Mandatory binding arbitration, which corporations use to dodge accountability for their discrimination, negligence, or harassment, is a caricature of justice that offers no protection to consumers or employees. It’s also terrible for small business owners, as one couple found out.
On Wednesday, consumer groups and arbitration victims will head to Congress to demand passage of the Arbitration Fairness Act, which would ban mandatory binding arbitration clauses in consumer, employment, and franchise contracts. We’ll be sharing the stories of some arbitration victims here throughout the week. Today’s story is by Deborah Williams, a small business owner who was forced into arbitration and ended up paying over $4,000 just to feed, house, and transport the other side’s witnesses and lawyers.
Being trapped by the fine print of a contract transformed my dream of opening a coffee bar with my husband into a nightmare.
We had wanted to open a small neighborhood coffee shop, where everyone recognized each other and we would get to know the people and spirit of our community. We wanted a “Cheers” on caffeine.
In 2004, the vice president of Michigan-based Coffee Beanery told us that, in the right location, our café with their franchise could yield $125,000 a year, so we talked it over and decided to sign a 15-year agreement. What the vice president conveniently neglected to tell us, however, is that nearly 40 shops in the Coffee Beanery franchise had failed within three years of opening, leaving their owners bankrupt.
My husband and I soon found ourselves following a similar path. We were receiving bills amounting to far more than we signed up for – and the quality of some of the franchise products we had to use was abysmal. The real costs were so much greater than expected that we had to take out an additional $50,000 loan just to open the store. It didn’t take long to realize we were in deep trouble. We struggled to keep up with our expenses but quickly began to fall short.
Then we heard from two other Coffee Beanery franchise owners whose shops were not just failing to thrive, but losing money fast. We had to face the fact that we’d been duped. We tried to get out of our contract but were dragged through the company’s mandatory arbitration process. When signing the contract to open our store, we also had to sign away our right to take the franchise to court. You might think arbitration resembles mediation, but you would be wrong. It is biased from the start because the company typically selects the arbitrator it wants.
In our case, the company’s lawyer had already worked with this arbitrator and won, making it extremely unlikely that we would do any better than the previous franchise owners. The arbitrator also used the same accounting firm as Coffee Beanery, a conflict of interest that further reduced our chances of having an impartial hearing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, an investigation conducted by Maryland’s State Attorney General’s Office concluded that Coffee Beanery committed fraud in selling us our franchise, a key finding the arbitrator elected to ignore. We should have known that justice would never be served.
Coffee Beanery made us travel from our Maryland home to Michigan for the arbitration. We were forced to fly there four times in the 11 days of hearings, driving up our already hefty arbitration costs. In the proceedings, the company attributed our store’s downfall to our own mismanagement, not its faulty sales concept.
The arbitrator unsurprisingly sided with Coffee Beanery, ordering us to pay $187,452 in legal fees and arbitration costs – including almost $17,000 for the arbitrator’s services and $500 to cover the cost of Coffee Beanery lawyers’ lunches.
We lost everything; we have nothing left. Our home is being foreclosed. We are living out of boxes until the bank sells our house. This past winter, our pipes froze because we could not afford to pay for heat, leaving us without water for three days. Our simple coffee shop dream wrecked our whole life
What’s worse, though, is that ours is not an isolated case. Many others have been subjected to the unfairness of binding mandatory arbitration.
Had we been allowed to go to civil court, we would have had a fighting chance for justice. Mandatory arbitration is deceitful and skewed to favor the big companies, not the small entrepreneurs trying to make a living. This isn’t just a problem for business owners like us; people unknowingly sign binding arbitration contracts all the time – when they buy a cell phone or house, apply for a credit card, go into a nursing home or take a job.