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After months of speculation among the consumer protection and antitrust bars, Trump announced today his intention to nominate former Director of the Bureau of Competition and current Paul Weiss partner Joseph Simons as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.  Trump also announced his plan to nominate Rohit Chopra, currently a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America and previously Assistant Director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), to one of two vacant commissioner seats.  News outlets also are reporting that Trump will soon nominate Noah Phillips, chief counsel for Senator John Cornyn (R.-Tex.), to an additional commissioner seat.

Assuming Simons is confirmed and appointed as Chair, Acting Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen would return to her position as Commissioner.  Her term is set to expire in September 2018.  Commissioner Terrell McSweeny also continues to serve on the Commission, although her term expired in September, and as reported by MLex.com, Simons’ confirmation would place him in the slot she currently occupies.  More information on each of the three nominations follows.

Joseph Simons.  Currently a partner and co-chair of the Antitrust Group at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, Simons has worked in private practice for the majority of his career and is likely to be welcomed by industry as a reasoned and qualified choice.  He also has experience in public service, having served at the FTC as Director of the Bureau of Competition from June 2001 to August 2003.  He also served as the Associate Director for Mergers and the Assistant Director for Evaluation at the FTC in the late 1980s.  Simons has worked on a number of high profile antitrust cases, including representing MasterCard Inc. in antitrust class actions over merchant fees, and representing a consortium including Microsoft, Ericsson, RIM and Sony in its $4.5 billion acquisition of the patent portfolio of Nortel Networks.

As a long-time antitrust practitioner with experience in private and public practice, Simons is likely to bring a thorough and deliberative approach to the Commission.  While Simons is unlikely to support enforcement that is not justified by a rigorous economic analysis of costs and benefits, he’s also unlikely to shy away from challenging deals and conduct that fail the economic test.  In short, economic effects and rule of reason will guide policy.  Simons notably has significant high tech and intellectual property experience, as well as merger experience, where economics predominates decision making.

On the consumer protection side, Simons’ experience will likely reinforce the policies announced by Acting Chairman Ohlhausen to put economic injury at the center of case selection.  The emphasis on fraud will likely continue, while actions and remedies that would regulate ordinary business practices will face the test of economic analysis.  If he’s confirmed as expected, Simons would serve a seven-year term that began on September 26, 2017.

Rohit Chopra.  While Simons’ experience comes primarily from the competition side, Chopra has concentrated on consumer protection issues.  Chopra is currently a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America where he focuses on consumer finance issues, particularly with regard to their impact on younger Americans.  Chopra was previously the Assistant Director of the CFPB where he led enforcement actions against student loan borrowers and helped establish a new student loan complaint system at the agency.  Chopra’s background and experience with consumer finance give him an expertise rare among commissioners and could translate into significant influence on hot topics such as credit reporting, debt collection, and big data.  He also may engage in advertising and privacy initiatives affecting children and younger Americans, given his prior interest in this area.

Chopra’s approach to competition could be influenced by longtime ally, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.), who has distinguished herself as a proponent of aggressive enforcement and new legislation.  Unlike most prior FTC commissioners, Chopra is not an attorney.  His background is in business and includes an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.  Trump indicated that Chopra would be appointed to the remainder of a seven-year term that would expire on September 25, 2019.

Noah Phillips.  While yet to be announced by the Trump Administration, media outlets are reporting that Phillips will be named to fill another vacancy at the Commission.  Phillips is presently Chief Counsel to Senator Cornyn.  Phillips previously worked as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP and Steptoe & Johnson LLP, before leaving the private sector to serve as counsel to Cornyn.

Phillips would come to the Commission with significant law firm experience, as well as an understanding of the Hill.   Among others, Cornyn serves on the Senate Committee on Finance, which includes subcommittees on international trade and energy.  We would expect, therefore, to see Phillips take an active interest in international issues, as well as competition in the energy sector.

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We will continue to monitor the appointment and confirmation process and post updates here.

Last Friday, ten consumer and privacy advocacy groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Center for Digital Democracy, and Consumer Watchdog, sent a letter to Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle, requesting that the CPSC recall the Google Home Mini smart speaker. The speaker was designed to respond to the voice commands, “OK, Google” and “Hey, Google,” as well as to a consumer pressing a small button on the top of the unit. Last week, the blog Android Police reported a glitch that caused the device to detect a touch even when a consumer was not pressing the button and remain “always on.” In response, Google issued a software update and completely disabled the button functionality.

The groups claim that this glitch resulted in Google intercepting and recording private conversations without consumers’ knowledge or consent, and that the device therefore poses a risk to consumer safety. Although they acknowledge that “the privacy concerns associated with Internet-connected devices appear different from traditional public safety concerns,” the groups call on the CPSC and its “broad mandate” to respond to such concerns, particularly in light of the “failure” of the FTC to investigate complaints involving Internet-connected devices.

Under the Consumer Product Safety Act, manufacturers, importers, distributors, and retailers have an obligation to immediately report to the CPSC when they obtain information that reasonably supports the conclusion that a consumer product contains a defect that could create a substantial product hazard, or creates an unreasonable risk of serious injury or death. While the groups note that the CPSC recently announced a recall of Internet-connected devices, the cited recall involved a product that posed an actual injury to consumers. CPSC action based on a non-physical injury, such as invasion of privacy, would be breaking new ground, but manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of IoT and other connected products should continue to watch for new developments and consider the potential safety issues associated with the products.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle’s nomination to become CPSC Chairman last Thursday in a 14-13 vote along party lines. She is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, and would then be able to move forward with staff appointments. Buerkle has served as Acting Chairman since February, and was nominated to become Chairman in July. For more information about Acting Chairman Buerkle’s priorities at the CPSC, please view our previous blog posts here and here.

Associate Lauren Myers contributed to this post. She is practicing under the supervision of principals of the firm who are members of the D.C. Bar.

Yesterday, President Trump announced his intent to nominate Dana Baiocco as CPSC Commissioner. If confirmed, Ms. Baiocco would replace Commissioner Marietta Robinson when her term expires on October 27, and would serve a seven-year term. Ms. Baiocco would join Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle and Commissioner Joseph Mohorovic, and give the five-member Commission a republican majority once again. She has already received the support of Chairman Bob Latta (R-OH) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection Subcommittee.

Currently, Ms. Baiocco is a partner at Jones Day in Boston, and her practice focuses on products liability and tort litigation, as well as regulatory and reporting obligations enforced by the CPSC, for a number of high-profile clients. 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 prior to joining Jones Day’s Pittsburgh office as an associate. She became partner in 2007, and helped found the firm’s Boston office in 2011.

The Senate Commerce Committee also announced yesterday that, on September 27, they will hold a nomination hearing for Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle to become CPSC Chairman. She has served as Acting Chairman since February, and was nominated to become Chairman in July. Acting Chairman Buerkle has emphasized her desire to collaborate with stakeholders, to take a “balanced and reasonable approach” to regulation when data justifies rulemaking, and to use information campaigns to educate consumers and industry.

U.S. District Judge Haywood S. Gilliam Jr. said Friday that the court would pause the trial to consider whether the FTC presented sufficient evidence to support its allegations that DirecTV misled consumers by failing to adequately disclose the terms of its two-year subscription and introductory pricing offer.  The judge instructed attorneys for DirecTV to file their partial judgment motion and a brief on findings of fact within two weeks.  The FTC will then have two weeks to respond to the motion and submit its own findings of fact.

As we previously discussed here and here, the FTC is seeking almost $4 billion in equitable relief based on allegations that DirecTV misled consumers by failing to disclose that it would raise its monthly subscription price after a consumer subscribed for three months, and then again after a year.  The case involves alleged violations of the FTC Act and the Restore Online Shoppers’ Confidence Act (ROSCA).  Over the first ten days of trial, testimony has addressed an array of issues from the proportion of consumers who may have been misled, to the proper calculation of damages assuming they were misled.

Most recently, last Friday, attorneys for DirecTV questioned the FTC’s expert, University of San Francisco economics professor Daniel Rascher, on the basis for calculating that DirecTV should pay almost $4 billion in equitable relief.  DirecTV’s attorneys argued that the figure fails to account for what proportion of consumers were actually misled.  Rascher countered that his role was not to analyze and interpret the ads but to calculate unjust gains based on DirecTV’s customer billing data.  After Rascher’s testimony, the FTC rested its case and Judge Gilliam addressed DirecTV’s partial judgment bid by pausing the trial and giving DirecTV two weeks to brief the issues.

We’ll continue to monitor and post updates related to the case here.

On August 2, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California dismissed a putative class action lawsuit against Ross Stores that accused the discount retailer of misleading promotional pricing practices. The lawsuit stemmed from February and May 2015 purchases by the two lead plaintiffs of items bearing price tags with a selling price and an instruction to “Compare At” the higher, reference price. Ross has since changed the reference price signal from “Compare At” to “Comparable Value.”

The Second Amended Complaint, filed in March 2016, contained the following allegations:

  • The use of “Compare At” is deceptive, as the higher, reference price is not a price at which substantial sales of the item were made in California.
  • The higher, reference price is the price of similar, non-identical merchandise – a material fact that Ross fails to adequately disclose.
  • A reasonable consumer would expect the reference price to refer to the price of an identical item.
  •  The retailer’s explanation of its comparison pricing is “buried” on the website and out of view in stores. Specifically, the explanation states that the comparison pricing “represents a recent documented selling price of the same or similar product in full-price department stores or specialty stores[, and w]here identical products are not available [Ross] may compare to similar products and styles.”

According to the plaintiffs, these practices violate California law, which promotional pricing statutes (1) prohibit retailers from making a false or misleading statement of fact concerning the reason for a price reduction, and (2) require that an advertised reference price have been the prevailing market price for the item within the immediately preceding three months. See Cal. Civ. Code § 1770(a)(13); Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17501.

In May, Ross and the plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment and motion for class certification, respectively. With respect to the new, “Comparable Value” signal, the Court determined that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge these tags because they failed to present evidence that they actually relied on the phrase when making their purchases, or that they suffered any economic injury as a result of Ross’s use of the phrase. As a result, the Court granted the motion for summary judgment with respect to Ross’s use of “Comparable Value.”

With respect to the “Compare At” signal, the Court found that the phrase is not “obviously false or misleading on its face,” and the plaintiffs had not presented evidence, other than their own declarations and price tags, in support of their argument that the reasonable consumer would expect the reference price to refer to the price of an identical item. Regardless, the Court concluded, the plaintiffs also failed to demonstrate economic harm, and therefore lacked standing to pursue their claims. Importantly, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ reliance on the Ninth Circuit decision in Hinojos v. Kohl’s Corp., noting that, “the standard of proof on a motion for summary judgment is higher” and demands proof that the items purchased were not worth as much as Ross claims, rather than vague averments of injury.

More than a month after the retirement of former NAD Director Andrea Levine, the Advertising Self-Regulatory Council (“ASRC”) has announced NAD’s new Director: Laura Brett. Laura Brett, who has served as NAD’s Assistant Director since 2015, joined NAD in April of 2012. During her five years at NAD, Laura has authored several seminal decisions including NAD’s highly publicized 2015 DirecTV decision. She has also authored several monitoring decisions that deal with the intersection between social media and advertising law. (See, for example, NAD’s Kardashian and eSalon decisions.) Laura has spoken frequently about NAD and has earned a reputation for her strong judgment, rigorous analytical skills, and integrity.

Continue Reading Laura Brett Named New Director of NAD

Have ideas to lighten the load for complying with consumer product safety regulations? The Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC” or “Commission”) wants to hear about them.  The Commission has asked for comments and suggestions for ways it could potentially reduce burdens and costs of its existing rules, regulations or practices without harming consumers. CPSC requests that any submissions include information and data in support of the suggestions.

The CPSC is open to any proposals. According to Acting Chairman Ann Marie Buerkle, “The agency’s recent request for information seeking public input on ways to potentially reduce burdens and costs is not limited to existing rules. CPSC is interested in hearing any and all ideas, big or small, that might help ease regulatory burdens without compromising safety.” Acting Chairman Buerkle, who was nominated to the Commission by President Obama in 2013, has said that “seeking to reduce regulatory burdens is responsible governance.” The request for suggestions is in line with Buerkle’s general policy of promoting transparency and collaboration with the industry. For a further discussion of her policies, see our previous post here.

Submissions are due by September 30. This is an opportunity for companies to provide feedback in a collaborative, constructive context.  We will continue to track the comments and provide updates on any important developments.

Summer Associate Carmen Tracy contributed to this post. Ms. Tracy is not a practicing attorney and is practicing under the supervision of principals of the firm who are members of the D.C. Bar.

Acting Chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”) Ann Marie Buerkle highlighted her priorities and recent noteworthy developments in a recent newsletter.  She emphasized her desire to collaborate with stakeholders, to take a “balanced and reasonable approach” to regulation when data justifies rulemaking, and to use information campaigns to educate consumers and industry. She shared a few rulemaking updates, including movement on the revocation of the magnet standard from the CFR, oral presentations on the NPRM for portable generators, and progress on the NPR related to table saws.

Buerkle noted the following upcoming events:

  • Monthly educational webinar series sponsored by the CPSC’s Small Business Ombudsman. Last month they provided an overview of updates to the toy standard. More industry-specific resources to come.
  • Solicitation of stakeholder feedback on test burden reduction, recall effectiveness, and the FY 2018 & 2019 priorities. Stay tuned regarding these opportunities once dates are finalized.

Buerkle also noted two key staffing changes:

  • Robert Kaye was named Director of the Office of Compliance and Field Operations.  Mr. Kaye joined the CPSC from the Department of Education, but had spent most of his career at the FTC where he most recently was Chief Litigation Counsel in the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
  • Jim Joholske was promoted to Director of the Office of Import Surveillance. Mr. Joholske had been the deputy head of the Import Surveillance Office since it was first created as a division of Compliance a decade ago.

Chairman Buerkle has repeatedly emphasized transparency and encouraged stakeholders to share feedback with her and her staff about the CPSC’s performance.  We encourage companies and other entities to take her up on that offer, whether through formal submissions such as comments to proposed rulemaking or through informal channels. Anyone interested in subscribing to the periodic newsletter can call the CPSC at 301-504-7978 or send an email via the contact form on the website.

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Late Wednesday evening, Democrat Elliot Kaye resigned as chair of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.  Republican Commissioner Ann Marie Buerkle has assumed the position of Acting Chair until a new chair is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Kaye will remain on the CPSC as a commissioner, with a term set to expire October 2020.  Buerkle said in a statement last week, “I am honored to have the opportunity to lead CPSC as Acting Chairman as the agency transitions under a new Administration.”  She further stated,

I will work to enhance relationships so that CPSC can leverage the knowledge, insight, and expertise of the entire consumer product safety community. We are all consumers and what we do at CPSC impacts the lives and livelihoods of all Americans. If we take a thoughtful, collaborative approach, we will impact the culture of product safety in a positive and meaningful way.

Commissioner Buerkle has been vocal in her opposition to the CPSC’s recent proposals for the voluntary recall notices and 6(b) proposals.   In a statement made last October, Buerkle advocated that the proposed rules be terminated, calling them “unsalvageable.”  She stated, “Any attempt to move forward now would put the staff in an extremely uncomfortable position of responding to harsh comments on ideas that did not originate with the staff.”

Buerkle’s elevation means that the Commission holds onto its 3-2 Democratic majority, at least until Commissioner Robinson’s term expires this October and the Trump administration appoints a Republican commissioner to replace her.