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How we resolve our disputes

Entries in protocol (1)

Friday
Aug142009

Caveat arbitrator

The recent settlement of the Minnesota Attorney General’s lawsuit against National Arbitration Forum (NAF) was a welcome development for consumers.  Minnesota alleged that the company—which had been named as the arbitrator of consumer disputes in tens of millions of credit card agreements—hid from the public its extensive ties to the collection industry.  Under the settlement, NAF must stop accepting any new consumer arbitrations and will permanently stop administering arbitrations involving consumer debt, including credit cards, consumer loans, telecommunications, utilities, health care, and consumer leases.  Mandatory pre-dispute consumer arbitration clauses have been suspect for many years because the clauses have been hidden in fine print and the parties’ bargaining power is extremely unequal.  The American Arbitration Association has developed Consumer Due Process Protocols in order to determine which alternate dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms were fair and which were not.  Arbitrators and mediators should be required to be familiar with these protocols.  The Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the right to a trial by jury in civil cases, when more than $25 is in dispute.  This right can be waived, but like any other waiver, it should be done only after fully informed and voluntary consideration of the costs and benefits.  ADR can be faster and less costly than litigation, but we already pay for judges and the courts through our taxes.  Before giving up such a valuable right, consumers should be fully advised.  They may be giving up not only their right to be heard by a jury of their peers, but also the right to an appeal.  They may also be taking on costs that they are not prepared to pay.  And sometimes confidentiality is not desirable.  If one consumer has been harmed by an illegal financing scheme, it is likely that others have been similarly harmed.  If such disputes are kept out of public courtrooms, other consumers may not become aware of the problem.  There is also the issue of independence, which was the problem with NAF.  When deciding whether an arbitrator or mediator is truly neutral and independent, follow the money.  Where do their fees and referrals come from?  Everyone knows how judges and jurors are paid (poorly!).  Make sure you know how your mediator or arbitrator makes a living.