The U.S. House on Friday voted to ban forced arbitration, the increasingly controversial ― and common ― practice of forcing consumers and workers into secret courtrooms where they have no access to a jury and far more limited rights than in the public justice system.
Two Republicans joined 223 Democrats to pass the bill, the first time Congress has ever voted on the practice.
The Forced Arbitration Injustice Repeal Act, or Fair Act, would prohibit companies from using so-called pre-dispute arbitration agreements in all employment, civil rights, consumer and antitrust cases. Under the law, Americans could still choose to take a dispute to arbitration ― which companies like to tout as a faster and cheaper alternative to the judicial system ― but no one would be forced to give up their right to go to court.
The bill is unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but anti-arbitration advocates were thrilled to even get a vote in the House.
“[Opposition] to forced arbitration has gotten more traction than it ever has before,” said Karla Gilbride, a senior attorney at Public Justice who represents workers and consumers in cases against corporations, focusing on cases involving forced arbitration. “The more people find out about this, the more outraged and offended they get.”
Because of the role it plays in sexual discrimination, assault and harassment lawsuits, enabling companies to push women into secret courtrooms and hush up misbehavior, forced arbitration has gotten increased attention in recent years.
Law students, Google workers and many activists have spoken out against the practice. A small number of companies, including Microsoft, Uber and Facebook, have even banned forced arbitration in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination.
About 60 million workers are covered by forced arbitration agreements ― many of whom are unaware they’ve signed away their rights, with agreements tucked away in employee handbooks and buried in employment contracts.
Even more Americans ― hundreds of millions ― have agreed to forced arbitration as consumers by just clicking on the Terms of Service for an app, for example, or signing up for a credit card. LG apparently even put a forced arbitration clause on a sticker on one of its washing machines.
Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings in favor of the practice and forced arbitration agreements have become increasingly common.
Recently, a California woman named Lilly who’d been sexually assaulted at a Massage Envy spa was blocked from filing suit against the company because she’d inadvertently agreed to arbitration when she downloaded the company’s app.
Lilly, who is using only her first name to protect her identity, has been advocating for the Fair Act.
“This isn’t about politics,” she told HuffPost earlier this week. “It’s about civil rights.”
Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox News host who filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging she was sexually harassed at work, has been advocating for the Fair Act to be passed and has expressed “sincere hope” that the Senate will take up the legislation.
“Sexual harassment is apolitical,” she told reporters after the vote. “Before somebody decides to harass you or assault you or abuse you, they don’t ask what political party you’re a part of. They don’t care. They just do it.”
Sara Boboltz contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said that one Republican had voted for the bill. It was two Republicans.