U.S. House passes bill to end forced arbitration

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. House on Friday passed legislation that would eliminate forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer and civil rights cases.

If enacted, the bill would empower more workers and consumers to challenge employers and corporations in court. Forced arbitration clauses — often found in the fine print of agreements — can bar employees and consumers from suing or participating in class action lawsuits. 

Critics of those clauses say the process deprives employees from suing employers over issues like discrimination, harassment or abuse. Consumers can be barred from suing over scams or faulty products. Complaints are hashed out behind closed doors and the results aren’t made public. 

“Using forced arbitration, corporations force victims into secret proceedings where the deck is stacked against them,” Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga.,  the lead sponsor of the bill, said Friday on the House floor. “Predictably, the end result is the corporation wins and the victim is deprived of justice.”

The bill, titled the Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, passed the House by a vote of 225-186, largely along partisan lines. Two Republicans voted for the bill (Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida and Chris Smith of New Jersey); two Democrats opposed it (Reps. Henry Cuellar of Texas and Collin Peterson of Minnesota). 

Pennsylvania’s 18-member House delegation evenly split along party lines, with all nine Democrats voting in favor of the bill. Eight of nine of the state’s Republicans voted against. Freshman U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, was marked “non-voting” on the House roll call.

Our democracy depends on transparency accountability. But forced arbitration has shielded some of the worst corporate behavior from scrutiny and accountability. The #FAIRAct will put an end to the #RipOffClause and open the courts to working Americans,” Dean wrote on Twitter on Friday.

Gaetz, an ally of President Donald Trump, praised the legislation last week. 

“I’m convinced that big businesses’ over-utilization of mandatory arbitration clauses impairs people’s access to something that is fundamentally American, and that is having a judge and jury make a decision regarding your dispute,” Gaetz said. 

The legislation isn’t likely to advance beyond the House this Congress. The Senate version of the bill has no Republican co-sponsors, and it garnered a veto threat from the White House. It’s also opposed by business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

“This bill would prohibit private businesses from entering into predispute arbitration agreements, including those allowing for the use of collective arbitration procedures,” the White House said in a statement. “These blanket prohibitions will increase litigation, costs, and inefficiency, including by exposing the vast majority of businesses to even more unnecessary litigation.”

Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, slammed the legislation on the House floor, calling it “simply a political statement” that has no chance at being enacted. He warned it would shut Americans out of the justice system by denying them guaranteed arbitration. “What that would do is not end injustice, but it would actually promote it,” he said. 

Still, bill’s supporters hailed its House passage as a victory for Americans, and they’ve vowed to continue to press the issue. 

Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that companies “are increasingly using forced arbitration clauses to shield themselves from accountability from many forms of wrongdoing, including civil rights violations, labor abuses and unfair consumer practices.” 

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said that forced arbitration agreements “too often are the result of power imbalances that block claims from judicial remedies in employment cases and consumer cases, anti-trust and civil rights disputes.” He said the legislation to end forced arbitration agreements is “critical for protecting the rights of women in particular who have faced gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.” 

Rep. Joe Neguse , D-Colo., said last week that the legislation “will do a lot in dramatically impacting countless lives for the better” and would help ensure that “every person in our country has access to justice.” 

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said last week that forced arbitration is “an insult to the constitution; it’s an insult to everything we believe in as Americans.” 

Rep. Andy Levin. D-Mich., wrote, “Forced arbitration is a tactic used by corporations to lock employees out of the court system when they settle disputes.” He said the House legislation would “restore access to justice for millions of Americans” by banning the practice. 

About 60 million U.S. workers are subject to mandatory employment arbitration procedures, according to a 2017 report from the Economic Policy Institute. That number has increased dramatically in recent decades, the study showed. 

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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