With the complexity of product safety requirements, the changing regulatory environment, and the ferocious plaintiffs’ bar, it is more important than ever for importers, manufacturers, and retailers to understand their obligation to comply with product safety laws and standards. In this recent webinar, Melissa L. Steinman, a partner in Venable’s Advertising and Marketing practice, explored current developments in product safety and warranty laws and examined common issues and pitfalls that organizations need to be aware of relating to product standards and safety. She also addressed some follow-up questions.
The first rule of comparative advertising has always been that you can say pretty much whatever you want so long as you don’t lie. But there is a new wrinkle—don’t threaten or stalk the competition. A recent Ninth Circuit decision in Thunder Studios v. Kazal, has shed new light on the extent of protection afforded by the First Amendment to reprehensible and confrontational speech. The case is quirky in that the individuals protected by the First Amendment were not US Citizens and were not themselves in the US when the “protests” occurred, but the case is a cautionary tale as to the limits of First Amendment protection of comparative claims. Importantly, however, the case cannot—and should not—be read to provide for an open invitation for competitors to promote or otherwise engage in extraterritorial smear campaigns with impunity. Indeed, there is nothing in the Ninth Circuit’s opinion to suggest that it should be read to preclude or immunize parties from claims of defamation, product disparagement, or even invasion of privacy torts arising out of similar behavior. Nor would it likely protect a party from liability from organizing a secondary boycott. The case is pending en banc review by the Ninth Circuit so stay tuned.
Following the souring of a multimillion-dollar business deal between Australian citizens Roderick David, on the one side and Charif Kazal, Adam Kazal, and Tony Kazal on the other, the Kazals undertook an international campaign to inform the citizens of Los Angeles, California about the “despicable crimes” allegedly committed by David (then a resident of Los Angeles). The Kazals sent hundreds of emails to David and his employees, hired protesters to picket and distribute flyers near his residence and business—Thunder Studios Inc., in Los Angeles—and had vans emblazoned with their message driven around the city. Leaflets and signs held by protesters described David as a “corporate thief” and a “fraudster” who “robbed his business partners of $180 million.”
Just days after the FTC announced that it was resurrecting its Penalty Offense Authority to crack down on for-profit higher education institutions’ false promises about graduates’ career opportunities and earnings prospects, the FTC is invoking this authority to “blanket industry with a clear message” about fake online reviews and other deceptive endorsements.
The FTC has revived this dormant authority—the latest example of its creative use of different enforcement tools to obtain monetary relief in the wake of the Supreme Court’s AMG opinion—to hold companies accountable, via significant financial penalties, for unfair and deceptive business practices.
As we previously wrote, former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra had championed the use of this authority and identified for-profit colleges as one possible industry for use of this enforcement tool, while identifying other targets like multilevel marketing programs, gig economy networks, and fake review and influencer fraud.
The FTC now has quickly turned its attention to fake online reviews and other deceptive endorsements, sending a Notice of Penalty Offenses to more than 700 companies, representing an array of leading retailers, consumer product companies, and ad agencies. In doing so, the Commission advises recipients of significant potential civil penalties—up to $43,792 per violation—they could incur if they use endorsements in ways that were found to be illegal in FTC administrative decisions rendered in the 1940s through the 1980s. Under Section 5(m) of the FTC Act, the FTC can obtain penalties against other entities not party to the original proceeding if it can show the entity had actual knowledge that the act had been found to be unfair or deceptive. However, the FTC points out that a company’s inclusion on the list of recipients is not an indication the company has acted illegally.
In the latest example of its creative use of different enforcement tools to obtain monetary relief in the wake of the Supreme Court’s AMG opinion, the FTC has resurrected a dormant authority to hold companies accountable, via significant financial penalties, for unfair and deceptive business practices.
This week the FTC announced that it has put 70 for-profit higher education institutions—including some of the largest for-profit colleges and vocational schools across the country—on notice that the agency is scrutinizing false promises made about graduates’ job opportunities, earnings prospects, and other career outcomes.
The FTC is resurrecting its Penalty Offense Authority, found in Section 5(m) of the FTC Act, “to deter wrongdoing and hold accountable bad actors who abuse students and taxpayers,” according to FTC Chair Lina M. Khan. Under this section of the statute, the FTC can obtain penalties against other entities not party to the original proceeding if it can show the entity had actual knowledge that the act had been found to be unfair or deceptive.
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Chairwoman Lina Kahn, who took over the reins of the FTC in June, is making it clear that she is no fan of the direction some private equity-owned businesses have taken in recent years. She takes particular issue with, “extractive business models” that “centralize control and profits while outsourcing risk, liability, and costs.” She went on to say these business models, “warrant particular scrutiny, given that deeply asymmetric relationships between the controlling firm and dependent entities can be ripe for abuse.”
Kahn circulated a memo to commission staff and commissioners regarding the vision and priorities for the agency. In the memo, Kahn writes, “[t]he growing role of private equity and other investment vehicles invites us to examine how these business models may distort ordinary incentives in ways that strip productive capacity and may facilitate unfair methods of competition and consumer protection violations.”
By tying private investment to extractive business—and specifically to abuses that effect on marginalized communities—the chairwoman has put a target on these firms’ backs.
On September 22, 2021, FTC Chairperson Lina Khan published a memorandum to FTC staff urging the agency to unite behind her vision and priorities for the agency, and announcing that the elite vanguard leading Khan’s effort will be acting Bureau Directors Sam Levine and Holly Vedova, both of whom will become permanent directors of the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition, respectively. Khan has previously indicated that the FTC needs to throw off its bureaucratic chains of past approaches and practices and be more aggressive in enforcing both consumer protection and competition laws. Given the implicit and explicit criticism in her prior communications, the memorandum appears to be an effort to gather support among FTC staff for her approach. An overarching theme of the memorandum is that the FTC may be blurring the lines between the FTC’s consumer protection and competition missions by increasing collaboration between the Bureau of Consumer Protection and the Bureau of Competition. While many prior chairpersons have expressed this ambition, Khan appears ready to make that aspiration operational.
Chairperson Khan starts her strategic discussion by announcing that the agency will be taking a “holistic approach to identifying harms.” In elaborating on this “holistic approach,” she frequently combines references to individual consumers and businesses, and highlights nontraditional harms of anti-competitive activity, many of which are familiar to consumer protection, for example, disparate impact, privacy violations, and asymmetrical bargaining power. Her message is clear: the distinction between antitrust and consumer protection will no longer be as defined as it was in the past. Also clear are the consequences: once this boundary is eliminated, the FTC can use the merger review process to conduct discovery on consumer protection violations, perhaps hoping the cost and threat of that inquiry will deter merger activity.
Three weeks ago, we informed you that the Louisiana Public Service Commission (PSC) had declared a state of emergency in light of Hurricane Ida, which meant that callers could not place any “telephonic solicitations” into the state, regardless of whether the calls were with the recipients’ prior express written consent, pursuant to an established business relationship, or even simply for collection purposes. Today, the PSC downgraded the emergency status, which means that telephone calls can, once again, be placed into the state effective tonight (September 17, 2021) at 6:00 p.m. CST:
Effective Friday, September 17, 2021 @ 6PM CST, conditions of the storm will allow the release of the LPSC from mandatory [Emergency Operations Center] presence, and telephonic solicitations into the state will be permitted to resume in compliance with the general provisions of the LPSC Do Not Call Program General Order, LPSC General Order R-29617, at that time.
So, enjoy the weekend . . . and the calling.
Since the appointment of Chairwoman Khan to the FTC this past summer, the three Democratic commissioners have pushed through 15 omnibus resolutions authorizing staff to use compulsory processes without additional approval from the Commission. Although the use of blanket authorizations is old hat at the FTC, the practice remains controversial because it allows staff to issue civil investigative demands (CIDs) and subpoenas to companies and individuals without consulting with the Commission, as long as the investigation ostensibly relates to an existing omnibus resolution and one commissioner signs off. This gives staff extraordinary latitude and discretion, especially considering the sweeping nature of the resolutions.
Yesterday, the Commission announced eight such resolutions, covering broad swaths of the FTC’s consumer protection and antitrust jurisdiction—and the U.S. economy. They are:
- Acts or Practices Affecting United States Armed Forces Service Members and Veterans;
- Acts or Practices Affecting Children;
- Bias in Algorithms and Biometrics;
- Deceptive and Manipulative Conduct on the Internet;
- Repair Restrictions;
- Abuse of Intellectual Property;
- Common Directors and Officers and Common Ownership; and
- Monopolization Offenses.
A recent decision in the Ninth Circuit sheds new light on whether, and the standard by which, a false advertising claimant must prove equitable damages under the Lanham Act. In Grasshopper House, LLC v. Clean & Sober Media, LLC, the Plaintiff obtained a jury verdict finding the Defendants liable for false advertising. But the district court cancelled the damages phase of the jury trial after the exclusion of Plaintiff’s damages expert, which the court reasoned was Plaintiff’s only evidence concerning actual losses as a result of Defendants’ misrepresentations. Therefore, the district court held a bench trial concerning equitable relief, where it entered a permanent injunction against Defendants’ false advertising, but denied Plaintiff’s requests for disgorgement of profits, attorneys’ fees, and costs.
Plaintiff appealed to the Ninth Circuit, and the appeals court affirmed the district court’s exclusion of Plaintiff’s damages expert and cancellation of the damages phase of the trial, but found that the Court had erred in denying Plaintiff’s requests for disgorgement of profits, attorneys’ fees, and costs. First, the appeals court found that after the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in Romag Fasteners, Inc v. Fossil, Inc., the district court was now incorrect to require proof of willfulness to sustain a finding of disgorgement. Romag Fasteners, Inc. established that while mental state is a highly important consideration in determining whether to award disgorgement under the Lanham Act, there is no categorical rule that willfulness is necessary. Therefore, the appeals court here ordered the case remanded for the district court to consider “Defendants’ mental state – whatever that may be – when determining what award of profits is appropriate.”
On July 22, 2021, the Third Circuit ruled against the FTC in its case against Innovative Designs, a company that manufactures and sells a product called Insultex House Wrap, a weather-resistant barrier used in building construction. As we discussed last year, the FTC has targeted companies that produce insulation or building materials and make claims that these materials have more insulating power than they actually do. The court’s rejection of the FTC’s view on what constitutes reliable testing for purposes of substantiation underscores that courts often are more flexible than the FTC in determining whether an advertiser has a reasonable basis for a claim.
Originally, the FTC filed a complaint in the District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania stating that Innovative Designs falsely claims that its products have a higher R-value than they do. An R-value is a measure of the product’s ability to restrict the flow of heat. So, the higher the R-value, the higher the product’s insulation power. According to the FTC a misleading R-value could prompt customers to purchase a product that will not perform in the way it was advertised. Furthermore, the FTC claimed that Innovative Designs did not use the proper standardized testing, ASTM C518, to make its claims about the product’s R-value.