Richard Cordray, Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has positioned himself as the Boogeyman that financial companies fear this Halloween season.  Earlier this month, the CFPB outlined the proposals under consideration for regulating arbitration in the consumer financial industry.  The proposals address the availability of class actions — as was widely expected — but also express concern about individual financial arbitrations and suggest those will be monitored.  [I am late to the party on this topic.  But I had to consider it carefully over butterbeer in Orlando…]

To set the table, the CFPB describes its take-aways from the arbitration study it published in March.  In particular, the study led to two concerns:

  • “[T]he Bureau is concerned that arbitration agreements effectively prohibit class proceedings, including litigation, and that they prevent many consumers from obtaining remedies when they are harmed by their providers of consumer financial products or services” and
  • “The Bureau is concerned [] that pre-dispute arbitration agreements that require arbitration of individual claims may have in the recent past led to harms to many consumers and is further concerned that these types of harms may recur.”  “The Bureau is concerned that there is a potential for significant consumer harm if arbitration agreements were to be administered in biased or unfair ways.”  [Here CFPB cited the NAF example.]

Each of those concerns inspired a particular proposal for regulating consumer financial arbitration.  The proposal for addressing the concern about class proceedings is that any arbitration agreement included with consumer financial agreements must state that it is inapplicable to cases filed in court on behalf of a class “unless and until class certification is denied or the class claims are dismissed.”

The proposal for addressing the concern about potential bias in individual arbitrations is “to shed sunlight” on those proceedings by collecting consumer financial claims filed with private arbitration administrators (and potentially publishing them), and publishing the resulting arbitration awards (with redactions for privacy).  CFPB notes that FINRA already publishes all awards and the AAA publishes employment awards, so there is some precedent.

Opponents of the proposals take the position that the data in the CFPB study does not support these proposed regulations and that they will lead to higher prices for consumers as companies pass along their increased costs of defending class actions. There has also been a suggestion that these regulations by the CFPB go beyond the authority granted in the Dodd-Frank Act or are otherwise improperly broad.  On the other hand, consumer advocates urge the CFPB to go farther and ban pre-dispute arbitration agreement in all consumer financial transactions.

The proposals will now be the subject of a small business advisory review panel, and then after formal rules are proposed there will be a notice and comment period, so final regulation is not likely until late 2016.  However, I personally am interested to see whether the conversation over these proposals catches the public’s attention to the extent that it becomes a topic in the presidential election.  If so, it is possible that there could be even more changes in store for arbitration.