Being wronged by a corporation is painful enough, but just try getting your day in court. Most Americans don’t realize it, but our Seventh Amendment right to a fair jury trial against corporate wrongdoers has quietly been stripped from us. Instead, we are now shunted into a stacked-deck game called “Binding Mandatory Arbitration.” Proponents of the process hail it as superior to the courts — “faster, cheaper and more efficient!” they exclaim.
But does it deliver justice? It could, for the original concept of voluntary, face-to-face resolution of conflict by a neutral third party makes sense in many cases. But remember what Mae West said of her own virtue: “I used to be Snow White, then I drifted.” Today’s practice of arbitration has drifted far away from the purity of the concept.
All you really need to know about today’s process is that it’s the product of years of conceptual monkey-wrenching by corporate lobbyists, Congress, the Supreme Court and hired-gun lobbying firms looking to milk the system for steady profits. First and foremost, these fixers have turned a voluntary process into the exact opposite: mandatory. Let’s look at this mess.
— Unlike courts, arbitration is not a public system, but a private business.
— Far from being neutral, “the third-party” arbitration firms are — get this! — usually hand-picked by the corporation involved in the case, chosen specifically because they have proven records of favoring the corporation.
— The corporation also gets to choose the city or town where the case is heard, allowing it to make the case inconvenient, expensive and unfair to individuals bringing a complaint.
— Arbitrators are not required to know the law relevant to the cases they judge or follow legal precedents.
— Normal procedural rules for gathering and sharing evidence and safeguarding fairness to both parties do not apply in arbitration cases.
— Arbitration proceedings are closed to the media and the public.
— Arbitrators need not reveal the reasons for their decisions, so they are not legally accountable for errors, and the decisions set no legal precedents for guiding future corporate conduct.
— Even if an arbitrator’s decision is legally incorrect, it still is enforceable, carrying the full weight of the law.
— There is virtually no right to appeal an arbitrator’s ruling.
That adds up to a kangaroo court! Who would choose such a rigged system? No one. Which is why corporate America has resorted to brute force and skulduggery to drag you into their arbitration wringer.
By “force,” I mean practically every business relationship you have with a corporation (customer, employee, supplier, etc.) begins with you blindly signing away your right to go to court. Written in indecipherable legalese, these sneaky provisos are usually secluded in the tiny-type of pre-printed, take-it-or-leave-it, non-negotiable contracts.
By “you,” I mean everyone one of us who: takes a job, gets a credit card, subscribes to cable TV, buys an insurance policy, rents an apartment, purchases nearly any new product (from cellphone to house), has a home remodeled or car repaired, enters a nursing home, becomes a franchisee or corporate supplier or signs up with a landscaping service.
If you seek justice because you’ve been gouged by your bank, discriminated against, sexually harassed, unfairly fired, cheated on wages, sold a shoddy product, denied health care coverage or otherwise harmed by a corporation, you’ll most likely find that you’re barred from the courthouse door. That document you unwittingly signed has shackled you to the corporation’s own privatized court.
Since binding mandatory arbitration “agreements” are written by corporate lawyers, it’s no surprise that they stack the deck in favor of corporations. But — wow! — the percentage of rigged wins is disgusting.
For example, Public Citizen found that one giant firm, the National Arbitration Forum, heard over 34,000 consumer-versus-bank cases in California. It sided with financial giants 95 percent of the time. Even more astonishing, the city of San Francisco found that of the 18,045 cases brought by banks and other powers against overmatched California consumers, NAF’s private judges sided with the corporations 100 percent of the time.
To learn more about this rigged system, and to get involved with fighting against forced arbitration, check out Citizen Works at citizenworks.com
To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo: Scott* via Flickr.com