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In Arbitration, a 'Privatization of the Justice System'

Over the last 10 years, thousands of businesses across the country -- from big corporations to storefront shops -- have used arbitration to create an alternate system of justice. There, rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients, The Times found.

Debbie Brenner, whose fraud case against a for-profit school chain was forced into arbitration and left her nearly bankrupt., Nick Cote for The New York Times

Deborah L. Pierce, an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia, was optimistic when she brought a sex discrimination claim against the medical group that had dismissed her. Respected by colleagues, she said she had a stack of glowing evaluations and evidence that the practice had a pattern of denying women partnerships.

She began to worry, though, once she was blocked from court and forced into private arbitration.

Presiding over the case was not a judge but a corporate lawyer, Vasilios J. Kalogredis, who also handled arbitrations. When Dr. Pierce showed up one day for a hearing, she said she noticed Mr. Kalogredis having a friendly coffee with the head of the medical group she was suing.

During the proceedings, the practice withheld crucial evidence, including audiotapes it destroyed, according to interviews and documents. Dr. Pierce thought things could not get any worse until a doctor reversed testimony she had given in Dr. Pierce’s favor. The reason: Male colleagues had “clarified” her memory.

When Mr. Kalogredis ultimately ruled against Dr. Pierce, his decision contained passages pulled, verbatim, from legal briefs prepared by lawyers for the medical practice, according to documents.

“It took away my faith in a fair and honorable legal system,” said Dr. Pierce, who is still paying off $200,000 in legal costs seven years later.

If the case had been heard in civil court, Dr. Pierce would have been able to appeal, raising questions about testimony, destruction of evidence and potential conflicts of interest.

But arbitration, an investigation by The New York Times has found, often bears little resemblance to court.

Over the last 10 years, thousands of businesses across the country — from big corporations to storefront shops — have used arbitration to create an alternate system of justice. There, rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients, The Times found.

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The change has been swift and virtually unnoticed, even though it has meant that tens of millions of Americans have lost a fundamental right: their day in court.

“This amounts to the whole-scale privatization of the justice system,” said Myriam Gilles, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “Americans are actively being deprived of their rights.”

All it took was adding simple arbitration clauses to contracts that most employees and consumers do not even read. Yet at stake are claims of medical malpractice, sexual harassment, hate crimes, discrimination, theft, fraud, elder abuse and wrongful death, records and interviews show.

The family of a 94-year-old woman at a nursing home in Murrysville, Pa., who died from a head wound that had been left to fester, was ordered to go to arbitration. So was a woman in Jefferson, Ala., who sued Honda over injuries she said she sustained when the brakes on her car failed. When an infant was born in Tampa, Fla., with serious deformities, a lawsuit her parents brought against the obstetrician for negligence was dismissed from court because of an arbitration clause.

Even a cruise ship employee who said she had been drugged, raped and left unconscious in her cabin by two crew members could not take her employer to civil court over negligence and an unsafe workplace.

For companies, the allure of arbitration grew after a 2011 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for them to use the clauses to quash class-action lawsuits. Prevented from joining together as a group in arbitration, most plaintiffs gave up entirely, records show.

Still, there are thousands of Americans who — either out of necessity or on principle — want their grievances heard and have taken their chances in arbitration.

Little is known about arbitration because the proceedings are confidential and the federal government does not require cases to be reported. The secretive nature of the process makes it difficult to ascertain how fairly the proceedings are conducted.

Some plaintiffs said in interviews that arbitration had helped to resolve their disputes quickly without the bureaucratic headaches of going to court. Some said the arbitrators had acted professionally and without bias.

But The Times, examining records from more than 25,000 arbitrations between 2010 and 2014 and interviewing hundreds of lawyers, arbitrators, plaintiffs and judges in 35 states, uncovered many troubling cases.

Behind closed doors, proceedings can devolve into legal free-for-alls. Companies have paid employees to testify in their favor. A hearing that lasted six hours cost the plaintiff $150,000. Arbitrations have been conducted in the conference rooms of lawyers representing the companies accused of wrongdoing.

Winners and losers are decided by a single arbitrator who is largely at liberty to determine how much evidence a plaintiff can present and how much the defense can withhold. To deliver favorable outcomes to companies, some arbitrators have twisted or outright disregarded the law, interviews and records show.

“What rules of evidence apply?” one arbitration firm asks in the question and answer section of its website. “The short answer is none.”

Like the arbitrator in Dr. Pierce’s case, some have no experience as a judge but wield far more power. And unlike the outcomes in civil court, arbitrators’ rulings are nearly impossible to appeal.

When plaintiffs have asked the courts to intervene, court records show, they have almost always lost. Saying its hands were tied, one court in California said it could not overturn arbitrators’ decisions even if they caused “substantial injustice.”

Unfettered by strict judicial rules against conflicts of interest, companies can steer cases to friendly arbitrators. In turn, interviews and records show, some arbitrators cultivate close ties with companies to get business.

Some of the chumminess is subtler, as in the case of the arbitrator who went to a basketball game with the company’s lawyers the night before the proceedings began. (The company won.) Or that of the man overseeing an insurance case brought by Stephen R. Syson in Santa Barbara, Calif. During a break in proceedings, a dismayed Mr. Syson said he watched the arbitrator and defense lawyer return in matching silver sports cars after going to lunch together. (He lost.)

Other potential conflicts are more explicit. Arbitration records obtained by The Times showed that 41 arbitrators each handled 10 or more cases for one company between 2010 and 2014.

“Private judging is an oxymoron,” Anthony Kline, a California appeals court judge, said in an interview. “This is a business and arbitrators have an economic reason to decide in favor of the repeat players.”

With so much latitude, some organizations are requiring their employees and customers to take their disputes to Christian arbitration. There, the proceedings can incorporate prayer, and arbitrators from firms like the Colorado-based Peacemaker Ministries can consider biblical scripture in determining their rulings.

The firms that run the arbitration proceedings say the process allows plaintiffs to have a say in selecting an arbitrator who they think is most likely to render a fair ruling.

The American Arbitration Association and JAMS, the country’s two largest arbitration firms, said in interviews that they both strived to ensure a professional process and required their arbitrators to disclose any conflicts of interest before taking a case.

The American Arbitration Association, a nonprofit, said it allowed plaintiffs to reject arbitrators on the ground of potential bias.

JAMS, a for-profit company, said it did the same and put extra protections in place for consumers and employees. “Their core value is neutrality — their business depends on it,” Kimberly Taylor, chief operating officer of JAMS, said of its arbitrators.

But in interviews with The Times, more than three dozen arbitrators described how they felt beholden to companies. Beneath every decision, the arbitrators said, was the threat of losing business.

Victoria Pynchon, an arbitrator in Los Angeles, said plaintiffs had an inherent disadvantage. “Why would an arbitrator cater to a person they will never see again?” she said.

Arbitration proved to be devastating to Debbie Brenner of Peoria, Ariz., who believes she did not get a fair shake in her fraud case against a for-profit school chain that nearly left her bankrupt. In a rambling decision against Ms. Brenner that ran to 313 pages, the arbitrator mused on singing lessons, Jell-O and Botox.

“It was a kangaroo court,” Ms. Brenner said. “I can’t believe this is America.”

From Cradle to Grave

An ob-gyn’s office in Tampa, Fla., now informs expectant mothers that if problems arise — a botched vaginal delivery, a flawed C-section — the patients cannot take their grievances to court. Neither can the families of loved ones who are buried at Evergreen Cemetery outside Chicago, which also requires disputes to be resolved privately.

From birth to death, the use of arbitration has crept into nearly every corner of Americans’ lives, encompassing moments like having a baby, going to school, getting a job, buying a car, building a house and placing a parent in a nursing home.

The first contact point can arise prenatally, when obstetricians seek to limit liability by requiring patients to sign agreements containing arbitration clauses as a condition of treating them.

Leydiana Santiago of Tampa was devastated when her baby was born in November 2011 with vision and hearing loss and thumbs that needed to be amputated. Ms. Santiago blamed her doctor at Lifetime Obstetrics and Gynecology for the problems. She said her doctor mistakenly determined that she had miscarried, court records show. As a result, Ms. Santiago resumed taking medication for lupus — medication that can cause birth defects.

Women’s Care Florida, which owns Lifetime, declined to comment on the case.

In April 2014, a Florida appeals court upheld a decision to force Ms. Santiago into arbitration. “I obey what appears to be the rule of law without any enthusiasm,” wrote one of the judges, Chris Altenbernd, adding that he feared “I have disappointed Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.”

Students from high school to graduate school can likewise find themselves caught in the gears. Lee Caplin discovered this when he enrolled his 15-year-old son at Harvard-Westlake, a private school in Los Angeles.

His son said he was bullied and harassed, and received graphic and profane death threats, including some that came from school computers. Among the threats, court records show, were, “I’m going to pound your head with an ice pick” and “I am looking forward to your death.”

Harvard-Westlake declined to comment on the case, but said that it “takes allegations of bullying very seriously.”

Afraid for his life, the teenager dropped out and the family relocated. When Mr. Caplin sued the school for failing to protect his son, he learned that even civil rights cases can be blocked from court.

The arbitrator ruled in favor of Harvard-Westlake, saying the plaintiff did not sufficiently prove that the school was “negligent.”

“It’s not a system of justice; it’s a rigged system of expediency,” Mr. Caplin said.

Many companies give people a window — typically 30 to 45 days — to opt out of arbitration. Few people actually do, either because they do not realize they have signed a clause, or do not understand its consequences, according to plaintiffs and lawyers.

Cliff Palefsky, a San Francisco lawyer who has worked to develop fairness standards for arbitration, said the system worked only if both sides wanted to participate. “Once it’s forced, it is corrupted,” he said.

Graduates entering the job market can confront even more challenging terrain. For many people, when the choice is between giving up the right to go to court or the chance to get a job, it is not a choice at all.

That is why a housekeeper in suburban Virginia said she had to sign an employment agreement with an arbitration clause that her employer had printed from the Internet. She said she regretted it later when he sexually harassed her and she had no legal recourse in court.

Circumstances are not any easier on the home front, where residents like Jordan and Bob Fogal of Houston can become stuck with a construction nightmare.

Not long after they moved into their townhouse, more than 100 gallons of water crashed through their dining room ceiling.

The couple won when they took their builder to arbitration, but they ended up with only $26,000, about a fifth of what they needed to make repairs. Unable to come up with the rest of the money and sickened from pervasive mold, the Fogals moved out.

The perils of using a secretive system can be even more acute in old age, as illustrated by numerous cases involving nursing homes.

Daniel Deneen said he was incredulous when he got a fax from a nursing home in McLean, Ill., about a client for whom he was a legal guardian.

The client, a 90-year-old woman with dementia, needed prompt care for bed sores. Unless Mr. Deneen agreed to arbitration, he said, doctors working at the nursing home would not treat her there.

“It was the most obnoxious, unfair document I have ever been presented with in over 30 years of practicing law,” Mr. Deneen said.

Once contracts with arbitration clauses are signed, nursing homes can also use them to force civil cases involving sexual assault and wrongful death out of the courts.

In May 2014, a woman with Alzheimer’s was sexually assaulted twice in two days by other residents at the Bella Vista Health Center, a nursing home in Lemon Grove, Calif., according to an investigation by the state’s department of public health. The investigation also found that the nursing home “failed to protect” the woman.

A lawyer for Bella Vista, William C. Wilson, said the company disputed the state’s findings and that the staff “makes the health and safety of its patients their top priority.”

After unsuccessfully fighting to have the arbitration clause in their agreement voided, the woman’s family settled with Bella Vista.

Between 2010 and 2014, more than 100 cases against nursing homes for wrongful death, medical malpractice and elder abuse were pushed into arbitration, according to The Times’s data.

Roschelle Powers said she found her mother, Roberta, who had diabetes and dementia, vomiting and disoriented one day in May 2013 at a Birmingham, Ala., nursing home. Ms. Powers said she alerted the home, Greenbriar at the Altamont, specifically mentioning pills she had found in her mother’s hand, according to a deposition.

A few days later, Roberta Powers’s son, Larry, said he called 911 after finding her alone and unresponsive.

A day after the ambulance took his mother to the hospital, she was dead. An autopsy showed that the 83-year-old Mrs. Powers had more than 20 times the recommended dose of metformin, a diabetes medication, in her blood.

During arbitration, the nursing home acknowledged the blood test results but said they had been the result of renal dysfunction. The arbitrator ruled in favor of Greenbriar. “There was no evidence to support the allegation that Ms. Powers somehow gained access to, and then took, more than her prescribed amount of metformin,” Joseph L. Reese Jr., a lawyer for the nursing home, said.

Perry Shuttlesworth, the family’s lawyer, said that "it was only because of forced arbitration that the nursing home got away with this." He added that “a jury would not have let this happen. “

Even when plaintiffs prevail in arbitration, patterns of wrongdoing at nursing homes are kept hidden from prospective residents and their families.

Recognizing the issue, 34 United States senators have asked the federal government to deny Medicare and Medicaid funding to nursing homes that employ arbitration clauses. “All too often, only after a resident has suffered an injury or death,” the senators wrote in a letter in September, “do families truly understand the impact of the arbitration agreement they have already signed.”

Sometimes, even death provides no escape.

Willie K. Hamb was at the funeral for her husband at Evergreen Cemetery outside Chicago when she discovered that his coffin would not be buried in the shady plot she said she had requested.

Instead, the cemetery informed Mrs. Hamb that it would place the coffin in a wall crypt until the more than $56,000 marble mausoleum they said she had agreed to in a contract was complete.

Mrs. Hamb, 72 and retired, said all she could afford for her husband, known to his friends as Pudden, was the simple plot and service she had already paid $12,461 to arrange.

Service Corporation International, one of the nation’s largest providers of funeral services and the owner of Evergreen Cemetery, declined to comment.

The dispute will be resolved in a coming arbitration. Mrs. Hamb’s lawyer, Michelle Weinberg, said she was not optimistic that her client would prevail, especially since the arbitrator is a bank compliance officer.

A Crash Course

Debbie Brenner enrolled in the surgical technician program at Lamson College near Phoenix in her 40s with high hopes of reinventing herself. She spent hours learning about the tools used in surgical procedures as if mastering the movements of the waltz, each handoff in graceful succession: scalpel, retractor, clamp, sutures.

Whether the instruments featured in lessons were real, or just depictions in photographs, depended on what teachers could round up on any given day. Lamson students became accustomed to empty surgical trays and anatomical mannequins missing their plastic replicas of organs. One enterprising instructor fashioned hearts, livers and kidneys out of felt and string.

Students considered that instructor to be one of Lamson’s better faculty members, more than a dozen of them said in interviews. Some teachers routinely disappeared from class, leaving tests conspicuously on the desks to be copied, they said.

Ms. Brenner, a devout Christian, said she prayed that the program’s shortcomings would not diminish her job prospects. She said the enrollment officer who persuaded her to sign up for the $24,000-a-year program had promised her she would easily find a job after graduation.

When Ms. Brenner completed the program with high marks in 2009, she said, Lamson failed to find her an internship. She was volunteering at Maricopa County Hospital when, she said, a surgical technician told her that most hospitals refused to hire Lamson students because they were so poorly trained. According to students, some did not even know how to properly sterilize their hands before surgery.

“It was a joke,” Ms. Brenner said. “The school’s brochure was all about making our dreams come true, but this was a nightmare.”

Soon after, Lamson shut down the program when it was unable to place enough of its students in internships. In March 2011, Ms. Brenner and other students filed a lawsuit against the school and its owner, Delta Career Education Corporation, accusing them of fraud. The case was promptly dismissed because of an arbitration clause in the students’ enrollment agreements.

Ms. Brenner, confident she could prevail in arbitration, persuaded her husband to withdraw $12,000 from his retirement account to put toward legal fees.

By the time her case was heard in March 2013, the attorney general of Arizona had sued another Delta school for defrauding students in a criminal justice program. And a federal class-action lawsuit in Michigan had accused a Delta school of defrauding students out of millions of dollars in student loans. The company did not admit wrongdoing, but settled both lawsuits for a total of more than $8 million.

Arbitration would prove to be more advantageous for the company, records and interviews show.

Ms. Brenner’s case was conducted in the Phoenix office of Gordon & Rees, one of two big law firms defending Lamson and Delta. The arbitrator, Dennis Negron, was a corporate lawyer and real estate broker who had written papers on how to limit liability because “last on your list of desires is to be sued.”

As in most arbitrations, lawyers for both sides chose Mr. Negron from a list provided by an arbitration firm, in this case the American Arbitration Association.

Lawyers for Ms. Brenner and four other students grouped into the same arbitration said they anticipated victory because they believed that the evidence was overwhelmingly in their favor.

Even the school’s former head of admissions, Jeff Bing, testified that he had been instructed by his superiors at Delta to increase enrollment at all costs.

Mr. Bing said it was widely known that the admissions staff, whose compensation was tied to the number of students recruited, was “overpromising” on jobs. He testified that the job placement rate for graduates was around 20 percent.

To keep the enrollment numbers up, Mr. Bing said, virtually anyone who applied was accepted. He added in an interview that the only qualification was “a pulse.”

Mr. Bing and other former employees recounted in interviews with The Times how profits drove most of the decision-making at Lamson.

As administrators were pressured to increase enrollment, instructors were drilled on the importance of student retention — which factored into federal aid disbursements.

Penny Philippi and Karen Saliski, two former teachers, said they were directed not to flunk anyone, including a student who skipped classes to “chase U.F.O.s.”

Delta declined to comment.

During the arbitration proceedings, even a witness for the defense expressed concerns about Lamson. Kelly Harris, who headed the school’s surgical technician program, defended the quality of education offered at Lamson but said the school enrolled too many students.

Ms. Harris, in an interview with The Times, said she warned school executives that the practice would dilute the quality of training, flood the job market and make the Lamson degree worthless. They scoffed, she said.

“It broke my heart to see these kids treated as dollar signs,” Ms. Harris said.

She was one of only two people who testified for the defense. Lawyers for Lamson and Delta denied that enrollment officers guaranteed jobs, adding that they were hard to come by during the recession.

In the end, Mr. Negron ruled in favor of Lamson and Delta.

Mr. Negron found that the defense had presented the “two most credible witnesses” and praised for-profit education, according to his decision, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. Mr. Negron did not return repeated calls and emails seeking comment.

“There is little doubt that for-profit technical or specialty schools, like the college, serve an invaluable service to the public,” he wrote in his decision.

Mr. Negron found that the college did not make job promises during the enrollment process but may have engaged in “puffery, which each of the adult students should have known and recognized as puffery.” Chiding Ms. Brenner for not being a savvier shopper, he said she had approached her decision to enroll in a “most cavalier manner” as if “buying a Snickers at the local market.”

His opinion was not shared by arbitrators who ruled in favor of students in two nearly identical cases against Lamson, documents obtained by The Times show.

If the cases had played out in court, legal experts said, Ms. Brenner could have referred to those decisions to appeal Mr. Negron’s.

As it stands, Ms. Brenner lost far more than the case.

Mr. Negron decided that she and the other students should pay the defense’s $354,210.77 legal bill because of the “hardship” the students had inflicted on Lamson and Delta.

“I felt like I had been sucker-punched,” Ms. Brenner said.

Repeat Business

Fearful of losing business, some arbitrators pass around the story of Stefan M. Mason as a cautionary tale. They say Mr. Mason ruled in favor of an employee in an age discrimination suit, awarding him $1.7 million, and was never hired to hear another employment case.

While Mr. Mason’s experience was rare, more than 30 arbitrators said in interviews that the pressure to rule for the companies that give them business was real.

Companies can even specify in contracts with their customers and employees that all cases will be handled exclusively by one arbitration firm. Big law firms also bring repeat business to individual arbitrators, according to documents and interviews with arbitrators. Jackson Lewis, for example, had 40 cases with the same arbitrator in San Francisco over a five-year period.

The JAMS arbitrator in an employment case brought by Leonard Acevedo of Pomona, Calif., against the short-term lender CashCall simultaneously had 28 other cases involving the company, according to documents disclosed by JAMS during the proceedings.

“This whole experience burst my bubble,” said Mr. Acevedo, a 57-year-old veteran, who lost his case in October 2014. His lawyer, James Cordes, offered a more critical take. “It clearly appears that the arbitrator was working for the company,” Mr. Cordes said. “And he disregarded evidence to hand a good result to his client.”

JAMS denied that its arbitrator had been influenced by CashCall.

Linda S. Klibanow, an employment arbitrator in Pasadena, Calif., acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interest but said she thought most arbitrators, many of whom are retired judges, could remain fair.

“I think that most arbitrators put themselves in the place of a jury as the fact finder and try to render a fair decision,” Ms. Klibanow said.

Elizabeth Bartholet, an arbitrator in Boston who has handled more than 100 cases, agreed that many arbitrators had good intentions, but she said that the system made it challenging to remain unbiased. Ms. Bartholet recalled that after a company complained that she had scheduled an extra hearing for a plaintiff, the arbitration firm she was working with canceled it behind her back.

A year later, she said, she was at an industry conference when she overheard two people talking about how an arbitrator in Boston had almost cost that firm a big client. “It was a conference on ethics, if you can believe it,” said Ms. Bartholet, a law professor at Harvard.

Deborah Pierce, the doctor in Philadelphia, said she did not expect to confront in arbitration the very problem she was suing her employer over: an uneven playing field.

Dr. Pierce decided to go to arbitration after learning that another female doctor had been denied a partnership by her employer, Abington Emergency Physician Associates, under similar circumstances. She also had the backing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found that there was probable cause that Dr. Pierce had been discriminated against.

The practice is now under different management.

Dr. Pierce needed to prove the partners’ states of mind when they dismissed her, or debunk whatever reason the company gave for letting her go. Both required access to the practice’s records and witnesses.

Once in arbitration, she and her lawyers said, the arbitrator gave them a weekend to review hundreds of records the defense originally withheld.

Vasilios J. Kalogredis, the arbitrator, said he could not comment on details of the proceedings because they were confidential, though he emphasized that “everything was handled properly.”

For Dr. Pierce, the most astounding moment came when her lawyers asked Mr. Kalogredis to impose sanctions on the defense for breaking the rules of discovery and destroying evidence. He fined the defense $1,000 after investigating the matter, then billed Dr. Pierce $2,000 for the time it took him to look into it.

“I kept thinking, ‘I’m not a lawyer, but this can’t be right,’ ” said Dr. Pierce, who had to take out a second mortgage to cover her legal expenses, which included a $58,000 bill from Mr. Kalogredis.

After the ruling, Dr. Pierce’s lawyers wrote to Mr. Kalogredis’s arbitration firm questioning his qualifications. The firm, American Health Lawyers Association, responded that it was not its responsibility to verify the “abilities or competence” of its arbitrators.