Stephen: Up in Smoke | Take Justice Back

Stephen: Up in Smoke

The better part of a decade has passed since the Tea Fire in Santa Barbara County, California, burned 1,900 acres and destroyed 210 homes. But for two survivors, Stephen, and his wife, Nanci, the tragedy continues. The couple, who recently celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary, lost decades of memories when the fire destroyed their home. Then a local bank forced them into an arbitration hearing that drained Stephen’s retirement. 

After the fire, Stephen wanted to rebuild his family home, so he made a claim with his insurance company. According to Stephen, though he initially received some small reimbursements, when a check was issued for more than $200,000 he never saw a penny. Instead, Stephen reports that his bank kept the large reimbursement. 

When Stephen tried to access his reimbursement to fund the rebuilding, the bank denied Stephen his insurance reimbursement money. “It's been very, very difficult dealing with the second mortgage holder in particular,” said Stephen. “I was trying to get the money the insurance company paid on our claim.” 

When Stephen decided to seek justice in court, he quickly discovered that his mortgage contract included a forced arbitration clause that slammed the courthouse doors shut. Instead he was forced into a private, rigged process of arbitration, where not only did Stephen lose his case, but he was also forced to pay for the arbitration – a bill of more than $17,600. And it is nearly impossible for Stephen to appeal decision; decisions that result from arbitration cannot be appealed the same way a decision can be appealed in a court of law.

The bank wrote its own rules and won, evading any accountability. For Stephen this means that he lost more than the reimbursement, he lost his financial security. If no one is accountable, no one is safe.