When she bought her car, Tinker Martin-Bowen signed a contract with an arbitration clause that took away her right to a jury trial. Only later did she realize just what she had given up.
Deborah L. Pierce, an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia, was optimistic when she brought a sex discrimination claim against the medical group that had dismissed her. Respected by colleagues, she said she had a stack of glowing evaluations and evidence that the practice had a pattern of denying women partnerships.
She began to worry, though, once she was blocked from court and forced into private arbitration.
Presiding over the case was not a judge but a corporate lawyer, Vasilios J. Kalogredis, who also handled arbitrations. When Dr. Pierce showed up one day for a hearing, she said she noticed Mr. Kalogredis having a friendly coffee with the head of the medical group she was suing.
During the proceedings, the practice withheld crucial evidence, including audiotapes it destroyed, according to interviews and documents. Dr. Pierce thought things could not get any worse until a doctor reversed testimony she had given in Dr. Pierce’s favor. The reason: Male colleagues had “clarified” her memory.
When Mr. Kalogredis ultimately ruled against Dr. Pierce, his decision contained passages pulled, verbatim, from legal briefs prepared by lawyers for the medical practice, according to documents.
“It took away my faith in a fair and honorable legal system,” said Dr. Pierce, who is still paying off $200,000 in legal costs seven years later.
If the case had been heard in civil court, Dr. Pierce would have been able to appeal, raising questions about testimony, destruction of evidence and potential conflicts of interest.
But arbitration, an investigation by The New York Times has found, often bears little resemblance to court.
Over the last 10 years, thousands of businesses across the country — from big corporations to storefront shops — have used arbitration to create an alternate system of justice. There, rules tend to favor businesses, and judges and juries have been replaced by arbitrators who commonly consider the companies their clients, The Times found.
The change has been swift and virtually unnoticed, even though it has meant that tens of millions of Americans have lost a fundamental right: their day in court.
“This amounts to the whole-scale privatization of the justice system,” said Myriam Gilles, a law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. “Americans are actively being deprived of their rights.”