U.S. Supreme Court hearing argument in case that could end consumer protections

Today, the U.S. Supreme hears oral argument in Concepcion v. AT&T Mobility. The issue–preemption under the Federal Arbitration Act–sounds technical and mind-numbingly boring.

While it looks boring, it’s an important case.  Maybe one of the most important in years.

Remember the terms and conditions or subscriber agreement or other agreement you signed or accepted when you signed up for cell service, cable TV, a bank account, a credit card or just about any of the other transactions consumers enter everyday? If you’re like 99.9 percent of all consumers, you don’t remember it all. Chances are you didn’t read the long and technical terms that appear as part of the transaction. You wanted to buy the goods, so you signed.

It’s very likely that the terms included a mandatory arbitration clause. The case focuses on whether that mandatory arbitration can prohibit class actions for consumers.

Some consumer problems involve big businesses engaging in small rip offs. We all know that a $10 rip off simply isn’t worth pursuing when doing so is expensive, timely and risky.  But what if that small rip off of $10 applies to all customers, say a million people? The business pockets $10 million illegally.

When you’re dealing with the nickel and dime consumer rip off, an individual consumer simply can’t obtain relief. One way consumers can fight back is through the consumer class action. The individual can’t bring a $10 case, but a class action allows consumers to chase the $10 million in illegally pocketed money, when a million consumers lose $10 each.

AT&T Mobility and their friends, Comcast and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, want that to change. They want a rule that allows companies to ban class actions and require you to take your case to arbitration as an individual. So that $10 rip off will never be remedied. And AT&T Mobility and its friends will be able to pocket and keep millions by only taking a small amount from each consumer.

The stakes only went up with the changes in Congress last week. If the Supreme Court incorrectly interprets a statute, like the Federal Arbitration Act, Congress can amend the statute to correct the error.  Sadly, consumers lost some of their best friends in Congress in the last election. So we should not count on Congress to bail out consumers if the Supreme Court sides with big business.

One of my favorite movies, The Life of Brian, ends with a great song, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

For now, I’m simply whistling that tune and hoping that things go okay. Guess we’ll deal with the carnage if the Court gives the Chamber of Commerce the victory it so badly wants.

Cheer up, Brian, it’s no bad.

Add U.S. Chamber of Commerce to losers list on health care reform

Good post here at the PopTort, about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s latest legislative loss. This time it’s health care reform. But as the PopTort article goes on to note that loss is the latest in a string of losses for the U.S. Chamber, which also opposed financial regulation, EPA action on greenhouse gases, and Sen. Franken’s efforts to limit defense contractors’ use of mandatory arbitration clauses.

On my prior blog, I’ve noted the problems with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. They supported Bush-Cheney policies that led us to financial crisis. The U.S. Chamber rails against lawsuits and verdicts for consumers. But when a big business obtains a $300 million verdict, they remain silent.

I imagine the talking heads will be sorting winners and losers over last night’s historic health care reform vote. Let’s be sure to add the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the health care reform losers. To be fair, they are not alone.

At our house over the weekend, my teenage daughter asked whether health care reform was a good idea.  Her mom and I talked it through slowly, pointing out that over 30 million Americans who previously lacked insurance would have access to health care. We also explained the the dread and indefensible pre-existing condition snafu that would bar all four members of her immediate family from care in the current environment.  But we were quick to say that there were a lot of unanswered questions about the bill.

My own take is that the bill did not go far enough. I don’t think that access to medical care should be a luxury, and as a small business owner, I have serious doubts about the wisdom of continuing to tie health care to employment. Still, a step forward is better than none.

I was struck by the tenor of the opponents. They would not negotiate. They hurled horrifying epithets. They wanted to make it all or nothing, and now–having lost–they complain bitterly about the process. By choosing a loud and nasty campaign, they galvanized the middle against them. I’m not much of a legislative geek, but from my perspective, the anger and distortions helped drive the ambivalent to support the bill.

As the debate unfolded over the weekend, I followed with keen interest the comments on Twitter.  (Yes, I’m on Twitter–@DavidSug.) Lots of trash talk about Speaker Pelosi and President Obama.  Seemed like it was pretty simple. They did what none of our prior leaders could do. I’m impressed by their political skills and dedication in getting it done.

So as to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, I can’t help but wonder how that high spendin’, loud talkin’ worked out for you.  Feel free to let me know.