WASHINGTON, D.C. [04/27/11]—After consumers were dealt a blow today when the Supreme Court ruled that companies can ban class action suits in contracts, U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said today they plan to introduce legislation next week that would restore consumers’ rights to seek justice in the courts. Their bill, called the Arbitration Fairness Act, would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases, and would allow consumers and workers to choose arbitration after a dispute occurred.
Many businesses rely on mandatory and binding pre-dispute arbitration agreements that force consumers and employees to settle any dispute with a company providing products or services without the benefit of legal recourse.
“This ruling is another example of the Supreme Court favoring corporations over consumers,” said Sen. Franken. “The Arbitration Fairness Act would help rectify the Court’s most recent wrong by restoring consumer rights. Consumers play an important role in holding corporations accountable, and this legislation will ensure that consumers in Minnesota and nationwide can continue to play this crucial role.”
“Powerful companies who take advantage of ordinary consumers must be held accountable,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Today’s misguided Supreme Court ruling is a setback for millions of Americans, denying injured consumers access to justice. The Arbitration Fairness Act would reverse this decision and restore the long-held rights of consumers to hold corporations accountable for their misdeeds.”
“Forced arbitration agreements undermine our indelible Constitutional right to trial by jury, benefiting powerful businesses at the expense of American consumers and workers,” said Rep. Johnson. “Americans with few choices in the marketplace may unknowingly cede their rights when they enter contracts to buy a home or a cell phone, place a loved one in a nursing home, or start a new job. We must fight to defend our rights and re-empower consumers.”
In Concepcion v. AT&T, consumers brought a claim against AT&T for false advertising. However, because the value of their case was only $30, their case was consolidated into a class action. AT&T sought to block the lawsuit by pointing to the mandatory arbitration clause in the service contract but lower courts applying state law rightly invalidated the arbitration clause because it banned class actions entirely.
In today’s 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court overturned these lower court decisions which sought to protect consumers. The majority of the Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act barred state courts from protecting consumers from these arbitration clauses. The effect of this decision essentially insulates companies from liability when they defraud a large number of customers of a relatively small amount of money.
A longtime advocate for consumers and workers in cases of forced arbitration, in 2009 Sen. Franken passed legislation with bipartisan support that restricts funding to defense contractors who commit employees to mandatory binding arbitration in the case of sexual assault and other civil rights violations. Congressman Johnson, a longtime champion of workers and consumer rights, first introduced the Arbitration Fairness Act in 2007.