On Wednesday, we described draft legislation circulating in the Senate Commerce Committee that would have given the Federal Trade Commission almost unfettered authority to enjoin permanently any act, practice or method of competition that did not meet its approval. https://www.adlawaccess.com/2022/05/articles/senate-commerce-committee-chair-pushes-one-sided-13b-fix/  All the Commission would need to do is show that a reasonable person had fair notice that the conduct “could” violate the FTC Act.

Senator Cantwell has now introduced the bill and it’s more one-sided today than it was in draft form.  The need to show fair notice of even a possible violation is gone.

S. 4145, the “Consumer Protection Remedies Act,” was introduced by Chair Cantwell last night, with co-sponsors Senators Klobuchar (D-MN), Warnock (D-GA), and Lujan (D-NM). If this bill becomes law, to stop a practice, the Commission would merely need to persuade a judge that “the public interest” is on its FTC’s side . That is effectively no standard at all.

At least defendants will have an opportunity to argue that the Commission cannot obtain money until it proves a violation of some law the FTC enforces. The bill says that restitution, disgorgement, and rescission or reformation of contracts are available only in suits with respect to a violation of a provision of law enforced by the Commission.”

The Cantwell bill no longer confines relief under Section 13(b) to violations that are occurring or about to occur. Any violation within the past ten years remains exposed to monetary recovery. This doubles or triples the period for which the Commission can seek money.

In short, S. 4145 gives the Commission virtually unlimited authority to enjoin methods of competition, marketing practices, privacy protections, and information-security practices. And it would expose a decade of revenues to the agency’s monetary demands. The “Consumer Protection Remedies Act” would not simply streamline the procedures in the FTC Act; it would expand the Commission’s powers, handcuff the courts, and leave American businesses wondering when their conduct might run afoul of three Commissioners’ interpretation of the public interest.

Expect some movement next week in advance of the Commerce Committee markup, with Senator Lee likely to offer an amendment in the nature of a substitute.  With 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans on the Committee, however, a party line vote would allow the Cantwell bill to advance.  But once it does, it likely loses traction.  Without 60 votes as a stand-alone on the Senate floor, Chair Cantwell would need to slip this into must-pass legislation for it to become law.

The one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC has renewed calls for Congressional action to expand and codify the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. Last Thursday, we wrote here about the agency’s most recent open meeting, during which Commissioners heard from a key Senate staffer that Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) intended to introduce what she hoped would be a bipartisan fix. Yesterday, Chair Cantwell’s bill was made public, and its terms render any hope of bipartisan support a long-shot, at best, with little likelihood of garnering the Republican support needed to clear the chamber.

The bill’s release followed the May 2 release of a Senate Commerce Committee report entitled Restoring the Federal Trade Commission’s Authority to Protect Consumers and the Marketplace – an 80-page report, more than 50 pages of which purported to list dollar amounts received in each state due to “FTC cases resulting in significant refunds” (many of which were settlements never actually litigated under Section 13(b)). The report echoed much of what we heard from Commissioners last week – that AMG has created an enforcement void for the agency and no alternative enforcement approaches come close to 13(b)’s ability to protect consumers and provide monetary redress. The report couched the court’s decision as particularly damaging to the agency’s efforts to curtail “Big Tech and Pharma’s ability to harm consumers and fledgling businesses.” Continue Reading Senate Commerce Committee Chair Pushes One-Sided 13(b) Fix

FTC Uses AMG Anniversary to Push for a Bipartisan 13(b) Legislative Fix in an Increasingly Partisan EnvironmentDuring the Federal Trade Commission’s April 28 open meeting, Commissioners utilized the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC to highlight the implications of the ruling that gutted their enforcement authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. Commissioners called yet again for a legislative fix and were encouraged by public remarks from a counsel to Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who delivered an update from the chair that she “hope[d] to have a bipartisan solution soon” – whether that solution can get over the line remains far from certain.

Following a presentation from Bureau of Consumer Protection Acting Deputy Director Audrey Austin, the Commissioners opined on the loss of – in Chair Lina Kahn’s words – “the key engine of our law enforcement efforts for four decades” and the inability to adequately obtain monetary relief for consumers.

Chair Kahn and fellow Democratic Commissioner Rebecca Slaughter commended the agency’s alternative enforcement approaches over the past year in AMG’s wake. They highlighted the use of Section 19; new rulemakings to codify conduct that the courts had already determined was unfair or deceptive; additional administrative proceedings to “preserve a pathway” for monetary relief; warning letters to businesses and the threat of civil penalties; and coordination with State Attorneys General. Under those alternative enforcement pathways, however, Commissioner Slaughter said the agency’s “best outcomes are still justice diminished or delayed.”

While all four current Commissioners indicated support for legislation to clarify the agency’s enforcement authority under Section 13(b), comments from Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson reflect ongoing stakeholder concerns that appear to have stood in the way of Senate action following the House’s passage last summer of Representative Cárdenas’s (D-CA) Consumer Protection and Recovery Act on a nearly party-line vote (see more on the Cárdenas bill here).

Specifically, Commissioner Wilson stressed the need for statutory guardrails to address: (1) the absence of a statute of limitations; (2) the potential “unbounded” use of Section 13(b) to achieve disgorgement in antitrust cases; and (3) the application of Section 13(b) in consumer protection cases involving legitimate businesses selling legitimate products and services, albeit with deceptive claims. Another potential legislative flash point is the possible retroactive application of any new penalty authority. Today, Commissioner Slaughter noted that $1 billion in relief “could be preserved if action were taken now to restore 13(b) to all current and future cases.” While one can imagine a legislative framework that satisfies both sides, such a framework has not yet materialized.

Further, the agency’s internal politics could portend trouble for champions of an expeditious legislative solution. In a broad rebuke of Chair Kahn’s Federal Trade Commission, Commissioner Wilson warned that Congress may be wary to expand the FTC’s power given recent examples of the agency using its authority in a way that exceeds statutory boundaries or undermines Congressional intent. She urged her colleagues to “tread carefully” and noted the importance of demonstrating the agency will be “careful stewards” of any new enforcement authority bestowed upon it.

As we have written before, while there is bipartisan support for holding “scammers and fraudsters” accountable and providing for consumer redress, Congress’s sense of urgency to pass legislation clarifying the FTC’s authority under Section 13(b) seems to have waned as partisan tensions – both in Congress and the agency – have intensified.

Meanwhile, the Senate may vote as soon as next week on Alvaro Bedoya’s nomination to serve on the Federal Trade Commission. The confirmation vote had originally been expected this week, but was delayed due to the absence of two Democratic Senators. Perhaps reflective of those above-mentioned partisan tensions, Commissioner-designate Bedoya is expected to need the votes of all 50 Senate Democrats, in addition to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

The Section 13(b) Fix:  Stand-Still on the Hill?Following House passage of 13(b) legislation this summer, Congressional Democrats seem to have lost some of the urgency with which they were moving to strengthen the FTC’s penalty authorities in the wake of the Supreme Court’s AMG decision. This is partly due to their preoccupation with a months’-long effort to move President Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda and partly due to the need for some degree of bipartisan consensus in the Senate.  With the caveat that Congress can – and often does – surprise us, the prospects for a 13(b) fix any time soon remain murky at best.

Beyond Democrats’ pending budget reconciliation legislation, Congress’s focus through the end of the year is on deadlines for several “must-pass” bills (e.g., government funding, the debt ceiling, and the annual defense authorization bill).  While attaching policy riders to these year-end legislative initiatives is standard practice, it is unclear how hard Democrats may be pushing to include a 13(b) fix in the face of myriad legislative distractions, nor is it clear that Senate Republicans are ready to play ball.

Yes, there is always next year, but 2022 is projecting to be an even uglier legislative environment (if it could be imagined).  And while this could work either way for 13(b) – Democrats may be more desperate to make a deal (if they think they won’t be in power come 2023) and Republicans may be less willing to compromise (for the same reason) – it is unlikely that any legislative fix will include the exact language preferred by the FTC.  The end result could be that nothing happens here, with Republicans content to sit tight, and Democrats unwilling to beat their chests about 13(b) on the campaign trail.

Since most of our readers don’t regularly swim in these waters, let’s recap – Continue Reading The Section 13(b) Fix:  Stand-Still on the Hill?

As AMG recedes further into the past, lower courts are becoming more comfortable disposing of 13(b) actions where the proceedings are attempting to obtain monetary restitution as a matter of course. In many instances below, the FTC has conceded its inability to obtain monetary relief and has focused on the injunctive relief it seeks. However, there are still outstanding cases wherein, despite AMG, the FTC refuses to concede defeat on the issue of monetary relief under Section 13(b).

 

Latest update follows. Continue Reading Post-AMG Scorecard (Updated): FTC Claims for Monetary Relief in 13(b) Actions Dwindle

On July 20, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act, to clarify the Federal Trade Commission’s enforcement authority under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. H.R. 2668, authored by Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), would explicitly authorize the FTC to seek permanent injunctions and other equitable relief, including restitution and disgorgement, to redress perceived consumer injury. The bill was passed by a vote of 221-205, with two Republicans joining all Democrats in support.

In a joint statement issued after the vote, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said: “The Consumer Protection and Recovery Act will restore the FTC’s ability to force scammers that have broken the law to repay those who have been harmed or defrauded.” Chairs Pallone and Schakowsky moved quickly to usher the bill through their committee and the House just three months after the Supreme Court ruled in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC that the Federal Trade Commission did not have the authority to pursue monetary penalties under Section 13(b).

Facing increasing legal uncertainty in the months leading up to the AMG decision, bipartisan FTC Commissioners had urged Congress to clarify the agency’s enforcement authority – and bipartisan Members of Congress expressed support, citing a shared desire to protect consumers and hold fraudsters accountable. Those bipartisan sentiments, however, did not translate to bipartisan legislative text. As we’ve written previously, House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans have voiced process concerns, accusing Democrats of rushing the legislation through the House. Republicans have also stressed the need for statutory “guardrails” to ensure due process and protect legitimate businesses. Throughout the legislative process, for instance, Republicans have sought to amend the legislation to reduce the 10-year statute of limitations and to more narrowly tailor the language to target outright fraudulent acts. Republicans have also expressed concerns about retroactivity, questioning the legality of allowing the FTC to go after prior conduct with the expanded authorities included in H.R. 2668.

Ahead of the vote, Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Ranking Member Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) said, “…this bill before us will provide the FTC with new authorities that far outpace the need supported by a consensus of the FTC Commissioners.” He went on to say that the expanded authority granted to the agency in the legislation “signals a return to the broad overreach we saw with the FTC in previous decades –  a situation so bad that a Democratic Congress crippled the FTC’s funding and stripped it of its authority at that time.”

Additionally, House Republicans argue that any 13(b) fix should be part of a broader package of FTC reforms and should move in concert with legislation establishing a national privacy framework – an issue itself full of partisan landmines.

H.R. 2668 now heads to the Senate, where bipartisan Members of the Commerce Committee have expressed interest in a legislative fix – and where Democrats don’t have the luxury of disregarding Republican opposition. Perhaps in a nod to that reality, ahead of the bill’s passage, Representative Cárdenas said on the floor, “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to negotiate more into this bill and make it bipartisan, but there will be other opportunities as we are a two-chamber legislature, and I’m sure the Senate has some ideas about how to make this bill better. And we’re all open to that opportunity.”

For his part, President Biden appears ready to sign the bill, should it make it to his desk. Ahead of the House vote, the White House issued a strong statement of support: “The Administration applauds this step to expressly authorize the FTC to seek permanent injunctions and pursue equitable relief for all violations of law enforced by the Commission and ensure that the cost of illegal practices falls on bad actors, not consumers targeted by illegal scams.”

 

 

Not All the Spaghetti Sticks: Post-AMG Court Rejects FTC 13(b) Statute SwitchThe week started badly for the FTC when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed its antitrust complaint against Facebook (as well as a similar case brought by the attorneys general of 46 states).  And things got a little worse yesterday for the FTC in FTC v. Cardiff – even if news of the decision was well below the fold — given a federal court ruling  that the FTC’s late-breaking theory of monetary damages under the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (“ROSCA”) was ill-timed.

As readers of this blog know, we closely followed the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s AMG ruling, especially as it pertains to ongoing FTC actions.  And we have seen the FTC make good on its promise to pursue a variety of theories in an attempt to recover monetary penalties intended to  redress consumer injury.

In doing so, the FTC has taken varying positions as to whether and how it still seeks monetary remedies: in some cases, the FTC, acknowledging that 13(b) money remedies are no longer available post-AMG, has withdrawn its claim for monetary relief; in others, the FTC requests that the court delay decision on monetary relief in the light of the possibility of future congressional action providing 13(b) monetary powers; and in others still, the FTC has withdrawn its request for 13(b) monetary relief, but  attempted to obtain money judgments through another statutory provision.

FTC v. Cardiff fits this third category.  Pending in the Central District of California, the FTC attempted to pursue monetary relief post-AMG by way of a different statute:  ROSCA. While the court agreed with the FTC that it could have pursued monetary relief under ROSCA, the court found the FTC had waived the right to request such relief in this case.

The court noted that, in the FTC’s Rule 26 disclosures, the Agency had only calculated damages under 13(b), not under ROSCA, and had only disclosed its ROSCA expert after discovery closed (and, conveniently, after AMG was decided). The court concluded that the FTC had forfeited its right to seek monetary relief under the alternate statutory provision, and granted Cardiff’s motion for summary judgment, confirming that the FTC was entitled to no monetary relief.

The court’s Cardiff decision is a significant blow to the FTC.  Stephen Cochell, one of the party’s lawyers (who, by the way, has racked up an impressive 13(b) won-lost record), provided the following comment:

The Court’s exclusion of evidence for violating Rule 26 sends a signal that the FTC is subject to the same rules as any other litigant in federal court litigation.  Overcharging, under-disclosing or late-disclosing information in Rule 26 Disclosures will not be tolerated.  The FTC will need to give more thought as to how they are going to establish damages and timely comply with Rule 26.

So while it is not Facebook, the Cardiff case is important for defendants that are already deeply enmeshed in litigation with the FTC.   It strongly suggests that courts may not allow the FTC to change its legal theory for damages on such short notice, especially where such a modification could prejudice the defendant.

Coming Up:  FTC Commissioners expected to testify before the Energy & Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee on July 28th.

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Second Circuit Reverses the Commission and Orders Dismissal on 1-800-Contacts

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www.adlawaccess.comThere are some really smart lawyers at the FTC.  For over 40 years, they were able to convince the federal judiciary (and, let’s face it, most of us) that the FTC had an authority that a unanimous Supreme Court in AMG Capital Management concluded it did not have.  Following the decision, there has been a good deal of crowing by parties that are currently or regularly adverse to the FTC.  But as we wait and see whether Congress might act to provide new statutory language (you can’t restore what the Supreme Court concluded never existed), one thing is abundantly clear:  the FTC is not going to sit by idly.

If you thought otherwise, you have not been paying attention.  We have been told to expect more Section 19 cases, stepped-up rulemaking, collaboration with State Attorneys General, the dusting-off of the FTC’s Penalty Offense Authority, and reliance on other statutes enforced by the FTC that provide for civil penalties up to $43,280 per violation.

This week, with the announcement of the MoviePass settlement, the FTC made good on its word.  In its complaint, the FTC alleged that MoviePass “violated the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA) [which] requires that firms be truthful with consumers when marketing negative option services—such as subscriptions—over the Internet.”

Republican Commissioner Christine Wilson agreed with her Democratic counterparts.  In her concurring opinion, she conceded that post-AMG, “the temptation to test the limits of our remaining sources of authority is likely to be strong.”  Nevertheless, she supported the Commission’s action, while acknowledging that the settlement is the first time the Commission alleged a violation of ROSCA when the “undisclosed material terms do not relate specifically to the negative option feature but, instead, to the underlying good or service marketed through the feature.”  In her view, MoviePass’s conduct is consistent with congressional intent. She further noted:

Given the inaugural use of ROSCA for this purpose, it is appropriate that the Commission is foregoing civil penalties.  Businesses need predictability about the manner in which laws will be enforced and should be afforded the ability to contest new uses of authority. This case will serve as notice to the market, and future violations of this type may warrant civil penalties.

Her Republican counterpart was not convinced.  Commissioner Noah Phillips, in his dissenting opinion, stated his concerns.  First, he noted that one of the benefits of establishing liability for a rule violation is to obtain a penalty, and here, with MoviePass and its principals in bankruptcy making this a no-money order, “our announcement of sweeping new liability and introduction of a lack of clarity to the market about required disclosures . . . is ill advised.”  Second, “the statutory interpretation pushed by the Commission in this case is far from obvious.”  And third, the Commission failed to define standards for “material terms” and, without any guidance, companies may continually be at risk for a post hoc civil penalty.

In his conclusion, Commissioner Phillips recognized that the Commission’s decision to apply ROSCA broadly and expand its reach “comes just weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision in AMG” but he does not believe that the FTC’s “loss of authority under one statute somehow creates authority elsewhere.”

Back in January, during oral argument in AMG, Justice Kavanaugh touched on the temptation to interpret statutes broadly to achieve an end:

I worked in the Executive Branch for many years, so I understand how this happens.  When you are in the Executive Branch or an independent agency, you want to do good things and prevent or punish bad things, and sometimes your statutory authority is borderline.  And it could be war policy or immigration or environmental or what have you, but with good intentions the agency pushes the envelope and stretches the statutory language to do the good or prevent the bad.  The problem is this results in a transfer of power from Congress to the Executive Branch to decide whether to exercise this new authority.  That’s a particular concern, at least for me, with independent agencies.  So – and why isn’t the answer here for the agency to seek this new authority from Congress for us to maintain the principle [of] separation of powers . . . ?

Well, Mr. Justice, the Commission can do both.  With MoviePass, the envelope is being pushed.  And later today, the House Energy & Commerce Committee will mark up H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act, which would authorize the FTC to seek permanent injunctions and other equitable relief, including restitution and disgorgement, to redress perceived consumer injury. The legislation is likely to move through the House and to the Senate, where its fate will be decided.

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On May 27, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce advanced by voice vote H.R. 2668, legislation to clarify the Federal Trade Commission’s authority under Section 13(b) of the Federal Trade Act, just five weeks after the Supreme Court gutted that authority in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC. The subcommittee vote followed hours of political sparring, with Republicans accusing Democrats of pursuing a rushed, partisan process and Democrats accusing Republicans of ignoring the pleas of the FTC and refusing to engage on the issue.

As we’ve described previously, H.R. 2668, the Consumer Protection and Recovery Act, authored by Representative Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), would explicitly authorize the FTC to seek permanent injunctions and other equitable relief, including restitution and disgorgement, to redress perceived consumer injury. The subcommittee reported H.R. 2668 largely unchanged, save for a substitute amendment from Representative Cárdenas making minor changes to the bill. At the outset, subcommittee Democrats defeated two Republican motions to postpone consideration of the bill. Democrats subsequently voted down two Republican amendments: one delaying enactment of the bill until the FTC certifies that a 2003 policy statement on disgorgement in competition cases is more broadly applicable; and one prohibiting the Commission from seeking disgorgement unless it has conducted an economic analysis. Republicans also “offered and withdrew” an amendment to reduce the legislation’s proposed statute of limitations from 10 to five years.

Beyond 13(b)-specific guardrails, Republicans – including Subcommittee Ranking Member Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) – voiced their intent to address the agency’s 13(b) authority as part of a more holistic FTC policy revamp, including the establishment of a national privacy framework. To that end, another handful of Republican amendments – many dealing with FTC authorities beyond 13(b) – were offered and withdrawn. Continue Reading Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats Advance 13(b) Reform Legislation through Subcommittee

13(b)Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a letter to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, the Congressional Committee currently working on draft language for a new Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The Chamber’s letter cautions Congress to ensure that any new statutory language not give the FTC too much authority. In advocating caution, the Chamber makes an important, if subtle, point. The FTC is now arguing that the Supreme Court “took away” 13(b) powers it had before. In reality, though, the Supreme Court in AMG explained that FTC never had the power it arrogated in the first place.

The Chamber’s letter noted that the legislative history of the FTC Act requires the Commission to use Section 19’s administrative processes to obtain monetary relief for past violations. There is no reason that Congress should provide the FTC with additional powers, according to the Chamber, when the FTC already has an avenue to seek monetary relief.

The Chamber’s argument here largely mimics the position of Justice Breyer, who authored the AMG decision from a unanimous Court, concluding that the current version of 13(b) does not allow monetary relief. In AMG, Justice Breyer explained that “[t]he Commission may obtain monetary relief by first invoking its administrative procedures and then § 19’s redress provisions (which include limitations) . . . By contrast, the Commission’s broad reading would allow it to use §13(b) as a substitute for §5 and §19.”

The Chamber’s letter urged Congress not to upset the fine balance the FTC Act originally envisioned. While the Chamber agreed that the FTC should be able to go immediately to Court “to seek appropriate equitable monetary relief for clearly fraudulent cases that are found to be in violation of the law,” it explained that “[m]onetary relief should not be available for every consumer protection violation but should be reserved for the most egregious types of cases.” Continue Reading Acting Chair Rebecca Slaughter and Chamber of Commerce Spar Over a New 13(b)