The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau just made it easier for ordinary citizens to sue banks by restricting how they can use mandatory arbitration to block class-action lawsuits, according to Bloomberg. But the decision – inspired by a 2015 investigative series in the New York Times about how US companies, particularly credit card companies and payday lenders, abuse the practice – likely won’t stay on the books for long. As the LA Times writes:
It's all but certain that Republican lawmakers in control of the House and Senate will move quickly to overturn the rule as part of their ongoing efforts to cripple the consumer-watchdog agency and create a more business-friendly regulatory landscape.”
Clauses requiring arbitration to settle disputes are inserted routinely in contracts for credit cards, payday loans and other financial products. They typically prevent consumers from filing lawsuits or banding together in class actions.
"Arbitration clauses in contracts for products like bank accounts and credit cards make it nearly impossible for people to take companies to court when things go wrong," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said in a statement.
“These clauses allow companies to avoid accountability by blocking group lawsuits and forcing people to go it alone or give up. Our new rule will stop companies from sidestepping the courts and ensure that people who are harmed together can take action together.”
From the time they formally receive the ruling, lawmakers have 60 legislative days to overturn the bureau’s decision. Republicans have been using the Congressional Review Act, a little-known provision, to undo more than a dozen Obama-era regulations during the closing days of his presidency, including the CFPB’s plans to implement tougher standards for prepaid debit cards.
“As a matter of principle, policy and process, this anti-consumer rule should be thoroughly rejected by Congress,” Representative Jeb Hensarling, the Texas Republican who leads the House Financial Services Committee, said in a statement.
Congress isn’t the only body that’s skeptical of the ruling: In an unusual move, the head of a key banking regulator wrote to Cordray to raise concerns about it. Keith Noreika, the acting Comptroller of the Currency, asked that the CFPB share data used to develop its arbitration rule, according to a letter dated Monday that was obtained by Bloomberg.
“We would like to work with you and your staff to address the potential safety and soundness implications of the CFPB’s arbitration proposal,” Noreika said in the letter. “That is why I am requesting the CFPB share its data.”
Noreika cited a section of the Dodd-Frank Act that gives the Financial Stability Oversight Council - a panel of regulators headed by the Treasury secretary - power to set aside any CFPB rule that can be shown to put the safety of the wider financial system at risk.
Our new rule ensures that groups of people harmed by the same financial products can take action together. pic.twitter.com/rXYzHz67ea— consumerfinance.gov (@CFPB) July 10, 2017
However, studying the fairness of arbitration clauses appears to be well within the bureau’s remit: Dodd-Frank says the CFPB "may prohibit or impose conditions or limitations on the use" of arbitration clauses if it determines that restricting such provisions "is in the public interest and for the protection of consumers,” according to the LA Times.
During its study, the CFPB found that hundreds of millions of contracts include arbitration provisions and that companies have used the clauses to keep fights out of court almost two-thirds of the time. Very few consumers even consider bringing individual actions against financial-service providers in court or in arbitration.
Despite the rule’s near-certain erasure, Christine Hines, legislative director for the National Assn. of Consumer Advocates, told the LA Times that the CFPB isn’t thumbing its nose at Republican lawmakers who have insisted for years that the agency is a rabid regulatory pit bull in need of either a very short leash or a trip to a farm.
“The agency has to continue doing its job,” she said, “even though there are very anti-consumer people in power.”
Other consumer advocates echoed that sentiment.
“The rule will help to combat the culture of companies profiting from charging illegal fees and committing other crimes against their customers,” said Rohit Chopra, senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America.
Said Lisa Donner, executive director of Americans for Financial Reform: “The consumer agency’s rule will stop Wall Street and predatory lenders from ripping people off with impunity, and make markets fairer and safer for ordinary Americans.”
The new rule will cover new agreements for products such as credit cards, auto loans, credit reports and even mobile phone services that provide third-party billing. Companies can still include arbitration clauses in contracts, but they must state that those can’t be used to stop individual consumers from joining class-action cases.
According to Bloomberg, it is also possible that industry groups will sue to overturn the CFPB rule. Groups including the US Chamber of Commerce have said arbitration is a valuable tool to prevent frivolous, expensive lawsuits that often don’t do much to benefit borrowers. Meanwhile, consumer advocates say restricting arbitration clauses will deter bad actors and force companies to reconsider certain activities because consumers will be more inclined to sue.