This section discusses disputes between individuals and organizations. The first part of the section considers individuals as plaintiffs and organizations as defendants, while the second part will deal with legal disputes initiated by organizations against individuals. We will use the term organization to cover a broad range of social groups that have been deliberately and consciously constructed to achieve certain specific goals—hospitals, credit agencies, universities, General Motors, regulatory agencies, the American Medical Association, public-interest law firms, and so forth.

Disputes between individuals and organizations may take place over a variety of issues, many of which may be included in four general categories:

  • 1. disputes over property and money (economic disputes);
  • 2. claims for damages and restitution;
  • 3. issues of civil rights; and
  • 4. disputes concerning organizational actions, procedures and policy.

Examples of economic disputes include the following types of actions: claims for damages and restitution; suits for unpaid rent; eviction; claims for unpaid loans and installment purchases; foreclosures and repossessions; and suits on contracts and insurance policies.

Claims for damages and restitution most often involve automobile accidents and lawsuits against insurance companies (Zernova, 2008). However, other forms of injury—for example, airplane accidents, faulty appliances, and medical malpractices—also give rise to claims. Damage suits may also be initiated to compensate for losses sustained from the failure to honor a contract or to perform a service properly. Slander and libel actions also fall within this category (Shuy, 2010). Although money may change hands as a result of these actions, the actions themselves seek compensation for alleged improper behavior and its consequences.

Civil rights disputes include claims of discrimination by race, sex, national origin, or other protected backgrounds in matters of employment, hiring, promotion, retention, pay, housing, and admission policies. Other issues that may lead to civil rights disputes include discriminatory practices such as the exclusion of handicapped people and setting arbitrary age or educational limits (McCrudden, 2004).

The final category of disputes includes challenges to a variety of actions, procedures, and policies of organizations. Decisions of zoning boards or tax assessors may be challenged as a violation of statutes or administrative procedures. Plaintiffs may seek a reversal of particular decisions, or a voiding of statutes or injunctions prohibiting the continued application of particular policies. In organizations that distribute benefits, such as food stamps, aid to the disabled, and Medicaid, there are disputes about the appropriate form of benefits, conflicting and inconsistent eligibility rules on employment and training incentives, and disputes about how administrators should deal with beneficiaries. In business organizations, disputes over policies governing warranties, replacement of defective products, or unethical collection practices also come to courts.

Usually, organizations are plaintiffs in the first category of disputes just listed, and defendants are plaintiffs in the remaining three categories. In general, as Marc Galanter (1975) concludes, organizations are more successful than individuals as both plaintiffs and defendants. Moreover, organizations enjoy greater legal success against individual antagonists than they do against other organizations. Meanwhile, individuals fare less well in legal actions against organizations than against other individuals.

Much evidence supports Galanter’s conclusion. In an oft-cited example of the legal victories organizations routinely gain against individuals, David Caplovitz (1974:222) found that legal actions against debtors in his sample of 1,331 cases, drawn from 4 cities, resulted in creditor victories in all but 3% of the cases.

Although organizations have a greater chance of winning and a higher frequency of initiating lawsuits, individuals still sometimes sue organizations (Hellman, 2004). For example, consumers may sue companies for injuries suffered from defective products, and workers may sue companies for health problems caused by hazardous workplace conditions. When individuals launch such lawsuits, organizations have a considerable advantage in court owing to their wealth and legal resources. Despite the supposed impartiality of the courts, David normally has little chance of defeating Goliath in a courtroom. Instead, the legal arena is more like the Roman Coliseum where the lions almost always win (McIntosh and Cates, 2010).

The remainder of this section considers disputes initiated by individuals and organizations separately. For the former, we will illustrate the use of law as a method of dispute resolution in academia, and for the latter, we will discuss the use of courts as collection agencies in the field of consumer credit.

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