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A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that the hidden cost of seeing a complaint through the process of arbitration is not enough to void an arbitration agreement and allow a disgruntled consumer to take the issue to court. By a 5-4 vote, the justices decided against Larketta Randolph, an Alabama woman whose complaint began when she disputed a $15 charge in her mobile-home financing agreement. A federal judge dismissed Randolph’s 1996 suit against Green Tree Financial Corp. of Opelika, Ala., because in signing the original contract, Randolph agreed an arbitrator would resolve any disputes. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta gave the case new life last year, saying Green Tree didn’t disclose the potential costs of arbitration when it signed the agreement with Randolph. In the Supreme Court, the conservative and center-right blocs voted to reject Randolph’s claim. “The ‘risk’ that Randolph will be saddled with prohibitive costs is too speculative to justify the invalidation of an arbitration agreement,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the majority, which also included Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony Kennedy. Writing for the moderate-to-liberal faction, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said she would have vacated the appeals court decision and sent it back for further consideration. Ginsburg questioned whether Randolph should have to prove that the court system was her only option, “or that she should be required to submit to arbitration without knowing how much it will cost her.” “As I see it, the court has reached out prematurely to resolve the matter in the lender’s favor,” Ginsburg wrote. The court also found that the appeals court had jurisdiction in the matter, an authority the lender had questioned. The American Arbitration Association, the nation’s largest dispute resolution provider, filed a brief with the court that argued against ending arbitration in consumer business contracts. The association said it limits consumer fees to $125 in arbitration cases valued under $10,000, and allows consumers to opt out of arbitration and file a lawsuit instead. The case is Green Tree Financial Corp.-Alabama v. Randolph, 99-1235. Copyright 2000 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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