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Save the Seventh

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Susan HarleyThe Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution states, “In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved …”

Even though we are all granted the right to a trial by jury in the U.S. Constitution, Big Banks and corporations regularly use fine print in contracts to trick consumers out of their right to a day in court. Forced arbitration means that if consumers are ripped off or otherwise harmed, they must use private arbitration proceedings to air their grievances.

If you’re already angry about forced arbitration and you want to do something to get these predatory terms out of financial products, skip to the end of this post for ways to get involved.

There’s plenty to be mad about. These expensive arbitration “tribunals” have no judge or jury. They are overseen by paid arbitration providers who are selected by the companies. Arbitration firms have a very good reason to guarantee repeat business for themselves by finding in favor of the corporations over the consumers. The findings of arbitration decisions are not public and the appeals process is very limited. Most likely, you will also be required to go to arbitration in another state!

If consumers were interested in choosing arbitration, they would enter into the decision after some harm has come to them. It would need to be an informed decision where they did so with a full understanding of the consequences of their choice to not go to court.

But that’s not how we’re all roped into signing (or even clicking) away our rights. It has been proven that consumers rarely understand that their contracts contain arbitration clauses and have little idea of the repercussions of having their complaints heard in a non-court venue.

And, even if you understood they were there and knew it meant you were losing your right to go to court, it’s not like your average adult can simply opt out of getting a checking account, taking out that student loan, or financing that car.

What about if those very same companies with arbitration clauses were systematically ripping off you and your fellow consumers – but only in small dollar amounts? The only way it makes sense for consumers to bring those cases is through class actions where those who have been harmed can band together to make a complaint about a company’s action. Makes sense, right? Except most arbitration clauses contain class action bans, which were unfortunately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011. Now Big Banks basically have free rein to steal a few dollars here and there from all of their customers without worry of being held accountable.

Congress saw the unfairness of forced arbitration clauses and prohibited them in certain industries and in housing-lending contracts via the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd-Frank). Dodd-Frank tasked the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) — the brainchild of Elizabeth Warren — that was created by the same legislation with studying arbitration in all consumer financial contracts and determining whether consumers would be better served by prohibiting the practice.

The CFPB’s study is finally complete. It shows that consumers have little idea about arbitration clauses and how the fine print strips them of their constitutional right to their day in court. In fact, three out of four consumers surveyed as part of the study did not know whether they had an arbitration clause in their credit card agreements. And, of those who did have arbitration clauses, only seven percent understood that meant they had given up their right to their day in court.

Now it’s time for the public to get involved. Every person who’s even been steaming mad at Wall Street’s sticking it to the little guy and thinking they can weasel out of being held accountable needs to get involved.

Urge the CFPB to stand up to Big Banks and do the right thing. It’s certain that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its corporate cronies will do everything it can to keep unfair forced arbitration in consumer financial products, so we need as many people as possible to join this fight. There’s a whole toolbox of tactics we’d love to get you involved with, and it only depends on how much time you have to invest in protecting consumers.

Only have a second or two to take an online action? Easy!

What about a minute to share this social media meme? Great! While you’re at it, Tweet with the hashtags #CFPB and #ForcedArbitration.

If you have a lot to say on the subject and want to get your community fired up too, write a letter to the editor. We have ideas on what to say! There are even more ways to get involved. If you want to learn more, email: [email protected].

You could be part of scoring a major win for our country by reclaiming the Seventh Amendment. Americans, take back your day in court!

About the Author: Susan Harley is the deputy director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.


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CFPB Hearing: Data on One Side, Empty Rhetoric on the Other

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GabeHopkinsLarge In today’s era of Big Data, analytics, and sabermetrics, the cheeky motto “in God we  trust, all others must bring data” has never seemed more relevant. Well, in the arena of  mandatory arbitration provisions in consumer contracts the data is in, and the verdict is  clear: mandatory arbitration is unfair to consumers and harmful to the public interest.

Yesterday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau officially released its long-  awaited report on the use of mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer financial  services contracts. At a field hearing in Newark, N.J., CFPB Director Richard Cordray  discussed the report’s essential findings, noting that it was “the most comprehensive empirical study of consumer financial arbitration ever conducted.”

I’ll briefly outline the results, but what was really interesting – and what I’ll discuss below – is the discussion among panelists at the hearing Tuesday.

The 768-page report, three years in the making, was mandated by Congress in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. It analyzed six different consumer financial markets to compare the relative value of arbitral forums and courts for resolving disputes between customers and service providers. The evidence led to several key conclusions:

  • Mandatory arbitration clauses affect tens of millions of Americans. In both the credit card and checking account sectors, half of all accounts were covered by such provisions. The CFPB estimates that 80 million credit card holders are subject to mandatory arbitration.
  • Consumers don’t know they’ve signed away their rights. In a survey conducted for the report, 75% of consumers did not know whether they were subject to mandatory arbitration clauses. Of the 25% who thought they did know fully half were wrong about the true nature of the contracts they had signed. The survey also revealed that only a small fraction of consumers actually understand what mandatory arbitration and class action bans really mean for their rights.
  • Consumers rarely act on an individual basis. Over a three-year period, consumers filed only 1,800 claims in arbitration and 3,500 individual claims in federal court. Evidence from small-claims courts showed that individuals rarely turn to that forum for redress, and that most activity in those courts was by companies filing debt-collection suits against consumers.
  • Consumer class actions work. Over a five-year period 420 class action settlements in federal court netted $2.7 billion in cash, fees, and other relief. Contrary to the familiar protests of industry advocates, only 18% of this money went to plaintiffs’ lawyers, meaning $2.2 billion accrued to the benefit of affected consumers, with approximately half paid directly to consumers in cash payouts. These settlements benefitted at least 34 million consumers across America, not to mention all those protected by the settlements’ deterrent value.
  • Companies use arbitration clauses to kill class actions. Companies rarely invoke arbitration clauses to move individual suits out of court. In contrast, such provisions are raised in nearly two-thirds of class actions, and almost all arbitration clauses prohibit class treatment in the arbitral forum.
  • Arbitration does not make financial services cheaper for consumers. There is no evidence for the claim that arbitration clauses make the cost of doing business cheaper for companies who pass those savings onto consumers. Indeed, after four large credit card issuers removed arbitration clauses from their form contracts under an antitrust settlement, they did not significantly increase costs or reduce access to credit compared to other unaffected companies.

At the hearing in Newark, Director Cordray’s overview of the report’s findings was followed by a panel discussion between advocates for the financial industry and consumer protection advocates, including Public Justice Executive Director Paul Bland.

Given the reams of empirical data contained in the report, the industry-side panelists had little ground to stand on. Their responses consisted largely of nit-picking about the report’s methodology and doubling-down on their belief that arbitration is cheaper, faster, and fairer for consumers. For example, Ballard Spahr attorney Alan Kaplinsky  cited “studies” and his own “personal experience” representing financial institutions to back up these claims. , but did not cite any specific study by name. . He protested that it’s too early to judge how consumers fare in arbitration compared to court because arbitration is “in its infancy,” ignoring the fact that the report analyzed three years’ worth of data from the nation’s largest arbitration provider.  He also raised the familiar bugbear of the predatory plaintiffs’ bar, which reaps untold profits from “frivolous” lawsuits without any real benefit for their clients. His most intriguing comment, if only for its irony, was that his clients in the financial sector are regulated well enough by the CFPB and other federal and state agencies. Leave enforcement to government actors, he argued, they are far better at protecting consumers than the private sector.

Probably the most interesting comments from the industry side of the aisle came from Louis Vetere, president and CEO of a New Jersey credit union. Though he also did not grapple directly with the report, he agreed with his ideological colleagues that arbitration was good for consumers. However, he also repeatedly clarified that his company did not mandate arbitration in its contracts, nor did it think doing so was proper. Rather, he preferred to offer arbitration as an option when disputes with depositors arose, ultimately accepting whichever forum the depositor felt most comfortable with.

The panel’s consumer advocates fired back on several fronts, refuting both the specific arguments made by the industry advocates, and pointing out the many systemic problems caused by mandatory arbitration. Jane Santoni, a consumer lawyer in Maryland, said that arbitration was never a better option for her clients. More troubling to her was the fact that she has had to turn away the majority of prospective clients who have meritorious claims because as individual cases they are simply untenable for her to take. From her perspective mandatory arbitration has an “astronomical chilling effect” on the civil justice system.

Myriam Gilles, professor at Cardozo School of Law, noted that deciding consumer law cases in the “hermetically sealed” forum of private arbitration rather than in public court proceedings undermines the common law system in which future decisions build upon past precedents. She also pointed out that companies put mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts because it’s in their interests and is a matter of “common sense” from their perspective: as the report clearly bears out, arbitration is not about dispute resolution. It’s about avoiding liability.

Public Justice’s Paul Bland drove this point home in his remarks, noting that the innocent-sounding claim that arbitration is just about moving disputes to a simpler, easier forum is a “fairy tale.” He noted that mandatory arbitration prevented consumers from protecting themselves, particularly as marginal financial actors such as payday lenders move their practices online, burying arbitration agreements in tiny-text terms and conditions on obscure webpages, all to avoid answering to consumers and government overseers when they violate consumer protection statutes. Mandatory arbitration does little more, he argued, than permit companies to break the law with impunity by taking away people’s basic constitutional and statutory rights via mouse print contracts.

The hearing closed with comments from the assembled audience. Dozens of consumer advocates stood up and added further arguments against the use of mandatory arbitration. The points raised were remarkably varied, ranging from the practical – poor consumers can’t even afford the AAA’s $200 filing fee – to the theoretical – pre-dispute arbitration agreements violate consumers’ First Amendment right to petition for redress in a government court. One common refrain in the public comments, made in response to industry panelists’ claims that consumers enjoy the simplicity and informality of arbitration, is that if arbitration is such a good deal for consumers, it should be offered as a choice rather than being forced upon them as a condition of signing up for a credit card, cell phone or car loan.

Now that the data is in, the CFPB will soon announce what, if any, action it should take to regulate the use of mandatory arbitration provisions in consumer financial services contracts. Given the content of the report, the wealth of arguments supporting its conclusions, and the empirically bankrupt arguments from the other side, it is hard to imagine that the Bureau won’t come down hard on these clauses, perhaps even banning them outright. We here at Public Justice certainly hope that it does.

This post originally appeared at http://publicjustice.net/content/cfpb-hearing-data-one-side-empty-rhetoric-other. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Gabriel Hopkins joined the Public Justice DC Office in September 2014 as the Thornton-Robb Attorney. Before joining Public Justice he spent a year clerking on the New York State Court of Appeals for the Honorable Susan P. Read.  Gabriel attended New York University Law School and received his J.D. in 2013. While at NYU he worked with attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union to sue the New York Department of Corrections over its unconstitutional use of solitary confinement to discipline prisoners, securing significant relief from this practice for minors and the mentally ill in the prison system. He also summered at the New York Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau, and the Los Angeles civil rights firm Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman, where he helped partner Paul Hoffman bring the landmark international human rights case Kiobel v Royal Dutch Petroleum to the US Supreme Court.

 


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Dodd-Frank Bill Provides Robust Whistleblower Protections

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jason zuckermanRecognizing that robust whistleblower protection is critical to preventing another financial crisis, Congress included in the Dodd-Frank financial services reform bill (H.R. 4173) numerous provisions designed to encourage whistleblowing and to provide robust protection from retaliation.  These provisions create monetary awards for whistleblowers who provide original information to the SEC or CFTC, strengthen the whistleblower protection provisions of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and the False Claims Act, and create additional whistleblower retaliation causes of action.

Reward for Whistleblowing to the SEC and Prohibition Against Retaliation (Section 922). Under Section 922, the SEC will be required to pay a reward to individuals who provide original information to the SEC which results in monetary sanctions exceeding $1 million.  The award will range from 10 to 30 percent of the amount recouped and the amount of the award shall be at the discretion of the SEC.   Factors to be considered in determining the amount of the award include the significance of the information provided by the whistleblower, the degree of assistance provided by the whistleblower, the programmatic interest of the SEC in deterring violations of the securities laws by making awards to whistleblowers, and other factors that the SEC may establish by rule or regulation.  If the amount awarded is less than 10 percent or more than 30 percent of the amount recouped, a whistleblower may appeal the SEC’s determination by filing an appeal in the appropriate federal court of appeals within 30 days of the determination.

Section 922 prohibits the SEC from providing an award to a whistleblower who is convicted of a criminal violation related to the judicial or administrative action for which the whistleblower provided information; who gains the information by auditing financial statements as required under the securities laws; who fails to submit information to the SEC as required by an SEC rule; or who is an employee of the DOJ or an appropriate regulatory agency, an SRO, the PCAOB or a law enforcement organization.

Section 922 creates a new private right of action for employees who have suffered retaliation “because of any lawful act done by the whistleblower– ‘(i) in providing information to the Commission in accordance with [the whistleblower incentive section]; (ii) in initiating, testifying in, or assisting in any investigation or judicial or administrative action of the Commission based upon or related to such information; or (iii) in making disclosures that are required or protected under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002,’” the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, and “‘any other law, rule, or regulation subject to the jurisdiction of the [SEC].’”  The action may be brought in federal court and remedies include reinstatement, double back pay with interest, as well as litigation costs, expert witness fees, and reasonable attorney’s fees.

New Whistleblower Protection for Financial Services Employees (Section 1057). Section 1057 creates a robust private right of action for employees in the financial services industry who suffer retaliation for disclosing information about fraudulent or unlawful conduct related to the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.  The scope of coverage is quite broad in that Section 1057 applies to organizations that extend credit or service or broker loans; provide real estate settlement services or perform property appraisals; provide financial advisory services to consumers relating to proprietary financial products, including credit counseling; or collect, analyze, maintain, or provide consumer report information or other account information in connection with any decision regarding the offering or provision of a consumer financial product or service.

Section 1057 prohibits retaliation against an employee who has engaged in any of the following protected acts:

• Provided, caused to be provided, or is about to provide or cause to be provided, to an employer, the newly created Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection (Bureau), or any other government authority or law enforcement agency, information that the employee reasonably believes relates to any violation of any provision of Title X of the bill, which establishes new consumer financial protections, or any rule, order, standard or prohibition prescribed or enforced by the Bureau;

• Testified or will testify in a proceeding resulting from the administration or enforcement of any provision of Title X;

• Filed, instituted, or caused to be filed or instituted any proceeding under any federal consumer financial law; or

• Objected to, or refused to participate in any activity, practice, or assigned task that the employee reasonably believes to be a violation of any law, rule, standard, or prohibition subject to the jurisdiction of, or enforceable, by the Bureau.

Remedies include reinstatement, backpay, compensatory damages, and attorney’s fees and litigation costs, including expert witness fees.  Where reinstatement is unavailable or impractical, front pay may be awarded.

Section 1057 employs a burden-shifting framework that is favorable to employees.  A complainant can prevail merely by showing by a preponderance of the evidence that her protected activity was a contributing factor in the unfavorable action. A contributing factor is any factor which, alone or in connection with other factors, tends to affect in any way the outcome of the decision.  Once a complainant meets her burden by a preponderance of the evidence, the employer can avoid liability only if it proves by clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same action in the absence of the employee’s protected conduct.

The procedures governing Section 1057 claims are substantially similar to those governing retaliation claims brought under the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, 15 U.S.C. § 2087.  The statute of limitations is 180 days and the claim must be filed initially with the Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA), which will investigate the complaint and can order preliminary reinstatement.  Once OSHA issues its findings, either party can request a hearing before a Department of Labor (DOL) administrative law judge.  If the DOL has not issued a final order within 210 days of the filing of the complaint, the complainant has the option to remove the claim to federal court and either party can request a trial by jury.  Section 1057 claims are exempt from mandatory arbitration agreements.

Reward for Whistleblowing to the CFTC (Section 748). Section 748 amends the Commodity Exchange Act, 7 U.S.C. § 1 et seq., to create a whistleblower incentive program and whistleblower protections similar to those in section 922, including a new private right of action.  One notable difference between sections 748 and 922 is the ability of a commodity whistleblower to appeal any determination regarding an award made by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) within 30 days.  Protected conduct under section 748 includes providing information to the CFTC in accordance with the whistleblower incentive provision and “assisting in any investigation or judicial or administrative action of the [CFTC] based upon or related to such information.”

Strengthening Sarbanes-Oxley’s Whistleblower Protection Provision (Sections 922 and 922A). Sections 922 and 929A contain important amendments to the Sarbanes-Oxley act (SOX) that broaden the scope of coverage, increase the statute of limitations, exempt SOX whistleblower claims from mandatory arbitration, and clarify that SOX claims removed to federal court can be tried before a jury.

Section 929A clarifies that the whistleblower protection provision of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX), 18 U.S.C. § 1514A, applies to employees of subsidiaries of publicly-traded companies “whose financial information is included in the consolidated financial statements of [a publicly] traded company.”  This amendment eliminates a significant loophole that some courts have read into SOX that has substantially narrowed the scope of SOX coverage.  Elevating form over substance, some judges have permitted publicly-traded companies to avoid liability under SOX merely because the parent company that files reports with the SEC has few, if any, direct employees, and instead employs most of its workforce through non-publicly traded subsidiaries.

As Judge Levin pointed in Morefield v. Exelon Servs., Inc., ALJ No. 2004-SOX-002 (ALJ Jan. 28, 2004), this loophole is contrary to the purpose of SOX in that “[a] publicly traded corporation is, for Sarbanes-Oxley purposes, the sum of its constituent units; and Congress insisted upon accuracy and integrity in financial reporting at all levels of the corporate structure, including the non-publicly traded subsidiaries . . . [Congress] imposed reforms upon the publicly traded company, and through it, to its entire corporate organization.”  Section 922(b) further expands the coverage of section 806 of SOX to include employees of nationally recognized statistical ratings organizations (NRSROs), including A.M. Best Company, Inc., Moody’s Investors Service, Inc., and Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service.

Section 922(c) increases the statute of limitations for SOX whistleblower claims from 90 to 180 days and clarifies that SOX retaliation plaintiffs can elect to try their cases in federal court before a jury.  In addition, section 922(c) declares void any “agreement, policy form, or condition of employment, including a predispute arbitration agreement” which waives the rights and remedies afforded to SOX whistleblowers.

Strengthening the False Claims Act’s Whistleblower Protection Provision (Section 1079B). Section 1079B amends the anti-retaliation provision of the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3730(h), by expanding the definition of protected conduct to include “lawful acts done by the employee, contractor, or agent or associated others in furtherance of an action under this section or other efforts to stop 1 or more violations of [the False Claims Act],” thereby protecting against associational discrimination and covering a broad range of activities that could further a potential qui tam action or could stop a violation of the FCA.  Section 1079B clarifies that the statute of limitations for actions brought under section 3730(h) is three years, which brings much-needed clarity in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham County Soil & Water Conservation Dist. v. U.S. ex rel. Wilson, 545 U.S. 409 (2005) holding that the most closely analogous state statute of limitations applies to FCA retaliation claims.

“This article was originally posted on http://employmentlawgroupblog.com/”


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