Forced arbitration documentary premieres in San Francisco

Published: Monday, January 05, 2015

Santiago attended the screening of "Lost in the Fine Print" documentary.

“Lost in the Fine Print,” Alliance for Justice's new short documentary about forced arbitration, narrates the stories of three people whose lives were impacted by forced arbitration clauses found in everyday agreements. Consumer Action co-hosted the San Francisco premiere Nov. 10 at Impact Hub, which was followed by a reception provided by Italian Colors restaurant—the lead plaintiff in the landmark arbitration case featured in the film.

The 20-minute documentary can be viewed online at the Lost in the Fine Print website.

Nicole Mitchell, one of the consumers profiled in the film, was a U.S. Air Force Reserve member who also worked as a meteorologist for The Weather Channel. According to the film, NBC Universal purchased The Weather Channel in 2008, and new management was unhappy with Mitchell taking time off for military service. In 2010, after returning from annual military training, Mitchell learned that her contract would not be renewed. Mitchell tried to sue her employer for violations of the federal law that would have protected her against any penalty for taking time off for military service. But, because her employment contract contained a forced arbitration clause, Mitchell's case never went to court. An arbitrator decided against her, and she had no right to appeal.

The documentary also features the story of Debbie Brenner, an aspiring surgical technologist who enrolled at Lamson College, a for-profit vocational school, to pursue her career. Contrary to claims made by the college before she enrolled, Brenner realized that classrooms were overcrowded, professors underqualified and local hospitals unwilling to hire the college's graduates. Brenner and 13 fellow students were unable to sue for breach of contract and fraud due to a forced arbitration clause in their enrollment forms. An arbitrator ruled against Brenner and required that she and other students pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to the college’s parent company. Neither the arbitrator's ruling nor the legal fees award could be challenged in court.

The final story in the film was that of Alan Carlson, owner of Italian Colors restaurant. Carlson, along with other merchants, sued American Express over high credit card swipe fees, alleging antitrust violations. When American Express claimed that Carlson and the other merchants were bound by forced arbitration clauses, the group challenged the clause in court. A federal appeals court sided with the merchants. However, the matter made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the arbitration clause was upheld.

University of California-Berkeley public policy professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich narrated the documentary. In one segment, Reich explains that forced arbitration clauses send consumers to arbitration firms chosen by the company and that, according to one study, these forums rule for companies over consumers 94 percent of the time. “It’s a rigged system that helps companies evade responsibility for violating anti-discrimination, consumer protection and public health laws,” says Reich.

The film's screening was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Rebecca Hamburg Cappy, West Coast director of Alliance for Justice. Panelists included Alan Carlson, the owner of Italian Colors, and his attorney Edward Zusman; employment and civil rights attorney Cliff Palefsky; and California Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline. One key point made during the discussion was that it was important for consumers to voice their opposition to forced arbitration through petitions and emails to policymakers, especially if Congress doesn't fix the problem. Also raised was the issue of sitting judges aspiring to one day become arbitrators and how this might influence how they rule on court cases.

Consumer Action’s Nelson Santiago attended the screening. “I highly recommend that consumers watch this 20-minute documentary and explore the resources on forced arbitration posted at www.LostInTheFinePrint.org. The documentary is short, informative and likely to teach viewers something new.”

 

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