Saturday, April 30, 2011

Giving bullies a helping hand...

Again... not exactly animal law... but definitely worth writing about...

The Supreme Court sided with Big Business this week in a very, very big way. It ruled in favor of AT&T in a decision that basically bans class actions and requires arbitration of individual consumer complaints in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. You can read more about the case in the ABA Journal.

Why is this important, you may ask? Because for all of the snarky things people may think (and say!) about plaintiff attorneys (not totally unwarranted either, if you ask me, and I am a plaintiff attorney), the fact remains that the class action was one of the giant leaps forward toward justice in the U.S. legal system last century.

As a practical matter, it used to be that if you had a dispute with a business, unless you were out a substantial sum of money, there was really not much you can do about it. Sure, you could write a nasty letter to the Better Business Bureau (or nowadays, a bad review on Yelp). But you were unlikely to really impact the company's revenue stream and were even less likely to get your money back.

The class action changed that. It allowed people to aggregate claims as small as even a dollar - because if a big business screws a million people out of even a dollar (or in this case, $30.22), well, that starts to add up - and get their voice heard in court. It allowed the spectre of being held responsible over a corporation's head; and sometimes even that is enough to persuade a business of the merits of doing the right thing.

But, as with many other things, the liberal pendulum of the 60s and 70s started to swing back as the decades rolled on. Over the past couple of decades, businesses have started to look for ways to get out of that sort of accountability and the current conservative make-up of the high court is the perfect place to hide.

Contracts - written by big business and offered to consumers on a take-it-or-leave-it basis - which require arbitration of disputes on an individual level are now de rigueur in just about everything from opening a bank account to getting cell phone service. You know that fine print no one wants to read? Amongst the many things it says in there (none of which run to your benefit, btw) is a clause stating that no matter how unhappy you are with their service or product, you agree to give up your day in court. Not only do you have to take your dispute to arbitration (where cases are typically heard by arbitrators with defense backgrounds), but you will likely have to pay for at least half the cost of doing so. This is typically a few thousand dollars. So if you feel [insert name of behemoth here] owes you $10, or $100, or even $1000, but it's going to cost you $2000 to do anything about it, most people make the financially rational decision to let it go - which is exactly what AT&T and every other arb-lovin' corporation is banking on. The Supreme Court basically just handed every bully on the block a club.

So this week's arb decision doesn't deal with non-human animals directly. Nonetheless, it does seem to be a bad sign when the nation's highest court doesn't feel the need to recognize the interests of individual (ie: vulnerable) humans.

No comments: