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Class actions still a reality for financial firms with bad press

Class actions still a reality for financial firms with bad press

(Reuters) — Not every financial firm will be able to reap the benefit of Wall Street's victory in dismantling the threat of class action law suits.

The U.S. Senate killed a rule late on Tuesday that allowed consumers to band together to sue banks and credit card companies even when the small print of their contracts forced them into closed-door arbitration with their grievances.

It was a huge win for banks, who feared a flood of costly lawsuits. But for financial firms already in the spotlight for poor treatment of customers, the bad publicity may make it difficult for them to avoid court.

Credit-scoring agency Equifax Inc. said on Wednesday it would still allow customers to sue it over its massive cyber breach, highlighting the tricky path some financial firms must navigate.

"Every company is not now sitting up and saying 'let's take advantage of this.' It's more complicated than that. Each does its own cost/benefit analysis," said Christine Scheuneman, senior partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

Equifax initially turned to arbitration clauses in the face of its cyber hack, but public pressure and threats from state attorneys general forced it to drop the requirement for 145.5 million consumers affected by the breach.

Politicians also slammed Wells Fargo & Co. for wanting to settle customer complaints over abusive sales practices through arbitration, and Chief Executive Tim Sloan told Senators this month that the company would not stop them suing.

But the bank is fighting some customers in federal court in Utah over their attempts to take legal action against it.

"I don't think that (vote) is going to change our case at all," said Steven Christensen, an attorney at Christensen Young & Associates who represents the plaintiffs in the Utah case. A hearing on Wells Fargo's motion to compel arbitration is set for Oct. 31, he said.

A Wells Fargo spokesman declined to comment on the case or on how the bank would respond to the Senate move.

Credit card companies and banks have inserted so-called arbitration clauses into their financial contracts for years. JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc. have such clauses for checking account customers. They have no plans to change those agreements, spokeswomen for the companies said.

The agreements offer customers a limited opportunity to opt out of the arbitration requirement.

JPMorgan also includes arbitration clauses with auto loans, and Citi includes them with its credit card accounts.


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