Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Arbitration: the unfair game

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BusinessWeek has a good article by Robert Berner and Brian Grow on compulsory arbitration, a big business these days (and a topic on which I’ve blogged before: search “arbitration”). Consumers in California, for example, win in arbitration just 0.002% of the time—that is, two-thousandths of 1%. Not very often, eh? The article begins:

What if a judge solicited cases from big corporations by offering them a business-friendly venue in which to pursue consumers who are behind on their bills? What if the judge tried to make this pitch more appealing by teaming up with the corporations’ outside lawyers? And what if the same corporations helped pay the judge’s salary?

It would, of course, amount to a conflict of interest and cast doubt on the fairness of proceedings before the judge.

Yet that’s essentially how one of the country’s largest private arbitration firms operates. The National Arbitration Forum (NAF), a for-profit company based in Minneapolis, specializes in resolving claims by banks, credit-card companies, and major retailers that contend consumers owe them money. Often without knowing it, individuals agree in the fine print of their credit-card applications to arbitrate any disputes over bills rather than have the cases go to court. What consumers also don’t know is that NAF, which dominates credit-card arbitration, operates a system in which it is exceedingly difficult for individuals to prevail.

Some current and former NAF arbitrators say they make decisions in haste—sometimes in just a few minutes—based on scant information and rarely with debtor participation. Consumers who have been through the process complain that NAF spews baffling paperwork and fails to provide the hearings that it promises. Corporations seldom lose. In California, the one state where arbitration results are made public, creditors win 99.998% of the time in NAF cases that are decided by arbitrators on the merits, according to a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco city attorney against NAF.

“NAF is nothing more than an arm of the collection industry hiding behind a veneer of impartiality,” says Richard Neely, a former justice of the West Virginia supreme court who as part of his private practice arbitrated several cases for NAF in 2004 and 2005.

NAF presents its service in print and online advertising as quicker and less expensive than litigation but every bit as unbiased. Its Web site promotes “a fair, efficient, and effective system for the resolution of commercial and civil disputes in America and worldwide.”

But internal NAF documents and interviews with people familiar with the firm reveal a different reality. Behind closed doors, NAF sells itself to lenders as an effective tool for collecting debts. The point of these pitches is to persuade the companies to use the firm to resolve clashes over delinquent accounts. JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America are among the large institutions that do so. A September, 2007, NAF PowerPoint presentation aimed at creditors and labeled “confidential” promises “marked increase in recovery rates over existing collection methods.” At times, NAF does this kind of marketing with the aid of law firms representing the very creditors it’s trying to sign up as clients.

NAF, which is privately held, employs about 1,700 freelance arbitrators—mostly moonlighting lawyers and retired judges—who handle some 200,000 cases a year, most of them concerning consumer debt. Millions of credit-card accounts mandate the use of arbitration by NAF or one of its rivals. NAF also resolves disputes involving Internet domain names, auto insurance, and other matters. In 2006 it had net income of $10 million, a robust margin of 26% on revenue of $39 million, according to company documents.

NAF’s success is part of a broader boom in arbitration dating back to the 1980s, when companies began introducing language into employment contracts requiring that disputes with workers be resolved out of court. Mandatory arbitration spread to other kinds of agreements, including those involving credit cards.

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

7 June 2008 at 2:16 pm

Posted in Business, Daily life

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