A consumer injustice: Arbitration agreements only protect big business

by Carey Been, Justice News Flash

The days of facing your opponent in a court of law to settle disputes are rapidly fading, especially if you’re a consumer. For consumers, a barely noticeable clause may be trading your right to a day in court for forced arbitration when disputing a matter with a company, because you were given no choice when you signed or were given the contract for their services, says Carey Been, an Los Angeles consumer protection attorney.

Have you ever felt that you have been wrongfully charged a service fee, a no-show charge or were locked into a contract with a company that you just can’t seem to end? If you have, chances are your first step will be to fight with the company to remove those charges or find a way to get out of your contract.

When you just can’t seem to get the company to work with you, seeking legal representation is usually the next option. But, that option is quickly being excluded as you have likely agreed to enter arbitration to resolve disputes simply by signing their contract.

The fine print buried in the endless pages of your contract with your bank, phone or credit card company, and just about any company you can think of, now includes arbitration clauses that strip you of your rights. These binding arbitration agreements keep you out of the courtroom and require that you enter arbitration with an arbitrator that the company usually hires. This relationship gives the company an unfair advantage over their customers, Cleveland.com reported.

But if you think you can get an arbitration decision overturned in court, you are probably mistaken. The arbitrators’ decisions are so airtight that even errors in applying the law cannot be reviewed by a court, leaving consumers with no options and nowhere else to turn.

Arbitration began sneaking into consumer contracts in the mid 1980s once the Federal Arbitration Act was expanded. But it was not until the 2011 court case of AT&T Mobility v. Conception that arbitration really became a landmark issue for consumers. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Arbitration Act trumps state laws, and allowed companies to bar class actions by consumers who banded together to wage a fight against a company, says Mr. Been. Often the amounts in dispute are too small to hire an attorney and consumers must join together with a common goal in a class action suit.

With these protections arbitration clauses have become more attractive for businesses, as it is a way to build a protective wall around the company.

There are things we can do to protect our constitutional right to face our opponents in a fair and unbiased courtroom:

1.    Make informed decisions: Read your contracts before you sign. If there is an arbitration clause, express your concern with the company and shop elsewhere if needed. If enough consumers fight against the arbitration clauses and take their business elsewhere, companies will be forced to listen. Also, begin reading the notices companies send you about contract changes and opt out of mandatory arbitration requirements if you can.

2.    Fight back: Demand that the lawmakers fight for the consumers by supporting the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would stop companies from requiring consumers to enter forced arbitration.

It’s time that consumers stand up and fight for their rights. Get your voices heard and demand change and stop companies from taking advantage of innocent and unsuspecting consumers.