Federal Court “Shall” Hear Challenge on EPA’s Failure to Assess Job-Loss Impact of its Rules

EPA-LogoSection 321(a) of the federal Clean Air Act (CAA), titled “Continuous Evaluation of Potential Loss or Shifts of Employment,” states plainly:

The Administrator shall conduct continuing evaluations of potential loss or shifts of employment which may result from the administration or enforcement of the provisions of this chapter and applicable implementation plans, including where appropriate, investigating threatened plant closures or reductions in employment allegedly resulting from such administration or enforcement.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long treated this as yet another optional duty, which it may or may not perform at its discretion. Murray Energy Corporation and a number of other coal companies that have suffered substantial job losses due to environmental regulations disagree. The word “shall” in § 321(a), they argue, reflects that Congress required EPA to do this. Last March, these companies filed suit in the Northern District of West Virginia, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. A June 6 WLF Legal Backgrounder by Vermont Law School Professor Mark Latham and Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. attorneys Victor Schwartz and Chris Appel, Is EPA Ignoring Clean Air Act Mandate to Analyze Impact of Regulations on Jobs?, described the suit and its arguments.

On September 16, Chief Judge John Preston Bailey rejected EPA’s specious argument that the agency is protected by sovereign immunity and allowed the suit to proceed. The plaintiffs sued under a section of the CAA which permits actions if EPA has failed to perform a non-discretionary duty. The court thus had to determine whether EPA had discretion to ignore § 321(a).

As Chief Judge Bailey noted, courts need not defer to federal agencies’ positions when determining jurisdiction. And Chief Judge Bailey certainly offered no deference. He cited extensive case law that supported Murray Energy’s argument that “shall” reflects a mandatory duty. As one court stated, “The word ‘shall’ does not convey discretion. It is not a leeway word, but a word of command.” EPA argued that § 321(a)’s lack of a “date-certain deadline” renders the provision discretionary. Chief Judge Bailey found that while that issue “was open to question,” relevant precedent dictated that the lack of a deadline was not “fatal to plaintiffs’ case.”  He added, “While EPA may have discretion as to the timing of such evaluations, it does not have the discretion to categorically refuse to conduct any such evaluations.”

In addition, Chief Judge Bailey refused to strike the plaintiffs’ request for injunctive relief.

Given the enormous implications of this case for EPA and for regulated entities, this decision marks, as the saying goes, merely the end of the beginning for Murray Energy Corp. v. McCarthy.

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

Education and Information Sharing: Underutilized Tools in FTC’s Data Security Work

150px-US-FederalTradeCommission-Seal.svgThe Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has brought 52 enforcement actions involving data breaches. Fifty of those businesses, whose computer systems were illegally accessed by hackers, settled rather than fight FTC’s accusations that they acted “deceptively” or “unfairly” under § 5 of the FTC Act. And yet, the data breaches just keep on coming, with unlawful intrusions on Home Depot’s payment-card processing system and the federal HealthCare.gov website occurring just this past week. It’s high time the Commission utilized tools at its disposal aside from the enforcement hammer to address data security.

WLF is not the only organization advancing this notion. On March 25, 2014, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, National Consumer League, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse wrote FTC Chairwoman Edith Ramirez, asking the Commission to “convene a public forum, bringing stakeholders together to discuss strategies for combating the growing threat of data breaches.”

FTC Commissioners routinely note in public statements that in addition to enforcement and advocacy, the Commission protects consumers and competition through education and information sharing. Public forums, workshops, and other events of the type the consumer groups sought in their letter have long been an integral part of FTC’s “educate and inform” function. Such events educate not only the public, but also the Commission and its staff. Continue reading

High Court Presented with Opportunity to Reinforce its Compelled Speech Jurisprudence

first-amendmentA petition for writ of certiorari filed with the U.S. Supreme Court on July 17 (the respondent’s reply is still pending) may provide the justices with a timely opportunity to clarify the Court’s jurisprudence on compelled speech. The case, Anthem Prescription Management v. Beeman, involves the increasingly common practice by government of enlisting private enterprises to communicate certain messages against their will. As we have discussed here recently, the lower federal courts are fractured over the amount of First Amendment scrutiny judges should apply when businesses challenge such speech mandates.

Laws Correcting Deception. Beginning with Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel in 1985, the Supreme Court has developed a consistent jurisprudence on compelled speech for commercial enterprises. Zauderer recognized businesses’ First Amendment rights to communicate with consumers about their products. But the Court noted that such protection is minimal for misleading or false commercial speech. It held that “an advertiser’s rights are adequately protected as long as disclosure requirements are reasonably related to the State’s interest in preventing deception of consumers.” The Court emphasized that the speech mandate must require “purely factual and uncontroversial information” and not be “unduly burdensome.”

Laws Not Targeting Deception. What if the government interest underlying a speech mandate is not correction of deception? In our opinion, the Court spoke quite clearly in Zauderer, carving out prevention of deception as a unique exception to the First Amendment’s heightened protection of commercial speech, and thus heightened scrutiny should still apply to other speech mandates. Continue reading

FDA’s “Added Sugar” Labeling Proposal: More Information Isn’t Always Better (or Legal)

FDA's proposed Nutrition Facts format

FDA’s proposed Nutrition Facts format

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) proposed addition of “added sugars” to the mandatory Nutrition Facts label on packaged food lacks scientific justification, is more likely to confuse than inform consumers, and will expose the agency to a constitutional challenge. So why is FDA pushing forward with this counterproductive idea?

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In announcing proposed changes to the 20-year old “Nutrition Facts” label, FDA reminded us that the purpose of the ubiquitous label is to “help[] consumers make informed food choices and maintain healthy dietary practices.” The update ostensibly would provide, among other improvements, “greater understanding of nutrition science.” However, one of the update’s most highly touted additions—a new line item for “Added Sugars,” triple-indented under “Carbohydrates” and “Total Sugars”— thoroughly fails to achieve these stated goals and contradicts current nutrition science.

Uninformative. If the Nutrition Facts label exists to “help consumers to make informed food choices,” then shouldn’t FDA be certain that listing added sugars would in fact be helpful? The agency, though, acknowledges in its March 3 proposal that it is “not aware of any existing consumer research that has examined this topic.

One public comment provided to FDA did offer consumer research, and the data thoroughly undercuts the “Added Sugars” proposal. The International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation conducted a consumer survey that conformed to OMB requirements for government research. The results revealed confusion among surveyed consumers over the meaning of “Added Sugars.” More than half of respondents believed that Added Sugars were different from the sugars included in “Total Sugars.” A substantial number believed that instead of being a part of the Total Sugars figure, Added Sugars should be added to Total Sugars. Consider, for instance, a bottle of sweetened iced tea, which is currently labeled to contain 22 grams of sugar per serving.  None of the sugar is naturally occurring. If the proposed Nutrition Facts label is adopted in its entirety, consumers might look at the 22 grams of Total Sugars, and the 22 grams of Added Sugars, and conclude that the tea contains 44 grams per serving. In addition, the survey found that a majority of consumers felt that products listing added sugars contained more sugar than was actually present, a perception that would affect their purchasing decisions.

An agency whose mission is consumer protection must not mandate confusing or misleading label information. FDA should take heed of the IFIC Foundation research and do what it should have done from the start: study the issue before mandating that Added Sugars be listed. Continue reading

D.C. Circuit’s “COOL” Decision Eases Government’s Burden in Justifying Compelled Speech

DC CircuitIf government wants to force you to say something you would not otherwise express, it must have a very good reason for doing so. This bedrock First Amendment principle applies to individuals and business enterprises alike.

In July, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit—arguably the nation’s second most important federal court—carved away at this principle and the constitutional protection it provides. Below, we discuss how that court allowed a federal agency to repeatedly change its declared reason for compelling speech and in an en banc panel opinion improperly eased government’s burden to prove a substantial governmental interest.

District Court Challenge. The compelled speech at issue in American Meat Institute (AMI) v. USDA is a country of origin label (“COOL”) recording the place of birth, residence, and slaughter of the animal from which each cut of meat taken. In the proposed rule’s Statement of Benefits and Costs, USDA asserted the mandate was justified because “certain U.S. consumers valued the designation.” AMI argued in its public comments that this interest was neither governmental nor substantial. USDA responded in the final rule with a stunning tautology: our interest is substantial and governmental because Congress empowered us to impose the COOL mandate.

When AMI sued to enjoin COOL on July 25, 2013, the agency again shifted focus, advancing a new justification that never appeared in the administrative record: “correct misleading speech and prevent consumer deception.” The federal district court bought USDA’s made-for-litigation governmental interest while denying AMI’s motion. In permitting this new justification, Judge Jackson ignored a 1947 Supreme Court precedent, SEC v. Chenery Corp. That decision holds that when judging the propriety of agency action, courts are limited to what is in the administrative record. Continue reading

Washington Post Parrots Activists’ Skewed Spin of FDA’s “GRAS” Process

The ScreamJust below the fold in the print and digital versions of this morning’s Washington Post blares the headline “Food additives on the rise as FDA scrutiny wanes.” The story dutifully advances the perspective of professional activists that the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) process for food additives is perilously broken. Food nanny organizations such as Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Natural Resources Defense Council have ramped up their attacks on GRAS over the past several years, assisted by a 2010 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report calling for changes to the process.

As explained in a Washington Legal Foundation Legal Backgrounder by Hyman, Phelps & McNamara attorneys Roberto Carvajal and Nisha Shah, the GRAS process dates back to 1958, when Congress determined that certain uses of substances in foods that were generally recognized as safe need not go through formal FDA approval. For nearly four decades, FDA applied that exception very narrowly, but the Clinton-era agency leadership altered that interpretation in 1997. They concluded that narrow application of the GRAS exception deeply strained agency resources and chilled food industry innovation. The agency’s new approach permitted food processors to self-report new uses of certain substances and provide FDA with the science supporting the GRAS conclusion. In response to the critical 2010 GAO report, the agency acknowledged that while the GRAS process could be improved, “FDA believes that the GRAS concept has continuing utility as a practical tool for distinguishing between substances and new uses of substances that merit a full pre-market safety evaluation by FDA and those that do not.”

FDA’s resolve on the GRAS process seems to be weakening, however. The Post article features a troubling front-page quote from FDA’s Deputy Commissioner Michael Taylor: “We simply do not have the information to vouch for the safety of many of these chemicals.” He goes on to proclaim later in the article, “We aren’t saying we have a public health crisis.” But of course Deputy Commissioner Taylor understands that when FDA uses the term “public health crisis,” even when denying the existence of one, it sounds alarm bells. FDA’s latest statements could be setting the stage for regulatory action against such common, widely-used ingredients as caffeine and sodium, which the agency has long considered GRAS.

For those who might be interested in learning more about the GRAS process from a far different perspective than the Washington Post provided today, watch WLF’s free July 10 Web Seminar, The Future of FDA’s “GRAS” Designation in an Era of Increased Scrutiny. The Powerpoint presentation utilized by our speakers, Keller and Heckman LLP’s Melvin Drozen and Evangelia Pelonis, is available here.

Federal Jurists ♥ Utilitarian Philosopher Jeremy Bentham

BenthamThe U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, sitting as an en banc panel of 11 judges, sent shock waves through the world of First Amendment enthusiasts on July 29 with its opinion in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. We’re still digesting this compelled speech ruling, and will be producing a number commentaries over the next several weeks with our thoughts and insights from other experts.

But in the meantime, we couldn’t resist highlighting a wonderful quip in Judge Janice Rogers Brown’s dissent and how it relates to a dissent by Justice Antonin Scalia in a 2013 opinion (which borrowed a concept from 18th Century philosopher, jurist, and utilitarianism proponent Jeremy Bentham).

Upon reading American Meat Institute, an attorney who’s written publications for WLF on commercial speech called to our attention Judge Brown’s creative phrasing, which he thought rivals a quip he recalled Justice Scalia making last year in Maryland v. King.

At the outset of her American Meat Institute dissent, Judge Brown stated, “If, as Jeremy Bentham once quipped, a fanciful argument may be dismissed as ‘nonsense upon stilts,’ the court’s analysis in this case can best be described as delirium on a pogo stick.” Such an intelligently cutting statement is not at all unusual for Judge Brown, whose well-written and cogently reasoned opinions are often peppered with witty historical references. An NPR report about Judge Brown’s U.S. Senate confirmation hearings noted that her opinion writing “reminds [one] very much of Justice Scalia’s writing style.” Continue reading