The Fine Print: Beating Citi in Arbitration, What It Means for You

The following is not legal advice. Please contact Alexander Bachuwa, a New York attorney, if you have a consumer protection question or claim.

Preface 

I settled my first claim against Citi instead of going through the entire arbitration process. This time, we went all the way and won.

Background of the Dispute

The annual fee on my client’s Citi Prestige card was due. He called Citi’s retention department and was told that he would receive a $200 statement credit if he spent $4000/month for 3 months. My client did so by spending more than $4000/month for three consecutive calendar months. Citi refused to honor the credit because the spending was not done in three consecutive billing cycles.

Here were my client’s expenditures:  

August: $4187.25

September: $4,272.50

October: $9,445.90

Here is how Citi calculated his spending: 

Month One (August 8, 2016 – September 8, 2016): $8,459.75

Month Two (September 9, 2016 – October 8, 2016): ZERO

Month Three (October 9, 2018 – November 8, 2016): $9,445.90

My Client’s Efforts to Resolve the Dispute

My client went to great lengths to resolve this dispute amicably without the assistance of an attorney: First, my client communicated directly with Citibank. Citibank told my client that its team would consider his request. A few days later, the client received a letter informing him without any detail that his request had been rejected by the escalation team. Then my client forwarded the complaint to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (“CFPB”) asking for relief. Citibank responded to client’s CFPB complaint as follows: “We reviewed your August 8, 2016 conversation with our representative and confirmed that you were advised you were required to spend $4,000.00 each month during the three month promotional period to earn the $200.00 credit.”

From there, my client filed a claim with his state’s attorney general. That claim was denied as follows: “In reviewing the recording of the August 8, 2016 phone call, the representative advised you more than once that the spending requirement for the offer was $4,000.00 per month for three months. There was no discussion that this time frame would correspond with your billing cycles or your statements.”

The Arbitration Process

Understandably upset, my client hired me to file an arbitration on his behalf. When a consumer initiates an arbitration, the business, per the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) Consumer Protection Rules, must pay a $1700 filing fee to the AAA and another $750 to the arbitrator for a ‘documents only’ arbitration. In addition, the business usually hires an outside law firm to handle the claim. This can easily cost thousands of dollars.

After the claim is filed, the claimant, respondent, and the arbitrator have a preliminary phone conference whereby due dates for when documents relevant to the claim must be exchanged, exhibits must be produced, a list of witnesses must be disclosed, and when written arguments must be submitted.

Because this matter was straightforward, both parties agreed that a memo outlying the claims (for my client) and defenses (on behalf of Citi) were sufficient. My argument was simple: the client met the spending requirement and was entitled to $200. Citi argued that the timing of the charges did not satisfy the offer.

The Arbitrator’s Decision

One week later, we received the decision from the arbitrator which read as follows: Clearly, Claimant met the requirement for $200.00 credit, which was denied to him. Respondent’s efforts to play a “date-game” by claiming that the spending had to occur within certain set calendar date periods within each given month, is disingenuous. A month is a month. Claimant was required to spend $4,000.00 on the Card in each of the months of August, September and October 2016; and he did. Claimant is entitled to the promised $200.00.

Victory?

Although my client won the case and received his $200, the question is whether this is a victory worth celebrating. To some extent, the answer is yes. My client and I were able to take on a corporate giant, present a reasoned argument, and receive a favorable decision. And, unlike when claims are settled, the details of this decision are not confidential.  Should he choose to do so, my client can share his experience with anyone on any forum.

At the same time, the answer to the aforementioned question is no. My client had to spend a ridiculous amount of time battling Citi on his own. That produced no results. Then he had to hire a lawyer to fight on his behalf. Meanwhile, Citi spent tens of thousands of dollars to prove a point I still cannot understand.

If big companies are willing to waste a fortune fighting their own clients instead of handling them through proper customer service channels, I will gladly oblige by filing meritorious claims. It may be wishful thinking but perhaps such a strategy can effectuate meaningful change.

 

 

 

 

About Alex Bachuwa

Alexander Bachuwa is a New York attorney who focuses on consumer protection. He is also a BoardingArea blogger. Contact Alex at through his website at bachuwalaw.com and visit thepointsoflife.com

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Comments

  1. Mystified as to why the state Attorney General denied the claim since they seem to understand that the client followed citi’s instructions

    • This is EXACTLY my thought.

      How could the states attorney general, the first line of defense to protect the consumer, respond in such a way as to prove the customers point, but the deny the claim?

      “There was no discussion that this time frame would correspond with your billing cycles or your statements.”

      That is pretty cut and dry and should have resolved it without any more legwork.

      • I don’t see the point of dwelling and why it wasn’t resolved early on. Who knows why. The point is (fair or not), at least there is a process to resolve these things (small claims or arbitration). Otherwise, it would just be more strongly worded letters leading to the same rejection on a different letterhead.

      • Um, pretty sure that quote is from Citi’s response to the AG, not the AG itself. Those people never ever intercede on behalf of consumers. Can Alex confirm?

        But I agree with you. Pretty stupid for Citi to “clarify” their position without defining what the heck they mean by month!

        And regardless, ambiguities in adhesion contracts are viewed in the light more favorable to the non-drafter.

        Way to go Alex! Glad you didn’t take your 25% commission. I just helped a friend nail Home Depot for false advertising and earned 25 bucks from his settlement 😉

  2. Ok. So the customer won $200 after he spent a crapload of his time and presumably had to pay you. Sure, he “won” a point against Citi but the cost to him is ridiculous.

  3. Question- Who paid you? The client, or did Citi need to when they lost the arbitration? I can see you soliciting business for $200 claims and getting rich if Citi needed to pay you.

    • The client did not pay me as I work on a contingency fee. In the end, I did not get anything for myself but the experience was invaluable. Besides seeing how far Citi will take these claims, I also learned the deficiency in my request for attorney fees. Even if attorney fees are never awarded, I will still take these cases to get more experience and out of principle. It may not make business sense, but (apart from small claims, see article I wrote on that) how else will consumers be protected?

  4. And this is why regulations are needed. With today’s current political environment I continuously read conservatives who want to strip away protections for consumers. But when these protections are taken away it emboldens corporations. Most would not do what your client did and Citi is banking on that. It is only through regulations and protections that consumers can get relief and stop corporate giants from taking advantage of consumers.

    • I’m not a fan of regulations and don’t believe that would prevent corporate greed. That’s a separate issue and a long term fix even if the regulations were narrowly tailored. What we do know is that class actions are not coming back, that the CFPB is essentially powerless, and arbitration is not going anywhere. I chose to fight with the tools available now.

    • As you can see, the CFPB is USELESS. It has not provided any “protection” to the complainant who is cheated by Citi as clear cut as Day and Night.

      From all the real cases I was told, the only way Citi would back off and pay up is either to sue them in Small Claim Courts (100% success in every claim I was aware of) and thru Arbitration.

      Chase on the other hand, has wised up to NOT confiscate customers’ earned points should Chase chose to severe the relationship and close the customer’s accounts. The customer now has 30 days to redeem their Ultimate Reward points. So there is no need to file claim.

      Citi continues to bully, betting one would not go thru the trouble to file claim. Inevitably, they settled before the court date. What a STUPID business practice.

      • I said it way back when that the CFPB is useless and people pounced on me.

        Chase is better with the way they close the accounts but they still have to follow EOCA procedures when closing the account.

        Overall, why are they closing accounts when they induced their own customers to spend, spend, spend! These are not accounts in default.

  5. I called to cancel my citi exec plat. This could be why on my retention offer, they repeatedly told me I had to spend $1,500 a month per statement cycle. They went out of their way to explain that it was statement and not per month.

      • So what were his legal costs?

        (By the way, do you notice how many clarifying questions there are in the comments? You don’t write clearly!)

        • He had zero legal costs. Read the other comments.

          Not starting with your nonsense about my writing style again. Clearly, the arbitrator was able to make sense of it.

  6. Congratulations on the moral victory. I would have just passive- aggressively gotten even with Citibank by opening a bunch of cards, collecting thousands of dollars worth of sign up bonuses and then calling up to close them all saying it’s because my new girlfriend called you “shi**y bank” and you are now embarrassed to use any of your “shi**y bank” cards.

  7. Interestingly, today I received in the mail updated Citi CC terms with a large part regarding Section 11 – Arbitration, which was prefaced with a “you have a right to reject this arbitration provision”. Is this a change in Citi’s terms, soon allowing us to reject the arbitration provision? Alex, thoughts? Should one contact them in writing and reject the provision?

    • I believe it’s been going on for quite awhile. I believe in consumer arbitration so I wouldn’t opt out.

      • I had believed that If you reject the arbitration provision, it only stopped the bank from mandating arbitration. Would it not still be possible to mutually choose arbitration if there was a dispute?

  8. This is interesting. Citi just shut down our credit cards and will not pay out current rewards balance. I already tried the CFPB route, but Citi just said it was in their terms and conditions that they can close an account at any time for no reason and all non-redeemed rewards are fore-fitted.
    Its not a lot of rewards, but I’d still like to stick it to Citi.

      • Kitten I used Alex and got a positive outcome against a card issuer that was not USB. Do you intend to use him with USB? I have a ton of points potentially at risk and am curious to see him go up against them. If so keep us updated.

        • No I don’t plan on using Alex (nothing personal, I already have a lawyer friend).

          You can read my story on FT. I was offered a settlement for 2 cpp which I have not accepted. I counter-offered and USB has not responded. Waiting it out to see if I can sue (or better yet, join a class action). Statute on contracts is 4 years. They can go to hell 😀

        • P.S. I’m happy to share my correspondence with Alex if he’s interested. I love the work he does taking on these “too big to care” corporations!

      • Here is what they sent me in my cfpb complaint:

        “Under the terms and conditions of the agreement that governs the
        relationship between Citibank and its customers, we may close or suspend your account for any
        reason, or for no reason. We may do this at any time, without notifying you, as allowed by law.
        We respectfully decline your request to reinstate and redeem the accumulated cash rewards on
        your account. The terms and conditions of the cash rewards program states, “if your card
        account is closed, you will forfeit your earned cash rewards dollars.”

        • I understand. If you want to proceed further, send me an inquiry and we can discuss.

      • Yes they can. In fact all banks can terminate the relationship with a customer at any given time WITHOUT giving out a reason. It is written in the T&Cs.

        I am surprised, Alex, that you seem not being aware of that.

        However, this does not mean one cannot get back the points confiscated. Small Claim courts and of course Arbitration, should get back the value of confiscated points. Though Small Claims have a cap (varies by State) and many states do not allow punitive claims. Though I believe NY which already has a much higher cap than most, allows punitive claims IIRC from a friend’s claim against Citi several years ago.

        CFPB is useless but file a claim anyway.

        • Fortunately for consumers, you are wrong. T&C’s aren’t federal law. The EOCA provides protections against this. Perhaps this will be the subject of a future FM post.

        • @Ben Nope! They’re supposed to but I can personally attest that they don’t always follow the law. Silly banks!

  9. Alex,

    I know you are looking out for the little guy, but I want to hear more on how you will work to get paid at this point. Who pays for your time?

  10. If one goes to compulsory arbitration against say Expedia, under what conditions might one get stuck paying the huge arbitration fees?

  11. Crap. Maybe this is why my promotion bonus hasn’t shown up. I’m sure I asked the rep if they meant calendar month, but that wasn’t the case here.

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