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Arbitrators, Civil Rights Groups Tell U.S. Supreme Court: Don’t Erode Access to Courts

April 1, 2010 

Arbitrators, Civil Rights Groups Tell U.S. Supreme Court: Don’t Erode Access to Courts

Friend-of-the-Court Briefs Highlight the Importance of Case to Rights of Consumers, Employees, Others

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Even prominent arbitrators agree: Arbitrators shouldn’t decide whether the arbitration process itself is fair. Instead, they say, courts must step in to prevent abuses.

That’s the upshot of a brief filed by 23 prominent professional arbitrators and arbitration scholars in Rent-A-Center v. Jackson, a case scheduled to be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on April 26. Public Justice and Public Citizen are co-counsel in the case.

It was one of seven friend-of-the-court briefs filed Wednesday by a broad coalition of civil rights groups, labor unions and consumer advocacy organizations. Although Rent-A-Center has so far received little media attention, it could radically alter the landscape of access to the civil justice system. 

The case stems from an employment discrimination suit brought by Antonio Jackson, a resident of Sparks, Nev., who was hired in 2003 as an account manager for Rent-A-Center, a rent-to-own company, and fired several years later. Rent-A-Center asked the court to dismiss the claim because Jackson had signed an arbitration agreement, saying that any dispute would be resolved by an arbitrator, not a court. Jackson argued that the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and should not be enforced. Rent-A-Center said an arbitrator should decide its enforceability, not a court.

Increasingly, legal claims by employees, consumers and small businesses are forced into mandatory binding arbitration. Under current law, courts decide whether the arbitration process is fair before sending the case to an arbitrator. The question in Rent-A-Center is whether courts will continue to play that role.

The arbitrators’ brief was signed by several past presidents of the National Academy of Arbitrators and arbitrators for Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, as well as arbitrators who have handled some of the largest labor disputes in U.S. history.

“The widespread support from honorable arbitrators eager to protect the integrity of their profession, and from the united civil rights and consumer communities, shows the extreme nature of Rent-A-Center’s attempted power grab in this case,” said Public Justice staff attorney Paul Bland. “If corporations can place their arbitration systems beyond the reach of any substantive judicial evaluation of their fairness, there will be nothing to prevent the arbitration system from devolving into a Wild, Wild West state of lawlessness.”
“It’s very encouraging that prominent arbitrators and arbitration scholars were willing to take a stand in this case and say, ‘This is where we draw the line,’ ” said Public Citizen attorney Deepak Gupta. “It sends a strong signal that the legitimate arbitration community believes court review is necessary to prevent the worst abuses.”

Also filing a brief were six leading civil rights groups that represent large segments of society who rely on civil rights laws to protect them from workplace discrimination: Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Alliance for Justice, Asian American Justice Center, Constitutional Accountability Center, National Partnership for Women & Families and the National Women’s Law Center. These groups pointed out that an individual’s ability to seek redress in court for unlawful discrimination is critical to the eradication of discrimination in the workplace.

Also notable is a brief filed by the National Consumer Law Center and Consumer Action, which detailed the pro-business bias shown by the National Arbitration Forum, formerly the nation’s largest provider of consumer arbitrations.

 Other briefs were filed by the National Association of Consumer Advocates; the Service Employees International Union and several other workers’ rights groups; the AFL-CIO; and the American Association for Justice and AARP.

 To read background information about the case, visit Public Justice’s Web site at http://www.publicjustice.net/Newsroom/News/US-SUpreme-Court-to-Hear-Rent-A-Center.aspx and Public Citizen’s Web site at https://www.citizen.org/pressreleases/will-us-supreme-court-let-corporate-america-judge-itself.

 To read the briefs, go to http://www.abanet.org/publiced/preview/briefs/april2010.shtml#rent.

Public Justice is America’s public interest law firm, supported by – and calling on — a nationwide network of more than 3,000 of the nation’s top lawyers to pursue precedent-setting and socially significant litigation. It has a wide-ranging litigation docket in the areas of consumer rights, worker safety, civil rights and liberties, toxic torts, environmental protection, and access to the courts. Public Justice is the principal project of the Public Justice Foundation, a not-for-profit membership organization headquartered in Washington, DC, with a West Coast office in Oakland, California. The Public Justice web site address is www.publicjustice.net.

Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. For more information, please visit www.citizen.org