The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act provides various consumer rights and protections for members of the armed forces so they can devote their attention to defending the nation. For example, the Act allows servicemembers to terminate their residential leases when they receive orders to deploy.
Businesses may ask servicemembers to waive these rights. Most of the 15 stakeholders we spoke with said servicemembers do not understand the waivers they are asked to sign and that signing the waivers may subject them to eviction, repossession of property, and more.
What GAO Found
Most of the 15 stakeholders GAO interviewed reported that servicemembers have limited understanding about waivers of their consumer rights and protections under the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, as amended (SCRA). SCRA rights and protections include the ability to terminate a residential lease without penalty for early termination upon deployment and protections against certain foreclosures without a court order. Businesses can ask servicemembers to waive (i.e., relinquish) any of their rights and protections under SCRA.
Most stakeholders also reported that the requirements under SCRA about timing, content, and form of certain waivers do not ensure servicemembers' understanding. For example, if a waiver relates to terminating a lease, it must be a separate document from the lease and printed in at least a 12-point type size. While some stakeholders said this form requirement may increase awareness, most stakeholders said this requirement did not ensure servicemembers understand they are waiving their rights and protections. Moreover, some stakeholders said that understanding waivers may be a relatively low priority for servicemembers who receive orders to deploy or relocate, as some may have a matter of days to move themselves and their families. Most stakeholders reported that servicemembers generally do not understand the implications of the waivers, and waiving rights and protections under SCRA could potentially lead to a wide range of negative effects for servicemembers. For example, most stakeholders described instances in which signing a waiver could lead to negative financial outcomes, such as repossession of property, which could be difficult to remedy while deployed.
About one-half of stakeholders reported that another provision could also affect SCRA rights and protections, namely mandatory arbitration clauses, which generally require disputes to be resolved with third-party arbitrators rather than in court. As GAO reported in 2021, mandatory arbitration clauses have prevented servicemembers from resolving certain consumer claims in court, though the Department of Justice has a separate right of enforcement under SCRA and can pursue a SCRA claim in court even when a servicemember signed a mandatory arbitration clause.
Why GAO Did This Study
SCRA provides certain legal and financial consumer rights and protections for millions of servicemembers. One purpose of the act is to strengthen the national defense by extending certain protections to servicemembers to enable them to devote their energy to the defense needs of the Nation. Servicemembers may waive their rights and protections under SCRA, and lawmakers and others have raised questions about the effects of such waivers.
The conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021 includes provisions for GAO to study the effects of SCRA requirements relating to the timing, content, and form of certain waivers on servicemembers and to study servicemembers' use of their right to bring lawsuits in court under SCRA. This report describes what selected stakeholders reported about servicemembers' understanding of waivers of rights under SCRA.
To describe stakeholder perspectives, GAO conducted semi-structured interviews with 15 stakeholders, including Department of Defense legal assistance attorneys who help servicemembers with their legal affairs, other agency officials, and associations that represent servicemembers, companies, and private attorneys. GAO identified them based on recommendations from agency officials and other stakeholders, and by reviewing a list of stakeholders GAO similarly identified for prior related work. While stakeholders cannot speak directly for servicemembers, all 15 stakeholders have expertise with SCRA and 14 have regular contact with servicemembers or their representatives, spanning a variety of geographic locations and military branches. Reported information is non-generalizable but provides valuable information as there is no known data on servicemembers' understanding of waivers under SCRA, according to stakeholders and GAO research. GAO also reviewed relevant reports, which GAO identified based on stakeholder suggestions, and summarized prior work on servicemembers' use of their right to bring lawsuits to court under SCRA.
For more information, contact Tranchau (Kris) T. Nguyen at (202) 512-7215 or firstname.lastname@example.org.