I Served to Protect Our Rights; Don’t Let Equifax Take Them Away

As a career Marine, I served to protect the rights of Americans as guaranteed by the Constitution and its amendments. Among them is the 7th Amendment right to trial by jury in civil cases, a right dismissed by companies like Equifax and now under siege in Congress.

Forced arbitration “ripoff clauses” buried in the fine-print of bank accounts, auto loans and other contracts strip service members and veterans of their day in court when big banks and other financial institutions violate the law. Instead, people must face companies alone, and cannot join together, in a rigged, secretive process where the banks and lenders often choose the arbitrator.

Men and women in uniform are surely among the 145.5 million people impacted by the massive data breach of sensitive personal information held by the credit reporting agency Equifax — and among those whose access to the courts was stripped in Equifax’s fine print until the company had to relent. Servicemembers from Sergeant Charles Beard to Army soldier Prentice Martin-Bowen have also had their rights limited by forced arbitration.

Wells Fargo continues to use forced arbitration to deny victims of the fake account scandal access to the justice system. Arizona and Southern California were the epicenter of the Wells Fargo scandal and Wells Fargo is Arizona’s largest bank. Some of the state’s more than 500,000 veterans were certainly caught up in its effects. Wells Fargo has been caught but it is likely not the only financial institution guilty of illegal practices.

The Department of Defense has long pushed for servicemembers full legal recourse against unscrupulous lenders, and members now have some protection against forced arbitration clauses through the Military Lending Act. But the MLA protections don’t apply to auto loans, to rights under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, to bank account fraud like the Wells Fargo scandal, or to veterans.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and its Office of Servicemember Affairs have worked to protect those who serve by issuing a rule restoring our 7th Amendment rights and limiting the use of forced arbitration. The CFPB rule enhances military consumer protections in the MLA, restoring the right of servicemembers and veterans to seek civil justice, including class action suits, for illegal acts.

For that reason, The Military Coalition, a national consortium of uniformed services and veterans organizations representing 5.5 million current and former servicemembers and their families and survivors, urged Congress to let the CFPB rule go into effect. The American Legion has done the same. The general public — including 64 percent of Republicans and 74 percent of Democrats — also supports the rule to restore our day in court.

But, despite the outpouring of support, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted to block the rule from going into effect. Wall Street lobbyists are pushing Congress to leave forced arbitration as the only solution, severely limiting the recourse of servicemembers and all Americans. For example, only four arbitrations have been filed against Wells Fargo in Arizona despite up to 178,972 or more fake accounts in the state. We can’t allow forced arbitration to be used as a tool to block accountability.

The Senate, armed with lessons learned from the Equifax and Wells Fargo scandals, can still reverse course. Our Senators must put the interests of active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and American consumers ahead of Wall Street lobbyists and reject efforts to take away our day in court.

Colonel Lee Lange, USMC retired, Chapter President of the Arizona Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America and President of the Southwest Veterans Chamber of Commerce.