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Liz Clark Rinehart represents clients in complex class action and commercial litigation matters arising from breach of contract, misappropriation of trade secrets, violations of consumer protection statutes, professional licensing, arbitration, employment contracts, and other business torts. Liz also advises clients in litigation involving the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), Lanham Act, and other Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and state attorney general enforcement matters. Her litigation experience includes pre-litigation strategy, negotiation, trial, and appellate practice.

Last month, the Supreme Court of Maryland delivered a pivotal ruling defining the scope of the Maryland Telephone Solicitations Act (MTSA), holding that the act extended to inbound calls initiated by consumers who engaged with merchant advertisements. The Maryland Supreme Court also confirmed that the Maryland Public Service Commission can enforce the MTSA against covered entities.

The case, In the Matter of Smart Energy Holdings, LLC D/B/A SmartEnergy, originated in response to customer complaints to the Public Service Commission’s Consumer Affairs Division (CAD) alleging that their bills were excessive and that they were unable to cancel their service with SmartEnergy, a provider of 100% green energy. After proceedings before an administrative law judge, the Public Service Commission held:Continue Reading The Power of Customer Calls: Maryland Supreme Court Upholds Public Service Commission’s Interpretation of the Maryland Telephone Solicitations Act

In March, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asked for comments on a proposal to replace the Prenotification Negative Option Rule with a more expansive Negative Option Rule. Now that the FTC has had the chance to review those comments, the FTC has set an informal hearing to allow for testimony from six of the over 1,000 commenters.

Each presenter will be limited to ten minutes but can supplement their remarks with written content. The FTC has appointed Carol Fox Foelak, an administrative law judge at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to serve as presiding officer.Continue Reading New Year, New Rule: FTC to Review Updates to Negative Option Rule During January Informal Hearing

In recent years, independent agencies have continued to face a number of constitutional and statutory challenges before the Supreme Court. AMG Capital Management struck down the Federal Trade Commission’s authority to obtain equitable monetary relief under Section 13(b). Seila Law severed the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) commissioner’s for-cause removal protections. This term, the Supreme Court will determine whether the CFPB’s funding structure is constitutional in CFPB v. CFSA. And, as we’ve previewed earlier this year, the Court will weigh three constitutional challenges to the SEC in SEC v. Jarkesy.

A quick primer: The Supreme Court will review three constitutional infirmities that the Fifth Circuit determined that the SEC suffered. First, the Fifth Circuit held that when the SEC brought claims for civil penalties in administrative proceedings, it deprived Jarkesy of its Seventh Amendment right to a jury trial. Second, the Fifth Circuit held that Congress unconstitutionally delegated legislative powers to the SEC without an “intelligible principle” by providing it with the discretion to choose whether to bring an enforcement action for monetary penalties in Article III courts or before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Finally, the Fifth Circuit determined that the statutory removal restrictions for SEC ALJs are unconstitutional.Continue Reading Tracking the Impact of Securities and Exchange Commission v. Jarkesy and Other Constitutional Challenges Against the FTC

On October 3, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Consumer Financial Protection Bureau v. Community Financial Services Association of America, Limited, where the Court is reviewing the Fifth Circuit’s opinion that struck down the Payday Lending Rule because the Fifth Circuit found that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s (the “Bureau”) funding structure is unconstitutional. While the Fifth Circuit decision was limited to the Payday Lending Rule, a ruling upholding the Fifth Circuit’s decision would have severe ramifications for the Bureau and could potentially lead to the demise of the agency without congressional action.

As a refresher, the Fifth Circuit held that the Bureau’s “unique” funding structure violates Article I of the Constitution—vesting Congress with appropriation power—because the agency is not funded through congressional appropriations. Rather, the Bureau receives its funding from the Federal Reserve, which is funded through bank assessments. In short, the Fifth Circuit found that Congress had abdicated its “power of the purse” and had run afoul of the nondelegation doctrine where it has no involvement in the CFPB’s ongoing funding.Continue Reading C[FPB] You Later? Agency’s Future Hangs in the Balance After Oral Argument

The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision unanimously reversing the Ninth Circuit in Axon Enterprise v. Federal Trade Commission is likely to represent a monumental shift in pre-enforcement challenges to administrative enforcement proceedings brought by federal agencies, including the FTC.

The decision held that agencies, including the FTC, are not empowered to decide whether their own enforcement procedures are constitutional, removing the thumb from federal agencies’ side of the scale. The Supreme Court emphatically ruled that such authority is reserved for the courts, and that collateral challenges to the constitutionality of administrative proceedings are appropriate.

As background, the FTC can elect to litigate a party’s alleged wrongdoing in an administrative proceeding overseen by an FTC-appointed administrative law judge (ALJ) or in a federal district court. Until the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG two years ago, the FTC’s favored enforcement path was to proceed straight to federal district court. With that avenue significantly constrained by AMG, the FTC is more frequently bringing enforcement actions in administrative proceedings before ALJs. Administrative proceedings, however, include several components that heavily favor the FTC. First, the fact finder in an FTC proceeding is appointed by the FTC. Second, the party subject to the enforcement proceeding is forced to wait until the proceeding ends to challenge the result in a federal appeals court. Moreover, the reviewing federal appeals court’s scope of review is limited to the record that the FTC produced.Continue Reading U.S. Supreme Court Justices Thomas and Gorsuch Skeptical of ALJ Proceedings in Axon Enterprise v. Federal Trade Commission Decision

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that its proposed rule replacing its Prenotification Negative Option Rule would result in new, expansive requirements for all forms of negative option offers, including automatic renewals, continuity plans, and free-to-pay conversations, made in all media, including Internet, telephone, in-person, and printed material.

Still subject to another round of comments, the proposed Rule Concerning Recurring Subscriptions and Other Negative Option Plans also features a federal requirement to provide an online cancellation mechanism to consumers who enroll in the negative option program online. That requirement is already imposed by laws in California, New York, and other states, and may be the least consequential of the proposed changes.

If enacted, the proposed rule would reach far beyond the scope of usual disclosure, consent, and cancellation requirements. Among other things, it would prohibit misrepresentations related to the underlying product or services, impose restrictions on “save” efforts when a consumer attempts to cancel, and require annual reminders for negative option features not involving physical products.Continue Reading Click to Cancel: FTC Proposes New Rule Regulating Subscription Services and Negative Option Programs with Broad Implications

The Ninth Circuit has never been shy about declining to compel arbitration, and the Court has issued multiple cases outlining what constitutes sufficient notice of certain provisions in consumer-facing terms and conditions, including website terms and conditions.

Just last year, in Berman v. Freedom Financial Network LLC, the Court agreed that a motion to compel arbitration should be denied where the plaintiff alleged that he did not see a notice stating, “I understand and agree to the Terms & Conditions which includes mandatory arbitration.”

The Court noted that the text that purported to notify users that they were agreeing to a mandatory arbitration provision was displayed “in a tiny gray font considerably smaller than the font used in the surrounding website elements, and indeed in a font so small that it is barely legible to the naked eye.” The Court further criticized how the notice was “further deemphasized by the overall design of the webpage, in which other visual elements draw the user’s attention away from the barely readable critical text.”Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Rejects Dark Patterns Challenge to Arbitration Agreement

When it comes to negative options, the CFPB has strong opinions. As demonstrated in its new circular, these opinions generally align with those of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which has repeatedly targeted trial offers, subscription sales, and other programs involving recurring charges for enforcement. The circular reaffirms the CFPB’s focus—shared with the FTC—on combating digital dark patterns used to engage in unfair, deceptive, or abusive acts or practices, especially when those techniques are combined with negative option marketing.

In an upcoming webinar on March 1, 2023 (RSVP here), Venable will be presenting an in-depth analysis of the CFPB’s circular, as well as CFPB and FTC enforcement actions and private litigation based on purportedly unlawful negative option marketing. For those who can’t wait, we’ve summarized the highlights of the circular below.Continue Reading The CFPB Joins the FTC on Negative Option Marketing and Dark Patterns in New Circular

For those embroiled in Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) class action litigation, the sum of the damages may not necessarily equal the whole.

In Wakefield v. ViSalus, Inc., the plaintiff and certified nationwide class obtained a jury verdict that defendant made 1,850,440 prerecorded message calls without the then-heightened prior express consent to make such calls. Because the TCPA’s minimum statutory damages are $500 per unlawful prerecorded message call, the damages award was a whopping $925,220,000.

After trial, ViSalus challenged, among other things, the damages award as unconstitutionally excessive. Specifically, ViSalus did not argue that the TCPA’s $500 per violation statutory penalty is unconstitutional in a vacuum, but, rather, that the “aggregate award” is so “severe and oppressive” that it violated ViSalus’s due process rights. Last Thursday, the Ninth Circuit agreed.Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Rules That TCPA Aggregated Statutory Damages Might Be Unconstitutionally Punitive

By a unanimous 5-0 vote, the Federal Trade Commission last week released a staff report that sheds light on the agency’s enforcement positions and priorities regarding digital “dark patterns,” which the FTC defines as interface designs used to manipulate consumers into making decisions about purchases and personal data that they otherwise would not have.

Stemming from a public workshop the FTC hosted in April 2021, the report, “Bringing Dark Patterns to Light,” uses examples and illustrations to catalog and criticize numerous commonly seen practices in e-commerce, and includes an appendix describing types of dark patterns, while also stressing that dark patterns have a stronger effect, and by extension cause greater consumer harm, when they are used in combination, rather than in isolation.

Given Chair Lina Khan’s ambitious enforcement and policy goals for the agency, which we’ve previously discussed, anyone who engages with consumers online should consider the report both a reference and a warning.  Continue Reading The FTC Brings More Light to Dark Patterns in New Staff Report