On May 24, 2016 a subcommittee of the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on a number of bills (17, to be exact) regarding the Federal Trade Commission’s consumer-protection mission. A number of proposals seek to fortify the vigor and transparency of the economic analysis FTC must perform when taking action against alleged “unfair” acts or practices under § 5 of the FTC Act. Some observers, (including former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright, who testified at the hearing) feel the Commission often gives short shrift to the “not-outweighed-by-countervailing-benefits-to-consumers-or-competition” language in the statute’s Unfairness Statement.
Wright’s testimony offers as an example the Commission’s 2014-2015 actions against several mobile app sellers’ “in-app purchase” sales practices. While on the Commission, Wright dissented from FTC’s complaint that Apple acted unfairly in how it designed the mechanism for app buyers to make purchases within the app. FTC alleged that Apple did not do enough to prevent children from making in-app purchases their parents did not authorize. In his dissent, Wright criticized FTC for failing to consider the countervailing benefits of Apple’s approach, such as relieving consumers of the need to constantly enter passwords, as well as the costs associated with government micromanagement of app design. Continue reading
Four members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP), including Chairman Lamar Alexander, wrote Food & Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Robert Califf earlier this month to reiterate their concerns with FDA’s use of guidance as regulatory tool. Members of the committee had previously written the FDA Commissioner about the agency’s use of guidance in May 2014, to which FDA responded nearly a year later in March 2015. During his confirmation hearing before the HELP Committee last November, Commissioner Califf addressed several questions about the use of guidance and pledged to investigate the Senators’ questions. Continue reading
California’s federal district courts, which are already overstocked with food-labeling class-action suits, are now being asked to impose new food-product disclosure mandates. Courts have thus far dismissed lawsuits seeking on-package statements regarding alleged concerns in companies’ overseas supply chains, such as forced labor. But don’t expect those losses to dampen corporate-disclosure activists’ resolve. Such suits are just one part in a larger campaign, following in the footsteps of the mandatory “GMO labeling” crusade, to require supply-chain information on product packaging.
Manufacturers of chocolate, pet food, and seafood have been targeted for their failure to disclose on their packaging the existence of forced labor and other possible human-rights violations in foreign countries from which they source their products or product ingredients. Such an omission, the class actions claim, violates California consumer-protection laws. One remedy the plaintiffs seek is disclosure of this supply-chain data on product labels and point-of-sale advertising. Continue reading
America’s highest ranking law-enforcement officer, Attorney General of the United States Loretta Lynch, has gotten directly involved in the debate over the proper standard of criminal intent (known in legalese as mens rea) in federal laws. At a March 9 Senate Judiciary Committee oversight hearing, Attorney General Lynch, while generally cautious in her response to Senators’ questions, endorsed the Department of Justice’s use of strict-liability laws to, among other things, “ensure the safety of our food and drugs.” Attorney General Lynch’s statement reflects the federal government’s long-standing belief that criminal prosecution is an appropriate and effective business regulatory tool. The government’s heavy reliance on regulatory crimes is why the Justice Department and other federal agencies oppose such common-sense reforms as a default culpability standard of “willful” or “reckless” for federal laws that lack an intent requirement. Heightened intent standards would complicate regulation-by-prosecution, an outcome the Obama Administration and some elected officials are desperate to prevent. Continue reading
In 1996, a heavily armed team of EPA criminal investigators raided a facility of Louisiana company Trinity Marine Products, Inc. Three years later, the federal government indicted the company and manager of the raided facility, Hubert Vidrine, for illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit. The U.S. Attorney dismissed the indictment in 2003. On February 8, 2016, 20 years after the EPA raid, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has cleared the path for the company to at last pursue Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) remedies against the government. As we explained in a WLF Legal Pulse post, Mr. Vidrine, with assistance from WLF attorneys, won a $1.7 million malicious-prosecution claim under the same law in 2011. Continue reading
Cement Creek, Silverton, Colorado
Over the past two weeks, several executives for a now-bankrupt chemical supply company in West Virginia received prison sentences for discharges of a pollutant and for failing to have a pollution-prevention plan. At the same time these developments unfolded, a U.S. House of Representatives committee released a report shedding further light on the role of Environmental Protection Agency employees and contractors in the release of toxic wastewater from a Silverton, Colorado mine on August 5, 2015. The juxtaposition of the two cases amply demonstrates the double standard that prevails where federal government employees evade accountability for their actions while demanding full environmental compliance from everyone else. Continue reading
Fair notice of the law is a basic principle that separates liberal democracies like the United States from more authoritarian governments. Fair notice is an especially critical due-process check against government’s power to criminally prosecute. Government must not only prove that a person did the unlawful act, but also that he intentionally engaged in wrongful conduct or knew the conduct was illegal—that it, that he had a guilty mind. So why, then, is the Obama Administration and other elected representatives opposing reforms to ensure that federal criminal laws include a clear criminal-intent standard?
The idea being advanced seems far from revolutionary or controversial, which may explain why politicians and interest groups of every ideological stripe support it: Federal laws with criminal provisions must require prosecutors to prove that the accused possessed the mens rea, or culpable mental state, to commit a crime. If a law lacks such language, then a default intent provision will apply, such as showing that the defendant acted “willfully” or “recklessly.” Continue reading