A powerful retrospective report showing the real facts behind the notorious "McDonald's Hot Coffee" case -- the gruesome burns, the fact that she was in a parked car, not a moving one, the fact that McDonald's had hundreds of warnings that it was serving dangerously hot coffee, the fact that the plaintiff only asked for her medical bills to be paid (before McDonald's offered her a paltry $800 against medical bills of $10,000) -- on and on, the "outrageous" result turns out to have been more than justified, and the only real outrage is that McDonalds and the Chamber of Commerce have managed to fool most people into thinking that they were the victims in this case.
Watch this excellent New York Times report, and then if you really want to understand how corporate America tries to turn real people against each other (the better to fleece them, and keep them from standing up to big corporations), look for the great movie "Hot Coffee" too.
P.S. Click here to make a contribution -- one-time or monthly -- to help make another documentary that helps set the record straight about the civil justice system, the only part of government where real people get to stand toe-to-toe and fight back on level ground with corporations. That's why corporations hate it so much, and why they want to tell you lies, so you'll hate it too
Oregon Allows Debt Collectors to Push Working Families into Poverty
A new report by the National Consumer Law Center gives Oregon a D
Portland, OR - The decision of what bills to pay and what bills to put off is a game of financial roulette tens of thousands of Oregonians are forced to play every month as they struggle to recover from the economic downturn. The priorities are obvious - keep your family housed and fed and pay for transportation plus other items necessary for work - other creditors get what's left.
A new report from the National Consumer Law Center exposes how state exemption laws take these difficult decisions out of workers hands by giving debt collectors the ability to seize a substantial portion of a person's wages and the tools essential for their work. The report, No Fresh Start: How States Let Debt Collectors Push Families into Poverty, finds that Oregon law fails to meet basic standards that would allow debtors to continue to work productively to support themselves and their families.
Exemption laws are designed to protect debtors and their families from poverty, and preserve their ability to be productive members of society. Oregon gets an F when it comes to protecting wages. Current wage garnishment law allows debt collectors to push a family below the poverty level. A minimum wage earner working full time can have their weekly pay reduced to $268.50, less than the federal poverty level for a two-person family. If they work less than full time their wages may be reduced to $217.50, less than half of the federal poverty level for a family of four. Oregon's overall grade is a D. A copy of the NCLC report can be found here.
Oregon's archaic exemption laws fuel the lucrative and fast-growing debt buyer industry. "When a worker's wages are slashed below the poverty level to pay off old credit card debt that was bought for pennies on the dollar by an out-of-state debt buyer everyone loses. The debtor can't pay the landlord or the childcare worker and the family is forced to rely on government services to make ends meet," said Angela Martin, Executive Director of Economic Fairness Oregon, an advocacy group fighting for reform of Oregon's debt collection laws.
"In 2012, the FTC received more than 125,000 consumer complaints about debt collection, representing almost 25% of all consumer complaints it received. Debt collection lawsuits are clogging up civil courts across the nation," said Robert Hobbs, National Consumer Law Center's Deputy Director and author of Fair Debt Collection. "This report serves as a wake-up call for states to update their exempt property laws and stop putting millions of families at risk. Doing so will allow local courts to redirect their focus from the insatiable appetite of a debt machine that churns out millions of undocumented debt collection lawsuits each year."
The NCLC report includes several recommends for reforming state exemption laws, those include:
Preserve the debtor's ability to work, by protecting a working car, work tools and equipment.
Protect the family's housing, necessary household goods, and means of transportation.
Protect a living wage for working debtors that will meet basic needs.
Protect retirees from destitution by restricting creditors' ability to seize retirement funds.
Be automatically updated for inflation.
Economic Fairness Oregon
Vulnerable Nursing Home Patients Need Ability to Sue in Court as Government Agencies Fail to Protect Them
By Leslie Bailey, Staff Attorney, Public Justice
According to a new report just released by the Center for Investigative Reporting and reported by KQED, the failure of California regulators to adequately investigate and pursue claims of abuse and misconduct by nursing assistants and health aids is “putting the elderly, sick, and disabled at risk.” In fact, the regulators that are charged with protecting vulnerable patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities are either conducting “cursory and indifferent” investigations, or simply closing cases without taking any action at all. The report underscores how critically important it is for people to have the ability to sue when loved ones are harmed by nursing home neglect—or worse.
Take Elsie Fossum. One morning in July 2006, the 95-year-old was found lying in a pool of blood, her arm broken and her face described by the registered nurse in charge at the nursing home as “beaten to a pulp.” Within a few weeks, Elsie died as a result of the wounds she’d suffered. A nurse suspected one of the nursing assistants, and a report was filed with the Department of Health. But according to KQED, the agency shelved the case for 6 ½ years and finally closed it without any investigation.
The CIR report paints a grim picture. There are approximately 160,000 nursing assistants and in-home health aids working at hospitals, nursing homes, and mental health facilities throughout California. As of 2009, the backlog of reported abuse and theft cases was so high that is was deemed a “crisis.” But rather than prioritize investigating, according to the report, “the state Department of Public Health quietly ordered investigators to dismiss 1,000 pending cases … often without a single phone call.” While the number of cases closed without action is on the rise, the main tool by which the agency is supposed to protect patients from abuse—revoking the licenses of nursing home employees—has plummeted in recent years. In other words, the abusers are permitted to continue working at their jobs, where they can continue to commit more horrific abuse. It’s gotten so bad that even a former Public Health director warns Californians: “do not count on the government taking care of you.”
Fortunately, we have the civil justice system, and anyone whose loved one is abused in a nursing home can file a lawsuit – right? Think again. As the Wall Street Journal reported, nursing homes—like pretty much all other businesses—are increasingly jumping on the forced arbitration bandwagon. That is, they’re requiring everyone who checks in to sign a contract forfeiting their constitutional right to sue. Instead, per the fine print, any claims against the home or its employees must be brought in private arbitration, in a secret proceeding before a hired gun chosen by the nursing home. But of course, the last thing on your mind when you’re in the painful process of admitting an elderly parent to a home is the fine print of the nursing home’s multi-page contract. The nursing home, of course, knows exactly what it’s doing: a study done by the nursing home industry itself found that as arbitration has increasingly replaced court as the forum for dispute resolution, the amount of money recovered by abuse victims and their families has decreased—even as complaints about poor treatment have risen.
If the government agencies charged with protecting our loved ones aren’t up to the task, then the only way to prevent more horrific abuses like that of Elsie Fossum is through private litigation. But the nursing homes know this, and they’re doing everything they can to use forced arbitration to exempt themselves from lawsuits. It’s time to fight back.
If you are facing an arbitration clause in a nursing home case, we can help. Email Leslie at email@example.com or Paul Bland at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information, you can also read our article, "Combating Abusive Arbitration Clauses in Nursing Home Contracts."
Once upon a time, there was a country where the courts could tell the difference between business-to-business disputes and consumer-to-business disputes.
The law for the commercial disputes values efficiency above all other concerns, which makes a lot of sense for disputes involving businesses, which are often fictitious entities anyway (corporations), with no personal stake in the problems.
Further, being fictitious legal persons, entirely created under the law and having no natural rights of their own, the corporations involved in most business litigation could hardly claim to fall under the 7th Amendment right to a jury trial -- the companies only had the rights that the law gave them, and since they essentially all just wanted their disputes resolved in a predictable, roughly fair way, it was no problem that Congress said that they could bind each other to arbitration clauses, which sent their fights out of the court system and into private arbitration, where there are no juries, and there is no open court system that creates precedent with each decision.
The problem is that, as in the Terminator movies, the creatures we created to help us have turned on us and taken over: the corporations have seized control of the courts and have persuaded a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court justices that, not only are they actually entitled to full constitutional liberties, including full First Amendment rights to "speak," they also should be allowed to force real people into arbitration, meaning that when you sue one of these fictitious people, you find yourself in a topsy-turvy world that Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, could not have imagined on his most cynical day.
We've been heading towards this mess ever since the first decisions in the late 19th Century that perverted the 14th Amendment, turning it from an aid to freed slaves into a weapon for the just-forming multinational corporations. The recent "Citizens United" decision -- a fantastic act of historic judicial activism, with the Supreme Court majority going completely outside the bounds of the case before it to create a new superclass of corporate citizens (all the rights of people but none of the duties) is the best known of the long train of absurd decisions that, one by one, are turning real people into servants of the new superclass.
Which brings us to today's fantastic absurdity, where the federal 2nd Circuit, the appellate court for the Northeast, the second-highest court in all the land (and a leading court for commercial disputes), has held that a New York consumer -- that is, a flesh and blood person like you, one who might be under the vague impression that your Constitutional rights are at least as important as the "rights" of a legal fiction like a corporation -- must go to binding arbitration in Arizona to pursue the scoundrels who ripped off the consumer and essentially reduced the consumer to abject poverty (the company was one of the many (most?) bogus credit repair companies who promise to help you climb OUT of the hole with your credit cards).
There is no way to put it except to say that this is the kind of thing that terrifies people who study history, because this is the kind of thing that survivors study when they try to figure out "What was the spark that caused the explosion? How did what seemed to be a civilized place suddenly erupt in such fury?"
I would love to be wrong about this, but since the DNA of corporations requires that they grab all the power and money that they can, and that they do everything that they can get away with (to compete with all the others), expecting corporations to restrain themselves and not abuse consumers and real people is like expecting Donald Trump to take and keep a vow of silence and poverty. Thus, absent a miracle -- never the thing to bet on -- this isn't likely to get better. And that means we might well be getting close to finding out something awful, like what the 21st Century American equivalent is for 19th Century France's guillotine. Read on:
- Today’s Arbitration Outrage: Second Circuit Says Destitute New York Resident Consumer Must Arbitrate Case in Arizona Leave a comment By Paul Bland, Senior Attorney @PblandBland
- Periodically, people ask me rhetorical questions like, "How much worse can the law of arbitration get? I mean, it's so incredibly bad that it has to have bottomed out, right?"
- As Jane Wagner famously wrote [for Lily Tomlin], no matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up.
- The Second Circuit has just issued an opinion that reminds us that it is still possible for the law of arbitration to become even more terrible for consumers. In Duran v. The J. Hass Group, a woman who is essentially on the edge of being destitute alleges (very credibly) that she was the victim of a last-dollar scam, promised services that she didn't receive.
- The defendants allegedly operated a credit repair scheme, under which they took a fee of almost $4,000 from the consumer to settle all of her credit card debt, and then did nothing for her. So her credit card companies were suing her, she owed all the money that she’d owed when she first interacted with the defendants, and she was now completely broke. These allegations make an extremely strong claim under the Credit Reporting Act. The allegations and facts are discussed in greater detail in the district court’s opinion, available at 2012 WL 3233818 (E.D.N.Y. June 8, 2012).
- It probably will not surprise anyone who follows consumer law (although it would come as a surprise to nearly any actual consumer) that the defendant had an arbitration clause. What's striking is that the clause requires consumers (including the New York resident Ms. Duran) to arbitrate their claims across the country IN ARIZONA. Now, courts have been striking down these kinds of distant forum provisions in decisions going back 20 years. E.g., Patterson v. ITT Consumer Fin. Corp., 18 Cal. Rptr. 2d 563 (1993). But in the wake of more recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, particularly the catastrophic Rent-A-Center, West, Inc. v. Jackson, 130 S. Ct. 2772 (2010), a lot of bad actors out there have been experimenting with how unfair they can make their arbitration clauses and get away with it.
- This strategy worked pretty well for the defendants in this case. The Second Circuit required Ms. Duran to arbitrate her claim, and enforced the provision requiring it to take place in Arizona. They noted that there is a "logical flaw" and an "unusual" quality to the result, because if Ms. Duran's only remedy is to argue to the arbitrator that it's unfair and unconscionable to require her to arbitrate in Arizona, she first has to GO to Arizona to do it. Oh well, the Court explains, this is what the Supreme Court would have wanted.
- I think the decision is wrong, and that the better arguments are with the plaintiffs, and I'm very hopeful that a lot of other courts wouldn't go with this conclusion.
- But the case does show how the U.S. Supreme Court's ongoing adventures in re-writing and expanding the Federal Arbitration Act have a cost. What will the next scam artist put in their arbitration clause? Is there any reason that the Second Circuit would not have enforced a clause requiring the arbitration to take place in New Zealand on Leap Day? After all, why couldn't the New Zealand arbitrator figure out if that's fair? What if the arbitration clause required that the arbitration take place on the newly non-planet Pluto?
- If bad actors can get away with making arbitration clauses increasingly grossly unfair, and all the courts just wash their hands, do a Pontius Pilate, and say “well, this may SEEM really unfair, but oh well, it’s what the Supreme Court would have wanted,” mandatory arbitration will have no conceivable claim to any sort of legitimacy. It will become a complete joke, an openly rigged deal.
- Because saying that a poor person in New York can only get a refund of money stolen from her if she travels across the United States to begin the process of trying to get it back IS a joke, and it IS a rigged deal.
These scammers trying to pry your personal information out of you by making it appear that they're from the government.
On this one, note the barely readable small print disclosure that they're not, which is at the bottom and is about 1/20th as dark as the typeface that says "GOVERNMENT FUNDS AVAILABLE FOR FINAL EXPENSES" that appears at the top, next to the Pennsylvania Avenue address in Washington DC ( a nice touch, don't you think?)
Note the deceptive wording of the interior:
The government has made funds available for final expenses. Also available in your state, is a program designed to pay for what the government funds do not pay for your final expenses. If you qualify, this program can pay 100% of all funeral and final expenses for each person covered.
The comma after in your state is a nice touch for illiteracy.
Great story in an intriguing San Diego nonprofit news outlet called "Justice for Sale: Arbitration Purgatory." The story is about what happens when you try holding a car dealer accountable
. Thanks to the US Supreme Corp's love affair with arbitration -- the dispute resolution method intended for parties in parity with each other, and typically for those who need to keep dealing with each other -- consumers increasingly find that they have signed away their constitutional right to a civil trial. When you get ripped off by a big company these days, most often you will find that they have locked you into an arbitration agreement where they not only get to keep you from having the dispute heard by a jury of your peers, they also get to choose the forum. And since the big companies are the only repeat players in the game, guess who the arbitrators (who are themselves totally unaccountable to you) worry about pleasing? Hint: It's not you
Part 2: Justice for Sale: Ignoring the Law
Part 3: Justice for Sale: The War on Consumer Class Actions
Note the attempts to make it seem to come from a government source
The folks who prey on the elderly -- the Elderscammers -- never tire of trying to make their scam letters appear to come from an official source (anything that will get you to open them). When you get mail in an envelope that looks like this, your best bet is probably to recycle it immediately without even opening it.
If you are really torqued about their deceptive technique and want to make it a bit more expensive for them, here's one thing you can do: Open the envelope, but only so that you can find out if there is a postage-prepaid "Business Reply Envelope" inside (there often are). If there is a BRE, take a dark marker and write "STOP SENDING ME JUNK" on the reply card, and draw a big X over the part where they want you to give them all your personal information. Then stuff everything they sent you into the BRE, seal it, and drop it in the mail. This has proven remarkably effective at getting them to stop sending me any such junk. Sadly, all my elderly neighbors and friends keep me well supplied in examples of this kind of scam. (This one was another come-on for funeral expenses insurance, the biggest ripoff this side of waterline insurance plans.)
Mixed in with the many honest businesses, I'm sad to say that there are a TON of ethically challenged businesses out there too. They especially prey on elders, offering them outrageously overpriced goods and services, using all the time-tested tricks of the trade, trying to make it look like they are doing you a favor, and that you might have to "qualify" to do business with them -- when the only qualification is excessive trust in strangers by you, and a willingness to give out private information to total strangers. These people will use any information they can get to take advantage of you (and they will sell and trade that information to similarly exploitation-minded outfits -- along with the key fact, that you were so foolish as to respond to their mailing).
There's a good saying that "Good deals don't call you on the telephone" and the same goes in spades for junk mail like this. Honest businesses don't try to make money off you by selling you wildly overpriced insurance. I wish there was a way to require outfits like this to put a skull-and-crossbones watermark on every page of every letter they send out, because then you'd have a chance of realizing what pirates they are.