• March 11, 2013

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority or FINRA recently found that Charles Schwab, violated FINRA consumer protection rules by including provisions in customer agreements where customers waived their right to assert claims through the class action mechanism. The punishment for trying to structure a customer agreement that effectively allows Schwab to cheat their customers without fear of repercussion? A slap on the wrist.

    FINRA's weak action was a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in AT&T v. Concepcion. The Court held that arbitration agreements that waived a party’s ability to bring a class action must be enforced, even if they were in “take it or leave it” contracts of adhesion, where the consumer had no choice but to agree if they wanted cell phone service. At the time, The New York Times noted “the decision … appeared to provide businesses with a way to avoid class-action lawsuits in court. All they need do … is use standard-form contracts that require two things: that disputes be raised only through the informal mechanism of arbitration and that claims be brought one by one.”  

    This brings us back to the FINRA decision, which is a perfect application of the litigation strategy outlined by The Times, and shows why Concepcion was such a terrific decision for corporate America (not so much for the rest of us). In direct response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Concepcion , Schwab put new waiver provisions in their 2011 customer agreements, which covered close to seven million customers. The waivers that they put into the 2011 customer agreements were worded such that any customer claim against Schwab had to be arbitrated “solely on an individual, case-by-case basis.”

  • August 27, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling limiting class actions in AT&T v. Concepcion, the National Labor Relations Board issued a ruling that gave hope to those seeking to hold their employers accountable.

    The ruling invalidated an arbitration agreement that blocked employees from banding together as a class, and it was grounded in a provision of the National Labor Relations Act that protects employees’ right to act collectively. But in the months since the January ruling, all but a few courts have declined to adopt the NLRB’s reasoning, signaling that the administrative decision may not have the impact some had hoped.

    Thompson Reuters’ Nate Raymond looks at 16 federal and state court decisions over the past seven months, and finds that 13 of them disregarded the NLRB’s decision. Some found that the Federal Arbitration Act controlled; others that only the Supreme Court’s Concepcion decision applies.

    The initial NLRB decision, D.R. Horton, is still pending on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. And in one decision that did adopt the NLRB’s reasoning, the court distinguished Concepcion, which did not involve a conflict with the NLRA. But thus far, courts have signaled that the NLRB’s decision will have little impact on employees’ access to justice.

    D.R. Horton is not the only case with the potential to preserve some limits on arbitration clauses.

  • March 9, 2012

    by Nicole Flatow

    The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion was a major blow to consumers’ ability to file class actions and hold corporations accountable. In the 5-4 decision, the majority rejected a lower court ruling that an arbitration clause was unconscionable because it barred class actions.

    But a recent federal appeals court decision that considered Concepcion as precedent may pave a way forward for litigants seeking to challenge corporate action as a class, writes Philadelphia litigator Joshua D. Wolson on The Legal Intelligencer Blog.

    In In re American Express Merchants Litig., the Second Circuit held that an arbitration clause containing a class action waiver was unenforceable. The case was twice reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court for reconsideration in light of Concepcion and another limiting Supreme Court precedent, and twice more, the court maintained its holding.

    In striking down the class action waiver, the court relied on an affidavit from an economist, which showed that no rational plaintiff would bear the cost alone of winning such a complicated antitrust case, when the potential payout was so comparatively small. 

    “The evidence presented by plaintiffs here establishes, as a matter of law, that the cost of plaintiffs' individually arbitrating their dispute with Amex would be prohibitive, effectively depriving plaintiffs of the statutory protections of the antitrust laws,” the judges wrote.

    If plaintiffs can overcome class action bans by providing affidavits from economic experts, perhaps there is a future for consumer class actions, Wolson writes. But, he cautions, “it seems likely that the Supreme Court will have the last word.”

  • January 17, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Ann C. Hodges, a professor of law at the University of Richmond

    In the past 20 years the Supreme Court has interpreted the Federal Arbitration Act broadly, allowing businesses to require consumers and employees to arbitrate, rather than litigate, many legal claims. Businesses frequently use arbitration agreements to bar class actions, which can be costly and time-consuming. Just last term, in AT&T v. Concepcion, the Court enhanced this business tool, striking down a California law that prevented businesses from barring class actions in cases involving small claims brought by less powerful parties bound to arbitrate by contracts of adhesion. Although the case involved consumers, it offered employers a vehicle to restrict employee class actions.

    The NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton, issued in early January, significantly limited the effectiveness of this tool for employers by invalidating an arbitration agreement that banned class actions. This case is likely to generate significant controversy, provoking even more attacks on the agency by its vocal critics, but experienced labor lawyers will recognize the case as an unremarkable application of long-settled legal principles.

    Class claims frequently offer the only vehicle for consumers or employees to challenge unlawful actions that cause limited damages to each individual while often reaping millions for the business. For each person injured, the cost of litigating a claim outweighs the potential benefit.  Without class actions, these claims often go unremedied. In the workplace, Fair Labor Standards Act cases seeking minimum wage or overtime payments are most likely to be abandoned on this basis and Horton involved such a claim, alleging that the nonunion employer misclassified employees as exempt from overtime pay.

  • August 3, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Access to the courts is under assault on a number of fronts, at a time when more and more people have legal issues arising from the economic downturn, The Huffington Post reports.

    At the state level, slashed state court budgets have become a serious concern, resulting in significant staff resource cuts, reduced operating hours, increased fees and cases delayed for as long as ten years. “[M]any court advocates bristle that the third branch of government is being treated as nothing more than a state agency begging for scraps,” the article notes.

    Meanwhile, “the attack on courts at the state level is coinciding with one of the worst federal judicial crises the country has seen,” the article explains. Just last night, the Senate recessed for a full month without voting on 20 fully vetted nominees.

    Then there are legal services organizations, which are suffering blows in federal, state and private funding. While the economic downturn meant cuts to local and state funding for many organizations, and a loss of other sources of revenue such as Interest on Lawyer Accounts and private donations, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a 26-percent cut to the Legal Services Corporation budget, which would require legal services organizations to turn away some 235,000 people, according to LSC estimates.

    All of this means that people coming into the court system without representation have nowhere to turn for help.

    “When people don't have a lawyer to represent them and explain the court system's complicated procedures to them, they need extra assistance from judicial staff -- who are now in short supply because of the budget cuts,” the article explains.