When a data breach at Home Depot in 2014 led to losses for banks nationwide, a group of banks filed a class-action lawsuit seeking compensation. Companies have the choice of taking legal action together. Yet consumers are frequently blocked from exercising the same legal right when they believe that companies have wronged them.
That’s because many contracts for products like credit cards and bank accounts have mandatory arbitration clauses that prevent consumers from joining group lawsuits, forcing them to go it alone. For example, a group lawsuit against Wells Fargo for secretly opening phony bank accounts was blocked by arbitration clauses that pushed individual consumers into closed-door proceedings.
In 2010, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which I direct, was authorized to study mandatory arbitration and write rules consistent with the study. After five years of work, we recently finalized a rule to stop companies from denying groups of consumers the option of going to court when they are treated unfairly.
Opponents have unleashed attacks to overturn the rule, and the House just passed legislation to that end. Before the Senate decides whether to protect companies or consumers, it’s worth correcting the record.
First, opponents claim that plaintiffs are better served by acting individually than by joining a group lawsuit. This claim is not supported by facts or common sense. Our study contained revealing data on the results of group lawsuits and individual actions. We found that group lawsuits get more money back to more people. In five years of group lawsuits, we tallied an average of $220 million paid to 6.8 million consumers per year. Yet in the arbitration cases we studied, on average, 16 people per year recovered less than $100,000 total.
It is true that the average payouts are higher in individual suits. But that is because very few people go through arbitration, and they generally do so only when thousands of dollars are at stake, whereas the typical group lawsuit seeks to recover small amounts for many people. Almost nobody spends time or money fighting a small fee on their own. As one judge noted, "only a lunatic or a fanatic sues for $30."
When a bank charges illegal fees to millions of customers and then blocks them from suing together, a result is not millions of individual claims, but zero. So the bank gets to pocket millions in ill-gotten gains.
Not only do group lawsuits help consumers recover money they otherwise would forfeit, but they also protect many more consumers by halting and deterring harmful behavior. For example, when banks reordered bank debits to charge more overdraft fees, consumers sued and recovered $1 billion. Most banks have since stopped the practice.
Our rule does not ban individual arbitration, as our opponents falsely claim. It simply ensures that consumers have the option of joining together to sue companies. Companies and consumers can still use arbitration to resolve their differences, but companies cannot unilaterally block group lawsuits.
Opponents also claim that the rule benefits lawyers rather than consumers. In reality, lawyers collect a small portion compared with consumers, and only if they succeed. For every $10 that a company pays out for wrongdoing, we found about $8 goes to consumers and $2 goes to pay legal costs. In any event, banks choose to hire lawyers to file class-action lawsuits, and ordinary people deserve to make the same choice.
Finally, this rule does not risk the safety or soundness of the banking system. We estimate the potential costs of this rule for the entire financial system at under $1 billion per year, whereas banks alone made $171 billion in profits last year. The law already bans mandatory arbitration clauses in financial contracts for military service members and in mortgages (the largest consumer financial market), yet the financial sector remains strong.
In truth, by blocking group lawsuits, mandatory arbitration clauses eliminate a powerful means to get justice when a little harm happens to a lot of people. It is the height of hypocrisy for companies to say they’re helping consumers by closing off the very same legal option they use when they’ve been wronged.
A cherished tenet of our justice system is that nobody should escape accountability for breaking the law. Our rule restores consumers’ legal right to stand up for themselves and have their day in court without having to wait on the government to act. That is an idea everyone should support.