Changes Afoot – the Proposed Arbitration Fairness Act

by Andrew Ness

The U.S. has been a staunch supporter of arbitration since 1925, when the U.S. Arbitration Act became law. The Arbitration Act makes arbitration agreements binding and simple to enforce, without significant exception. Rather suddenly, a substantial backlash against mandatory arbitration has appeared on the scene. One of the clearest indicators is the proposed Arbitration Fairness Act (H.R. 1020) that was introduced in the House of Representatives in February of 2009, and is still very much in play. While the anger is not directed at construction dispute arbitration, the concern is that commercial arbitration will end up being limited in important ways, as well as mandatory arbitration schemes where the use of arbitration is seen as one-sided and unfair.

The proposed AFA would limit the scope of the Arbitration Act to exclude from its coverage: a) disputes between an employer and employee arising out of their employment relationship; b) consumer disputes between an individual and the seller or provider of real or personal property, services, money, or credit for personal, family, or household purposes; and c) disputes between a franchisor and a franchisee.
More significantly, the AFA would take away in all arbitrations the arbitrators’ authority to determine the validity and enforceability of arbitration agreements. This is a hallmark of U.S. arbitration law that has been generally successful in keeping courts from interfering in the interpretation and enforcement of arbitration agreements. It would be a major departure from current federal policy and several decisions of the United States Supreme Court.

Supporters of the proposed change believe that mandatory arbitration is being used in ways unfair to parties of unequal bargaining power who routinely fail to read the “fine print” mandating arbitration in many consumer transactions, such as when opening a bank account or obtaining a credit card. Among other objections, opponents fear that adding such restrictions would have the unintended consequence of reducing the effectiveness of arbitration as a cost effective remedy for commercial disputes. In reality, the pending legislation is likely to undergo significant revisions in both House and Senate committees before any final votes are taken.

While the construction industry is not specifically targeted by the AFA, concerns have arisen that subcontractors and suppliers, for example, may attempt to claim unequal bargaining power when confronted with standard arbitration clauses contained in many form subcontracts. As a result, those concerned about cost effective and efficient dispute resolution in the construction industry, both within the U.S. and internationally, are following the AFA’s progress through Congress closely.

Kluwer Construction Blog

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