CFPB Hearing: Data on One Side, Empty Rhetoric on the Other
By Gabriel Hopkins
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 finally 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, 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 supposedly 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, and most started with the court system.
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 will 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.