Business Week: Binding Arbitration: Banks vs. Debtors (Guess Who Wins)

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The business of resolving credit-card disputes is booming. But critics say the dominant firm favors creditors that are trying to collect from unsophisticated debtors.

What if a judge solicited cases from big corporations by offering them a business-friendly venue in which to pursue consumers who are behind on their bills?

What if the judge tried to make this pitch more appealing by teaming up with the corporations' outside lawyers?

And what if the same corporations helped pay the judge's salary?

It would, of course, amount to a conflict of interest and cast doubt on the fairness of proceedings before the judge.

Yet that's essentially how one of the country's largest private arbitration firms operates.

The National Arbitration Forum (NAF), a for-profit company based in Minneapolis, specializes in resolving claims by banks, credit-card companies, and major retailers that contend consumers owe them money. Often without knowing it, individuals agree in the fine print of their credit-card applications to arbitrate any disputes over bills rather than have the cases go to court. What consumers also don't know is that NAF, which dominates credit-card arbitration, operates a system in which it is exceedingly difficult for individuals to prevail.

Some current and former NAF arbitrators say they make decisions in haste--sometimes in just a few minutes--based on scant information and rarely with debtor participation. Consumers who have been through the process complain that NAF spews baffling paperwork and fails to provide the hearings that it promises. Corporations seldom lose. In California, the one state where arbitration results are made public, creditors win 99.998% of the time in NAF cases that are decided by arbitrators on the merits, according to a lawsuit filed by the San Francisco city attorney against NAF.

"NAF is nothing more than an arm of the collection industry hiding behind a veneer of impartiality," says Richard Neely, a former justice of the West Virginia supreme court who as part of his private practice arbitrated several cases for NAF in 2004 and 2005.


NAF presents its service in print and online advertising as quicker and less expensive than litigation but every bit as unbiased. Its Web site promotes "a fair, efficient, and effective system for the resolution of commercial and civil disputes in America and worldwide."

But internal NAF documents and interviews with people familiar with the firm reveal a different reality. Behind closed doors, NAF sells itself to lenders as an effective tool for collecting debts. The point of these pitches is to persuade the companies to use the firm to resolve clashes over delinquent accounts. JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) are among the large institutions that do so. A September, 2007, NAF PowerPoint presentation aimed at creditors and labeled "confidential" promises "marked increase in recovery rates over existing collection methods." At times, NAF does this kind of marketing with the aid of law firms representing the very creditors it's trying to sign up as clients. SEE

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