THE BLOG
11/14/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sign a Contract, Lose Your Rights

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Deep within the contract I signed for a recent $699 purchase were these words:

Arbitration Agreement: Should any dispute arise in regards to this product, I/we agree to settlement by arbitration.

Well, great, I thought, after glancing through the multiple-page document and noticing the clause. I am not a litigious sort of person, and arbitration seems far preferable to courts and lawyers and outrageous legal expenditures. A reasonable solution.

Wrong. That agreement means I signed away all rights in any future dispute involving the product, committing to a decision that will be made by the person or firm hired by the company who wrote the contract. If I complain, and the company is paying the arbitrator, guess who's going to win? A recent study showed that 94 percent of the time, in cases like these, the judgment goes in the company's favor. Appeal? There is none. The decision is binding, and I have signed away my right to appeal -- that's also in the fine print.

"Lost in the Fine Print", an eye-opening film just released by the Alliance for Justice, explains how these forced arbitration clauses affect millions of people every day, people like you and me who assume we enjoy such constitutional rights as equal protection, the right to appeal -- a voice. I could be out $699. But what if the forced arbitration clause in the small print meant you were done in by a for-profit college that took your money, gave you a worthless "diploma" and prevented you from ever getting a job because they'd already flooded the market with others far less qualified? Or suppose it meant you had no power over the credit card company that was ruining your small business with ever-increasing "swipe" fees. Or it meant that though you had been unjustly fired from your job, you were denied even a hearing? These are three of the stories told in "Lost in the Small Print."

"It's a rigged system that helps companies evade responsibility for violating anti-discrimination, consumer protection, and public health laws," says film narrator Robert Reich.

Reich, a noted political economist, author and speaker who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, explains how forced arbitration clauses usually go unnoticed in the pages of boiler-plate accompanying today's contracts. But even if they do catch the eye of the signer -- as happened with my recent purchase -- their potential impact cannot be foreseen.

And that impact can be huge: a job lost, a business struggling, a life wrecked.

"Lost in the Fine Print" runs for just under 20 minutes. You can watch it online, or order the DVD. It's free. Those could be the most important 20 minutes you'll spend in a very long time.