Court to CPSC: Your Magnet Rule’s a Turkey

Zen Magnets, the tiny Colorado company that has challenged the CPSC’s actions turkeyregulating small, powerful magnets, will be having a very good Thanksgiving this year.  That is because, once again, Zen has shown that it is possible to fight the federal government and win.  Today the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled that the CPSC’s safety standard banning the magnets sold by Zen did not withstand judicial scrutiny.  The court told the agency that if it wanted to regulate magnets it needed to follow the requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act, and that it should go back to the drawing board and rethink its justifications for the rule.

The CPSA requires that the agency do a cost-benefit analysis and make findings that identify the nature and degree of the risk of injury weighted against the public’s need for the product and then regulate in the least burdensome manner possible.  The Court found that the agency’s analysis was deficient.  The court found that the agency overstated the number on injuries and neglected to consider the public utility of many of the uses of the product.  In other words, the statutory requirement to weight the costs and benefits of a proposed action is a critical part of regulating.  My experience in the last several years of my term as a CPSC Commissioner was that this statutory requirement was seen as an annoyance rather than as a tool for informed decision-making.  Perhaps the Tenth Circuit’s decision will change the agency’s approach to using this statutory tool.

The agency’s approach to regulating magnets has been characterized by an “ends justifies means” mind-set.  The agency worked to cut off the ability to sell the magnets through retail channels by “asking” retailers to stop selling the product.  The agency sought to recall the product, knowing that consumers would not respond to the recall but also knowing that this device could stop further sales.  The agency sued those few distributors who had the fortitude to challenge the agency’s action.  The one company that has stayed the course is Zen, and its success rate has been quite remarkable.  The administrative law judge that heard the recall action ruled in Zen’s favor.  Now an appellate court has found that the rule the agency issued to ban future sales of the product is defective because it blew by statutory requirements that provide for balanced decision-making.

Zen is like a little Yorkie terrier that has grabbed ahold of the ankle of the CPSC and will not let go.  Yet, through its determination to challenge what it believes is over-reach by the federal government, it has forced the agency to reexamine its approach to a serious issue.  It may be that, through Zen’s actions, the CPSC will come to understand that it can protect consumer safety without disregarding basic notions of due process.  What a good Thanksgiving that would be.

A Course Correction at the CPSC?

Wow! Last Tuesday was quite something! Throughout Washington, folks are now trying to figure out what the new administration means for our country.  But so far I have not seen anything written about what the CPSC will look like going into 2017, so here is my take.

Unlike the cabinet officers who serve at the pleasure of the President, independent regulatory commissioners serve a term of office and can be replaced only for “cause” rather than at the will of the President.  There are currently no vacancies on the Commission, nor will there be until October, 2017 unless one of the sitting commissioners decides to leave prior to the end of their term.  The current chairman may or may not decide to give up that office but still remain on the Commission and it may be that one of the sitting Republican commissioners could become acting chairman until a permanent chairman is nominated.  Those kinds of changes will be decided among the commissioners in the near term and speculation about such things may be a fun parlor game but nothing more.  It is much more productive to think about what the agency should look like beyond 2017 and for the long term.

During my eight years as a Commissioner, I saw the agency change from one that sought collaboration with stakeholders to solve important safety issues to one that places priority on punishment; from one that sought open communication with the regulated community to one that often fosters fear and distrust.  The agency enforcement philosophy changed from the “punishment should fit the crime” to “upping the ante” as high as it could go. In its proposals to change the voluntary recall process to one that is much more adversarial and to change the §6(b) regulations in a way that probably violates the statute, the agency has sought to impose a political agenda rather than address real safety issues.  Over the past several years, both Commissioner Buerkle and Commissioner Mohorovic have written very thoughtful statements about the direction of the agency and these statements could, and should, serve as the outline for a new and more effective CPSC.

This would also be a good time to at least consider whether systemic change to the agency is appropriate.  In an article a while back, I questioned whether having five commissioners at the top of a small agency was such top-heavy management that inefficiencies and muddled priorities have to follow. Reconsidering the agency’s place in the federal hierarchy is an appropriate analysis to undertake. Such an analysis needs to be grounded in how to provide the safety protections the public expects in the most efficient manner.

No doubt there will be some who see any change in direction as an effort to gut the agency rather than an effort to make a needed course correction.  But for those of us who care deeply about consumer safety, such a course correction will serve the agency, and consumers, well in the long term.

 

Steps Forward; Steps Back

Now that August is over and Labor Day is but a memory, it is time to focus on how the twostepsforwardCPSC spent the closing days of summer.  On a positive note, the agency was able to push forward helpful initiatives that ease compliance costs without diluting safety.  Then they had to put a damper on this positive glow with threats of resurrecting the discredited and flawed proposals dealing with voluntary recalls and public information (the §6(b) rule).

Forward Steps

The recently published NPR interpreting the fireworks rule is one of those steps forward.  The fireworks regulation has been on the books for several decades and is sorely in need of updating.  Among many other things, the regulation is designed to address overloaded fireworks but does so in a less-than-straight-forward manner.  It bans fireworks “intended to produce audible effects” if those “audible effects” are produced by using more than 2 grains of pyrotechnic composition.  Rather than measure the pyrotechnic materials in the fireworks device to determine compliance, for years the staff has listened for the intensity of the sound produced by the device to determine if it was intended to produce audible effects or whether the sound produced was merely incidental to the operation of the device.  The staff’s determination as to how loud the device was, based on what a staffer heard, was hardly either objective or measurable and has resulted in compliance actions that have been criticized for lack of objectivity.

The American Pyrotechnic Association has a standard that actually measures the presence of materials that may be used to produce an audible effect.  The APA standard has been adopted by the Department of Transportation regulations that deal with the shipment of fireworks.  The proposal, which has been pushed by Commissioners Robinson and Mohorovic in particular, would adopt the APA standard as the testing measure for the CPSC as well. An objective standard would add clarity both for the staff who must make compliance decisions, and the industry which can stop worrying that compliance is dependent on a staffer’s ear.

Another example of a “step forward” is a proposal determining that four types of plastics used extensively in children’s products do not need to be tested for the presence of phthalates.  This proposal would put into action what product manufacturers have been telling the agency for some time—phthalates are not added to these substances and so testing for them both is unnecessary from the standpoint of safety and is costly and burdensome.  This proposal, which has been a long time in the making, compliments the flexibility found in the 2009 statement of policy on phthalates testing and, hopefully, should provide some relief to a number of manufacturers and importers.

Backward Steps

However, the Commissioners could not end the summer on a positive note.  Instead, on the last day of August, the Commissioners met to talk about their regulatory priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.  Observers of the agency are well aware of the controversy engendered by the agency proposal to significantly change the way voluntary recalls are negotiated and agreed to.  Similarly the proposed changes to §6(b) dealing with how information about individual products is made public would distort the statute and surely subject the agency to needless litigation. I have discussed the problems with these proposals in detail, and the Congress has told the agency to cease and desist.

Chairman Kaye has repeatedly expressed his lack of interest in moving forward with these two troublesome proposals.  However, each time he has been given the opportunity to vote to remove them from the agency’s regulatory priorities list, he has refused to do that.  At the recent priorities hearing he was given yet another chance to do that and he did not step up.  Instead, Commissioner Adler, a staunch foe of §6(b) and a supporter of the voluntary recall rule, announced that he would be trying to draft a “compromise” to offer at some unknown point in the future (and not specifying if that would be before or after the elections).  For those who thought that perhaps these two ill-conceived proposals were behind you, do not be so sure.  Commissioner Adler’s gambit may provide the excuse 3 Commissioners need to defy logic, good public policy and the Congress to promulgate these divisive and poorly thought-through rules.

Saying It’s a Recall Doesn’t Make It So

With the CPSC’s blessing, a large furniture company recently sent out wall anchors for its children’s dressers to address a tipping hazard and the accompanying CPSC press release did not refer to the activity as a recall. Subsequently a child was killed when one of the dressers fell. Chaffing under criticism from its decision to allow the company to do a “non-recall recall”, the powers-that-be at the CPSC have now apparently decided that every corrective action or other announcement about a product must be labeled a “recall.”  Commissioner Buerkle has pointed out why this rigid adherence to labels is bad policy.  And this past week we have seen why her concerns are well-founded.

The issue involves the agency’s investigation of flooring made in China and sold by Lumber Liquidators, which allegedly emitted dangerous levels of formaldehyde. After the issue was described in a 60 Minutes segment in March, 2015, the company responded by agreeing not to sell the Chinese flooring and to test the flooring of those consumers who so requested. After over a year of extensive study, testing and investigation by several different agencies, no formaldehyde emissions above government guidelines were found.

Rather than announce this good news and put consumers’ minds at ease, last week the CPSC instead chose to cast the announcement in terms of a “recall.”  The “recall” that the agency announced is a first ever “recall to test”, with the company agreeing to continue what it has been doing from the beginning–that is, test for formaldehyde emissions the flooring of consumers who request that.  No promises of a refund, a repair or return of the flooring are made (although the release does hint that a consumer maybe, possibly could get some replacement flooring under undescribed circumstances at the company’s discretion). Buried in the press release is the admonition that consumers are not to pull up flooring they may be concerned about because that action could be dangerous.

I saw many press stories reporting that the investigation did not find a problem with the company’s product.  I did not see stories that discussed the fact that the company was doing a “recall” (although perhaps I may have missed some). This is a good thing since, by trying to unnaturally shoehorn the announcement of the investigation results into the concept of a recall, the release is both confusing and misleading to consumers.   And it belies the agency’s oft-stated notion that the press will ignore releases that do not include “recall” in the headline. It is an example of what happens when, like a myrmidon, the agency insists on rigid adherence to rules without concern as to appropriateness under the circumstances.  As Commissioner Buerkle notes, the CPSC should never say never.

Let’s Play Penalty Roulette

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Playing games at the CPSC

Commissioner Mohorovic has just issued a thoughtful statement discussing the black hole that the CPSC calls its civil penalty policy.  This statement follows another he filed this week discussing the $4.5 million penalty lodged against Sunbeam for a single-brew coffee maker that squirted out hot water when not used properly.

The Commissioner’s most recent statement precedes next week’s agency hearing on priorities for the upcoming year.  He outlines a number of ways to address the process for assessing penalties—a process that, at best, can be called veiled and perplexing and, at worst, seems like penalty roulette.  Those concerned about public policy and consumer protection should carefully review his suggestions for putting more discipline into an arbitrary process.

The CPSC Chairman has publicly stated his desire to see penalties increased.  While disagreeing with that view, I do believe that it could be achieved more effectively if the agency were up-front about how they calculate penalties.  It is not sufficient to say that this calculation is determined by applying the various factors set out in the regulation dealing with civil penalties.  The settlement agreements over the past several years have been decidedly uninformative about how various factors were applied.  As one who was directly involved in crafting that regulation, and as I have written before, I believe that the current practice is at odds with the underlying intent of the regulation—that is, to add more transparency to the process.

Commissioner Mohorovic is to be applauded for his persistence in highlighting the problem.  Not only has he accurately described the problem, he has come up with creative suggestions for solving it.  While Commissioner Buerkle has repeatedly expressed her dismay for the manner in which penalties are assessed, it will be interesting to see if the other commissioners pay any attention.

Last week it was $3.75 million for glass tumblers that can break. This week it is $4.5 million for coffee makers that can spill out hot water if not used according to instructions.  Can’t wait to see what next week brings—but, for sure, it will be a crap shoot.

Navigating An Unmarked Channel

 

Last week, Commissioners Buerkle and Mohorovic each issued a statement on a civil penalty settlement involving glass tumblers manufactured by Teavana.  Each is a thoughtful statement and both should be read by anyone interested in how the agency does its work.  They can be found here and here.  Both Commissioners address, in somewhat different ways, the subjective nature of the Consumer Product Safety Act’s reporting requirements and the opaqueness of the agency’s process for determining penalty amounts for violations of provisions of the Act that require product sellers to report potential safety issues to the agency.  Both are concerned about the secrecy of the criteria, if any, applied in assessing penalties by an agency that used to pride itself on its openness and transparency.

Commissioner Buerkle points out that–given the subjective nature of the statute– the regulations defining, first, what factors will affect a penalty amount and, second, how those factors will be applied, become critically important.  As one who was directly involved in developing that regulation, I agree that it is probably too general in nature, given that the agency has done little to flesh out its applicability in real cases.  Instead the agency has just nodded its head in the regulation’s direction to justify what appear to be arbitrary penalty amounts. The publicly-stated desire of Commission leadership for higher penalties leaves one thinking that the penalty policy of this commission is “get as much as you can” and not that “the punishment should fit the crime.” Consequently, one can only conclude that the penalty factors in the regulation are window dressing to justify whatever the enforcement staff demands.

Commissioner Mohorovic stated that the agency is falling down in its consumer protection duties by not putting out clear buoys to mark the legal channel.  As I have written before, the simplistic agency mantra—“when in doubt, report”—does not work so easily with today’s commission, which is more intent on punishment than on true safety.  Commissioner Mohorovic makes a persuasive case that the company did not have any obligation to report in the first place.  The products in question are glass tumblers and there is always a risk that glass will break, especially when holding hot liquids.  Apparently there were only minor injuries. There is no reason to believe the glass was inordinately thin or fragile.  Based on all this, Commissioner Mohorovic concludes that the company had no obligation to report, but agency enforcement staff reached a decidedly different conclusion.  The result was a $3.75 million penalty against the company, and we are left with no understanding as to how the agency got to that figure.

The agency has announced that it will hold a hearing this summer to consider its priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.  Here is a suggestion:  given the growing concern over the secrecy surrounding how penalties in ever-increasing amounts are assessed, a review of the agency’s penalty factors regulation is warranted.  The clarity the agency was seeking in 2010 when this regulation was issued has not happened; instead the process has become much less clear.  Perhaps it is time to consider a matrix approach to civil penalties—that is, putting a value on, and applying that value to different types of violations.  The practices of other agencies may also provide some learning here.  There are probably many ways to make the situation better and the agency should spend some time trying to figure this out.

EU-U.S. Regulatory Cooperation: Strides Made but More Should Be Done

Today the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center released a significant report, “International Regulatory Cooperation:  Benefits, Limitations, and Best Practices.”  This report builds on earlier work done by the Center and examines opportunities to improve regulatory cooperation between the European Union and the United States.  The report is timely because negotiators from the U.S. and the EU this week are continuing their discussions to hammer out the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement.

The study examines the efforts of three federal agencies to foster regulatory cooperation, including a case study on the efforts of the CPSC, which I authored.   The case study builds on my experiences over an eight-plus year time span as a CPSC Commissioner, when I saw first-hand the need for collaborative efforts among jurisdictions internationally to address the issue of import safety. The study looks at the potential benefits of and the limits of and barriers to regulatory cooperation.  I also have made recommendations for changes that I believe would improve the agency’s ability to work with its foreign counterparts to improve safety.  The report identifies ways to reduce unnecessary regulatory divergences (and related wasteful regulatory costs) such as convergence on testing and standards, sharing of data and more active consideration of unnecessary differences when promulgating or reviewing regulations.

The CPSC has a good track record working with its foreign counterparts to enhance consumer safety. However, given the complexity of both consumer products and the global marketplace, consumer safety will demand even greater and more creative work among regulators but that work needs to minimize the unnecessary regulatory burdens that come from an unimaginative approach to regulation.

I would welcome feed-back to the recommendations made in this report.  Give me your comments here or at nnord@ofwlaw.com.


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