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The Trump Administration is About to Put Nursing Home Profits Ahead of Nursing Home Patients

Wednesday, May 10th, 2017

Some of the most heart-wrenching stories of abuse, mistreatment and neglect you’re likely to hear involve nursing homes. As America’s baby boomers age, and nursing home populations continue to grow, big corporations have, not surprisingly, started to take note. In fact, the vast majority of nursing homes in the United States – 70%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – are run by for-profit corporations, and an increasing number of homes are being snapped up by Wall Street investment firms.

And that, in turn, can often mean that high quality care takes a backseat to high profits.

Increasingly, these giant corporations are using forced arbitration clauses — contract terms that say that people cannot sue them, no matter what laws they break, and instead people harmed by illegal acts can only bring cases before private arbitrators who are generally beholden to the corporations. These clauses make it far harder for the victims of mistreatment to hold a facility accountable where there’s abuse or serious negligence, and they minimize the incentive to provide the highest quality of care.  The secretive arbitration system also effectively lets homes sweep the facts about problems under the rug, so that the public and regulators never learn about widespread or egregious abuses.

That’s why, in 2016, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said nursing homes should no longer receive federal funding if they use arbitration clauses in their contracts. It was a commonsense proposal that would ensure families can hold nursing homes accountable for abuse and neglect. The government essentially said – and rightly so – that protecting desperately vulnerable people is more important than squeezing out an extra percentage of profit for hedge fund owners.

But that was 2016. Now, the Trump Administration appears to be gearing up to kill the proposal.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN), a fierce opponent of arbitration who has fought corporate lobbyists to protect Americans’ right to their day in court, said on Tuesday that “the Trump Administration is planning to lift the ban on nursing home arbitration clauses.”

So the White House, it appears, is ready to deliver another gift to hedge funds and banks – the corporate entities that increasingly control the nursing home industry – at the expense of the sick and elderly and their families.

It’s no wonder why corporate lobbyists working for the nursing home industry have made killing the CMS proposal a top priority: unlike the public court system (where trials are open to the public, press and regulators), nursing homes benefit enormously from the secretive system of arbitration, where the facts about abuses can be (and often are) buried. “Confidentiality” provisions – which really translate into gag orders – and non-transparent, non-public handling make it easier for systemic problems to stay hidden, and to continue.

If nursing homes are permitted to continue opting out of the civil justice system, we can expect to see lower levels of care, and higher numbers of preventable injuries and deaths. If they succeed in keeping families out of court, the potential savings to their bottom line are enormous when you consider that abuse is very widespread (according to the government’s own study).  Public Justice, our national public interest law firm and advocacy organization, set forth an extensive factual and legal case in support of the CMS proposal, where a great deal more background is available.

Consider just a handful of the plaintiffs who were able to successfully challenge nursing homes in court:

  • A 90-year-old woman allowed to languish with a festering pressure sore, acute appendicitis, and a urinary tract infection so severe it has entered her blood.
  • A diabetic patient injected with the incorrect dose of insulin, sending them into hypoglycemic shock and causing brain damage.
  • An 81-year-old man who was viciously beaten by a roommate who’d been involved in 30 assaults prior to moving in with the victim.
  • An 87-year-old woman whose calls for help were ignored after she fell and broke her hip.

Had any of those patients been subject to an arbitration clause – as no doubt many future cases would be if the Administration folds to pressure from for-profit homes – they likely would have never had a chance to have their case heard by a jury.

Nursing homes have complete control over some of the most vulnerable and fragile people in the entire country: people who are gravely ill, who are often cognitively impaired in ways that make it hard for them to protect themselves, are completely at the mercy of these institutions.

Now, rather than working to give those patients some small measure of protection and security, the Trump Administration is poised to give them the shaft. It’s unconscionable back-pedaling that would leave millions with little recourse when they, or their loved ones, are mistreated or abused.

This blog originally appeared at DailyKos.com on May 3, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .

 

Ahead of CFPB Rule, Congress Prepares for a Showdown over the Future of Forced Arbitration and Consumer Class Actions

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017

Last week, lawmakers laid the groundwork for a battle over consumer rights and forced arbitration that likely will play out through the spring.

First, congressional Democrats introduced several bills to restore consumers’ right to hold corporations accountable in court for wrongdoing. Led by U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), lawmakers on March 7 introduced a slate of bills aimed at ending the use of forced arbitration in various sectors. Forced arbitration provisions, also known as “ripoff clauses,” block consumers from challenging illegal corporate behavior.

Lawmakers were joined at a packed press conference by people who had been harmed by forced arbitration: a veteran illegally fired from his job while serving in the military and blocked from suing his employer; a victim of Wells Fargo fraud whose class action was kicked out of court; and former news anchor Gretchen Carlson, barred from speaking out about sexual harassment she had suffered at Fox News.

Among the bills introduced were Franken’s Arbitration Fairness Act, which would prohibit forced arbitration in consumer, employment, civil rights, and antitrust cases and Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) Justice for Victims of Fraud Act, which would close the “Wells Fargo loophole” by restoring consumers’ right to sue when banks open fraudulent accounts without their knowledge.

However, in stark contrast to this push to strengthen rights and restore corporate accountability, GOP lawmakers began pressing to make it harder for consumers to band together when harmed and take corporations to court.

Two days after the Franken press conference, the House passed H.R. 985, the so-called “Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act” would effectively kill class actions by imposing insurmountable requirements to file group lawsuits. This would make it nearly impossible for consumers to hold corporations accountable for illegal and abusive behavior.

Among other onerous provisions, H.R. 985 would require that each harmed person suffer the “same type and scope of injury.” Under this absurd standard, a Wells Fargo customer with two fake accounts opened in his or her name could be barred from joining together with customers who had three fraudulent accounts. The bill also would build in costly and unnecessary delays and appeals, limit plaintiffs’ choice of counsel, and drastically restrict attorneys’ fees.

Joining together in a class action often is the only chance real people have to fight back against widespread harm, including corporate fraud and scams – particularly when claims involve small amounts of money, where it would be too costly for an individual to pursue a separate claim. Class actions have also been critical vehicles for overcoming race- and gender-based discrimination and have been instrumental in achieving victories as momentous as desegregation of our schools, as was the case in Brown v. Board of Education.

Beyond protecting the rights of the disadvantaged, class actions act as a crucial check on corporate misbehavior by returning money to harmed consumers and workers. Removing the threat of class liability would encourage systemic fraud, as banks and lenders that pad their bottom lines by committing fraud would have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In the financial sector, the proposed CFPB arbitration rule is a major target of financial industry lobbyists precisely because it would restore the right of consumers to join class action lawsuits. According to the CFPB’s arbitration study, class actions returned $2.2 billion in cash relief to 34 million consumers from 2008-2012, not including attorneys’ fees and litigation costs. While the CFPB rule is expected to be finalized this spring, it would be rendered largely ineffective should H.R. 985 become law.

You can watch our video against H.R. 985 here and follow developments on Twitter using the hashtag, #RipoffClause.

This article originally appeared at FairArbitrationNow.org on March 17, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Amanda Werner is Arbitration Campaign Manager with Public Citizen and Americans for Financial Reform, where her work focuses on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)’s arbitration rulemaking. She represents a broad coalition of consumer, civil rights, labor, and community groups as part of a robust public campaign in support of a strong final rule against the #RipoffClause.

If Uber Wants to Take Away Its Customers’ Rights, It Should Tell Them

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016

It’s bad enough that a ton of corporations require their customers and employees to submit all their legal claims to private arbitration, a secretive system that is rigged against the individual. But to compound the unfairness, a growing number of corporations are hiding their forced arbitration clauses to make them more and more obscure. As corporations become more secretive, and try harder to slip these by consumers so they won’t notice, it makes it less and less likely that people will actually read and agree to them (or choose not to). Here at Public Justice, we are fighting back against this trend: we have repeatedly argued to courts around the country that arbitration clauses should be held to the same standards as other types of contract terms – people should never be bound by these clauses unless they agree to them.

Recently, in the case of Meyer v. Uber, federal judge Jed Rakoff, who is both nationally prominent and widely respected, held that Uber had failed to form an enforceable agreement to arbitrate with customers through its mobile app. Judge Rakoff looked at the two things that a corporation must do to form a contract – it must conspicuously disclose the contract term, and it must ensure that individuals unambiguously agree – and found that Uber had failed to do either of these things. This was a puzzling error by Uber, which has been able to meet this basic standard in its arbitration clauses with both customers and workers in a number of other parts of its business.

Now the case is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Uber is essentially arguing (with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) that the normal rules of contract do not apply to apps. Uber’s position is that arbitration clauses don’t need to be conspicuously disclosed in this setting, and that we can just assume that any customer who uses Uber has “agreed” to arbitrate even if they haven’t taken any step to indicate that this is so. Public Justice filed an amicus brief in this case, explaining both (a) why Uber’s position violates core principles of contract law, and (b) how arbitration clauses are not exempt from these basic rules of law. Even if courts have favored enforcement of arbitration agreements, they still insist that there BE an actual agreement.

Both of the basic legal rules – conspicuous disclosure and unambiguous agreement – are essential. If Uber wins that it need not conspicuously disclose information, that would open the door to arguments that even if an arbitration clause is hidden in ways that no (or almost no) consumers would ever find it, they’re still enforceable. In other settings, we’ve already seen corporations try increasingly bizarre ways to slip arbitration clauses past people (e.g., one car manufacturer put an arbitration clause deep in the manual for a car, wrapped up in fake leather in the glove compartment, and argued that all consumers should be “deemed” to have read it), and it’s crucial that courts draw the line against such adventurous mistreatment of consumers.

Similarly, courts should insist on an unambiguous signal from a consumer that they’ve agreed (like a signature on a contract, or clicking “yes, I agree” to terms and conditions). Uber’s position is that if the consumer does the same thing they would have done if they’d never known about the terms and conditions (essentially inferring consent from silence by the consumer), that’s enough. But assuming that people agree to something when they’ve never said so is dangerous and wrong. The silliness of reading consent into a consumer’s silence was made clear in a famous episode of The Simpsons:

Homer Simpson talking to God: “Here’s the deal: you freeze everything as it is, and I won’t ask for anything more. If that is OK, please give me absolutely no sign.”

[No response]

“O.k., deal. In gratitude, I present you this offering of cookies and milk. If you want me to eat them for you, please give me no sign.”

[No response]

“This will be done.”

(This scene was actually cited in Jude Boyce Martin’s dissent in Seawright v. American General Financial Services, Inc. [6th Cir. 2007]).

The upshot, as we set out in our amicus brief, is that courts need to insist that corporations trying to impose arbitration on consumers at least follow basic rules of contract law.  Hiding arbitration clauses where no one will read them, and then assuming that consumers agreed if they just do nothing, is a recipe for enforcing a lot of fine print without any consent.

We are very grateful to the fantastic team of lawyers who wrote this amicus brief, spearheaded by Andrew Kaufman of Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, along with Jonathan Selbin and Jason Lichtman also of Lieff Cabraser; and Jahan Sagafi, Nantiya Ruan, Paul Mollica, and Peter Romer-Friedman of Outten & Golden LLP.

This blog originally appeared on publicjustice.net on December 7, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Paul Bland, Jr., Executive Director, has been a senior attorney at Public Justice since 1997. As Executive Director, Paul manages and leads a staff of nearly 30 attorneys and other staff, guiding the organization’s litigation docket and other advocacy. Follow him on Twitter: .

Why the Wells Fargo Scandal Shows the Need to End Forced Arbitration

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

aaron_jordanAnother day, another scandal at the big banks.

Since the financial crisis, banks like Barclays and UBS have been caught manipulating interest rates; J.P. Morgan has reluctantly handed over billions for its association with Bernie Madoff, illegal hiring practices, and lax oversight of its own traders among its other misdeeds; while Goldman Sachs has been fined billions for selling toxic subprime mortgages to investors. This past week the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) fined Wells Fargo $185 million for creating fake accounts and assigning them to unwitting customers. While this outrage shows the need for tighter regulation, it also exposes the urgent need to end the anti-consumer practice of forced arbitration in financial service agreements. If consumers cannot access the courts, scandals will be harder to uncover and victims will find it nearly impossible to achieve justice.

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 11: A sign is posted in front of a Wells Fargo bank on October 11, 2013 in Oakland, California. Wells Fargo reported a 13 percent increase in third-quarter profits with a net income of $5.6 billion, or 99 cents a share compared to $4.9 billion, or 88 cents a share one year ago. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Over the last decade, Wells Fargo has pioneered a business strategy called “cross-selling.” The idea is to get customers to use other products sold by the bank. If you have a checking account, try out a credit card. If you like our investment services, why not get a mortgage? High level managers bullied subordinates into hitting impossible account-creation targets. The result was massive fraud: according to the CFPB, Wells Fargo opened 1,534,280 deposit accounts and 565,443 credit-card accounts “that may not have been authorized, by using consumers’ information without their knowledge or consent.” More than 100,000 of these accounts were charged fees: in other words, Wells Fargo customers paid late fees for accounts they never opened and never wanted.

The scope of the scandal is breathtaking. Wells Fargo has already fired more than 5,300 employees and the victims of its illegal scheme likely number in the hundreds of thousands. On its face, this would seem the perfect instance for a class action lawsuit (in which similarly situated plaintiffs come together to bring a lawsuit). Wells Fargo, however, has a notoriously stringent arbitration agreement. Instead of allowing those who have a “disagreement” with the company to bring a lawsuit, they force them into an out-of-court arbitration.

Arbitrators aren’t required to follow precedent, nor do they abide by encoded rules of procedure. They can make their decisions on a whim and without a hearing, and these rulings cannot be appealed. Their income depends on being rehired by the companies themselves.  Studies consistently show that arbitrators favor their corporate benefactors. This is unsurprising: corporations wouldn’t be rushing to write new forced arbitration agreements if this alternative system was more likely to favor the consumer.

Wells Fargo’s forced arbitration clause is particularly harsh and exceptionally broad. Paul Bland, an attorney at Public Justice, has called it “one of the most anti-consumer, egregious”clauses in the industry while attorney John Keating found it “startlingly unconscionable.” According to Wells Fargo’s 2016 business account agreement, all clients “irrevocably…waive the right to a trial by jury.”

Noting the stark language of the agreement, federal Judge Vincent Chhabria found that the agreement was broad enough to cover any dispute between the bank and its clients, thus denying defrauded clients access to the courts. Never mind that consumers can hardly agree to anything with regard to accounts they never opened or desired in the first place.

Federal agencies are taking steps to curb the use of forced arbitration. The CFPB has released a proposed rule that would prohibit class action bans in arbitration clauses, while the Department of Education is considering similar provisions in education contracts (for-profit colleges are infamous for their iron clad mandatory arbitration clauses). President Obama has signed an Executive Order granting the Labor Department authority to prohibit companies with federal contracts of more than $1 million from enforcing such clauses. The Department of Defense, having seen the unfairness of forced arbitration on our men and women in uniform, has prohibited forced arbitration in credit cards and auto loans to service members.

These steps, if finalized, will not only help ensure justice for those already wronged, but prevent future scandals. If wrongdoing is exposed before a public court of law instead of behind closed doors, corporations will be less likely to cheat their customers. And if companies must confront an impartial judge and jury, wronged consumers are much more likely to win relief.

Ending forced arbitration would not only help the victims of this Wells Fargo scandal, it may prevent the next one.

This blog originally appeared in afj.org on September 20, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Aaron Jordan serves as a Dorot legal fellow at Alliance for Justice. As a member of the Justice program, he works on and writes about judicial nominations, the Supreme Court, and the civil justice system. Aaron received his B.A. in History from Davidson College and his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. At Penn, Aaron was the Articles Editor for the Journal of International Law, a Project Coordinator for the International Human Rights Advocates, and a Teaching Assistant in Constitutional Law for Professor Rogers Smith. During law school, Aaron had internships for the organizations Voices on the Border and Human Rights First, and worked as a law clerk for Congressman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). After graduating from college, Aaron spent a year teaching in Honduras, where he started an ongoing scholarship to fund the education of deserving, underprivileged children.

Uber Drivers Learn that Sometimes the Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

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Courts have an important responsibility to approve class action settlements and ensure that the plaintiffs and their attorneys are not selling out the class by colluding with the defendants. Sometimes, though, in their zealous protection of the absent class members, courts wind up forgetting the old aphorism attributed to Confucius: “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” Uber drivers may wind up with pebbles rather than somewhat flawed diamonds. Crushed pebbles may make concrete, but even flawed diamonds could help pay a lot more bills.rough-diamonds

When veteran wage-and-hour litigator Shannon Liss-Riordan sought court approval for a $100 million settlement on behalf of a class of 385,000 Uber drivers in California and Massachusetts, she was denounced by some objectors for the compromise she reached, even after she volunteered to cut her fee in half. Then Judge Edward Chen of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California last month denied approval of the proposed settlement of the drivers’ independent-contractor-misclassification claims, finding that the settlement was not “fair, adequate, and reasonable,” as required to grant preliminary approval.

Judge Chen is one of the most careful protectors of absent class members and one of the most thoughtful jurists when it comes to adjudicating wage protections. In denying preliminary approval for the proposed independent-contractor-misclassification settlement, Judge Chen expressly endorsed the view that district court review of class action settlements should not be too lax – and particularly that the court’s review at the preliminary (as opposed to the final) approval stage should be more searching.  But, in this case, his decision disapproving the settlement may have unintended consequences.

In disapproving the settlement, Judge Chen acknowledged the risk posed by Uber’s previously-rejected arbitration provisions, stating: “The most obvious risk to Plaintiffs is, of course, that the Ninth Circuit [which sits as the Northern District of California’s reviewing court] will uphold the validity of the arbitration provision contained in the 2013 and/or 2014 agreements, which this Court found was invalid as a matter of public policy.” This is exactly what happened.

Last week’s decision from the Ninth Circuit upholding Uber’s arbitration agreements (which contained class waivers) in another case may mean that the vast majority of those 385,000 drivers will get nothing. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Judge Chen had erred in previously declaring Uber’s arbitration agreements unenforceable, and that in doing so, he had “ignore[d]” circuit precedent.

Now, to get anything at all, each driver may need to bring an individual arbitration against Uber and win, showing that he or she was more like an Uber employee than an independent contractor. This will be a tough showing and, as Uber well knows, the vast majority of drivers will never step forward to assert the risky claims at all.

Denying approval for the $100 million settlement, Judge Chen found that the settlement reflected a 90% discount on the full value of the drivers claims, with the exception of the claim under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), for which the Court indicated that the settlement was a mere 0.1% of their full value. In particular, Judge Chen expressed concern that the PAGA claim had recently been added to the lawsuit to induce Uber to settle. Furthermore, Judge Chen questioned the value of the nonmonetary relief in the settlement, such as the provision that would allow drivers to accept cash tips (as opposed to in-app tipping as with Lyft), suggesting that riders accustomed to a cashless experience are unlikely to reach for their wallets.

It is possible that each of these terms was a compromise that was less than ideal for the Uber driver class members. Of course, any settlement of a wage-and-hour class action (or more broadly, any settlement of any lawsuit) is going to consist of a mix of terms, both good and bad for both sides of the dispute. But surely getting some money in a settlement – even an imperfect settlement – would be much better for hundreds of thousands of Uber drivers than getting nothing at all.

These Uber disputes raise central questions about the level of scrutiny a district court should apply to a class settlement – particularly given Judge Chen’s criticism of “lax review” – and whether the Court or class counsel is in a better position to evaluate the risks of non-recovery. While the court is charged with preventing collusive settlements to protect absent class members, ultimately, seasoned and responsible class counsel and class members both tend to care most about the bottom line, in light of the risks. With the benefit of hindsight, Liss-Riordan appears to have been right about the risks of proceeding with the litigation, and the settlement’s objectors were misguided.

The case is not over. Liss-Riordan has been signing up Uber drivers to pursue individual arbitrations in California. The PAGA claims on behalf of California drivers may not be compelled to arbitration. Nonetheless, the likelihood of a recovery nearing $100 million, or getting money for all 385,000 Uber drivers, looks bleak.

When reviewing class action settlements that were negotiated at arm’s length by experienced class counsel, where class counsel is able to articulate the rationale for their position, courts should be hesitant to second-guess counsel’s risk assessment. The perfect is often the enemy of the good in these cases, where a court – with a single decision – can erase years of work to obtain a successful result, absent some kind of an agreement between the parties. Particularly in the employment context, where workers should be recovering more than nominal amounts in any class resolution, those who do not wish to participate can always opt-out of a deal and pursue their own claims if they are so inclined. For the rest, though, receiving flawed diamonds might be a whole lot better than the alternative – getting dirt.

This blog appeared on Bryan Schwartz Law on September 16, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Logan Starr is an associate at Bryan Schwartz Law, focusing on employment discrimination, whistleblower, and wage-and-hour claims. Previously, Mr. Starr served two years as a law clerk to the Honorable L. Patrick Auld, United States Magistrate Judge for the Middle District of North Carolina.

 Bryan Schwartz Law is an Oakland, California-based law firm dedicated to helping employees protect their rights in the workplace. Mr. Schwartz and his firm have fought to prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and harassment obtained reasonable accommodation for disabled employees, vindicated whistleblowers’ rights and ensured that corporations pay workers all wages they are owed. Bryan Schwartz Law has successfully litigated individual and class action complaints nationwide, helping to recover millions of dollars for thousands of employees, forcing corporations and Government agencies to change their practices and punish wrongdoers. Bryan Schwartz Law is also one of the few Bay Area-based law firms with extensive experience representing Federal employees in their unique Merit Systems Protection Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

D.R. Horton Rising: The Ninth Circuit Sides with the Seventh Circuit and the National Labor Relations Board on Class Action Waivers, in Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP

Wednesday, September 7th, 2016
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Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit took sides in a major split within the U.S. Courts of Appeals over the enforceability of class arbitration waivers. In Morris v. Ernst & Young, LLP, No. 13-16599, Slip. Op. (9th Cir. Aug. 22, 2016), the Ninth Circuit held that employers violate Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) by requiring employees covered by the NLRA to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in “concerted activities” such as class and collective actions. (Slip Op. at 1.)

By this holding, the Ninth Circuit joins the Seventh Circuit, which in Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., 823 F.3d 1147 (7th Cir. May 26, 2016) adopted the National Labor Relations Board (“The Board”) position in D.R. Horton, Inc., 357 NLRB No. 184 (2012). Under this line of authority, the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) does not mandate enforcement of a contract that waives the substantive federal right to engage in concerted action established in Section 7 of the NLRA. (Slip Op. at p. 18-19.) Bryan Schwartz Law blogged in detail about the Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp. decision, here.

In Morris, two employees filed a class and collective action alleging that their employer had misclassified workers as exempt and deprived them of overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California labor laws. As a condition of employment, the employees were required to sign contracts containing a “concerted action wavier” that obligated them (1) to pursue legal claims against their employer exclusively through arbitration and (2) to arbitrate individually in “separate proceedings.” Based on these agreements, the employer moved to compel the employees to arbitrate their claims individually. The U.S. District Court granted the employer’s motion. (Slip Op. at p. 4-5.)

The Ninth Circuit reversed, reviewing the decision to compel arbitration de novo. Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas explained in the opinion:

This case turns on a well-established principal: employees have the right to pursue work-related legal claims together. 29 U.S.C. § 157; Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 566 (1978). Concerted activity – the right of employees to act together – is the essential substantive right established by the NLRA. 29 U.S.C. § 157. Ernst & Young interfered with that right by requiring its employees to resolve all of their legal claims in “separate proceedings.” Accordingly the concerted action waiver violates the NLRA and cannot be enforced.

(Id. at p. 6.)

The Ninth Circuit explained that the FAA does not dictate a contrary result. (Id. at 14.) While the FAA creates a “federal policy favoring arbitration” clause enforcement, the Act contains a savings clause that prohibits enforcement of arbitration agreements that defeat substantive federal rights, including the right to engage in concerted activity under the NLRA. (Id. at 15, 26.) In Morris, employees’ waiver was illegal not because it required the employees to pursue their claims in arbitration, but rather, because they could not do so in concert. (Id. at p. 16.)

Other circuit courts have taken a contrary position, enforcing employers concerted action waivers under the FAA. See Cellular Sales of Missouri, LLC v. N.L.R.B., 824 F.3d 772, 776 (8th Cir. June 2, 2016); Murphy Oil USA, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 808 F.3d 1013 (5th Cir. 2015); Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc., 702 F.3d 1050, 1053-54 (8th Cir. 2013); D.R. Horton, Inc. v. NLRB, 737 F.3d 344, 361 (5th Cir. 2013); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 297 n.8 (2d Cir. 2013).

As more circuits choose sides on whether class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable, Supreme Court review becomes an inevitability.

The High Court would also be wise to resolve a disagreement between the Ninth and Seventh Circuits regarding such waivers. In the Seventh Circuit, any “[c]ontracts that stipulate away employees’ Section 7 rights . . . are unenforceable.” Epic, 823 F.3d. at 1155. The Ninth Circuit precedent is narrower, making such contracts enforceable if employment is not conditioned on agreeing to the clause. (Slip. Op. 11, n. 4.) For example, if an employee has the opportunity to opt-out of a class action waiver and keep his or her job, but chooses not to, that waiver would be enforceable by the employer in the Ninth Circuit. (Id. (citing Johnmohammadi v. Bloomingdale’s, Inc., 755 F.3d 1072, 1076 (9th Cir. 2014))). The Seventh Circuit provides a clearer rule, one that better comports with the purposes of the NLRA, and one that the Supreme Court should adopt.

For now, workers in the Ninth and Seventh Circuits, as well as their advocates, should take note that employers cannot force employees to sign class action waivers as a condition of employment, because Epic and Morris tell us that the NLRA provides employees with the right to vindicate their employment rights collectively.

This blog appeared on Bryan Schwartz Law on August 23, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Rachel Terp is an associate at Bryan Schwartz Law, where she focuses on employment discrimination, whistleblower, and wage and hour claims. Previously, Ms. Terp was a Bridge Fellow with the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), where she specialized in consumer litigation.

 Bryan Schwartz Law is an Oakland, California-based law firm dedicated to helping employees protect their rights in the workplace. Mr. Schwartz and his firm have fought to prohibit discrimination, retaliation, and harassment obtained reasonable accommodation for disabled employees, vindicated whistleblowers’ rights and ensured that corporations pay workers all wages they are owed. Bryan Schwartz Law has successfully litigated individual and class action complaints nationwide, helping to recover millions of dollars for thousands of employees, forcing corporations and Government agencies to change their practices and punish wrongdoers. Bryan Schwartz Law is also one of the few Bay Area-based law firms with extensive experience representing Federal employees in their unique Merit Systems Protection Board and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints.

 

Save the Seventh

Friday, March 13th, 2015

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: action@citizen.org.

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.

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

Wednesday, March 11th, 2015

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.

 

WORST SUPREME COURT ARBITRATION DECISION EVER

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

PaulBlandWeb-172So, today, in American Express v. Italian Colors, the U.S. Supreme Court said that a take-it-or-leave-it arbitration clause could be used to prevent small businesses from actually pursuing their claims for abuse of monopoly power under the antitrust laws. Essentially, the Court said today that their favorite statute in the entire code is the Federal Arbitration Act, and it can be used to wipe away nearly any other statute.

As Justice Kagan said in a bang-on, accurate and clear-sighted dissent, this is a “BETRAYAL” (strong word, eh?) of the Court’s prior arbitration decisions. You see, until now, the Supreme Court has said that courts should only enforce arbitration clauses where a party could “effectively vindicate its statutory rights.” Today, in a sleight of hand, the five conservative justices said that this means that arbitration clauses should be enforced even when they make it impossible for parties to actually vindicate their statutory rights, so long as they have a theoretical “right” to pursue that remedy.

The plaintiffs in this case, restaurants and other small merchants, claim that American Express uses its monopoly power over its charge card to force them to accept American Express’s credit cards and pay higher rates than they would for other credit cards. This is called a “tying arrangement” under the antitrust laws — American Express is alleged to be using its monopoly power over one product to jack up the price of another product to higher rates than it could charge in a competitive market.

For plaintiffs to prove this kind of case, they have to come up with hard evidence — economic proof — that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. And each individual merchant has only lost, and thus can only hope to recover, a small fraction of that amount. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recognized that if American Express’s arbitration clause (and particularly its ban on class actions) was enforced, that would mean that none of the small business plaintiffs could enforce their rights under the antitrust laws. And under a long line of Supreme Court cases, arbitration clauses are only enforceable when they permit the parties to effectively vindicate their statutory rights.

Today’s decision turns that rule on its head. According to Justice Scalia’s majority opinion, even if an arbitration clause would mean that no individual would ever actually be able to pursue an antitrust claim on an individual basis, the arbitration clause still has to be enforced. The law has changed dramatically — parties no longer have a right to “effectively” vindicate their statutory rights; they are left with the meaningless but formal right to pursue economically irrational claims if they choose to do so.

The decision is catastrophic for the antitrust laws, as well as for civil rights, consumer rights, and many other statutory rights. The decision is an unmitigated disaster, replacing adhesive contracts for an idea of actual law. The drafters of the FAA would not recognize what it has turned into.

Justice Kagan went on to state: “As a result, Amex’s contract will succeed in depriving Italian Colors of any effective opportunity to challenge monopolistic conduct allegedly in violation of the Sherman Act. … In the hands of today’s majority, arbitration threatens to become … a mechanism easily made to block the vindication of meritorious federal claims and insulate wrongdoers from liability.” Justice Kagan gets this one completely right. The entire point of the majority opinion is to use arbitration to insulate companies from any possibility of class action liability.

We used to have something called “The Federal Arbitration Act.” The Court today might as well have amended its real title to “The Federal Corporate Immunity Act.”

This article was originally printed on Public Justice on June 20, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Paul Bland is a Senior Attorney at Public Justice.  He has argued and won more than 30 cases that led to reported decisions for consumers, employees or whistleblowers in four of the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the high courts of nine different states.

Employers: Be Careful What You Wish For - Your Motion to Compel Arbitration Can Lead to Expensive, Class-Wide Arbitration

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

In the wake of ATT Mobility v. Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen v. AnimalFeeds,* many employers have sought to enact new arbitration agreements or to enforce arbitration provisions in older agreements to eliminate their employees’ ability to come together when seeking to vindicate their rights to enforce statutory protections for workers. Employers should be careful what they wish for, in seeking to compel arbitration. They may indeed wind up in arbitration – but unable to strike class allegations, and required to pay the full and exorbitant costs of class-wide arbitration. 

In a case on which Bryan Schwartz Law serves as local counsel for Richard J. Burch of Bruckner Burch, in Houston, Texas, the employer is now feeling the danger of a Stolt-Nielsen-based strategy seeking to compel individual arbitration in a putative, wage-hour class action. In the Laughlin v. VMWare case, in which VMWare employees assert they were misclassified as exempt employees and denied overtime and other compensation to which they were entitled, the company moved to compel arbitration based on an agreement which did not specifically provide for class-wide arbitration. 

Judge Edward Davila of the Northern District of California struck some of the more offensive provisions of the arbitration agreement under Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services (2000) 24 Cal.4th 83, such as a provision which would have required Plaintiff to share the costs of arbitration. However, Judge Davila found these unlawful provisions severable (i.e., refused to kill the whole arbitration agreement). Perhaps most importantly, though, Judge Davila referred to the arbitrator the decision on the Stolt-Nielsen argument – namely, as argued by VMWare, the notion that class-wide arbitration cannot proceed where the parties’ arbitration agreement did not expressly consent to class arbitration. His initial decision from early 2012 is available here: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/VMWare.pdf

In arbitration, AAA arbitrator LaMothe then rejected the employer’s Stolt-Nielsen motion to strike class allegations, notwithstanding the fact that the agreement did not expressly give permission to bring class allegations, finding the parties’ agreement intended to encompass all claims by Plaintiff Laughlin, including her class claims. The AAA order is available here: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/Laughlin.pdf

In the last 18 months, numerous other arbitrators from JAMS, AAA, and other nationwide arbitration services have likewise denied motions to strike class allegations, employing similar reasoning. 

On review, Judge Davila confirmed the arbitrator’s partial final clause construction award allowing class allegations to proceed, meaning – in light of all the foregoing – that VMWare will now be forced to arbitrate a putative class action, and will be forced to bear all of the costs of doing so: 

http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/VMWare-12-20-12.pdf

Be careful what you wish for, employers. You may find that sometimes, allowing employees their day in court is better than the alternative. 

DISCLAIMER: Nothing in this article is intended to form an attorney-client relationship with the reader. You must have a signed representation agreement with the firm to be a client. 

*See our numerous prior blog posts relating to the subject of arbitration class waivers in light of Concepcion andStolt-Nielsen, including: http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/09/california-supreme-court-grants-review.html

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/09/wage-and-hour-class-actions-sky-is.html;

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2012/01/landmark-decision-by-national-labor.html

http://bryanschwartzlaw.blogspot.com/2011/05/civil-rights-lawyer-and-employee.html.

This post was originally posted on December 26, 2012 on Bryan Schwartz Law. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Bryan Schwartz is an Oakland, CA-based attorney specializing in civil rights and employment law.

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