitration clauses in finance contracts. They claim that eliminating such clauses will protect consumers from a process from which they rarely benefit.
“We wholeheartedly agree, and we offer our strong support for the CFPB's proposal that rightfully recognizes the expansive harms of forced arbitration, prohibits the unfair use of class action waivers, and requires greater transparency concerning the arbitration of individual claims,” stated the letter signed by 38 U.S. Senators.
“The proposed rule is in the public interest and will protect consumers,” read the letter signed by 65 members of the House of Representatives. “As you know, Congress expressly granted authority to the bureau to research the impact of forced arbitration clauses in financial products and services, and based on this evidence, to promulgate a rule to prohibit or impose conditions on the use of forced arbitration if the bureau finds that it would be ‘in the public interest and for the protection of consumers.’ There is little doubt that the bureau’s proposed rule will serve these twin goals.”
The CFPB’s first proposed its rule on forced arbitration this past May, more than a year after the bureau issued its 728-page report on the use of pre-dispute arbitration clauses in consumer finance markets. The rule the bureau proposed stated that companies would be able to use arbitration clauses in finance contracts; however, use of such agreements could not bar consumers from being part of a class action lawsuit.
“There is overwhelming evidence that class-action waivers in financial products and services agreements undermine the public interest. Originally used primarily in commercial settings, forced arbitration clauses have proliferated in everyday contracts, and are now prevalent in financial services agreements,” stated the House letter. “By restricting class actions and class-wide arbitration in consumer contracts, these clauses enable corporations to avoid public scrutiny by precluding access to the courts.”
These waivers, the letter further stated, are particularly problematic in small, diffuse misconduct. These small claims are often the most harmful to consumers because they’re either too expensive for individuals to pursue or are so small consumers aren’t aware of the misconduct, lawmakers claimed.
“Forced arbitration shields corporations from accountability for abusive, anti-consumer practices, which only encourages unscrupulous business practices by allowing violations of the law to go unchecked. This comes at the expense of consumers, small businesses, and — just as importantly — law abiding businesses. Recognizing this, the CFPB has proposed a narrowly-tailored but important rule to restore access to our civil justice system and promote transparency within the forced arbitration system,” read the Senate’s letter.
But not all findings in the study support the lawmakers' claims. For instance, the study showed that in many class action cases where the principal purpose of seeking class relief was to pressure a settlement, members of the class action got nothing or next to nothing. It also found that class action cases almost never make it to trial, while a significant percentage of arbitration proceedings actually resolve the disputes. The study also showed that arbitration is both faster and more economical than litigation.
“Late last year, the CFPB released a study on arbitration, which the bureau says shows that consumers are harmed by arbitration agreements as opposed to class action lawsuits. However, a careful review of the CFPB’s study demonstrates that the opposite is true …,” the American Financial Services Association wrote in a news brief published just prior to the CFPB issuing its proposed rule. “In 60% of class actions studied by the CFPB, consumers received no remuneration at all.
“In the 15% of cases where consumers received monetary compensation in class actions, they received an average of just $32.25, after waiting an average of 23 months,” the associated added. “In contrast, consumers who prevailed in arbitration agreements, on average, received $5,389. The real winners in class action lawsuits are plaintiff’s attorneys, who divided approximately $424 million in fees.”