Recently, Jeffrey Joseph wrote an op-ed mischaracterizing the position of my organization – the Center for Responsible Lending — on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the agency's recent rule to rein in forced arbitration.
I'd like to make clear that CRL fully supports the CFPB's independent, single director leadership structure — we always have since the establishment of the Bureau six years ago.
Second, Joseph is peddling a terrible idea – that Congress should strip Americans' legal rights to have their day in court if a company does them harm.
A few years ago, while serving our nation in Iraq, Sergeant Charles Beard fell behind on his auto loan payment. The lender repossessed his car without a court order, in violation of a law prohibiting such action against active-duty servicemembers. The Sergeant joined with other soldiers, seeking to enforce their protections under federal law, and tried to bring a class action lawsuit against the lender. They were prevented from doing so because of a forced arbitration clause in the contract.
In New Mexico, Tracy Kilgore went to a Wells Fargo branch to change a signature card on behalf of the Daughters of the American Revolution, where she volunteered. She did not personally bank with Wells Fargo. Without Tracy's permission, the bank teller submitted a credit card application on her behalf. The bank rejected the unwanted application and, in doing so, damaged her credit score. Wells Fargo tried to stop her from joining a class action lawsuit by citing an arbitration clause in a contract she never signed.
Financial companies frequently bury these forced arbitration clauses in the fine print of agreements, giving them the ability to cheat consumers with impunity. These rip-off clauses deny Americans the freedom to seek justice through our court system – a right embodied by the Constitution's Seventh Amendment.
The clauses instead force consumers into an arbitration process rigged against them – secretive, without the right of appeal, and often with the arbitrator relying on the company for repeat business. Because companies can pick people off one-by-one in a process that is frequently time-consuming, expensive, and difficult for the individual, their systemic misconduct can continue for years. Meanwhile, responsible businesses that treat their customers fairly are put at a competitive disadvantage.
The most powerful check on bad actors is to allow Americans to band together and have their day in court.
Even with limits on class actions, from 2008-2012, after deducting attorneys' fees, class actions provided roughly 34 million people $2.2 billion in relief from financial misconduct – compared to $336,000 for fewer than 100 people awarded relief in arbitration.
The CFPB recently issued a consumer protection rule that restores the legal rights of Americans by prohibiting financial companies from making arbitration the only option. Under the rule, a consumer is free to choose arbitration or join with others in a class action suit. CRL just released a poll showing that three out of four likely voters support the CFPB's mission and that two out of three voters support the rule.
Going against their constituents, Members of Congress have introduced legislation to fast-track a repeal of the CFPB rule. This bill would limit consumer choice by shutting down an essential option of dispute resolution.
The bill would also weaken the rule of law by letting unscrupulous businesses flout the law and get off scot-free. It would give a green light to student loan servicers that charge students more than they owe, to payday lenders that take money from people's bank account without permission, to debt "relief" companies that levy illegal upfront fees, or to credit card companies that charge for credit monitoring services that customers never receive.
This legal right helps prevent us from becoming prey to financial predators. Congress should take its hands off our legal rights.
Melissa Stegman is a Senior Policy Counsel at the Center for Responsible Lending, a research and policy organization dedicated to eliminating abusive financial practices.
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