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The Implication of Reasonable Consumers Not Reading Contracts of Adhesion

posted by Adam Levitin

A final installment to this evening's blog storm (you can tell that I'm procrastinating on exam grading...).

The Consumer Financial Protection Act prohibits "unfair" acts and practices.  "Unfair" is defined as an act or practice that causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers, that is not reasonably avoidable by consumers, and the harm of which is not outweighed by benefits to consumers or competition.  

Now consider that the reasonable consumer does not read prolix contracts in detail.  The reasonable consumer might look at a top-level disclosure, say the Schumer Box for a credit card, or maybe the TRID for a mortgage, but I don't think it's controversial to say that the reasonable consumer isn't going to get into the fine print that follows.  The reasonable consumer isn't going to bother doing this because (1) the consumer might not understand the fine print, (2) the consumer can't negotiate the fine print, and (3) the consumer knows there's a good chance that all of the competitors have similar or worse fine print, so a search for better fine-print terms is might be futile (and might come at the expense of worse top-line terms).  Only a fanatic or a masochist reads every line of a cardholder agreement.

If I'm right that a reasonable consumer doesn't bother reading the details in contracts of adhesion, then notice what the "unfairness" prohibition is doing:  it is requiring that the terms of the contract be substantively fair.  Any hidden tricks or traps, like the double cycle grace period language I highlighted in my previous post, are going to be unfair.  Add in the prong of "abusive" that deals with taking unreasonable advantage of consumers' lack of understanding, and I think the Consumer Financial Protection Act is effectively requiring that consumer finance contracts must be "conscionable" or else have all of the tricks and traps made very clear to the consumer.

That's actually pretty remarkable. That's a light year beyond prohibiting "unconscionable" contracts.  It's an really affirmative fairness requirement for contract terms. It's also exactly what it should be.  Contracts should be a mechanism for mutual (subjective) welfare enhancement, not for one party to hoodwink the other. I wonder how many compliance lawyers are looking at consumer finance contracts in light of the fact that a reasonable consumer doesn't read fine print.  They should be.  

A final thought:  where does this leave arbitration agreements?  Arguably they fall into the problem unfair and abusive category (although there may be some argument about consumer benefit).  Yes, the CFPB's arbitration rulemaking was overturned by the Congressional Review Act.  But the rulemaking was undertaken under a specific power.  Query whether that prevents a rulemaking that is substantially the same under the UDAAP power.  No one really knows.  

Comments

Following the Scalia-led assault on federal equity jurisprudence, including adhesion contracts, which is now being furthered by his minions, unless there are regulations on the books, the federal courts (where all bank cases go to die) have their hands tied.

UDAP isn't equity jurisprudence. It's statute. There's no private right of action for federal UDAP or UDAAP violations, but a violation of the federal statute can be a predicate violation of a state statute, and every state has some sort of a UDAP law, although they vary significantly.

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