If you've ever opened a bank account or gotten a loan, there's a decent chance that at some point something has gone very wrong, from mistaken fees to payments that balloon unexpectedly.
Yet it's almost impossible for a group of consumers to band together in court and sue if they think a bank is doing something wrong. That's because consumers usually have to sign agreements with lenders saying that disputes can only be resolved on an individual basis by a private arbitrator, rather than in court.
That may change if the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau gets its way. Today, the regulator announced a new proposal that would drastically curb the use of such clauses among financial institutions.
“Companies are using the arbitration clause as a free pass to sidestep the courts and avoid accountability for wrongdoing," the agency said in a statement. "Consumers should not be asked to sign away their legal rights when they open a bank account or credit card."
The proposal is the result of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform bill, which required the CFPB to study the use of arbitration clauses in consumer financial markets. Earlier this year, the agency released a report saying arbitration clauses unduly restrict consumers.
The rule being considered would not ban arbitration clauses outright (and would only affect financial institutions — arbitration clauses remain pervasive throughout society, but the CFPB can only regulate banking and lending organizations). Instead, it would require companies who use arbitration clauses to submit individual disputes to the CFPB. It would also allow class action lawsuits to move forward until a court formally dismisses them.
The agency is likely months away from issuing a formal rule, and the proposal is sure to be vigorously contested by the financial industry. But at least we know someone is reading the fine print.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.