The Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 (H.R. 985) is Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) ostensible, shameless, flagrantly pro-business, and strenuously opposed silver bullet meant to kill class action lawsuits as a way of recourse for injured consumers and workers. Thanks to a revealing Washington Post piece on the nightmarish, ceaseless arbitration endured by current and former Sterling Jewelers employees, we’re provided with some foreshadowing of the future under H.R. 985: a landscape in which employers, corporations and their legal teams are firmly and irrevocably in control, and consumers and workers can do nothing about it.
The pace at which a nearly decade-old employee arbitration claim against Sterling Jewelers—the parent conglomerate of Jared the Galleria of Jewelry and Kay Jewelers—has moved can accurately be described as “glacial.” And one has no reason to doubt that Sterling and its attorneys prefer it to stay that way.
Thanks to mandatory arbitration policies, large corporations have a playbook to work from that ensures they remain in control of any and all legal action.
Thanks to the company’s mandatory employee arbitration policy, Sterling and its legal team have securely been in control of the proceedings (if anything about this can be considered forward progress) ever since the first dozen women—one of whom has since died—claimed in 2008 that they were “routinely groped, demeaned and urged to sexually cater to their bosses” to keep their jobs. Today, an estimated 69,000 women are covered by the case, which now includes allegations that Sterling systematically paid women less than men and passed over others for promotions that were then given to male workers.
On top of the ease with which the company has been able to sidestep a class action lawsuit, here are a few other things that work in Sterling’s favor:
Thanks to mandatory arbitration policies, large corporations have a playbook to work from that ensures they and their legal teams, not injured workers or consumers, remain in control of any and all legal action. If the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 is put into law, this situation will only get worse. Mandatory arbitration policies are already a dubious, if legal, method to handcuff consumer and workers’ rights. The goal of H.R. 985, quite frankly, is to throw away the key.
With the national embarrassment of mandatory arbitration already a built-in weapon for some corporations, H.R. 985 would provide companies even more tools to fight off—or, per the bill’s goal, dodge entirely—lawsuits brought by consumers and workers:
The above is by no means a complete roundup of the problems with the Fairness in Class Action Litigation Act of 2017 and the lasting harm it could cause consumers and workers. The proposed law is breathtakingly narrow in its scope, one-sided, poorly written, would throw away decades of established legal precedent, and is an unabashed attack on the rights of consumers and workers.
Furthermore, the Sterling Jewelers situation is an extreme example of the kind of wiggle room corporations will have when the law is completely on their side, and should not be viewed as a procedural cookie cutter by which other arbitration issues are handled. But a clear parallel exists between how long it’s taken for any progress to manifest in the Sterling case, how beneficial that is for the company, and the goals of H.R. 985: the more bogged down consumer and worker litigation becomes, the more hurdles injured American citizens and their attorneys need to jump through, the more time it takes to resolve cases, the better for the corporations.
ClassAction.org stands with the American Association for Justice, hundreds of civil rights organizations, the American Bar Association, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and many others in opposing H.R. 985.
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A reckless new bill represents an unprecedented threat to consumer rights, essentially gutting class action and mass tort litigation. Congress has tried to ram it through without us noticing. Read more about the implications of this bill, and contact your members of Congress to protect your rights.