January 19, 2022 Changes to California Consumer Law Protections on January 1, 2022

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By: Wesley M. Griffith and Jenna L. Conwisar

Effective January 1, 2022, California implemented several important changes to its consumer protection laws, ranging from data privacy to debt collection to updates to the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. This post highlights several notable changes that companies and practitioners may wish to bear in mind as they ring in the new year.

Data Privacy

In the world of data privacy, there has been a lot of buzz around California’s new consumer privacy law, the California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA), which was previously discussed on this blog here.

The CPRA will greatly expand the state’s current data protection infrastructure by, among other things, increasing consumer control over sensitive personal information, adding additional consumer privacy rights, and creating the California Privacy Protection Agency to enforce the CPRA.

While not effective until January 1, 2023, the CPRA will apply to certain data collected in 2022, requiring many businesses to begin updating their data practices now.[1]

Debt Collection

A number of the California consumer law updates that took effect on January 1, 2022 focused on debt collection practices. Perhaps most notable is the implementation of the Debt Collection Licensing Act (DCLA).[2] Aligning California with the majority of states that already have collection agency licensure requirements, the DCLA requires debt collectors and debt buyers operating in California to obtain a license from the Department of Financial Protection and Innovation.

The DCLA generally applies to entities collecting consumer debt in California, including organizations such as law firms and other companies engaged in collection activities who may not consider themselves “debt collectors” in the traditional sense. Critically, under the DCLA, debt collectors who missed the December 31, 2021 application deadline must halt operations in California until they are issued a license.[3]

Other changes to California debt collection laws effective January 1, 2022 include:

  • Health Care Debt and Fair Billing: Among other things, AB 1020 revises the state’s medical billing and debt collection policies, including by prohibiting hospitals from selling patient debt unless certain conditions are met.[4]
  • Identity Theft: AB 430 expands protections for victims of identity theft and requires debt collectors to pause collection activities until certain criteria are met if a consumer submits either a copy of a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) identify theft report or a police report.[5]
  • Fair Debt Settlement Practices Act: Adds new regulatory requirements and prohibitions on debt settlement service providers and payment processor activities. It also creates a consumer private right of action for intentional violations, with available remedies including actual damages, injunctive relief, attorneys’ fees, and/or statutory damages as high as $5,000 per violation.[6]

Consumer Legal Remedies Act

January 1, 2022 also saw revisions to the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA).[7] As amended, the CLRA now offers additional protections to senior citizens from unfair and deceptive loan solicitations. Specifically, as amended the CLRA now applies to Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program loans for seniors—such as loans for solar panels or energy efficient appliances­. Violations are subject to $5,000 in statutory damages, on top of any actual or punitive damages, injunctive relief, restitution, and/or attorneys’ fees.[8]

*          *          *

Taken together, California has added significant additional complexity and potential liability to the consumer protection landscape at the outset of 2022, and companies who work in these spaces should be careful to ensure that their existing practices are updated to comply with the new laws.

 

[1] Cal. Civ. Code § 1798.130.

[2] Cal. Fin. Code § 100000 et seq.

[3] Debt Collection – Licensee, Department of Financial Protection & Innovation.

[4] Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788.14, 1788.52, 1788.58, 1788.185; Cal. HSC § 127400 et seq.

[5] Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1788.18, 1788.61, 1798.92, 1798.93; Cal. Penal Code § 530.8.

[6] Cal. Civ. Code § 1788.300 et seq.

[7] Cal. Civ. Code § 1770.

[8] Cal. Civ. Code § 1780.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security

PEOPLE: Wesley M. Griffith, Jenna L. Conwisar

December 27, 2021 Ninth Circuit Rejects Challenges to Conjoint Analysis in Consumer Class Action

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By: Alexander M. Smith

In recent years, conjoint analysis has proliferated as a methodology for calculating class-wide damages in consumer class actions. While conjoint analysis first emerged as a marketing tool for measuring consumers’ relative preferences for various product attributes, many plaintiffs (and their experts) have attempted to employ conjoint analysis as a tool for measuring the “price premium” attributable to a labeling statement or the effect that the disclosure of a product defect would have had on the product’s price. Defendants, in turn, have taken the position that conjoint analysis is only capable of measuring consumer preferences, cannot account for the array of competitive and supply-side factors that affect the price of a product, and that it is therefore incapable of measuring the price effect attributable to a labeling statement or a disclosure. Consistent with that position, defendants in consumer class actions frequently argue not only that conjoint analysis is unsuited to measuring class-wide damages consistent with Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27 (2013), but also that it is inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993). But a recent Ninth Circuit decision, MacDougall v. American Honda Motor Co., --- F. App’x ---- (9th Cir. 2021) may threaten defendants’ ability to challenge conjoint analysis on Daubert grounds.

In MacDougall, the plaintiffs brought a consumer class action against Honda premised on Honda’s alleged failure to disclose the presence of a transmission defect in its vehicles. The plaintiffs attempted to quantify the damages attributable to this omission through a conjoint analysis, which purported to “measure the difference in economic value—and thus the damages owed—between Defendants’ vehicles with and without the alleged transmission defect giving rise to this action.” MacDougall v. Am. Honda Motor Co., No. 17-1079, 2020 WL 5583534, at *4 (C.D. Cal. Sept. 11, 2020). Honda argued that this conjoint analysis was flawed and inadmissible, both “because it only accounts for demand-side and not supply-side considerations” and “because it utilizes an invalid design that obtains mostly irrational results.” Id. at *5. The district court agreed with Honda, excluded the expert’s conjoint analysis, and entered summary judgment in Honda’s favor based on the plaintiffs’ failure to offer admissible evidence of class-wide damages. In so holding, the court concluded that the expert’s conjoint analysis “calculates an inflated measure of damages because it does not adequately account for supply-side considerations” and only measures a consumer’s willingness to pay for certain product features—not the market price that the product would command in the absence of the purported defect. Id. “[W]ithout the integration of accurate supply-side considerations,” the district court explained, “a choice-based conjoint analysis transforms into a formula missing half of the equation.” Id. And separate and apart from this central economic defect, the district court found that other errors in the expert’s methodology—including his failure to conduct a pretest survey and the limited number of product attributes tested in the conjoint survey—rendered his conjoint analysis unreliable and inadmissible. See id. at *7-9.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. Beginning from the premise that expert testimony is admissible so long as it is “relevant” and “conducted according to accepted principles,” the Ninth Circuit found that the admissibility of expert testimony was a “case-specific inquiry” and therefore rejected Honda’s argument that “conjoint analysis categorically fails as a matter of economic damages.” Slip Op. at 2-3. The Ninth Circuit then concluded that Honda’s methodological challenges based on “the absence of market considerations, specific attribute selection, and the use of averages to evaluate the survey data go to the weight given the survey, not its admissibility.” Id. at 3 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). And while the Ninth Circuit acknowledged that the district court relied on numerous decisions that had rejected the use of conjoint analysis in consumer class actions, it held that these decisions did not concern the “admissibility of conjoint analysis under Rule 702 or Daubert” but instead its “substantive probity in the context of either class-wide damages under Comcast . . . or substantive state law.” Id. at 2.

In distinguishing between the question of whether conjoint analysis is admissible under Daubert and whether it is capable of measuring damages on a class-wide basis consistent with Comcast, the Ninth Circuit preserved an opening for defendants to challenge the use of conjoint analysis to measure class-wide damages at the class certification stage. Nonetheless, MacDougall undoubtedly weakens defendants’ ability to challenge the admissibility of conjoint analysis on methodological grounds, and it is possible that some district courts may read the Ninth Circuit’s opinion to stand for the broad proposition that juries, rather than judges, should decide whether conjoint analysis can properly measure economic damages.

CATEGORIES: Class Action Settlements, Class Action Trends, Class Certification

PEOPLE: Alexander M. Smith

December 21, 2021 FTC Embarks on Rulemaking to Address Impersonation Fraud

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By: Elizabeth Avunjian

On December 16, 2021, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) initiated a rulemaking to address government and business impersonation fraud, which involves “[i]mpersonators us[ing] all methods of communication to trick their targets into trusting that they are the government or an established business and then trad[ing] on this trust to steal their identity or money.”[1] While such fraud is not a novel concern, the pandemic has resulted in a sharp spike in cases, with reported costs to consumers increasing 85% year-over-year and $2 billion in total losses between October 2020 and September 2021.[2]

The FTC stated that it is “prepared to use every tool in [its] toolbox to deter government business impersonation fraud, penalize wrongdoers, and return money to those harmed.”[3] Indeed, the FTC’s Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the first rulemaking initiated under the FTC’s streamlined rulemaking procedures, notes that an “impersonator rule that builds on the existing sector- and method-specific rules could more comprehensively outlaw government and business impersonation fraud.”[4] Though the FTC has previously addressed such schemes through law enforcement actions, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in AMG Cap. Mgmt., LLC v. FTC, 141 S. Ct. 1341, 1352 (2021)—which we previously reported on here—has limited the FTC’s remedial options for actions brought pursuant to its statutory authority.[5]

The FTC is soliciting public comments for a period of 60 days after publication in the Federal Registrar regarding “the prevalence” of impersonation schemes, “the costs and benefits of a rule that would address them, and alternative or additional action to such a rulemaking.” If public comments evidence the need for a trade regulation rule, the next step will be for the FTC to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking.

 

[1] “FTC Launches Rulemaking to Combat Sharp Spike in Impersonation Fraud”, December 16, 2021, available at https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2021/12/ftc-launches-rulemaking-combat-sharp-spike-impersonation-fraud?utm_source=govdelivery.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, at 10.

[5] Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, at 7, n. 24 (citing AMG Cap. Mgmt., LLC v. FTC, 141 S. Ct. 1341, 1352 (2021) to explain that “The U.S. Supreme Court recently held that equitable monetary relief, including consumer redress, is not available under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act.”); see also “Statement by FTC Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter on the U.S. Supreme Court Ruling in AMG Capital Management LLC v. FTC”, April 22, 2021, https://www.ftc.gov/news-events/press-releases/2021/04/statement-ftc-acting-chairwoman-rebecca-kelly-slaughter-us?utm_source=govdelivery.

PEOPLE: Elizabeth Avunjian

December 15, 2021 Three Strikes, You’re Out! New York Federal Courts Reject Three Implausible Mislabeling Actions

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By: Lindsey A. Lusk

New York federal courts have recently shown a willingness to dismiss implausible mislabeling claims on the pleadings. The recent dismissal of three consumer class actions—all filed by the same plaintiff’s counsel—suggests that these federal courts are increasingly skeptical of lawyer-driven claims regarding alleged confusion over the labeling of popular food products.

On November 4, 2021, in Boswell v Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc., Judge Furman of the Southern District of New York dismissed a putative class action alleging that Entenmann’s “All Butter Loaf Cake” was misleadingly labeled because it contained not only butter, but also soybean oil and artificial flavors.[1] In reaching this conclusion, the court specifically called out the plaintiff’s attorney for bringing “a long string of putative class actions . . . alleging that the packaging on a popular food item is false and misleading.”[2] Notably, the court took judicial notice not only of the labeling of the challenged Entenmann’s product, but also the labeling of other butter cake products—which the court deemed probative of the context in which consumers purchase these products.[3]

On November 9, 2021, in Kamara v. Pepperidge Farm Inc., Judge Castel of the Southern District of New York dismissed with prejudice a putative class action alleging that the term “Golden Butter Crackers” was misleading because the crackers also contained vegetable oil.[4] In so holding, the court noted that “a reasonable consumer could believe the phrase ‘Golden Butter’ refers to the product’s flavor and wasn’t a representation about the ingredients’ proportions.”[5] But even if a consumer did believe as much, “[t]he packaging accurately indicated that the product contained butter,” which was prominently featured on the ingredient list—second only to flour.[6] The court found that “[t]he complaint [did] not plausibly allege why a reasonable consumer would understand the phrase ‘Golden Butter’ to mean that ‘wherever butter could be used in the product, it would be used instead of using its synthetic substitute, vegetable oil.’”[7]

Even more recently, on December 3, 2021, in Warren v. Whole Foods Market Group Inc., Judge Kovner of the Eastern District of New York dismissed a putative class action alleging that the label of Whole Foods Market’s instant oatmeal misled consumers into thinking the product was sugar-free or low in sugar.[8] The court reasoned that “even if a reasonable consumer was unaware of sugar’s many names, or of the nutrition label’s purpose, the fact remains that the words ‘Sugar 11g’ are prominently displayed immediately next to the ingredient list.” As the court noted, “[t]hose words are hard to miss.”[9]

These rulings may signal that federal courts—at least in New York—are increasingly inclined to take a harder look at the pleadings in food mislabeling cases, as well as the broader context in which the products are sold, and grant motions to dismiss where the allegations come up short of plausible. While it is unlikely that these rulings will completely deter other plaintiffs’ lawyers from filing these lawsuits, they undoubtedly provide ammunition for defendants faced with similar food labeling lawsuits in New York federal courts.

 

[1] Boswell v. Bimbo Bakeries USA, Inc., No. 20-CV-8923 (JMF), 2021 WL 5144552, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 4, 2021).

[2] Id.

[3] Id. at *4.

[4] Kamara v. Pepperidge Farm, Inc., No. 20-CV-9012 (PKC), 2021 WL 5234882, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 9, 2021).

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 5.

[7] Id.

[8] Warren et al. v. Whole Foods Market Group, Inc., No. 19CV6448RPKLB, 2021 WL 5759702, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 3, 2021).

[9] Id.

PEOPLE: Lindsey A. Lusk

November 1, 2021 Seventh Circuit Offers Useful Reminders about Removal

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By: Gabriel K. Gillett, Kelsey L. Stimple, and Howard S. Suskin

In Railey v. Sunset Food Mart, Inc., -- F.4th --, No. 21-2533, 2021 WL 4808222 (7th Cir. Oct. 15, 2021), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s order remanding a class action asserting claims under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act because the removal was untimely. Beyond the specific holding, the Court’s opinion serves as a useful reminder about some of the contours around removal of class actions, including under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA). We discuss some of those key principles below, through the lens of the Court’s decision.

Appellate courts can review remand orders in some situations. Though appellate courts typically lack jurisdiction to review remand orders, they have the discretion to do so for orders remanding a case removed under CAFA, 28 U.S.C. § 1453(c)(1), and are “free to consider any potential error in the district court’s decision.” Slip op. 4-5, 9 (quoting Brill v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc., 427 F.3d 446, 451 (7th Cir. 2005)).

Removal may be permitted based on “complete preemption.” The defendant in Railey first argued that removal to federal court was appropriate because the named plaintiff—an employee at one of the defendant’s grocery stores—was represented by a union, and her claims were therefore preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act. See Slip op. 2. The court acknowledged that removal is appropriate if the plaintiff’s claims are “completely preempted” by federal law and that one of its recent decisions indicated that the plaintiff’s claims “may, in fact, be preempted by the Labor Management Relations Act.” Slip op. 9 (citing Fernandez v. Kerry, Inc., No. 21-1067, 2021 WL 4260667, at *1–2 (7th Cir. 2021)).

A defendant’s time to remove may be triggered by its own subjective knowledge or ability to learn key facts related to removal. The court held, however, that the defendant’s November 2020 notice of removal was untimely because it was not filed within 30 days of the plaintiff serving her complaint in February 2019. Slip op. 11. Defendants can remove a class action within 30 days after the case is filed, or 30 days after “the defendant receives a pleading or other paper that affirmatively and unambiguously reveals that the predicates for removal are present.” Walker v. Trailer Transit, Inc., 727 F.3d 819, 824 (7th Cir. 2013) Though the defendant claimed that the 30-day clock was triggered by the plaintiff confirming her union membership in an October 2020 interrogatory, it had acknowledged in oral argument that the complaint supplied enough information—the plaintiff’s name, dates of employment, job title, and job location—to ascertain that she was represented by a union. Slip op. 10. “Based on this information, diligent counsel had everything necessary to recognize that the Labor Management Relations Act may preempt [the plaintiff’s] or the class’s claims.” Slip op. 11.

The court was careful to caution that its opinion should not be read “to impose any meaningful burden on defendants” and it stood “fully by [its] prior determination that district courts are not required to engage in a ‘fact-intensive inquiry about what the defendant subjectively knew or should have discovered’ about the plaintiff’s case to assess the timeliness of a defendant’s removal.” Slip op. 11 (quoting Walker, 727 F.3d at 825. The court pointed out that the plaintiff was a union member working at the defendant’s store and “a defendant can be held to information about its own operations that it knows or can discern with ease.” Id. “That reality mean[t] that the 30-day removal clock in § 1446(b)(1) began to tick when [the plaintiff] served her complaint in February 2019” and the November 2020 notice of removal was therefore untimely. Id.

Still, the Seventh Circuit’s statement seems to be in at least some tension with the First Circuit’s categorical statement that “[t]he defendant has no duty, however, to investigate or to supply facts outside of those provided by the plaintiff.” Romulus v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., 770 F.3d 67, 75 (1st Cir. 2014). The First Circuit explained its view as follows: “The district court reasoned that information on damages is not ‘new’ if the defendant could have discovered it earlier through its own investigation. This is not how the statute reads and would produce a difficult-to-manage test. … Determining what the defendant should have investigated, or what the defendant should have discovered through that investigation, rather than analyzing what was apparent on (or easily ascertainable from) the face of the plaintiff's pleadings, will not be efficient, but will result in fact-intensive mini-trials.” Id. at 73-76 (surveying somewhat different approaches the circuits have adopted). According to the First Circuit, “[e]very circuit to have addressed this issue has ... adopted some form of a bright-line rule that limits the court's inquiry to the clock-triggering pleading or other paper” provided by the plaintiff to the defendant. Id. at 74 (internal quotations omitted).

The 30-day deadline to remove is triggered (or not) based on the particular removal theory and related facts; “separate removal attempts are governed by separate removal clocks.” In January 2021, the defendant raised CAFA’s minimal diversity requirements as a second basis for removal to federal court. The court emphasized that the timeliness of this basis was unaffected by the timeliness of the earlier preemption argument because “[a] defendant may remove even a previously remanded case if subsequent pleadings or litigation events reveal a new basis for removal.” Slip op. 6. If they attempt to do so, “separate removal attempts are governed by separate removal clocks.” Id.

The court held that this minimal diversity basis for removal was not untimely. Slip op. 8. Though the plaintiff had moved out of Illinois and changed her domicile to Georgia in February 2020, the defendant only discovered this fact through its own investigation in January 2021. Slip op. 7; see 28 U.S.C. § 1453(b) (eliminating § 1446’s one-year limitation on diversity-based removal for class actions); cf. id. § 1332(d)(7) (evaluating diversity when case is filed or when diversity becomes apparent later based on “an amended pleading, motion, or other paper”). The court noted that “[a] plaintiff may trigger a removal clock—and protect itself against a defendant’s strategic maneuvering—by affirmatively and unambiguously disclosing facts establishing federal jurisdiction in an initial pleading or subsequent litigation document.” Slip op. 7 (internal quotations omitted). But because the plaintiff had not done so here and the defendant discovered the federal jurisdiction basis independently, the defendant could “remove the case at whatever point it deems appropriate, regardless of whether the window for removal on another basis already opened and closed.” Slip op. 7.

CAFA’s exception for “home-state controversies” may bar even timely removals. The case still had to be remanded to state court, however, because the minimal diversity exception faced a different barrier. CAFA removal is subject to an exception for “home-state controversies,” where “two-thirds or more of the members of all proposed plaintiff classes in the aggregate, and the primary defendants, are citizens of the State in which the action was originally filed.” 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(4)(B); see Slip op. 8. “By limiting the class to Illinois citizens, [the plaintiff] eliminated any concern that any [defendant] employees domiciled outside the state comprise greater than one-third of the class and all but ‘guaranteed that the suit would remain in state court.’” Slip op. 8 (quoting In re Sprint Nextel Corp., 593 F.3d 669, 676 (7th Cir. 2010)).

CATEGORIES: CAFA, Class Action Trends

PEOPLE: Howard S. Suskin, Gabriel K. Gillett, Kelsey L. Stimple

October 20, 2021 FTC Warns Companies It Will Impose Civil Penalties for Misleading Online Reviews

By: Jacob D. Alderdice

Shoppers in online marketplaces, or customers checking reviews before dining or retaining a service, have become increasingly reliant on internet testimonials. Mark P. of Hoboken, NJ rates Hank’s Burger Depot 5 out of 5 stars, and he tells you it’s the best burger and shake he’s ever had. But did Hank promise Mark P. a free meal in exchange for leaving that review? Does Mark P. work at the Burger Depot? Does Mark P. even exist? As e-commerce, social media, and influencer marketing have all grown and become intertwined, it has become increasingly difficult to discern what constitutes an authentic positive review or endorsement for a product or service online.

Recently, the Federal Trade Commission issued a Laptop_iStock_000004929105Medium
formal warning to hundreds of companies across a wide span of US industries, indicating that it will penalize deceptive practices related to fake or misleading reviews and endorsements. This warning follows increased litigation in recent years over these practices, which remains ongoing.

On October 13, 2021, the FTC formally issued a Notice of Penalty Offenses, stating it was “blanketing industry” with the warning that the FTC will use its penalty powers under Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act if those companies engage in deceptive conduct regarding online endorsements and reviews. The list of more than 700 companies includes many of the biggest companies in the United States, including Amazon, Google, and Walmart, in a variety of sectors, and also includes advertisers and advertising agencies. The inclusion of the companies does not mean they have engaged in these practices previously, but it does mean that the FTC will find that they are on notice of the prohibition if they are found to have engaged in such deceptive practices in the future. The penalties for future violations are significant—up to $43,792 for each violation.

The Notice defines the deceptive conduct as including—but not limited to—falsely claiming an endorsement by a third party; misrepresenting whether an endorser is an actual, current, or recent user; using an endorsement to make deceptive performance claims; failing to disclose an unexpected material connection with an endorser; and misrepresenting that the experience of endorsers represents consumers’ typical experience. The FTC issued FAQs elaborating on the proscribed conduct. For example, the proscribed “unexpected material connection” could include the endorser being a relative or employee of the marketer, or if the endorser has been paid or given something of value to tout the product.

The FTC’s announcement that it will rely on its Section 5 civil penalty powers pursuant follows a recent Supreme Court ruling that stripped the FTC of other enforcement powers. In late April 2021, the Court unanimously ruled in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. FTC that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not allow the FTC to seek monetary remedies in federal court. Immediately following the ruling, then-FTC Commissioner (and recently confirmed CFPB Director) Rohit Chopra urged the FTC to “deploy the FTC’s dormant Penalty Offense Authority” under Section 5 to make up for the loss of the Section 13(b) powers. In October 2020—in anticipation of the Court’s ruling in AMG Capital Management—Chopra co-authored an article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review with Samuel A.A. Levine, titled “The Case for Resurrecting the FTC Act’s Penalty Offense Authority,” which maps out the FTC’s penalty offense authority under Section 5(m)(1)(B) of the FTC Act and promotes the use of that authority particularly for “online disinformation.”

Aside from the FTC, consumers and competitors have increasingly litigated these questions in the past few years, seeking ways of holding companies accountable for faking reviews in order to gain a leg up on competitors or mislead consumers. Litigants have relied on the Lanham Act’s prohibition against false advertising, state consumer protection statutes, and other state law claims. Outcomes have been mixed, depending on the legal theory and the parties’ ability to prove or sufficiently allege that a company has falsified reviews. A sample of recent cases related to fake online reviews or endorsements across jurisdictions appears below:

  • In a dispute between two cloud-based communications services, RingCentral asserted defamation claims against Nextiva both for Nextiva’s alleged fake negative reviews of RingCentral, and Nextiva’s fake positive reviews of itself—which RingCentral alleged cast it in a bad light by comparison. At the summary judgment stage, a judge in the District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed RingCentral’s defamation claims as to the fake positive reviews, holding that those reviews—which were only about Nextiva—were not “of or concerning” the plaintiff RingCentral, a required element for a defamation claim. See Ringcentral, Inc. v. Nextiva, Inc., No. 19-CV-02626-NC, 2021 WL 2476879, at *2 (N.D. Cal. June 17, 2021).
     
  • In a dispute between two companies selling dietary supplements, Vitamins Online alleged that the defendant NatureWise manipulated the Amazon.com customer review system by, among other things, directing its employees to “up vote” its products’ good reviews, and offering free products to customers in exchange for good reviews. Following a bench trial, a judge in the District Court for the District of Utah held that this conduct violated the Lanham Act’s prohibition of false advertising and Utah’s common law unfair competition laws. See Vitamins Online, Inc. v. HeartWise, Inc, No. 2:13-CV-00982-DAK, 2020 WL 6581050, at *21 (D. Utah Nov. 10, 2020). The court held that Vitamins Online was entitled to the disgorgement of NatureWise’s ill-gotten profits of nearly $10 million.
     
  • In the District of New Jersey, courts have held that the allegations that companies manipulated Amazon reviews of their products, such as by faking customer reviews or flooding the site with “professional reviews” (those elicited by the company’s offering of a free product), are sufficient to state claims under federal and state false advertising laws, as well as claims for tortious interference with prospective business advantage. See AlphaCard Sys. LLC v. Fery LLC, No. CV1920110MASTJB, 2020 WL 4736072, at *3 (D.N.J. Aug. 14, 2020); Interlink Products International, Inc. v. F & W Trading LLC, No. 15-1340, 2016 WL 1260713, at *9 (D.N.J. Mar. 31, 2016).
     
  • Casper Sleep, Inc., the online company selling Casper mattresses, has been a fairly active litigant regarding allegedly fake or manipulated online reviews—both as a plaintiff and defendant. Recently, in the Southern District of New York, a mattress competitor asserted counterclaims under the Lanham Act, alleging that Casper faked its positive Amazon reviews. The competitor relied upon an “independent website” that assesses Amazon reviews, which gave Casper a “fail” grade due to purported indicators of “unnatural reviews,” such as many positive reviews with no corresponding comments and the wholesale deletion of large portions of Casper’s positive reviews. The court granted Casper’s motion to dismiss these claims, holding that the allegations were too speculative to show that Casper actually faked the positive Amazon reviews. See Casper Sleep, Inc. v. Nectar Brand LLC, No. 18 CIV. 4459 (PGG), 2020 WL 5659581, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 23, 2020); see also GhostBed, Inc. v. Casper Sleep, Inc., No. 0:15-CV-62571-WPD, 2018 WL 2213002, at *7 (S.D. Fla. May 3, 2018) (dismissing Lanham Act claims against Casper at the summary judgment stage, because the plaintiff did not establish that Casper made any false or misleading statements in its use of “affiliate relationships with online reviewers”).

PEOPLE: Jacob D. Alderdice

October 19, 2021 Factors to Consider in Disclosing a Cybersecurity Breach to the SEC

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In this article published by Westlaw Today, Partners Brian R. Boch and Charles D. Riely and Associate William R. Erlain explain that the US Securities and Exchange Commission has ramped up its enforcement against misleading cybersecurity disclosures and announced plans to consider adopting new disclosure obligations. The authors highlight key factors to consider in determining whether and how a public company should disclose a cybersecurity breach in light of recent SEC guidance, enforcement actions and investigations, and private securities actions.

Click here to read the full article.

CATEGORIES: Privacy Data Security, Securities

October 15, 2021 California Law Adds New Restrictions on Recyclability Claims

By Allison A. Torrence

RecyclingOn October 5, 2021, California Governor Newsom signed SB 343, addressing recyclability claims on products and in advertising. The Act amends existing sections of California’s Business and Professions Code as well as the Public Resource Code relating to environmental advertising. These laws collectively provide California’s version of recyclability consumer protection laws, similar to but going beyond the Federal Trade Commission Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims (Green Guides).

Prior to SB 343, existing California law made it unlawful for any person to make any untruthful, deceptive, or misleading environmental marketing claim, and required that environmental marketing claims be substantiated by competent and reliable evidence. Additionally, a person making any recyclability claims was required to maintain written records supporting the validity of those representations, including whether, the claims conform with the Green Guides.

Those requirements are generally left intact, with additional obligations added by SB 343. The first big change made by SB 343 is to specifically add the use of the chasing arrow symbol as a way that a person might make a misleading environmental marketing claim in marketing or on a product label. (Business and Professions Code § 17580(a).) Next, SB 343 requires the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, by January 1, 2024, to update regulations requiring disposal facilities to provide information on recycling data. Based on the information published by the department, a product or packaging is considered recyclable only if the product or packaging is collected for recycling by recycling programs for jurisdictions that collectively encompass at least 60% of the population of the state. (Public Resources Code § 42355.51(d)(2).) The new law also provides additional criteria related to curb-side recycling, that grow more stringent over time, and PFAS content of plastic material, among other provisions. (Public Resources Code § 42355.51(d)(3).) A person making recyclability claims must keep written records of whether the consumer good meets all of the criteria for statewide recyclability pursuant to these new provisions. (Business and Professions Code § 17580(a)(6).)

Finally, while existing California law governed what resin identification code could be placed on plastic containers (i.e., #1 PETE, #2 HDPE), SB 343 states that resin identification code numbers cannot be placed inside a chasing arrows symbol unless the rigid plastic bottle or rigid plastic container meets the new statewide recyclability criteria discussed above. (Public Resources Code § 18015(d).)

This new law is another hurdle facing companies making environmental marketing claims. For companies selling products in California, it is not sufficient to simply follow the FTC Green Guides. Instead, companies must be aware of the specific nuances and requirements in California and developments in other states.

CATEGORIES: Corporate Environmental Lawyer

PEOPLE: Allison A. Torrence

September 2, 2021 Ninth Circuit Puts a Cap on Coca-Cola Class Certification Order

By: Alexander M. Smith

SodaA new decision in the Ninth Circuit significantly limits which consumers may have standing to seek an injunction against false advertising or labeling. For the past several years, the law in the Ninth Circuit was that a “previously deceived consumer may have standing to seek an injunction against false advertising or labeling, even though the consumer now knows or suspects that the advertising was false at the time of the original purchase,” because a consumer’s “[k]nowledge that the advertisement or label was false in the past does not equate to knowledge that it will remain false in the future.” Davidson v. Kimberly-Clark Co., 889 F.3d 956, 969 (9th Cir. 2018). But in August 2021, the Ninth Circuit significantly limited this holding by clarifying that a consumer’s “abstract interest in compliance with labeling requirements” or desire for a manufacturer to “truthfully label its products” does not suffice to establish Article III standing under Davidson. Engurasoff v. Coca-Cola Refreshments USA, Inc., No. 25-15742, 2021 WL 3878654, at *2 (9th Cir. Aug. 31, 2021).

Engurasoff arises out of a long-running multidistrict litigation in which the plaintiffs alleged that Coke, Coca-Cola’s signature cola, is mislabeled as having “no preservatives” and “no artificial flavors” because it contains phosphoric acid, which allegedly functions as both an “artificial flavor” and a “chemical preservative.” In February 2020, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion to certify an injunctive relief class under Rule 23(b)(2) and held that they had established standing to seek injunctive relief under Davidson. In reaching this conclusion, the district court reasoned that consumers could satisfy Davidson by alleging either (1) that “their inability to rely on the labels would cause them to refrain from purchasing a product that they otherwise would want” or (2) that they would “purchase the product in the future, despite the fact that it was once marred by false advertising or labeling, because they may reasonably, but incorrectly assume the product was improved.” In re Coca-Cola Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., No, 14-2555, 2020 WL 759388, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 14, 2020) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). The district court agreed with Coca-Cola that the plaintiffs did not satisfy the second test because there was no reasonable possibility that Coca-Cola would stop using phosphoric acid as an ingredient in Coke, whose formula—leaving aside the ill-fated rollout of New Coke—has remained largely unchanged for over a century. But the district court nonetheless found that the plaintiffs had satisfied the first test by alleging that they would purchase Coke in the future, even if it continued to contain phosphoric acid, so long as the labeling either disclosed the presence of phosphoric acid or refrained from representing that Coke was free of preservatives and artificial flavors. See id. at *7-9.

On August 31, 2021, the Ninth Circuit vacated this ruling and held that the plaintiffs had not established standing to seek injunctive relief. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit found it dispositive that “[n]one of the plaintiffs in this case allege a desire to purchase Coke as advertised, that is, free from what they believe to be artificial flavors or preservatives.” 2021 WL 3878654, at 2. Instead, some of the plaintiffs alleged that they would consider purchasing Coke in the future if it were “properly labeled.” The Ninth Circuit concluded that this “abstract interest in compliance with labeling requirements” was “insufficient, standing alone, to establish Article III standing.” Id. at *2. After articulating this rule, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the majority of the plaintiffs lacked Article III standing because they either expressed no interest in purchasing Coke in the future or merely stated that they would “consider” purchasing Coke in the future, which the Ninth Circuit found insufficient to establish an imminent future injury sufficient to give those plaintiffs standing. It then addressed the two plaintiffs who stated that “they would be interested in purchasing Coke again if its labels were accurate, regardless of whether it contained chemical preservatives or artificial flavors.” Id. Although these plaintiffs stated that they would likely purchase Coke in the future if its labeling were truthful, the Ninth Circuit concluded that their “desire for Coca-Cola to truthfully label its products, without more, is insufficient to demonstrate that they have suffered any particularized adverse effects.” Id.

Engurasoff’s central holding—that a plaintiff’s “abstract interest in compliance with labeling requirements” or desire for a manufacturer to “truthfully label its products” does not amount to an injury-in-fact cognizable under Article III—has significant ramifications for false advertising cases in federal court. A plaintiff can no longer satisfy Davidson by stating that they would “consider” purchasing a product in the future or that they would likely purchase the product in the future if the allegedly “untruthful” statements were removed from the labeling. Instead, a plaintiff must allege that they would be likely to purchase the product “as advertised”—which, in many cases, will necessitate a change to the product itself rather than a change to the challenged advertising. And the Ninth Circuit’s holding that an “abstract interest in compliance with labeling requirements” does not amount to a cognizable injury-in-fact may provide additional ammunition to manufacturers faced with cases premised on alleged violations of federal labeling regulations, particularly when the plaintiff is unable to allege a cognizable injury other than a violation of the applicable regulation. It remains unclear how broadly or narrowly courts will apply Engurasoff, but it may provide defendants with a powerful tool to defeat false advertising cases on Article III standing grounds.

PEOPLE: Alexander M. Smith

September 1, 2021 Customers Cannot Assert a Claim Based on Starbucks’s Alleged Failure to Provide the “Perfect” Coffee Experience

By: Kate T. Spelman

CoffeeOn August 27, 2021, the Second Circuit upheld dismissal of a putative class action brought by Starbucks customers under New York consumer protection statutes. The plaintiffs alleged that Starbucks’s marketing materials promoting the quality of its coffee – including claims such as “the finest whole bean coffees,” “Best Coffee for the Best You,” and a “PERFECT” coffee experience – were misleading due to the chain’s alleged use of pest-control pesticides in some of its Manhattan stores. The district court disagreed, dismissing the complaint on the basis that the plaintiffs did not allege “any statements likely to mislead reasonable consumers.” George v. Starbucks Corp., No. 19-6185, 2020 WL 6802955, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2020). The court found that the vast majority of the challenged statements were patently puffery, while the only statement that could conceivably support a claim for deceptive business practices – that Starbucks baked goods contain “no artificial dyes or flavors” – was not rendered false or misleading by the alleged use of pesticides in Starbucks’s stores. Id.

Undeterred, the plaintiffs appealed to the Second Circuit, arguing that Starbucks’s advertising implied quality and purity inconsistent with the use of pesticides. Again, the plaintiffs were rebuffed by the court. In a short summary order, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court’s reasoning and held that “almost all of Starbucks’s statements referenced in the amended complaint constitute puffery.” George v. Starbucks Corp., No. 20-4050-CV, 2021 WL 3825208, at *1 (2d Cir. Aug. 27, 2021). Those that were “specific enough to be more than puffery” referred only to “how Starbucks sources its products and crafts its coffee and the ingredients it uses in its baked goods” such that “[n]o reasonable consumer would believe that these statements communicate anything about the use of pesticide[s] in Starbucks’s stores.” Id. at *2.

In so holding, the Second Circuit rejected what amounted to an attempt to gut puffery law, as well as an attempt to read into Starbucks’s advertising statements alleged promises unrelated to the plain text and its logical implications. This decision is further evidence of what appears to be a growing willingness by some courts to dismiss at the pleading stage consumer protection claims related to allegedly misleading advertisements when such claims are based solely on idiosyncratic inferences drawn by individual plaintiffs.

PEOPLE: Kate T. Spelman

August 30, 2021 The Ninth and Seventh Circuits Revive Robocall Suits Under the TCPA

By: Lina R. Powell

Smartphone computerCourts have seen a flurry of activity in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) realm this year—and August was no exception. In April 2021, the Supreme Court’s Facebook v. Duguid, 141 S. Ct. 1163 (2021), settled the long-debated question of what constitutes an automatic telephone dialing system under the TCPA, 47 U.S.C. § 227. Many anticipated the Court’s willingness to narrow the scope of claims brought under the statute would narrow the number of lawsuits brought under the TCPA. But TCPA cases continue to proliferate, and two appellate courts recently revived claims based on the TCPA.

On August 10, 2021, the Ninth Circuit revived a lawsuit against Fraser Financial and Insurance Services, holding that job recruitment robocalls received by cell phones fall within the TCPA’s scope if the call “did not involve an emergency and was not made with [the consumer’s] prior express consent.” Loyhayem v. Fraser Fin. & Ins. Servs., Inc., ---F. 4th---, 2021 WL 3504057, *2 (9th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021). The TCPA generally makes it illegal to place robocalls to someone’s home phone or cell phone. The Ninth Circuit held that the district court misread the governing robocall consent standards in dismissing the action. While the plaintiff admitted that the robocalls did not involve “advertising or telemarketing”—which are prohibited under the TCPA—the Ninth Circuit rejected the argument that only robocalls involving “advertising or telemarketing” are subject to the TCPA. Id. Rather, the Ninth Circuit noted that the TCPA applies to “any call” that is “made to a cell phone using an automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or pre-recorded voice, unless the call is made either for emergency purposes or with the prior express consent of the person being called,” and that such consent be given either orally or in writing. Id. The Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiff’s allegations that he had not consented orally or in writing to receiving Fraser Financial’s call were sufficient to survive a motion to dismiss. Id. at *3.

That same day, the Seventh Circuit also revived a TCPA robocall lawsuit. See Bilek v. Fed. Ins. Co., et al., ---F. 4th---, 2021 WL 3503132 (7th Cir. Aug. 10, 2021). In an action brought against Federal Insurance Co. (Federal), a health insurance company, and Health Insurance Innovations, a health insurance technology company with which Federal contracted to sell insurance, the plaintiff alleged a vicarious liability theory under the TCPA based on the companies’ contracting with agents to telemarket Federal’s health insurance, thus generating unauthorized robocalls on the companies’ actual authority, apparent authority, and ratification. The district court dismissed the action, finding that the plaintiff failed to allege an agency relationship necessary to prove the companies made unsolicited robocalls advertising their services. The Seventh Circuit reversed, holding that the plaintiff had alleged enough at the pleading stage to establish both an agency relationship with Federal and specific personal jurisdiction over Health Insurance Innovations. While the Seventh Circuit’s opinion focused on whether the plaintiff had alleged enough facts to establish that an agency relationship existed and explicitly held—for the first time—that an agent’s conduct attributable to a principal established personal jurisdiction, it is notable that the appellate court made these findings in the context of allowing robocall claims under the TCPA to proceed.

It is too soon to tell whether the Seventh and Ninth Circuits’ decisions will broaden the scope under which future plaintiffs may bring robocall-based claims under the TCPA. Nonetheless, they suggest that Duguid will not put an end to TCPA lawsuits, which look like they are here to stay.

PEOPLE: Lina R. Powell

August 18, 2021 A Benefytt or a Curse: Ninth Circuit Holds That Bristol-Myers Does Not Apply Before Class Certification

Supreme Court Pillars - iStock_000017257808LargeBy: Alexander M. Smith

In 2017, the Supreme Court held in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017), that a defendant in a mass tort action is not subject to specific personal jurisdiction as to the claims of non-resident plaintiffs whose injuries lack a sufficient connection to the forum state. The Court did not decide, however, whether its holding applied to nationwide class actions. And in the four years following Bristol-Myers, district courts in the Ninth Circuit have reached highly divergent results:

  • Some district courts have “agree[d] . . . that Bristol-Myers Squibb applies in the nationwide class action context” and have dismissed claims brought on behalf of putative nationwide classes, reasoning that “a state cannot assert specific personal jurisdiction for the claims of unnamed class members that would not be subject to specific personal jurisdiction if asserted as individual claims.” Carpenter v. PetSmart, Inc., 441 F. Supp. 3d 1028, 1035 (S.D. Cal. 2020); see also, e.g., Wenokur v. AXA Equitable Life Ins. Co., No. 17-165, 2017 WL 4357916, at *4 (D. Ariz. Oct. 2, 2017) (“The Court notes that it lacks personal jurisdiction over the claims of putative class members with no connection to Arizona and therefore would not be able to certify a nationwide class.”).
  • Other district courts have declined to extend Bristol-Myers to nationwide class actions. Some have reasoned that Bristol-Myers likely does not apply in federal courts at all, or at least not in cases arising under federal law. See, e.g., Pascal v. Concentra, Inc., No. 19-2559, 2019 WL 3934936, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 20, 2019) (“Bristol-Myers does not apply in this case because Plaintiff asserts his claim in a federal court and under federal law.”); Massaro v. Beyond Meat, Inc., No. 20-510, 2021 WL 948805, at *11 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 12, 2021) (similar). Others have distinguished Bristol-Myers on the basis that it involved a mass tort claim and have “decline[d] to extend Bristol-Myers to the class action context,” reasoning that doing so would “radically alter the existing universe of class action law.” Sotomayor v. Bank of Am., N.A., 377 F. Supp. 3d 1034, 1038 (C.D. Cal. 2019); see also, e.g., Fitzhenry-Russell v. Dr. Pepper Snapple Grp., Inc., No. 17-564, 2017 WL 4224723, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 22, 2017) (“[T]he Supreme Court did not extend its reasoning to bar the nonresident plaintiffs’ claims here, and Bristol-Myers is meaningfully distinguishable based on that case concerning a mass tort action, in which each plaintiff was a named plaintiff.”).
  • Still others have sidestepped the question of whether Bristol-Myers applies to nationwide class actions by holding that “the claims of unnamed class members are irrelevant to the question of specific jurisdiction” until the court certifies a class. In re Morning Song Bird Food Litig., No. 12-1592, 2018 WL 1382746, at *5 (S.D. Cal. Mar. 19, 2018). These courts have concluded that, “[u]nless and until [the plaintiff] demonstrates that she is entitled to litigate the claims of non-resident potential class members, it is premature for the Court to rule on whether it has jurisdiction over claims belonging to non-resident putative class members.” Robinson v. Unilever U.S., Inc., No. 17-3010, 2018 WL 6136139, at *3 (C.D. Cal. June 25, 2018).

On August 10, 2021, the Ninth Circuit issued a published opinion, Moser v. Benefytt, Inc., --- F.4th ----, that endorsed the third approach and held that it is “premature” for a court to determine at the pleading stage whether it can exercise personal jurisdiction over the claims of putative class members. Although Moser deprives defendants in nationwide class actions of a potential jurisdictional challenge at the pleading stage, it leaves that challenge open later in the case—and makes clear that a defendant does not waive a Bristol-Myers challenge by failing to raise it at the pleading stage.

In Moser, a California resident brought a putative class action under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act against Benefytt, a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in Florida, and sought to represent a nationwide class. Although Benefytt did not raise Bristol-Myers in its motion to dismiss, it opposed the plaintiff’s motion for class certification by arguing, among other things, that Bristol-Myers precluded the court from exercising personal jurisdiction over the claims of non-resident class members. In its order granting the plaintiff’s motion for class certification, the district court declined to reach the merits of Benefytt’s Bristol-Myers challenge, finding instead that Benefytt had waived any objections to personal jurisdiction by failing to raise them in a motion to dismiss or an answer. After granting Benefytt permission to appeal the class certification order pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(f), the Ninth Circuit vacated the class certification order and held that Benefytt had not waived its Bristol-Myers challenge.

After concluding that Rule 23(f) authorized it to review the district court’s personal jurisdiction ruling, the Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred by finding that Benefytt had waived its Bristol-Myers defense by failing to raise it in a motion to dismiss. The Ninth Circuit reached this conclusion based on two premises: (1) that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(2) only requires defendants to raise a personal jurisdiction defense if it is “available”: and (2) that “a class action, when filed, only includes the claims of the named plaintiff.” “Putting these points together,” the Ninth Circuit reasoned, showed that Benefytt “did not have ‘available’ a Rule 12(b)(2) personal jurisdiction defense to the claims of unnamed putative class members who were not yet parties to the case.” The Ninth Circuit accordingly concluded that Benefytt “could not have moved to dismiss on personal jurisdiction grounds the claims of putative class members who were not then before the court” and that Benefytt was therefore not “required to seek dismissal of hypothetical future plaintiffs.” In so holding, the Ninth Circuit stressed that its conclusion was consistent with the holdings of the Fifth Circuit in Cruson v. Jackson National Life Insurance Co., 954 F.3d 240 (5th Cir. 2020) and the D.C. Circuit in Molock v. Whole Foods Market Group, Inc., 952 F.3d 293 (D.C. Cir. 2020)—both of which concluded that Bristol-Myers does not apply to the claims of nonresident putative class members until and unless a class is certified.

Although the Ninth Circuit held that Benefytt had not waived its Bristol-Myers challenge and vacated the district court’s class certification order, it declined to reach the underlying question of whether Bristol-Myers applies to nationwide class actions and left that issue for the district court to address on remand. In so holding, the Ninth Circuit suggested—albeit in passing—that the analysis may turn on “additional record development,” potentially including additional discovery as to the extent of Benefytt’s contacts with California. And while the Ninth Circuit did not expressly say so, this conclusion appears inconsistent with the holdings of some district courts that Bristol-Myers is categorically inapplicable in federal court or to nationwide class actions. Nonetheless, regardless of how broadly or narrowly one interprets the Ninth Circuit’s decision, it makes clear that the Bristol-Myers analysis must take place at the class certification stage—and gives defendants comfort that they will not waive their Bristol-Myers defenses by waiting until class certification to raise them.

CATEGORIES: Class Action Settlements, Class Action Trends, Class Certification, US Supreme Court

PEOPLE: Alexander M. Smith

July 29, 2021 CFPB Continues to Focus on Debt-Relief and Credit-Repair Services

By: Amina Stone-Taylor

Credit-reportIn recent years, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has focused its Bureau resources on companies offering credit repair and debt relief services.[1] In a 2019 consumer advisory, the CFPB reported that more than half the individuals who submitted a complaint to the Bureau about credit repair categorized it as “fraud/scam.”[2] The CFPB has also undertaken a number of enforcement actions focused on the credit repair industry.[3]

On June 28, 2021, the CFPB announced the proposed resolution of another enforcement matter arising from credit repair services—this time against Burlington Financial Group, LLC.  The CFPB and the Attorney General of the State of Georgia filed a joint complaint against Burlington Financial and its owners/executives, along with a proposed joint stipulation of final judgment and order. The complaint alleges that Burlington Financial misled consumers into believing the company could lower or eliminate credit-card debts and improve their credit score, and violated the Telemarketing Sale Rule (TSR) and the Consumer Financial Protection Act (CFPA) through their deceptive marketing tactics.[4] The CFPB stated, “Burlington Financial used telemarketing to solicit people with false promises that the company’s services would eliminate credit-card debts.”[5] The stipulated proposed order permanently bans Burlington Financial and its owners from providing any financial-advisory, debt relief, or credit repair services.[6] The company also will be responsible for paying a civil money penalty of $151,001.[7]

If you would like to read more about the CFPB’s claims against and resolution with Burlington Financial, please click here for access to the CFPB’s press release and filings.

[1] See e.g., Emeri Krawczyk, Nation’s Housing: CFPB cracks down on ‘credit-repair’ companies (July 26, 2017),

https://buffalonews.com/homes/nation-s-housing-cfpb-cracks-down-on-credit-repair-companies/article_057b871c-d570-5010-8a71-79415fc98eea.html

[2] Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Don’t be Misled by Companies Offering Paid Credit Repair Services (December 3, 2019), https://files.consumerfinance.gov/f/documents/092016_cfpb_ConsumerAdvisory.pdf

[3] See e.g., Matt Gephardt, Utah Credit Repair Companies Sued Over Billing Issue (May 3, 2019), https://kutv.com/news/get-gephardt/utah-credit-repair-companies-sued-over-billing-practices

[4] Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, CFPB Takes Action Against Company and its Owners and Executives for Deceptive Debt-Relief and Credit-Repair Services (June 28, 2021), https://www.consumerfinance.gov/about-us/newsroom/cfpb-takes-action-against-company-and-its-owners-and-executives-for-deceptive-debt-relief-and-credit-repair-services/

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

July 20, 2021 Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Releases Its 2020 Supervisory Highlights Report

By: Felicitas L. Reyes

New-Development-IconThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) recently released the latest version of its Supervisory Highlights report, which summarizes the findings of the Bureau’s supervisory examinations in 2020. The CFPB identified four findings from the report as “particularly concerning”:

  1. Consumer Reporting Companies’ Use of Data From “Unreliable” Furnishers: The CFPB reported that its examiners found that consumer reporting companies have accepted and reported consumer data received from third-party furnishers, while ignoring signs that the data furnishers were unreliable. The CFPB warned that it “will remain diligent and consumer reporting companies are on notice with respect to risks posed by accepting data from furnishers where there are indications of unreliability.”

  2. Redlining: The report states that CFPB examiners found evidence of redlining, including direct mail marketing materials showcasing pictures of only white people and locating credit loan offices “almost exclusively” in majority-white neighborhoods. CFPB examiners found that these actions “lowered the number of applications from minority neighborhoods relative to other comparable lenders.”

  3. Regulation X Foreclosure Issues: The report states CFPB examinations identified “several violations” by mortgage servicers of the servicing rules in Regulation X, including filing for a foreclosure before evaluating borrower’s appeals or initiating a foreclosure prior to the date that they told consumers they would.  On June 28, 2021, the CFPB issued a final rule that it contends will help consumers avoid foreclosures as the emergency federal foreclosure protections expire.

  4. Student Loan Servicing for the PSLF Program: CFPB examiners found violations in the type of information that student loan servicers gave consumers about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Examiners found that student loan servicers were giving consumers incorrect information that could potentially bar access to the program and could result in thousands of dollars lost for these consumers.

If you would like to read more about the areas mentioned above and other consumer law violations that the CFPB report discusses, please click here for access to the full supervisory highlights report and press release. 

July 16, 2021 EU Guidance on Forced Labour in Supply Chains

   

By: Paul FeldbergLucy Blake, and Karam Jardaneh

New-Update-IconIntroduction

Earlier this week, the European Commission published its Guidance “On Due Diligence For EU Businesses To Address The Risk Of Forced Labour In Their Operations And Supply Chains”. 

The document, which is not legally binding, provides practical guidance on how to use existing international, voluntary, due diligence guidelines and principles when dealing with the risk of forced labour in supply chains.

The European Commission made clear in its press release, that the Guidance forms part of the EU’s wider strategy to defend human rights and strengthen the resilience and sustainability of the EU supply chain. The European Commission sees the Guidance as encouragement for EU businesses to take appropriate measures regarding their supply chains ahead of the EU’s introduction of a mandatory due diligence duty for businesses operating in the EU. As set out in our previous Client Alert, the due diligence duty will require certain businesses operating in the EU to identify, prevent, mitigate and account for adverse human rights and environmental impacts in their operations and supply chains. We will also cover this in more detail as well as other developments in Europe in a separate Client Alert. 

Who should consider the Guidance? 

Although the Guidance is directed at EU companies, it is based on international instruments aimed at companies globally. This includes the OECD Due Diligence Guidance For Responsible Business Conduct (the OECD Guidelines) and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs). While the UNGPs are not “legally binding” and are often referred to as “soft-law”, there are growing expectations for companies worldwide to adhere to them. This “soft law” has been evolving into “hard law” in multiple jurisdictions (the anticipated EU mandatory due diligence laws being a prime example). Therefore, we believe that this Guidance will be a helpful resource for companies globally.

Why is the guidance helpful? 

Repository of International Guidance 

The Guidance pulls together existing general international guidelines on effective due diligence of supply chains (which is not only limited to forced labour) and is therefore a useful source of guidance in this area for companies. In particular, the Guidance highlights the six-step supply chain due diligence process set out in the OECD Guidelines; namely to

  1. Embed responsible business conduct into the company’s policies and management systems 
  2. Identify and assess actual or potential adverse human rights, societal and environmental impacts in the company’s operations, supply chains and business relationships 
  3. Cease, prevent and mitigate adverse impacts 
  4. Track implementation and results
  5. Communicate how adverse impacts are addressed 
  6. Provide for or cooperate in remediation when appropriate

We provide a more detailed explanation of the due diligence process in our previous Client Alert, which covers the “six best practices to promote and support human rights and corporate social responsibility in supply chains”.

Forced labour

The Guidance also adds value by tailoring existing guidance to address forced labour risks in supply chains. The Guidance identifies practical considerations in the implementation of due diligence processes for the purposes of dealing with forced labour risk. For example, the Guidance sets out a list of “red-flags” for forced labour to be taken into account when scoping supply chain due diligence. These risk factors broadly fall into three categories: 

  • Country risk factors 
  • Risk factors linked to migration and informality 
  • Risk factors linked to presence of debt risk 

The Guidance also singles out the following cross-cutting issues which should be taken into account in a business’ due diligence: 

  • Gender: the Guidance acknowledges that risks of harm in the supply chain often differ for men and women and sets out considerations that need to be taken into account in applying a “gender-responsive due diligence”.
  • Ethnic or Religious minorities: the Guidance acknowledges that instances of forced labour targeted against a particular ethnic or religious group, may be part of a wider policy of discrimination, either by government or company policy. However, significantly (particularly in light of the issues in Xinjiang), the Guidance provides that 

“EU companies should still take action to ensure that their businesses or supply chains are neither directly nor indirectly contributing to such policies or practices and to seek to cease, prevent or mitigate adverse impacts (through using leverage or disengagement, for example) to which they are directly linked, even if they have not contributed to those impacts”. 

We will also cover US guidance relating to Xinjiang-specific supply chain due diligence in another Client Alert.

  • Raw materials of unknown or high-risk origin: the Guidance highlights the importance of a business credibly obtaining and verifying information on the origin of raw materials. It notes that if a business is unable to identify the origin of raw materials or their origin is from high-risk countries then it should assess whether independent access to evaluate worksites is feasible. If not feasible, businesses should direct suppliers to source materials from commodity traders outside of high-risk areas.

Conclusion

The Guidance reflects the growing expectations for companies to follow the voluntary global standards in the UNGP and the OECD Guidelines. It also serves as a reminder that companies operating in the EU should start to get ready for the mandatory due diligence requirements that will follow.