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$375,000: The Price for Peace

Yesterday the CPSC announced that it has reached a settlement with Craig Zucker, in the litigation to force a recall of Buckyballs.  The Commission alleged that 0727_buckyballs_630x420Buckyballs, although designed and marketed for adults, were defective because a number of children had sustained serious injuries after swallowing the tiny powerful magnetic balls.  The settlement calls for the CPSC staff to establish a recall trust fund to manage the recall. Mr. Zucker will fund an escrow account to dole out money to the trust fund up to $375,000.  In its press release, the CPSC trumpets that this is “a win for safety.”  Mr. Zucker, on the other hand, says that he hopes “the settlement will discourage the CPSC from wrongfully pursuing . . . entrepreneurs in the future.”

Who, then, won and who lost?  In the most simplistic terms, perhaps one could say that the agency won since it accomplished a recall that would not otherwise have occurred.  But what is that recall worth and at what price was the recall obtained?

Left on the table is the question of whether Buckyballs are defective.  The government’s theory of defect was that warnings are not sufficient to prevent injury to an unintended user group and therefore the product cannot be made and sold, even though there were no injuries to the intended user group.  In the settlement Mr. Zucker does not concede that Buckyballs are defective, and the settlement leaves unresolved the agency’s apparent philosophy that a product can be banned if warnings do not work.

Also left on the table is the question of whether the agency even had jurisdiction over Mr. Zucker in his personal capacity. The agreement makes clear that Mr. Zucker is not conceding the issue of jurisdiction and so the applicability of the Responsible Corporate Doctrine is not addressed by this agreement except to say that Mr. Zucker personally is released from all agency liability (assuming it existed in the first place).

The recall itself is very curious.  The CPSC staff will implement the corrective action plan and claims (accompanied by proof of purchase or an affidavit attesting to purchase location and price) must be presented within six months of the recall trust being established and consumers notified of the recall.  Refunds will be made in the order they are received and any consumers who either file after the six month period ends or after the funds have been depleted are out of luck.  A web site paid for out of the recall fund will be established and maintained by the Commission for five years. The escrow account funding the recall will be closed after 12 months with any remaining funds reverting back to Mr. Zucker.  But since the government does not have experience administering recalls and will, no doubt, have to hire a third party (paid for out of recall funds) to administer the fund and oversee the recall, it is pretty unlikely that there will be any monies going back to Mr. Zucker.

The settlement agreement does raise a side issue that may be interesting to lawyers or students of regulatory policy.  The Antideficiency Act prohibits a federal agency from obligating the government to pay out money before funds have been appropriated and a real question exists as to whether this agreement violates the Antideficiency Act.  Further, administering recalls is not within the specified functions of the Commission and the act is rather specific in stating that recalls will be undertaken by the product seller.  It is not clear to me that the agency has the authority to take the actions specified in the agreement but it is also not clear who (other than the agency’s inspector general) would be in a position to object.

Going back to the question of winners and losers, it seems that there are lots of losers but I don’t see any winners.  The agency lost since it has spent substantial public resources (would it not be interesting to know how much the government has spent on this?) to reach an agreement that is about half a percent of what it initially wanted.   The agency lost because the issues that were central to the litigation were left unresolved.  Mr. Zucker lost because he, no doubt, ended up spending more in legal fees than the value of the recall and basically paid the government to get them off his back.

But at the end of the day, consumers lost. Scarce public resources were spent to achieve a recall that cannot be effective both because of how it is structured and what it is trying to accomplish.   Past experience shows that very few of these products will be returned, thereby achieving little added safety even if the government’s theory of hazard is correct.  And if the past is prologue, then the government achieved very little at a very great cost with consumers footing the bill.

 

 

Time for Doing the Work, Not Looking for Shortcuts

Those who follow the CPSC closely expect that the President’s new commission nominees will be confirmed soon.  The question is: will new leadership change either the tone or the direction of the agency?  Two exchanges during the confirmation hearings made my ears perk up since they went to that question.  Both exchanges addressed the regulatory approach of the nominees.

The first exchange dealt with testing burden reduction.  Remember that PL 112-28 directed the Commission to undertake actions to reduce the costs of third party testing or report back to Congress if it needed additional authorities.  Senator John Thune noted that the agency has done nothing to implement measures to reduce costs in any meaningful way.  Senator Thune asked each nominee, upon confirmation, to provide the Senate Committee with their plans for implementing efforts to reduce testing costs. Senator Thune has given the nominees a real opportunity to show leadership and provide actual relief from the agency’s overly-expansive and costly testing approach—which does not provide consumers with additional safety but does add additional costs to the products they buy.

So as the two nominees craft their plans in response to Senator Thune’s request, will those plans reflect business as usual, with the agency doing only enough to make it appear that it is doing its legal duty but still managing to avoid any real change?  Or will those plans show a thoughtful and creative approach to fixing a problem that Congress and members of the public have identified but which the leadership of the agency, up to this point, has sought to minimize?

Another interesting exchange during the hearing dealt with procedures for issuing regulations.  While addressing the five-year delay in issuing rules for recreational off-road vehicles, the nominee for Chairman, Mr. Kaye, bemoaned the lack of “express” rulemaking authority in the Consumer Product Safety Act.  He attributed regulatory delays to the findings the agency has to make before issuing a final rule and the cost-benefit analysis that he said was “unique” to the CPSC (implying that such analysis was overly burdensome).  But Mr. Kaye did not identify which findings and what aspects of cost-benefit analysis are overly burdensome to the agency. Having that information would provide the basis for a good discussion on regulatory policy at the agency.

Section 9 of the CPSA (15 U.S.C. 2058) spells out how the agency must go about issuing product safety rules or bans. The law states that before the agency initiates rulemaking it must make some preliminary effort to assure itself that the rule is indeed needed.  Those efforts include:

  • a first-cut at describing the potential costs and benefits of the proposed rule;
  • a discussion of why any existing voluntary standard is not adequate; and
  • a description of reasonable alternatives to the rule and why those alternatives should not be considered.

But which of these points of analysis do those advocating for express rulemaking want to eliminate?  Do we really want federal agencies beginning the rulemaking process without doing initial homework in the form of some upfront analysis to assure the public that the proposed direction is correct? To my ears, the complaint that doing your homework is too hard rings hollow.

But perhaps it is the cost benefit analysis that must been done during the rulemaking process that is the problem for those complaining about burdens and advocating express rulemaking.  The law states that the analysis must include a description of the potential benefits and potential costs of the rule and a description of the alternatives to the rule that the commission considered, the costs and benefits of those alternatives and a description of why they were not chosen.  But the law merely states explicitly what necessarily should be included in any competent regulatory analysis.  Unless we are willing to agree that the feds are always right in their regulatory approach, would we not want any agency to gather, write down and then actually consider that information before regulating?

I suspect that the real problem for those advocating for express rulemaking is the law’s expectation that the data will be used to inform results–that the agency actually will use the data to tailor or perhaps even change its preferred regulatory approach.  The law tells the agency that it may not issue a rule unless it finds, among other things, that

  • the benefits of the rule bear a reasonable relationship to its costs; and
  • the rule imposes the least burdensome requirement to adequately address the risk.

In other words, if the agency’s preferred regulatory approach is not the most efficient way to address a risk, then Congress expects the agency to change its approach.

Here are a couple of follow-up questions to the nominees.  Do we want the agency to be able to regulate without regard to costs and benefits? Should not the agency have to change its preferred approach if the costs and benefits are not reasonably related?  Do we want the agency to impose requirements that are more burdensome than they need to be and do so out of ignorance because it did not bother to consider alternatives?  I submit that we do not.  And I believe that experience over the past four years illustrates the importance of these requirements. Several extremely costly and burdensome rules were put into effect without the analysis described above since the CPSIA did not require that analysis.  Indeed, PL 112-28 was passed because the testing rule, not subjected to that analysis, resulted in costs that are excessive.

Regulation is not and should not be easy.  If data shows the need for a rule, then the agency should roll up its sleeves and get to work, not complain about how hard it is and look for shortcuts.  It will be interesting to see if the new leadership is up for doing the hard work.

Recall the Recall Rule

Earlier this week I was at St. Louis University to present at its product safety management program, an intensive executive education course offered by the University’s business school for product safety professionals.  I have done this several times before and, as always, the students were smart, insightful and articulate as they posed practical questions about complying with the complex CPSC rules that have been issued over the past several years.

It was interesting to me that the class participants were all aware of the CPSC’s proposed changes to the voluntary recall rule.  Quite a bit of concern was expressed by the class about how those rules, if finalized, would change the recall process.  I was very impressed that company compliance professionals are watching what happens with this rule—clearly, this is not inside baseball.

Much has been written about this proposed rule—how it is a solution in search of a problem; how it will fundamentally change the voluntary recall process; how it will slow down recalls to the detriment of consumers.

The Washington Legal Foundation recently asked me for my thoughts on how the proposed rule would impact the voluntary recall process.  Today they published my article and you can find it here:

http://www.wlf.org/upload/legalstudies/legalbackgrounder/042514LB_Nord.pdf.

Let me know what you think.

I saw it on the Internet; it must be true

Earlier this week a friend told me that unfair and misleading information had been put on his Wikipedia page without his knowledge. While I have no idea how things get cautionposted on Wikipedia, I do know that, with greater frequency, Wikipedia posts are being cited as fact. And I could not help but think about how the process of morphing disinformation into “factual” information would be accelerated if the federal government could cite, use, and repost information found on the internet without making efforts to verify the validity of that information.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what the CPSC is suggesting it be able to do in a proposed rule that would “modernize” its regulations dealing with information disclosure. The law requires that the public disclosure of any information obtained by the agency that identifies a manufacturer or product be accurate and fair. The current regulations set out a process for checking with the product manufacturer to verify the accuracy and fairness of the information proposed to be disclosed. The agency now proposed to substantially change the rules with respect to how it carries out its responsibility to assure the accuracy of the product-specific information it publicly discloses.

Among other things, the agency wants to republish with impunity information about a product that has already been made public, including information on the internet.  The agency would have no obligation to go back to the manufacturer to verify the accuracy of the information it proposes to republish. Apparently checking the validity of such information is just too much of a burden. And publishing unverified information by the federal government lends credence to that information, regardless of its accuracy.

While I leave to others to opine on whether this comports with the letter of the law, it certainly violates the law’s spirit. My friend discovered that, on the web, anyone can say anything about you. But is it right that this behavior be condoned and promoted by the federal government?

There are a number of other troublesome changes being proposed by the CPSC’s proposed rule on information disclosure. Comments on the proposal (Docket No. CPSC-2014-0005) are due on April 28. Anyone concerned about agency fairness should read the proposal, go to regulations.gov and submit comments.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Yesterday the CPSC held an all-day meeting to again address ways to reduce the costs of third party testing.  Recall that three years ago, in Public Law 112-28, Congress told the agency of its concern that testing costs were imposing an undue burden and directed the agency to identify and implement opportunities to reduce that burden.  Over the past three years, the agency has asked for public comment on opportunities to reduce testing costs three, or is it four, times (but who’s counting).

Yesterday’s meeting focused on whether the agency should make “determinations” that certain substances do not and cannot contain phthalates and the various heavy metals listed in the toy standard, ASTM F-963. This inquiry is patterned after the action the agency took in 2009 when it determined that certain substances, such as natural fibers and untreated wood for example, did not and could not contain lead and so therefore there was no need to test for it.

Perhaps the agency will determine that the same substances that are exempt from lead testing should also be exempted from testing for phthalates and heavy metals.  If it does, then perhaps that action will provide a bit of relief for those companies that have been engaged in such useless testing.

But I have two questions for the agency:

(1)  What took you so long to reach such an obvious conclusion?

(2)  What more are you going to do to carry out Congress’ mandate or do you plan to stop there?

The agency was able to make its lead testing determinations very quickly and with a minimum of regulatory gyrations.  It has taken the current agency three years to even make an inquiry into questions that should have been very easy to answer.  What may come out of this exercise is very minimal relief with maximum patting oneself on the back for reducing testing costs.   I do hope the agency proves me wrong.

 

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

[I]ndependent regulatory agencies should consider how best to promote retrospective analysis of rules that may be outmoded, ineffective, insufficient, or excessively burdensome, and to modify, streamline, expand, or repeal them. . .”.  President Barack Obama, Executive Order 13579, July 2011.

 

mattress on fireA small announcement in the March 17 Federal Register noted that the CPSC would be collecting information on compliance with the mattress flammability standard that deals with fires caused by smoldering cigarettes, 16 CFR 1632. Why would anyone notice or care?

For those who took President Obama at his word when he announced his executive order, this is just another reminder of how one agency, the CPSC, in its push to regulate, has chosen to ignore basic principles of good government.  Here’s the back story.

Years ago, the CPSC promulgated a safety standard for mattresses addressing the risk of fires caused by smoldering cigarettes.  The test in the standard consisted of laying several of the hottest burning commercially available cigarettes—unfiltered Pall Mall’s—on a mattress and measuring char length after a prescribed time.

In 2006, the agency issued another safety rule addressing the risk of mattress fires caused by small open flames from such things as candles, lighters and matches, 16 CFR 1633.  The test for that standard consists of holding two propane burners to the mattress and measuring the time it takes the mattress to ignite.  This test is a much more rigorous test than that required by the earlier cigarette smoldering test.

For several years now, I have been asking the question why require two separate tests when it is likely that one will suffice to measure the flammability characteristics of mattresses.  It is unlikely that a mattress could pass the open flame test but fail the cigarette smolder test. The agency now has sufficient experience with the more rigorous open flame standard to determine whether the cigarette smoldering standard is really needed.  Would it not be a new and interesting experience to see the CPSC consider actually repealing a standard as being unneeded?

A perversely amusing aspect of this question is the fact that the unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes required to be used for the testing were phased out by the manufacturer several years ago.  Further, all 50 states now prohibit the sale of any cigarettes other than reduced ignition propensity (RIP) cigarettes—those that go out if the smoker does not continually puff on them.  The CPSC’s reaction to these developments was not to question the need for the underlying regulation but instead to use public funds to develop a new test cigarette.  This new government-developed cigarette is available for purchase from the National Institute for Standards and Technology.

Where does all this leave us?  The CPSC continues to enforce a standard that on its face does not comport with what is happening in the real world.  Mattress manufacturers are forced to buy cigarettes that no one will ever smoke to perform a test that may well be irrelevant. The consumer pays the cost of excessive testing.  And the CPSC, rather than asking the important question of whether this regulation is even needed, instead issues a Federal Register notice telling us about its plans for enforcing it.  Does anyone else see something wrong with this picture?

An Interesting Year So Far

So far, 2014 has been an interesting year.  In January and February, the talk among those who follow CPSC matters closely was about the agency’s efforts to fundamentally change the voluntary recall process under the guise of merely “tweaking” the process.  In March, the conversation is all about the agency’s efforts to dilute the protections that §6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act provides to assure that information coming out of the agency is accurate and fair.  I wonder what April will bring.

The proposed changes to the §6(b) information disclosure rule which are now out for public comment alter the current rule and practice in very fundamental ways.  Any company that is regulated by the CPSC should look at the proposal closely to understand how the CPSC proposes to change the rules of the road. As a starting point in this analysis, I recommend that you read an article recently published by the Washington Legal Foundation and written by former CPSC general counsel Cheryl Falvey.  This article gives an overview of the changes the commission proposes and why they are important.  Then you should read the proposal for yourself and start writing comments to the CPSC.


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