The American Council on Consumer Interests was formed in 1953 to serve professionals working in the consumer field, primarily educators, researchers, extension specialists, consumer specialists in government and lawyers. This article was originally published in Advancing the Consumer Interest, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall 1995, page 5.
After having attended American Council on Consumer Interest’s annual conference in March, 1995, I believe that ACCI is in an excellent position to bring together several groups that so far have not enjoyed a meaningful dialogue.
First, the people in the trenches dealing with consumers on a first hand basis, namely the legal services offices throughout the United States and the city and county consumer agency administrators, many of whom belong to the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators (NACAA).
NACAA is closely affiliated with the National Association of Attorneys General, which is the second group that needs to be joined. All AG offices have consumer protection units, and knowing what the enforcers are doing and thinking is valuable. I would also include the Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Product Safety Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and other federal consumer organizations in this second group of top level government anti-fraud pro-consumer enforcers.
Government officials find it difficult to share the enforcement stage with the third group, namely the private enforcers in the form of consumer class action attorneys, but that is all the more reason for bringing them all together. In a world of fewer assets, government cannot do it all and in many cases the private bar through class actions can impose substantial discipline on the market place for the benefit of many consumers, freeing up government to prosecute and obtain injunctions against companies and individuals who cannot reimburse consumers for the damage they have caused.
There is also a need for a dialogue between legal service attorneys and the consumer class action bar, which is one of the reasons we recently initiated the National Association of Consumer Advocates to bring the legal services providers and class action attorneys into the same room, because we are fighting the same enemy, on the same issues, and with virtually the same tools, with the only major difference being the size of the units being engaged. This issue is one that will present itself whenever and wherever private consumer attorneys are participating, and it will happen here as well, so it is good to get it out on the table promptly.
Fourth, state and national consumer advocacy and grass roots organizations are also on the cutting edge of the latest scams and consumer needs. They play an enormously valuable role in reporting what is happening in he field and where government is not serving, or incapable of serving, consumers.
Finally, the expert theorists and researchers represented by ACCI are critical players in providing litigation support services as behind-the-scene consultants and as expert witnesses in court and in addition as researchers capable of documenting the nature and extent of consumer frauds reported by the field. It is one thing for a group of aggrieved citizens to complain. It is an extremely more potent weapon to have those grievances further documented, validated, and well articulated by rigorous academic researchers.
Beginning with the proposition that nobody has a monopoly on the truth and wisdom, I am proposing that at ACCI’s next annual meeting the organization spotlight a special forum to stimulate everyone’s thinking in response to Richard Feinberg’s article “Some Thoughts On Our Struggle To Survive” in the Consumer Interests Annual of last year. His concern that the academic arena has had little impact on the real world and the desire of ACCI members to be relevant, to have an impact, and to make a difference could be addressed in several ways.
First, members of the National Association of Consumer Advocates could explain what are the main issues of concern for those providing legal services at the community level and what the private bar is attempting to accomplish in the class action arena. They could offer an overview on the role of class actions, the deterrence value of tort law, and the most recent scholarship from the field of game theory on this point, the type of cases most amenable to class treatment, the role of private enforcement in a period of deregulation and government funding cutbacks, and the various ways in which consumer class actions have benefited consumers with regard to banking services, credit cards, defective products, fraudulent sales (from light bulbs, to hearing aids, to contact lenses), auto leases, rent to own, and second mortgage fraud, among others. Class actions are playing an increasingly significant role, with breast implant and auto defect actions in cases not covered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The point is that equal justice under law is no longer a platitude that loses its meaning in the hard reality of the economics of micro-level litigation when individuals try to take on America’s biggest companies and find out what death-by-litigation means. Macro-level litigation is having an impact on millions of Americans and scores of businesses. It demonstrates the power that citizens can have in class actions. ACCI members need to appreciate, understand, and hopefully contribute to this national dialogue.
That leads me to my second idea. As long as we may be making the effort to bring the legal services, NACAA, and class action bar together, if everyone in the consumer movement (the front line dealing with consumer complaints, consumer advocacy groups, the government enforcers, the private bar, and the intellectual/intelligence arm) simply had an “open forum” in which to exchange ideas, that alone would make such a meeting worthwhile. But in addition I am hopeful that a real cross-fertilization, discussion of current issues, suggestions for research and study, and the development of new strategies would benefit everyone in ways that I cannot fully imagine. For creativity to take place you need critical mass. Once you achieve critical mass, watch out. So, imagine a special “open forum” in which participants from every group could have five to ten minutes just to say what’s on their mind in terms of research, what are they working on or thinking about, current problems, and the like. We would generate both great ideas and the beginning of solutions that would work.
The potential here is exciting and ACCI is in the position to make it happen.