April 28th, 2011
Companies can block customers' class-action lawsuits, Supreme Court rules
Los Angeles Times
The Supreme Court gave corporations a major win Wednesday, ruling in a 5-4 decision that companies can block their disgruntled customers from joining together in a class-action lawsuit. The ruling arose from a California lawsuit involving cellphones, but it will have a nationwide impact.
In the past, consumers who bought a product or a service had been free to join a class-action lawsuit if they were dissatisfied or felt they had been cheated. By combining these small claims, they could bring a major lawsuit against a corporation.
But in Wednesday’s decision, the high court said that under the Federal Arbitration Act companies can force these disgruntled customers to arbitrate their complaints individually, not as part of a group. Consumer-rights advocates said this rule would spell the end for small claims involving products or services.
In the case before the court, a Southern California couple complained about a $30 charge involving their purchase of cellphone service from AT&T Mobility. The California courts said they were entitled to join with others in bringing a class-action claim against the cellphone company.
But the Supreme Court reversed that decision Wednesday in AT&T Mobility vs. Concepcion. Justice Antonin Scalia said companies may require buyers to sign arbitration agreements, and those agreements may preclude class-action claims. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. formed the majority.
Scalia said companies like arbitration because it is efficient and less costly. “Arbitration is poorly suited to the higher stakes of class litigation,” he said.