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Sayonara: On Class-Action Suits, Budget Sequester | Martin Dyckman

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Sayonara: On Class-Action Suits, Budget Sequester | Martin Dyckman

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Sayonara: On Class-Action Suits, Budget Sequester
Wednesday, May 01, 2013 — Martin Dyckman

The mail brought a pleasant surprise one day, a check for some $30 or so, just enough for a modest dinner out. It was from some lawyers I didn’t know and hadn’t ever talked to. But with my passive consent -- that is, by my not objecting to the notice of class action lawsuit that I had received, they had represented me (and many thousands of others) against a big, bad bank.

They had sniffed out what appeared to be rampant overcharging in calculating the exchange rates when we (and those many thousands of others) had used its credit card overseas.  The card company denied the allegation but agreed to settle for a very large sum, of which the lawyers got a very large cut. 

In my view, they had earned it. If the government didn’t care to hold big, bad banks to a decent standard of conduct, it was good that somebody was willing to try.  The class action lawsuit is just about the only means available to the public to level the playing field.  The new Office of Financial Regulation is intended to fill that role, which is why the Republican Party won’t let anyone be confirmed as its director. The Republicans, you see, love those big, bad banks.

It would have been and will be impossible for any individual customer to sue a big, bad bank in a situation like that of mine and those many thousands of others, not when the individual compensation is as small as $30.

The “will be impossible” is not idle prophecy but fact. The fine print in the notices you have likely received from your credit card companies lately unilaterally imposes new terms on your contracts with them. By continuing to use those cards, you are not only agreeing to submit any claim to an arbitrator of their choice rather than to court; you are also waiving any right to participate in or benefit from a class-action lawsuit. 

One of my credit cards did give me the option of declining the new terms while continuing to use their card. The telephone number they provided was answered promptly and courteously.  I am still free, should the need arise, to let some class-action bounty hunter have at them.   Trouble is, they know that most of their customers will ignore the notice and thereby surrender their rights.  The critical mass of cardholders necessary to bring any effective class action will not exist.

This is big business raping the public yet again. A recent Florida Supreme Court case, won by some of the worst people in the world -- the payday lending industry -- indicated that federal law has pre-empted the right of states to interfere in the unilateral dictation of such terms.  Forcing customers to waive the right to go to court has long been a favorite trick of stock brokers. Waiving your right to participate in a class action is a new and even more powerful wrinkle on that.

Can we count on Congress to put a stop to this?

Only when pigs fly.

Speaking of pigs, when it began to look as if the sequester would actually happen, my wife asked how long I thought it would remain in effect. “Until enough members of Congress have had their flights delayed or canceled,” I replied.

As you have read, that was placing too much trust in Congress.  Sure, they liberated the FAA – but only the FAA – to modify the across-the-board spending cut that was leading to massive flight delays. So now our dearly beloved members of Congress won’t be late getting home, but devil take the federal workers in other agencies who are being laid off, along with the children being tossed out of Head Start and the old folks whose Meals on Wheels won’t be so dependable.  Once again, the squeaky wheel gets the grease while the rest of the carriage falls apart.  If I were asked to rate Congress on a scale of one to 10, I would say, “Zero.”

If it seems as if I’m trying to get a lot said in this column, you’re right. It’s the last that will appear on Florida Voices, a noble effort that has simply run out of financial steam.  That is sad.

For more than half my professional life, I had the kind of job where I couldn’t believe they were paying me to do it. I was allowed -- nay, expected -- to express my opinions on an almost daily basis to a vast public.  My retirement seven years ago put a stop to that, but the old fire horse can’t help but be alert when the bell rings, as it does in the daily news from our state and national capitals. When Rosemary Goudreau and Rosemary Curtiss created Florida Voices 18 months ago and invited me to submit occasional columns, it made me happy. How happy? As they say in that insurance commercial, as happy as Paul Revere with a cell phone.  Now I’m sad.

Thank you, Rosemary and Rosemary, for creating a new forum in the face of a steadily dwindling public press.  Let there some day be another like it, and let it succeed.

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the newspaper formerly known as the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at [email protected].

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