In the wake of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Liu v. SEC, lower courts are starting to address the breadth of its applicability. On August 31, 2020, the District of Arizona welcomed the Supreme Court’s directives in Liu when denying Electronic Payment Solutions of America Inc.’s (EPS) bid for summary judgment against the FTC. To the extent other courts read Liu as similarly applicable, this could have broad implications for the FTC’s authority to obtain monetary relief.

In FTC v. Electronic Payment Solutions, No. 17-cv-2535-PHX-SMM (D. Ariz. Aug. 31, 2020), the FTC filed suit against EPS for playing a role in facilitating Money Now Funding’s alleged telemarketing scheme, and sought to recover approximately $4.67 million from EPS—the total amount EPS collected from credit card transactions for Money Now Funding minus refunds and chargebacks. EPS moved for summary judgment on the grounds that, in light of Liu, the FTC’s monetary claim should be limited to net profits. EPS argued that the FTC, despite alleging entitlement to several forms of monetary relief, was actually seeking disgorgement under several different names. Accordingly, EPS argued that Liu requires courts to limit disgorgement only to the amount of net profits that will be returned to consumers.

Continue Reading Following the Mone(tary Relief): District Court Limits the FTC’s Authority Post-Liu

The FTC recently released its staff perspective paper on video game loot boxes. The report details discussions from the FTC’s loot box workshop that took place in August last year, summarizing key points and takeaways. You can read our write up of the workshop here.

The workshop, “Inside the Game,” brought video game industry representatives, researchers, and consumer advocates together to examine consumer protection issues related to loot boxes and related microtransactions in video games.

A loot box is a digital container of virtual goods that a user can purchase in-game using real‑world currency. A user does not know what is in the loot box before purchasing. The loot box may contain digital goods (such as character skins, tools, weapons, etc.) that the user can use in the game. Importantly, the user cannot choose the contents of the loot box. The box could contain an extremely rare/sought-after item or the contents could be a collection of items already owned by the user (or somewhere in between).

Continue Reading FTC Scrutinizes Loot Boxes – What are the Odds?

The issue of what exactly is an autodialer, subject to the restrictions of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”), may eventually be resolved. But for now, the outlook is much like the long-ago Brooklyn Dodger’s chance of winning the World Series: “Wait ‘Til Next Year.” On July 29, 2020, a divided, 2-1 panel in the Sixth Circuit issued its opinion in Allan v. Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, deepening the circuit split over the breadth of the TCPA. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit held that any device that dials from a stored list of numbers is sufficient to constitute an “automatic telephone dialing system” (“ATDS” or “autodialer”). This decision comes on the heels of the Supreme Court granting certiorari in Facebook, Inc. v. Duguid, setting the stage for the high court to, hopefully, not only resolve the split among the circuits, but produce a definition of an autodialer that permits the responsible and efficient generation of calls for a broad array of legitimate reasons—indeed in some cases emergency. (Interestingly, in Allan, the defendant opposed the plaintiffs’ motion to stay the appeal pending Duguid. That’s likely because the defendant had previously prevailed on the ATDS issue in the Eleventh Circuit a few months earlier in a consolidated appeal.)

In Allan, the plaintiffs received hundreds of unwanted calls and automated voice messages regarding student loan debt after they had requested to no longer be called; many of these calls delivered a prerecorded message as well. Plaintiffs sued alleging that they did not consent to the unwanted calls; the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit addressed whether the Defendant’s calling platform constituted an ATDS where it created a calling list based on stored numbers and placed calls, connecting recipients to operators.

Continue Reading Deepening the Divide: Will the Sixth Circuit’s Expansive Reading of the ATDS Definition Survive?

Following a warning from earlier this year, the FTC recently filed a complaint against a group of corporate and individual defendants for allegedly misleading and deceiving small business “merchant cash advance” (MCA) customers. Structured properly, an MCA product offers an alternative to standard commercial credit under which the MCA provider purchases the right to receive a fixed amount of the customer’s receivables to be paid based on a percentage of the customer’s daily receipts.

Specifically, the FTC alleged that the defendants misrepresented the amount of financing small business customers would receive relative to their requests, misrepresented the necessity of collateral and personal guarantees, and engaged in unauthorized withdrawals from customers’ bank accounts even after receiving the agreed upon amount of the customers’ receivables. The complaint calls for permanent injunctive relief, rescission or reformation of the MCA contracts, restitution, refund and disgorgement.

The FTC’s enforcement action is just one of its recent efforts to police alleged unfair and deceptive practices targeting small businesses. Given the current economic disruptions caused by COVID-19, we can expect that the FTC will continue to attack both deception and improper debt collection aimed at small businesses.

Continue Reading FTC Follows up on Enforcement Priorities with Complaint Against Merchant Cash Advance Provider

On July 28, 2020, the FTC filed four complaints in federal courts across the country against companies who sell paint products used to coat homes and other buildings. At issue in the complaints are paint products that claimed to help insulate homes or buildings, saving the owner money on utility bills. The cases serve as a reminder that the FTC remains on the lookout for deceptive “green” claims, and that claims of “green” benefits must be substantiated.

According to the FTC, these companies falsely advertise that their products have a greater R-value than they actually do. An R-value measures resistance to heat flow, so the higher the R-value the more insulating power the product has. According to the FTC a misleading R-value could prompt customers to purchase a product which will not perform the way it was advertised. In the complaints, the FTC alleged that the four companies made false or unsubstantiated performance claims where the R-values advertised by the companies were vastly different from the actual R-values that could be substantiated. The companies claimed that the products had R-values of 19 to 30, when in reality the R-values were less than one.

The complaints did not come with accompanying settlements. This suggests that the FTC was seeking significant monetary relief, which the defendants were not prepared to pay. It will be curious to see how these cases progress. In the interim, if you are making claims about energy savings or other green product attributes, make sure you can substantiate them.

Proud that your products are “Made in the USA”? Before you wave the flag, know that an unqualified Made in USA claim means that your product must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States, and the Federal Trade Commission has bolstered its enforcement authority over deceptive Made in USA claims with a new proposal to allow civil penalties for violations of its Made in the USA standards.

We previously blogged about recent Made in USA actions and the FTC’s September 2019 Made in USA workshop to evaluate updates to the FTC’s long-standing Made in USA Enforcement Policy. The Enforcement Policy provides that to substantiate an unqualified Made in USA claim, a product must be wholly domestic or all or virtually all made in the United States — meaning that “all significant parts and processing that go into the product are of U.S. origin.” Qualified claims — for example, “Made in USA from imported leather” — may be acceptable if they include clear and conspicuous disclosure of the extent to which the product contains foreign parts, ingredients, components, and/or processing.

Continue Reading Proposed FTC Rule to Allow Civil Penalties for Deceptive “Made in USA” Claims

With the rise of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the demand for online content has increased exponentially. Given this new reality, online content creators must take steps to ensure that their online creations don’t land them in legal hot water. One of the most prevalent cross-industry issues is music licensing. Music is everywhere in online content and often plays an integral part in the overall experience. From video game players streaming music as they show off their skills on the largest video platforms to fitness instructors using popular music to pump up their workout classes, individuals and companies must ensure that they don’t run afoul of the copyright laws when they incorporate music into their online content.

Copyright owners are granted an exclusive bundle of rights in relation to their copyrighted works, including the exclusive rights to reproduce, perform publicly, and distribute their copyrighted works.1 The copyright in music is broken down into two separate rights—one for the music’s composition (i.e., music and lyrics) and one for the actual sound recording (i.e., a fixed performance). Because of these dual rights, using copyrighted music may require two different licenses.

Whenever you release a video with a song that someone else wrote and composed, you need a synchronization (sync) license. For example, if you release a video of your band playing an Incubus song, you need a sync license to use the music and lyrics of that song, even if it’s a small portion of the song. You do not, however, need a sync license for songs that you wrote and composed yourself or songs in the public domain, so you’re free to use the song “Danny Boy” in your next YouTube video. But if you use a copyrighted sound recording in your video, you will need a sync license for the composition and a master use license for the original recording. Again, this applies even if you’re using a small portion of the original sound recording. Master use licenses are negotiated with a song’s owner—typically, a record label or the recording artist. Sync licenses and master use licenses are separate and distinct from public performance and personal entertainment licenses, which are not covered in this article. For a broader look at music licensing, please read this companion article. The following examples and best practices illustrate and address the challenges associated with using music in online content.

Continue Reading Legal Implications of Syncing Copyrighted Music with Other Content

Earlier this month, NAD issued its first decision under its Fast-Track SWIFT program, its expedited review track for single well-defined advertising issues. (Here are more details on NAD’s Fast-Track SWIFT program.) In its first substantive Fast-Track SWIFT decision, NAD dealt with a dispute between energy bar manufacturers Kind and Clif and reviewed the claim “A Better Performing Bar–Clif Bar For Sustained Energy,” which appeared as the top AdWords result for internet keyword searches for “Kind Bars” and “energy bars.”

Kind argued that this constitutes an express claim comparing the performance of Clif Energy Bars (either generally or with respect to sustained energy) to the performance of Kind Bars or all energy bars on the market, that must be supported by head-to-head product testing. Clif argued that the claim was not appropriate for SWIFT treatment because the challenged claim was too complex. Specifically, Clif argued that expert testimony and a consumer perception survey were necessary to determine whether the word “better” conveyed a comparative performance message or was merely an expression of the advertiser’s opinion of its product, and that these questions could not be obtained within the shortened SWIFT timeline. NAD concluded that the claims were appropriate for SWIFT treatment because they did not require NAD to evaluate complicated product testing (the advertiser did not argue that it had product testing to support a comparative performance claim), and any legal arguments were limited because the challenge involved a single claim in a single context.

Continue Reading NAD Issues First Decision under Fast-Track SWIFT Program

On June 17, 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a published opinion affirming the dismissal of a consumer class action seeking $32,000,000 against Venable client Premier Nutrition Corporation. The Court held that federal equitable principles must apply to class actions pending in federal court, even where state law rules the underlying causes of action. See Sonner v. Premier Nutrition Corp., No. 18-15890, 2020 WL 3263043 (9th Cir. June 17, 2020).

Plaintiff-Appellant Kathleen Sonner sued Premier on behalf of a class of California consumers claiming that Premier’s product, Joint Juice, did not provide its advertised joint health benefits. Sonner sought damages, restitution, and injunctive relief under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), as well as restitution and injunctive relief under California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL).

Continue Reading Ninth Circuit Blocks Class Plaintiffs’ Efforts to End Run Jury Trial

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Liu v. SEC where it limited the SEC’s disgorgement authority to net profits returned to investors. Today, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in two FTC cases to decide whether Section 13(b) of the FTC Act providing for “injunctive relief” includes the authority to obtain “equitable monetary relief” in the form of disgorgement.

In the first of the two cases, AMG Capital Management v. FTC, the Ninth Circuit’s decision determined below that injunctive relief includes all of the ancillary equitable powers vested in the courts to order equitable monetary relief, including disgorgement. Most notably, Judge O’Scannlain and Judge Bea concurred with the Ninth Circuit’s decision to call into question the prior decisions the majority relied on in so ruling. In stark contrast, the Seventh Circuit in FTC v. Credit Bureau Center overturned its past precedent and determined that, by the express terms of Section 13(b), Congress only authorized restraining orders and injunctions, and thus it did not authorize the FTC to seek equitable monetary relief such as disgorgement. Another wrinkle to the contrast between these two cases is the dynamic between the FTC and the Solicitor General. As we’ve blogged about before, the Solicitor General is representing the FTC in AMG, but declined to take the case in Credit Bureau Center where the FTC appeared on its own behalf. Such a dynamic may lead to a divergence in the positions taken by the FTC and the Solicitor General office.

Though we’ve hinted before these cases could have a significant impact on the amount of monetary relief the FTC is entitled to seek (if at all), these cases will definitively decide whether the FTC is entitled to seek such relief. Because the Court has consolidated these cases, the Court has extended the time for oral argument to one hour. As the briefings in these cases are submitted and an oral argument date is set, we will continue to monitor and blog on future developments.