Another day, another scandal at the big banks.
Since the financial crisis, banks like Barclays and UBS have been caught manipulating interest rates; J.P. Morgan has reluctantly handed over billions for its association with Bernie Madoff, illegal hiring practices, and lax oversight of its own traders among its other misdeeds; while Goldman Sachs has been fined billions for selling toxic subprime mortgages to investors. This past week the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) fined Wells Fargo $185 million for creating fake accounts and assigning them to unwitting customers. While this outrage shows the need for tighter regulation, it also exposes the urgent need to end the anti-consumer practice of forced arbitration in financial service agreements. If consumers cannot access the courts, scandals will be harder to uncover and victims will find it nearly impossible to achieve justice.
Over the last decade, Wells Fargo has pioneered a business strategy called “cross-selling.” The idea is to get customers to use other products sold by the bank. If you have a checking account, try out a credit card. If you like our investment services, why not get a mortgage? High level managers bullied subordinates into hitting impossible account-creation targets. The result was massive fraud: according to the CFPB, Wells Fargo opened 1,534,280 deposit accounts and 565,443 credit-card accounts “that may not have been authorized, by using consumers’ information without their knowledge or consent.” More than 100,000 of these accounts were charged fees: in other words, Wells Fargo customers paid late fees for accounts they never opened and never wanted.
The scope of the scandal is breathtaking. Wells Fargo has already fired more than 5,300 employees and the victims of its illegal scheme likely number in the hundreds of thousands. On its face, this would seem the perfect instance for a class action lawsuit (in which similarly situated plaintiffs come together to bring a lawsuit). Wells Fargo, however, has a notoriously stringent arbitration agreement. Instead of allowing those who have a “disagreement” with the company to bring a lawsuit, they force them into an out-of-court arbitration.
Arbitrators aren’t required to follow precedent, nor do they abide by encoded rules of procedure. They can make their decisions on a whim and without a hearing, and these rulings cannot be appealed. Their income depends on being rehired by the companies themselves. Studies consistently show that arbitrators favor their corporate benefactors. This is unsurprising: corporations wouldn’t be rushing to write new forced arbitration agreements if this alternative system was more likely to favor the consumer.
Wells Fargo’s forced arbitration clause is particularly harsh and exceptionally broad. Paul Bland, an attorney at Public Justice, has called it “one of the most anti-consumer, egregious” clauses in the industry while attorney John Keating found it “startlingly unconscionable.” According to Wells Fargo’s 2016 business account agreement, all clients “irrevocably…waive the right to a trial by jury.”
Noting the stark language of the agreement, federal Judge Vincent Chhabria found that the agreement was broad enough to cover any dispute between the bank and its clients, thus denying defrauded clients access to the courts. Never mind that consumers can hardly agree to anything with regard to accounts they never opened or desired in the first place.
Federal agencies are taking steps to curb the use of forced arbitration. The CFPB has released a proposed rule that would prohibit class action bans in arbitration clauses, while the Department of Education is considering similar provisions in education contracts (for-profit colleges are infamous for their iron clad mandatory arbitration clauses). President Obama has signed an Executive Order granting the Labor Department authority to prohibit companies with federal contracts of more than $1 million from enforcing such clauses. The Department of Defense, having seen the unfairness of forced arbitration on our men and women in uniform, has prohibited forced arbitration in credit cards and auto loans to service members.
These steps, if finalized, will not only help ensure justice for those already wronged, but prevent future scandals. If wrongdoing is exposed before a public court of law instead of behind closed doors, corporations will be less likely to cheat their customers. And if companies must confront an impartial judge and jury, wronged consumers are much more likely to win relief.
Ending forced arbitration would not only help the victims of this Wells Fargo scandal, it may prevent the next one.