Eleventh Circuit Ruling a Welcome Judicial Pushback against Criminal Enforcement of Regulations

strickly skillz

On a balmy late August day in Orlando, Florida, nearly a dozen Orange County police officers, some dressed in ballistic vests and masked helmets, swept into Strictly Skillz barbershop with their guns drawn. As their colleagues blocked off the parking lot entrances and exits, the officers declared that the shop was closed and ordered its patrons to leave, depriving the shop of business and perhaps deterring future patrons. Two barbers and the owner were handcuffed. A plain-clothed member of the raiding party demanded to see the barbershop’s business license.

Yes, you read that correctly. On August 21, 2010, a veritable SWAT team of heavily armed police conducted a warrantless inspection to check for barbers’ licensing violations. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) inspector soon determined that Strictly Skillz barbers were properly licensed (which, as you’ll learn below, they already knew), so the police uncuffed the detained barbers and owner and left the shop.

The owner and three barbers sued a number of the officers involved for violating their Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure, and a federal district court denied the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on qualified immunity grounds. On September 16, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a strongly worded opinion affirming the lower court (Berry v. Leslie). The ruling provides a forceful reminder that the Fourth Amendment protects businesses (and their employees) from overzealous regulatory inspections. Continue reading

Federal Workplace Police Cast Aside Rules that Inhibit Capitalist Punishment

oshaNLRBAn excellent Economist article recently critiqued the ever-increasing criminalization of the American business community by federal regulators:

The formula is simple: find a large company that may (or may not) have done something wrong; threaten its managers with commercial ruin, preferably with criminal charges; force them to use their shareholders’ money to pay an enormous fine to drop the charges in a secret settlement (so nobody can check the details). Then repeat with another large company.

None of this is news to us here at WLF, where we have long been at the forefront of those who are concerned about the federal erosion of business civil liberties.

But what if, despite the heavy-handed leverage, government regulators still don’t get the results they are looking for? That’s easy—change the rules. That’s precisely what OSHA Administrator David Michael recently revealed he intends to do with the standard of proof required in whistleblower merits determinations.

Despite boasting to a recent meeting of the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee that, from 2009 to 2014, OSHA more than doubled the number of complaints it found to have merit, recovering over $119,000,000 in damages for whistleblower complainants in the process, Michael announced that OSHA will soon release a policy memo that will change the burden of proof in whistleblower investigations.

No longer will whistleblowers be required to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that it is “more likely than not” that a violation occurred. Rather, under the new regime, whistleblowers will need only establish “reasonable cause” that a violation occurred. That lower bar will undoubtedly result in many, many more cases being found to have merit by OSHA, which is what OSHA wants.

OSHA is not the only federal workplace cop pursuing rule changes on the fly to advance its ideological agenda. As explained in a new WLF Legal Backgrounder by Littler Mendelsohn LLP attorneys Michael Lotito and Missy Parry, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is poised to radically alter long-standing definitions of who counts as an employer to favor unions, plaintiffs’ lawyers, and, of course, federal regulators.

Under the view of agencies like OSHA and NLRB, due process in the face of a government-decreed worthy goal is no virtue.  And drumhead justice in pursuit of that same goal is no vice.

Also published by Forbes.com at WLF’s contributor page

Second Circuit Overturns Law that Compelled Businesses to Advertise their Competitors’ Services

2nd CircuitOn September 4, with Safelite Group, Inc. v. Jepsen, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit made an important contribution to the jurisprudence of compelled speech (an area of growing disharmony in the federal courts, as we’ve noted recently). The court unanimously struck down a Connecticut law that permitted certain businesses to promote their auto-glass repair services only if they mentioned the similar services of their competitors.

The Law at Issue. The Petitioner, Safelite Group, is an insurance claims management company that owns and operates a Connecticut affiliate, Safelite Auto Glass. If auto insurance companies direct Connecticut drivers with auto-glass claims to Safelite, Safelite can recommend (but, under state law, cannot require) Safelite Auto Glass to do the repairs. When it does so, Safelite voluntarily discloses its ownership interest to the insureds. If insureds cannot or do not want to utilize a Safelite Auto Glass shop, Safelite recommends another shop that Safelite has pre-approved.

Unaffiliated Connecticut auto-glass shops took their complaints about Safelite’s “unfair” practices to the legislature, which in May 2013 adopted a law that in part prohibits insurance companies or their claims administrators from mentioning their affiliate repair shops unless they also reference a competitor.

First Amendment Challenge. Safelite sought a preliminary injunction against Connecticut’s enforcement of the law, arguing in federal district court that the compelled speech requirement abridged its First Amendment rights. The district court denied the injunction, holding that the mandate simply required disclosure of factual, uncontroversial information that does not offend the company’s First Amendment freedoms. Continue reading

Five Ways to Undo your Own Class-Action Settlement

zero dollars“This settlement is so unfair, it cannot be fixed.”

That statement marked the beginning of the end of a federal district court judge’s opinion, as well as the class-action settlement to which the opinion referred. U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Judge William Alsup’s May 29 opinion in Daniels v. Aéropostale West, Inc. provides a tutorial on how not to win judicial approval of a class-action settlement.

Ms. Daniels alleged that she and other employees of the trendy apparel retailer Aéropostale were denied non-discretionary bonus pay (i.e., overtime) in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Judge Alsup conditionally certified the class in April 2013. Daniels provided notice to all employees in the class, and 594 opted into the suit. The parties filed a motion on April 24, 2014 seeking preliminary approval of a proposed settlement.

For reasons we will elaborate, Judge Alsup refused to grant approval. On June 12, the court entered an order decertifying Daniels, dismissing the claims, and extending the statute of limitations for 30 days so dismissed plaintiffs could pursue individual suits if they wish. The order noted that the parties agreed to the decertification, and that Aéropostale would make payment to any class member “who did not receive full payment for the overtime adjustment on any non-discretionary bonus earned during the collective action period.” The plaintiff’s lawyers agreed to provide notice of the action’s decertification at their own expense.

Lessons. In just 12 pages, Daniels offers litigants and their lawyers at least five lessons on how to undo your own class-action settlement.

Lesson #1: Be unresponsive to the court’s requests

In just the second paragraph of the opinion, Judge Alsup took the unusual step of noting the name and affiliation of all counsel of record in the case. This was not done to recognize their brilliant advocacy. As the rest of the opinion reveals, the lawyers, among other things, failed to provide the court with expert damage reports as required by federal procedural rules. After the parties filed their proposed settlement, the court had to ask twice for more information or corrections to the document. When pressed by Judge Alsup, Daniels’s lawyer could not state how much the plaintiff would ask the jury to reward. In addition, “Plaintiff’s counsel also failed to provide any specific information about overtime hours worked and non-discretionary bonuses paid.” Continue reading

Trolls and Trial Lawyers Should Curb Their Enthusiasm Over Patent Reform Timeout

patentLast week was quite a successful one in Washington for the plaintiffs’ bar. First, as WLF’s Rich Samp detailed in a May 22 Legal Pulse post, the Solicitor General of the U.S. opposed federal preemption of state failure-to-warn suits against medical device companies. Then, the following day, the Senate Judiciary Committee shelved legislation meant to curb abusive litigation and related activities by “patent-assertion entities” (PAEs), a.k.a. patent trolls.

But attorneys who represent PAEs, and the private businesses that may benefit from PAE activity, should temper their enthusiasm. The concept of “patent reform” will persist during Congress’s timeout. Various Executive Branch entities are working to shine a light on patent troll misbehavior, and the federal judiciary is gradually becoming less tolerant of patent litigation abuse. Consider the following examples of such non-legislative activity.

Federal Agencies. While the White House made the biggest splash on patent litigation last June with a Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues report, far more impactful work regarding PAEs is being done at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). For the past year, FTC has been conducting a formal “6(b)” study of PAEs. In a May 19 Federal Register notice, the Commission noted that it would be sending information requests to 25 PAEs as well as 15 wireless communication industry manufacturers and patent holding companies. Continue reading

Ninth Circuit “Unfriends” Privacy Class Action Despite Finding Statutory Standing

likefacebookLawsuits alleging harm from either a business’s failure to protect personal information from a data breach or from its allegedly unauthorized sharing of data with third parties were supposed to be the “next big thing” for the Litigation Industry. But, as we’ve noted on previously (here and here, for instance), few of these suits have made it past the motion-to-dismiss stage. Plaintiffs consistently fail to demonstrate that they suffered an injury-in-fact, which is a constitutional prerequisite known as “standing.”

Lawyers who work in the Litigation Industry are nothing if not persistent, as former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna and his Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP colleague Scott Laidlaw explained in a February WLF Legal Backgrounder, “Targeting Harm From A Breach: Plaintiffs’ Lawyers Get Creative In Data Privacy Suits.” For example, some class action attorneys sue under federal statutes, such as the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act. Those laws purport to provide “statutory standing” to private individuals and thus relieve them of the need to establish constitutional standing.

But as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reminded a class of plaintiffs last week, litigants with standing to sue still must  prove they have a claim. On May 9, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of two separate class actions filed under the Wiretap and Stored Communications Acts against Facebook and Zynga Game Network.

In re: Zynga Privacy Litigation involved claims that Facebook and Zynga unlawfully disclosed the information contained in “referer headers” to third parties such as advertisers. Referer headers, the court explained, display “the user’s Facebook ID and the address of the Facebook webpage the user was viewing.”

The Ninth Circuit had to determine whether the record information contained in the referer header constituted the “contents” of a communication under the two federal laws. The court examined the plain language and design of the statutes and concluded that “the term ‘contents’ refers to the intended message conveyed by the communication, and does not include record information regarding the characteristics of the message that is generated.” That conclusion is consistent with the reasoning in similar cases from the First and Third Circuits. The plaintiffs argued that third parties could utilize information from a referer header and determine a person’s specific identity and access his or her Facebook content. The court responded that neither the Wiretap Act nor the Stored Communications Act “preclude[s] the disclosure of personally identifiable information; indeed they expressly allow it.” Continue reading

Conflict Minerals, COOL, and Compelled Commercial Speech at the D.C. Circuit

DC CircuitTwo decisions issued a little over two weeks apart by separate U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit three-judge panels have created significant uncertainty on a critically important First Amendment issue. The court’s forthcoming actions in these cases will have a major impact on government regulation and on regulated industries as diverse as livestock, food, tobacco, smartphones, and medical devices.

The issue in both cases before the court is when can government compel businesses to provide information about their products or themselves. The U.S. Supreme Court held in Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel that government can constitutionally require disclosures of a “purely factual” nature which are “reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.” The Court has repeatedly reaffirmed Zauderer, most recently in the 2010 case Milavetz, Gallop & Milavetz, P.A. v. U.S., where Justice Sotomayor wrote for a unanimous Court that a low level of scrutiny applies only in cases where the compelled speech is “directed at misleading commercial speech” (italics in opinion).

COOLCountry of Origin Labeling Rule. On March 28, a three-judge panel of Senior Judge Williams, Chief Judge Garland, and Judge Srinivasan upheld the Department of Agriculture’s country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. AMI argued that the compelled origin disclosure impinged on its members’ First Amendment rights, and because the information was not meant to prevent deception, the court should review the rule under the heightened scrutiny of Central Hudson v. Public Service Commission, and not the “reasonableness” standard of Zauderer. In upholding the COOL rule, the panel concluded that Zauderer encompassed government interests beyond just preventing consumer confusion, and thus it applied the minimal scrutiny of Zauderer rather than Central Hudson.

That conclusion rejected years of D.C. Circuit precedent (including last year’s R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA) and instead embraced rulings from the First and Second Circuits. The panel acknowledged in a footnote that “reasonable judges” may read Reynolds as limiting Zauderer review to deception, and suggested en banc review for American Meat Institute. On April 4, the D.C. Circuit sua sponte vacated the panel decision and ordered en banc review. Oral argument is set for May 19. Continue reading