Mandatory Arbitration Provisions: What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

Here, there and everywhere mandatory arbitration provisions are turning up in the fine print that hardly anybody reads and most do not fully understand.   A recent article in the New York Times reported that over the last 10 years thousands of companies across the country, from large corporations to storefront shops, have been using mandatory arbitration provisions to create an alternative system of justice in our country.   Banks, credit card companies, automobile financing companies, cable, internet and cell phone service providers, car rental companies and even nursing homes are sneaking mandatory arbitration provisions into their contracts.

Consumers sign on the dotted line without  any explanation as to what they are signing or what it will mean  if they have a dispute with one of these companies.   Often, consumers feel  they have no alternative but to sign the agreement if they want the goods or services involved.  Most give little thought to the possibility of a future dispute or how that dispute will be resolved.   After all, this is America – where access to our civil justice system is a cherished right protected by our beloved Constitution, right?   Wrong.

Mandatory arbitration provisions are chipping away at a fundamental right of access to the civil justice system to settle disputes.  This has resulted in a tipping of the scales of equity in favor of the powerful at the expense of those who are not.  If your Grandmother is abused at the nursing home are you willing to give up her day in court?  Look carefully at her admission agreement which just may have a mandatory arbitration provision in the small print.   In fact, the American Association for Justice has organized a petition asking Medicare and Medicaid to prohibit such clauses in the agreements of nursing homes receiving federal funding.  To sign this petition, go to: https://www.change.org/p/tell-nursing-homes-to-stop-stealing-seniors-rights

Even class action lawsuits are being tossed out of the courtroom due to mandatory arbitration provisions.  The only realistic remedy of consumers against mega-corporations, class action lawsuits have long acted as the collective conscious of society against overbilling, mysterious charges and other bad practices of big corporations resulting in damages too small to make a lawsuit by a single consumer a viable option.  Class actions allow people who lost small amounts of money to band together to seek relief.    If your bank wrongfully added a $100 charge to your account, would you have the desire or the resources to bring a claim? Probably not.   If that bank took $100 each from a million customers, shouldn’t they be held accountable?

Among the class actions recently thrown out of court due to arbitration clauses was one on behalf of Time Warner customers for overcharges on  their cable bills and another on behalf of African American Taco Bell workers allegedly denied promotions due to race.   Consumer advocate groups worry that these disputes are being shifted to a system that favors corporations over consumers.   There is no judge or jury rather it is usually a lawyer that determines your fate behind a closed door, out of the public view.

Before you sign on the dotted line or click “I agree,”  read the contract.   If it contains a mandatory arbitration clause, stop and think.   What exactly are you giving up and are you willing to do so?  If not, ask that the provision be removed or take your business elsewhere.