On May 5, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a proposed rule that would prohibit the inclusion of class action waivers into forced private arbitration clauses. Importantly, the proposed rule does not prohibit mandatory private arbitration clauses in consumer agreements in general, just the use of class action waivers. A typical consumer financial contract contains a lengthy arbitration clause specifying that the consumer agrees to resolve any dispute that she may have with company, or even other entities that the company may assign the contract to down the road, in private arbitration rather than in a court and waives the consumer’s constitutional right to have their dispute heard by a jury of her peers. Arbitration clauses are usually buried in fine print inside a long and legalistic contract, which may not even require the consumer’s signature to be valid and enforceable. Arbitration clauses are often referred to by critics as requiring “forced arbitration” or as “contracts of adhesion” as the consumer does not have equal bargaining power to reject the contractual terms, even if she could actually decipher the legalese and understand exactly what rights they were giving up and what she was agreeing to. Moreover, the typical arbitration clause contains a class action waiver, whereby the consumer waives their right to participate as a member, or representative, of a class action lawsuit and ability to aggregate their potential claims with other consumers who have been harmed by the alleged wrongdoer.
In recent decades, as a result of congressional action (chiefly the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA)) and pro-arbitration judicial opinions broadly interpreting the FAA and prohibiting state regulations of arbitration based upon federal preemption doctrine, arbitration clauses have been largely upheld and have become ubiquitous. Whereas financial institutions and other private arbitration advocates have long touted private arbitration as an efficient and cost-effective method of dispute resolution, consumer rights advocates have called out for change arguing that mandatory private arbitration creates inconsistency in outcomes, offers a very limited basis to appeal wrong decisions, lacks transparency as the proceedings are not part of the public record, and actually increases costs for the consumer plaintiff—which ultimately means that consumers are much less likely to be able to secure legal representation to seek relief for the harms they suffered. Further, consumer advocates assert that class action waivers effectively eliminate the ability to hold corporate defendants accountable when the alleged damages may be quite small yet thousands, or perhaps even millions, of consumers were injured, because the inability to aggregate the claims of the many victims in a consolidated class case would necessitate a myriad of individual cases that would become much too costly and inefficient to litigate on an individual basis.
It is important to note that this is just a proposed rule—there is a 90-day comment period starting from when the proposal is entered into the Federal Register, and then the CFPB will assess the comments and submit a final rule. Even then, if the rule is adopted, it will likely face judicial challenge given that the opponents of the rule are well-funded groups associated with national banks, institutional creditors, and other large corporations. Also, even if adopted, the rule would only regulate financial institution products (given the scope of the CFPB’s rulemaking authority), and even some financial products are exempted from the rule.
The full text of the proposed rule can be found online here.
Kelly D. Jones is a solo bankruptcy & consumer rights attorney in SE Portland