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Asserting the authority to oversee the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Chair of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, have requested information from the Commission concerning the CPSC’s workload and its dealings with the public with regard to consumer complaints and FOIA requests. In a letter to Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle, the Committee has requested information such as:

  • A list of rulemakings, petitions, applications, complaints, requests, and other items pending before the CPSC, including the length of time the matter has been pending and associated staff;
  • The total number of reports of unsafe products received through saferproducts.gov from FY 2016-2019;
  • Information pertaining to the number of investigations opened and closed by the Office of Compliance & Field Operations from FY 2016-2019;
  • Details about involvement in voluntary standards development;
  • A list of all FOIA requests from FY 2016-2019;
  • A list of civil penalties, including lists of internal “referrals” for civil penalties; and
  • A list of all matters from which CPSC leadership or staff has been recused from FY 2016-2019 and the reason for each recusal.

The Committee has requested a complete written response to these questions by March 22, 2019. We expect that an oversight or similar hearing will likely follow the CPSC’s response, and we will continue to monitor developments.

Most of our posts regarding “Made in USA” claims relate to FTC investigations and enforcement actions. Private plaintiffs, however, also closely watch those claims. For example, in 2018 plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit against New Balance Athletics Inc. challenging qualified “Made in USA” claims. Although the plaintiffs acknowledged that New Balance qualified the claim in some places to indicate that the domestic value is at least 70%, they alleged that the general impression is that the products are American made. To resolve that litigation, a California federal judge recently granted preliminary approval to a proposed $750,000 settlement.

In Dashnaw v. New Balance Athletics, Inc., consumers alleged that New Balance mischaracterized its line of “Made in USA” sneakers because as little as 70% of the product was made with domestic components or labor. The claim appeared in advertising, on the shoes, and on the shoe boxes. The complaint acknowledged that New Balance disclosed in some places that its “Made in USA” sneakers contain a domestic value of 70% or greater, but alleged that an “Made in USA” claim appeared in places like the shoe and the shoe box. Because 30% of the value of those shoes could be attributed to a foreign country, plaintiffs alleged that the claims violated both California law, requiring that foreign materials must not exceed 5% of the final wholesale value, and FTC guidelines, stating that a product must be “all or virtually all” made in the United States.

The case was transferred from state court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, where the parties initiated settlement discussions. In April, the parties proposed a settlement of $750,000, with $215,000 going to settlement administration costs and compensation and $535,000 to consumers, with each consumer receiving up to $10. Judge Lorenz denied the settlement stating that the proposed amount was not enough for the estimated 1 million class action members. In response, the parties explained that a 5% participation rate among class members would result in full compensation and even with a 10-15% participation rate, each class member would receive 35-50% of the maximum damages the class could receive at trial, which they called a “reasonable settlement amount.” Judge Lorenz granted preliminary approval to the proposed settlement of $750,000 on January 25, 2019.

This case reminds advertisers that when using a disclosure to qualify a Made in USA claim or any other claim, the disclosure must appear consistently to maximize effectiveness. The FTC has also cautioned that even qualified claims may imply more domestic content than exists, so advertisers should avoid qualified claims unless the product has a significant amount of U.S. content or U.S. processing.

On January 14, Plaintiffs in the consolidated case of Veera v. Banana Republic, LLC, et al., filed for approval of a preliminary class action settlement after Plaintiffs Veera and Etman successfully argued that “frustration” and “embarrassment” over unclear discounts is sufficient to meet the requirements for injury.

According to separate lawsuits filed against Banana Republic and The Gap, the companies displayed in-store signs promoting a class of merchandise for sale at a stated price (e.g., 40% off sweaters) or subject to a stated discount (e.g., “40% off your purchase”) without clearly and conspicuously identifying the items that were excluded from the offer. The lawsuits alleged that these signs were either not accompanied by any disclosure of limitations, or were accompanied by a disclosure so small and closely colored to the sign background as to not be noticeable.

In an action under California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), False Advertising Law (FAL), and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Plaintiffs claimed that, in reliance on the signs, they selected various items for purchase at the advertised discount, and out of frustration and embarrassment, ultimately bought some of the items, even after learning that the discount did not apply.

Although a lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the retailers, the California Court of Appeals concluded that Plaintiffs met the requirements to allege injury. “Injury in fact is not a substantial or insurmountable hurdle,” the Court noted, “Rather, it suffices to allege some specific, identifiable trifle of injury.” The Court agreed with the Plaintiffs claim that, but for the allegedly misleading signs, Plaintiffs would not have made the clothing purchases (even after hearing of the non-discounted price at the register).

The parties agreed upon the proposed settlement hours before the class certification hearings. The key terms of the settlement provide that The Gap will provide a one-time coupon for the purchase of up to 4 items in a Banana Republic or The Gap store at 30% off regular price to certain customers who purchased items from The Gap or Banana Republic stores in California, for use on a future purchase. The Plaintiffs in the action will also receive $8,000 each under the proposed settlement. The Gap will also pay $1 million in fees and costs, and all costs of administering the proposed settlement.

A hearing is set for March 1st on the motion for preliminary approval of the settlement.

This proposed settlement serves as a reminder about the importance of clearly and conspicuously disclosing the limitations of any offer, including the terms of a sale. We will watch the California Court of Appeals for further willingness to allow cases to go forward even when Plaintiffs claim little to no injury beyond “embarrassment.”

While many today returned to work after the Holiday season, things remained quieter than usual here in the nation’s capital – with many federal workers furloughed until further notice as the federal government continues to be in a partial shutdown.  President Trump is reportedly meeting with congressional leaders today ahead of Thursday’s start to a new congressional session but, at least for now, there’s no immediate end to the shutdown in sight.

Here’s how the shutdown is affecting federal agencies responsible for overseeing and enforcing advertising and privacy laws:

  • The FTC closed as of midnight December 28, 2018.  All events are postponed and website information and social media will not be updated until further notice.  While some FTC online services are available, others are not.  More information here.
  • The CPSC is also closed, although a December 18, 2018 CPSC memorandum summarizing shutdown procedures indicates that certain employees “necessary to protect against imminent threats to human safety” will be excepted employees and continue work during the shutdown.  The CPSC consumer hotline also continues to operate. Companies should remember that obligations to report potential safety hazards are not furloughed, so the mantra of “when in doubt, report” still applies, even if public announcement of a recall may be delayed.
  • Roughly 40% of FDA is furloughed according to numbers released by its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services.  In a post on its website, the agency explained that it will be continuing vital activities, to the extent permitted by law, including monitoring for and responding to public health issues related to the food and medical product supply.  The agency is also continuing work on activities funded by carryover user fee balances, although it is unable to accept any regulatory submissions for FY 2019 that require a fee payment.
  • Because the CFPB is funded through the Federal Reserve and not Congress, it remains in operation.

Yesterday, Christine Wilson was sworn in as FTC Commissioner. Commissioner Wilson – the fifth and final Trump appointee – joins the FTC from Delta Airlines and assumes former Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen’s seat. Commissioner Ohlhausen announced her departure on Tuesday – the day her term ended, concluding over six years of service as Commissioner, including a year-and-a-half as the agency’s Acting Chair before current Chair Joseph Simons assumed the role.

As we previously reported here, Commissioner Wilson overlapped with Chair Simons during his time as Director of the Bureau of Competition, while she served as Chief of Staff to then-Chair Timothy Muris. The FTC currently is in the middle of public hearings on consumer protection, privacy, and competition policy and enforcement, and we expect these hearings and the public comments received to help shape the Commission’s priorities going forward.

On Tuesday, in an 80 to 19 vote, the Senate confirmed Peter Feldman as CPSC Commissioner – to finish Commissioner Mohorovic’s term ending October 26, 2019. Today, in a narrow 51 to 49 vote, the Senate confirmed him to a full, seven-year term. As we discussed here, Mr. Feldman previously served as Senior Counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the CPSC. During his June confirmation hearing, he indicated that his focus as Commissioner would be on modernizing the agency and its increasing its transparency.

Once Mr. Feldman is sworn in, the five-member Commission will have a Republican majority for the first time since 2006, although Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle’s (R) nomination to become Chairman is still pending. Despite this delay, with the Commission back to full strength, we will watch for policy and enforcement developments, particularly as the Commission votes on the FY 2019 Operating Plan next month.

On June 21, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing on Peter Feldman’s nomination for Commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Mr. Feldman was initially nominated on June 4th only to finish Commissioner Mohorovic’s term, which ends in October 2019, but was re-nominated on June 7th for a separate term to end in 2026. At the hearing, Mr. Feldman stated his intent to focus on “modernizing the agency and increasing its transparency.” He specifically addressed the need to modernize CPSC’s data capabilities, especially in regards to identifying emerging hazards, determining the CPSC’s role in evolving e-commerce distribution models, and improving outreach and transparency to stakeholders.

If he is confirmed, the Republicans will return to the majority after almost 12 years. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance and Data Security, has stated that he hopes the Committee will move “expeditiously” with Feldman’s confirmation and that his “expertise in regards to the issues before the Commission and extensive qualifications will be an asset as the Commission gets back on track in advancing product safety policies that reflect the principles of sound regulation.” Similarly, Congressman Bob Latta (R-OH), Chairman of the Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, has urged the Commerce Committee to move forward with not only Feldman’s confirmation, but also Acting Chair Ann Marie Buerkle’s confirmation. Buerkle’s (R) nomination to become Chairman has been pending for 10 months with no indication of when a vote will be scheduled. Continue Reading Peter Feldman’s Confirmation Hearing for the CPSC Commissioner Spot Puts the CPSC a Step Closer to a Republican Majority

If you follow our blog, you know that we often write about issues involving the FTC and the CPSC, but we usually do not write about both in the same post. Now those worlds have collided. The staff of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection (“BCP”), a prominent voice in the Internet of Things dialogue, recently filed comments in response to a CPSC request for information about the potential safety hazards linked to internet-connected products. The request follows a May 16 hearing that included speakers representing a variety of industries and organizations, such as Retail Industry Leaders Association, Underwriters Laboratories Inc., Consumer Reports, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. The BCP staff’s comments specifically address the following topics:

  • Best practices for mitigating against safety hazards. The BCP staff’s comments placed security and safety hand in hand with the following recommendations for companies offering connected devices: (1) risk assessments to evaluate their security programs and pinpoint possible threats before launching a product; and (2) oversight of service providers, including the incorporation of security standards into contracts and ensuring that the providers are complying with applicable security standards.
  • Registration for safety alerts and information related to recalls. The BCP staff recommended implementing a process similar to the CPSC’s current protocol for alerts related to infant and toddler products, wherein manufacturers and retailers are required to provide a safety registration card with the product. Instead of requiring the consumer to mail-in a registration, however, a URL could be included for online registration.
  • The role of government in regulating IoT security. The BCP staff did not take a position on whether the CPSC should implement regulations specific to IoT device hazards, but suggested that, if the CPSC considers such regulation, it should take a technology-neutral approach so that any such regulation does not quickly become obsolete.

The CPSC continues to evaluate these issues while coordinating with other federal entities like the FTC and NIST, tracking state legislative developments, and exploring the role of voluntary standards. Any company that makes, imports, distributes, or sells a connected product should continue to watch for developments.

Months after she was initially nominated, today the U.S. Senate confirmed Dana Baiocco (R) as the next CPSC Commissioner in a 50-45 vote, replacing Marietta Robinson (D), whose term expired in October 2017. Ms. Baiocco’s confirmation brings the Commission to two Republicans and two Democrats. Ms. Baiocco was originally approved by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in November, but her nomination, along with almost 100 others, was returned to the President at the end of the year as that Congressional session ended. Ms. Baiocco was re-nominated in January. There had been no movement on this confirmation hearing until late last week when Senate Majority Leader McConnell filed cloture to end debate and proceed to a vote.

Prior to this nomination, Baiocco was a litigator at Jones Day who counseled clients on CPSC recalls and class-action lawsuits. Concerns have been raised as to her potential conflicts of interest stemming from her representation of companies such as Mattel and Yamaha, but she has committed to assess the need for possible recusal on matters on a case-by-case basis. Ms. Baiocco attended Duquesne University School of Law and clerked for The Honorable Gustave Diamond of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Based on testimony during her confirmation hearing, Ms. Baiocco can be expected to focus on emerging technology, including Internet of Things issues, and the subsequent hazards. She will serve a 7-year term to end on October 27, 2024.

Ann Marie Buerkle (R) continues as Acting Chairman, and her nomination to become Chairman is still pending.

 

Manufacture, import, or sell a connected device?  In addition to the potential hazards associated with the physical performance of the product, you also need to consider the potential hazards associated with the product’s connectivity.  The Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) is considering the Internet of Things and will hold a public hearing on May 16 for interested stakeholders to discuss the potential safety issues with connected products and the CPSC’s role in addressing these issues, along with industry best practices and current standards development.  Privacy and personal data security issues in the IoT environment do not fall under the CPSC’s jurisdiction, but the agency has the authority to cover consumer hazards resulting from IoT products, which could include fire, burn, shock, tripping or falling, laceration, contusion, and chemical exposure.  

The CPSC has identified two product safety challenges associated with IoT products: (1) preventing or eliminating hazardous conditions designed into products intentionally or without sufficient consideration; and (2) preventing and addressing incidents of hazardization.  While the former falls into the CPSC’s wheelhouse of preventing and correcting consumer product issues, the latter is a non-traditional area of product safety activity and could pose some challenges with the high rate of growth of connected products.   The CPSC defines hazardization as “the situation created when a product that was safe when obtained by a consumer, but which, when connected to a network, becomes hazardous through malicious, incorrect, or careless changes to operational code.”  Examples include a connected cooktop with a software glitch that ignites without the consumer’s knowledge and starts a fire or an integrated home security system that fails to download a software update and the default condition is to deactivate the system, disabling the smoke alarms without the consumer’s knowledge. Continue Reading CPSC to Hear About the Safety Consequences If a Smart Device Isn’t So Smart