Consumer advocates: Fine print could rob consumers of right to s - CBS46 News

Consumer advocates: Fine print could rob consumers of right to sue

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Consumer advocates warn that a provision in an increasing number of consumer contracts robs consumers of their basic right to sue. 

A forced arbitration clause can be found in many cell phone, cable television, credit card, bank account, nursing home and employment contracts. The clause requires consumers to resolve disputes through an arbitration company that's often chosen by the company.

Consumer attorney Steve Koval told CBS Atlanta reporter Jeff Chirico that many consumers have no idea they've signed away their rights because the clause is buried in a long contract.  

"A study was done that shows 95% of decisions are against consumers. So it's a sham. It's grossly unfair to consumers," said Koval. 

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, has compiled a list of companies that includes forced arbitration in their consumer and employment contracts.

Greg Cole said he was forced into arbitration when his homebuilder, John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods, wouldn't fix construction mistakes to his home in a development in East Cobb. Cole said cracks in walls and ceilings caused leaks that created a mold problem that sickened his family. 

Cole said he didn't realize he had signed away his right to sue until his attorney broke the news. His contract with Wieland Homes also specified the arbitration company that would handle any dispute.

"I'm like, this is a violation of our rights. Our constitutional rights are violated. We ought to have a neutral third party person doing arbitration," said Cole. 

Cole said arbitration didn't work because the arbitrator rejected some repairs Cole requested and the homebuilder failed to fix the repairs that were ordered. 

Chirico left several messages with John Wieland Homes and Neighborhoods but did not get a response. 

Koval said forced arbitration is inherently biased because the arbitrator has an incentive to decide in favor of the company in order to get more work.  

"They're going to have thousands of cases that are referred to them by these credit card companies, for example. You - they're only going to see once," said Koval. 

Companies contacted by CBS Atlanta News said arbitration avoids costly litigation for both the company and consumers. A spokesman for AT&T told CBS Atlanta News that arbitration is faster and more cost-effective. 

Courts have upheld the use of arbitration so consumer advocates are lobbying Congress to pass a law that would limit arbitration and provide consumers with more rights.

Last year Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) reintroduced The Arbitration Fairness Act (H.R. 1844) that would prohibit forced arbitration clauses in employment, consumer, and civil rights cases, and would allow consumers and workers to choose arbitration after a dispute occurred.

Some companies, like Discover and Comcast, allow consumers to opt out of the arbitration clause within 30 days of signing the contract. 

Cole said the arbitration clause has ruined his family because the arbitration order is completely unenforceable.

"If we didn't have a clause, we could have gone through the legal system the way it should be," said Cole. 

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