Imagine doing something you enjoy and winning praise for public service in the bargain. That is what happens to consumer arbitrators for the Better Business Bureau (BBB), volunteers who donate their time to resolve disputes between customers and merchants that might otherwise mean a long, tiresome, expensive trip to court.
Myrna Norwitz, a homemaker from suburban Silver Spring, has been such a volunteer since 1981. She presides over hearings four times a month in a windowless conference room in the downtown Washington offices of the BBB. Often tens of thousands of dollars are at stake.
Norwitz recalls that she was motivated at first by her "consumer orientation"; now she is hooked on the human drama. "Some of the complainants get very emotional," she reports, adding that it is the combination of trying to help while being scrupulously fair that is the most challenging -- and rewarding -- aspect of volunteer arbitration.
The human element is also what induces Pat Cleary, an attorney for the Department of Labor, to spend his leisure evening hours as an arbitrator. According to Cleary, the disputants are often simply caught up in an unfortunate tangle of circumstances. "In many cases, the people like each other personally," he says. "They just need someone to help them out."
Occasionally, the parties will reach an agreement soon after coming face-to-face. This is mediation, however, and the arbitrator will excuse himself while a merchant and consumer, for example, attempt to negotiate a direct settlement. He will return, unbiased by the nature of the discussion, if the conciliation effort fails.
Interestingly, a large number of lawyers volunteer as arbitrators. As one administrative law judge for the federal government put it, "It enables me to use my skills in different kinds of cases from those I encounter at work. I get a great deal of satisfaction from providing this community service."
Each of the approximately 200 arbitrators in the BBB pool are expected to volunteer for one hearing a month. All have attended a seven-hour training program conducted by BBB professionals, and then attend hearings as observers before assuming arbitration responsibilities. Their decisions are monitored, and unsuccessful candidates eventually are eliminated.
The main piece of advice arbitrators give consumers is "documentation, documentation, documentation." Copies of bills and receipts, warranties, even photographs -- the more evidence submitted to support (or even supplant) oral testimony, the easier it will be to rule in the consumer's favor.
Heeding this rule, Theodore Tremper and his wife built their case against an aluminum storm/insulation window company carefully and thoroughly. Salesmen's promises rarely are recorded -- though arbitration hearings usually are -- so transcripts reflecting misrepresentation practically never exist.
To compensate, the Trempers compiled related documents that lent credibility to their claim. When they never received their warranty, they photocopied its text from an advertising brochure. They took snapshots of icing that formed around the window inside the house. They combed their records to show that their heating bills actually had risen since the new windows were installed. The arbitrator ruled that the company must either replace the windows to the Trempers' satisfaction within 90 days -- complete with a new warranty to cover the second set of windows -- or refund the Trempers' money in full.
Since the arbitrator wished to inspect the installation himself, the Trempers' case was heard around their Silver Spring dining room table, at a time and date scheduled for everyone's convenience. It was a far less intimidating setting than a courtroom, and the atmosphere was informal. The arbitrator had been chosen by consensus of both parties, after studying a list of candidates describing age and occupation. As is typical of most of these hearings, only the consumer, the arbitrator and the company representative were present -- although in principle, outside witnesses, and even hired lawyers, may be invited. The procedure was concluded in 90 minutes, and the arbitrator fulfilled his obligation when he submitted his written decision to the BBB within 10 days.
The arbitrator's ruling is reviewed by the BBB and, if approved (as in the Tremper's case), passed on to the parties. There is no further direct contact between the parties and the arbitrator. The arbitrator's ruling is binding on all manufacturers, and on all consumers with the exception of auto complainants, who may press their case elsewhere if they are not satisfied.
Arbitrators may award reimbursement for money spent by a consumer on a defective product or service (minus a mileage consideration), but cannot assess punitive damages for such items as related expenses, secondary benefits that did not materialize (e.g., a heating bill that was not reduced -- unless this was specified in a written guarantee), time lost from work, aggravation, etc.
The BBB administers its arbitration program with funds paid by member businesses; there is no fee charged the consumer, and arbitrators receive nothing but reimbursement for travel expenses. While the service is ultimately sponsored by merchants, 1985 figures for (nonauto) arbitration reveal that 60 percent of the cases were settled in favor of the consumer, 20 percent were split decisions and 20 percent vindicated the merchant.
Businesses pay annual dues ranging from $150 to several thousand dollars, depending on the size of the firm. Local businesses also may join BBB's Customer Care program, precommitting themselves to BBB-sponsored mediation and arbitration. The Customer Care program, which entails an additional fee, is open to BBB member and nonmember businesses alike.
For all the variety of firms affiliated with the BBB, complaints against car dealers and manufacturers dwarf all others, and the local BBB Auto Line employs several full-time staffers to handle the cases that pour in from the District, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The Auto Line and similar arbitration programs have been accorded quasi-official status by Congress and the Federal Trade Commission, who have encouraged -- and, brandishing the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, even pressured -- manufacturers to accept out-of-work forums for resolving car owners' complaints.
In the opinion of Jeffrey Price, mid-Atlantic regional representative for American Motors at Auto Line hearings, arbitration saves everyone money -- and the complaints help the companies monitor their dealers. "I can't tell you how many times I'm summoned to hearings when it's the first notice the company has had that something is wrong," he notes. "People don't distinguish between the responsibility of a dealer -- who may be selling his own service contract and not meeting his obligations -- and the liability of the manufacturer." Price maintains -- and the Consumer's Resource Handbook bears him out -- that customers could save themselves a lot of time and trouble if they simply contacted the manufacturer before starting arbitration proceedings.
In the interest of good customer relations, however, Price will step in and try to resolve any problems. In one case, where a "buyback" was sought but did not seem substantiated, he offered to oversee personally the complete repair of the automobile, including making a service appointment with a more reputable dealer, providing a free loaner car, and picking up the tab for some previous, unrelated repairs. Bezalel Gordon is a Washington-area free-lance writer.