On October 7, 2015, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) announced that it is considering proposing rules that would prohibit companies from including arbitration clauses in contracts with consumers. This would effectively open up the gates to more class action lawsuits in consumer financial products such as credit cards and checking accounts.
In March 2015, the CFPB released its Arbitration Study: Report to Congress 2015, which evaluated the impact of arbitration provisions on consumers. The CFPB conducted the study as mandated by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. Among other things, the study concluded that:
- arbitration clauses “restrict consumers’ relief for disputes with financial service providers by allowing companies to block group lawsuits;”
- most arbitration provisions include a prohibition against consumers bringing class actions;
- very few consumers individually pursue relief against businesses through arbitration or federal courts; and
- more than 75 percent of consumers in the credit card market did not know if they had agreed to arbitration in their credit card contracts.
The advantages and disadvantages of pre-dispute arbitration provisions in connection with consumer financial products or services—whether to consumers or to companies—are fiercely contested. Consumer advocates generally see pre-dispute arbitration as unfairly restricting consumer rights and remedies. Industry representatives, by contrast, generally argue that pre-dispute arbitration represents a better, more cost-effective means of resolving disputes that serves consumers well. With limited exceptions, however, this debate has not been informed by empirical analysis. Much of the empirical work on arbitration that has been carried out has not had a consumer financial focus.
As a result of the study, which allegedly contains the first empirical data ever undertaken on the subject of arbitration clauses, the CFPB is currently considering rule proposals that would:
- ban companies from including arbitration clauses that block class action lawsuits in their consumer contracts, unless and until the class certification is denied by the court or class claims are dismissed by the court;
- require companies that use arbitration clauses for individual disputes to submit to the CFPB all arbitration claims and awards (which the CFPB may publish on its website for the public to view) so that the CFPB can ensure that the process is fair to consumers and determine whether further restrictions on arbitrations should be undertaken; and
- apply to nearly all consumer financial products and services that the CFPB regulates, including credit cards, checking and deposit accounts, prepaid cards, money transfer services, certain auto loans, auto title loans, small dollar or payday loans, private student loans, and installment loans.
Critics have found the CFPB’s data and conclusions leave something to be desired. An abstract of a report authored by researchers at the University of Virginia School of Law and Mercatus Center at George Mason University finds that the CFPB report “contains no data on the typical arbitration outcome—a settlement—and it is these arbitral settlements, and not arbitral awards, that should be compared to class action settlements. It does not address the public policy question of whether, by resolving disputes more accurately on the merits, arbitration may prevent class action settlements induced solely by defendants’ incentive to avoid massive discovery costs. It shows that in arbitration, consumers often get settlements or awards, are typically represented by counsel, and achieve good results even when they are unrepresented. In class action settlements, CFPB reports surprisingly high payout rates to class members and low attorneys’ fees relative to total class payout. These aggregated average numbers reflect the results in a very small number of massive class action settlements. Many class action settlements have much lower payout rates and higher attorneys’ fees.”
Needless to say, businesses with arbitration clauses prohibiting class actions wait anxiously for CFPB’s final rules on this subject matter. Is there any doubt what the final rules will contain? We think there will be restrictions on the use of arbitration clauses that prevent consumers from initiating class action lawsuits in contracts for consumer financial products or services.