NYT Tilt & crppdTHE DEVIL IS REPUTED by some to have had all the best tunes. But those claiming to be on the side of the angels can often have the better technique.

Sometimes, though, they’ll employ that advantage in what amounts to an abuse of power bordering on the devilish.

The abuse I’m reporting on here this week (and also on PBS television, and at Huffington Post) has its roots in a business technique that’s become common throughout the financial world. It’s the growing practice – among organizations of all kinds – of turning to the process of arbitration as a means of dealing with any grievance that customers, employees or others might have against them.

This dubious technique also involves insisting, from the beginning of any commercial relationship, that aggrieved parties waive their legal rights to sue in court for redress. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the aggrieved all-too-often end up being the losers.

Earlier this year The New York Times culminated a year’s deep investigative work with a series of exposés demonstrating abuse after abuse being attempted, and often achieved, by unscrupulous companies and institutions who use arbitration as a way to avoid legal responsibility in disputes. In the US Congress, Senators Patrick Leahy and Al Franken, as well as Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia on the other side of the Capitol’s Rotunda, have proposed legislation to rein in what Franken has called the “epidemic of forced arbitration”. Leahy has described arbitration as “denying us our constitutional right to protect ourselves in a court”.

And only this week the nation’s consumer watchdog, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau issued proposals for new regulations, aimed especially at banks. “Many banks and financial companies avoid accountability by putting arbitration clauses in their contracts, said Richard Cordray, director of the Bureau.

Nick Ellison died aged 20 after entering a Christian drugs rehab. His mother could not sue for wrongful death; was forced to undergo Christian Arbitration
Nick Ellison died aged 20 after entering a Christian drug rehab. His mother could not sue for wrongful death, and was forced to undergo Christian Arbitration.

But why do I invoke devils and angels in relation to all this questionable though very human subterfuge, and the various efforts to control it?

Well … there is a somewhat arcane but growing subsection of the arbitration phenomenon called “Christian Arbitration”. It can be seen as roughly akin to Jewish rabbinical courts, and Muslim communities’ sharia tribunals.

Christian institutions, and interestingly purely secular businesses as well (though often owned and operated by professing Christians), are increasingly requiring their employees, customers and clients to sign a waiver giving away their legal rights, and to agree instead to undergo a dispute-resolution process presided over by a Christian Arbitrator. (That’s a specialty role with rules drawn up by the Colorado-based Institute of Christian Conciliation.)

My television exploration of this intriguing procedure appears at various times this weekend on PBS – where I interview such a Christian Arbitrator, as well as aggrieved individuals who have lost the opportunity to be plaintiffs in court – including the mother of the late young man pictured above, talking of her inability to gain satisfaction or even a convincing explanation for his untimely death through the arbitration process. I also talk with a jurisprudence professor, who is one of the country’s rare legal experts monitoring this process.

Watch my report here: