Archive for March, 2016

Such a Tiny Product; Such a Large Issue

On a recent overseas trip, in one of the trendiest shops in one of the trendiest Western European capitals, I saw a display of tiny spherical rare earth magnets (SREM’s) with signs extolling the coolness of the product.  I almost bought up the entire display but thought about the possibility, when I got back to the States, of CPSC investigators confiscating the whole batch and hauling me off as an importer of deadly banned products.  If only I were kidding.

Remember that, here in the U.S., SREM’s were once a very popular product, intended as an adult desk toy or for making remarkable sculptures and art works.  However, if children swallowed the tiny magnets, they could cause serious internal injury.  Therefore, the CPSC set out to force the product off the market–through a series of recalls aimed at individual importers together with strong pressure on retailers not to sell the product. The agency also issued a rule banning the sale of tiny powerful magnets when used as a manipulative.  Only one company—little Zen Magnets in Boulder, CO, whose CEO is not yet 30 years old—refused to knuckle under and decided to fight the government.

This past weekend, in a battle of David v. Goliath proportions, Zen finally got a win.  Here’s what happened.  When Zen refused to voluntarily recall the SREM’s he was importing and selling, the CPSC filed a lawsuit to force a mandatory recall.  A trial was held before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) to determine if the magnets, when sold, were defective and constituted a substantial product hazard and therefore must be recalled. After a long trial and much deliberation, the ALJ found what most of us, except the CPSC, already knew:  that ingesting SREM’s can create a risk of injury but that proper use of the magnets pose no threat and that, when sold with appropriate warnings and proper age recommendations, the magnets do not pose a substantial product hazard.  The ALJ rejected the agency’s argument that warnings cannot be effective because the spheres can become separated.  He also rejected the agency argument that the product was so inherently dangerous to children that proper use by adults must give way.  Significantly, this is the first judge to examine the underlying theory of the agency’s actions forcing recalls and he found the agency’s proof to be wanting.

Even though Zen won this battle, it has not won the war. The agency lawyers now have ten days to appeal the ALJ’s decision.  That appeal will be heard and decided by the five members of the CPSC—the same group who voted to sue Zen, who voted to issue the related rule banning the product, and several of whom have made public statements that suggest where they will come out on the appeal.  In other words, Zen doesn’t stand a chance before the Commission.  The Commission’s decision can then be appealed to the appropriate Court of Appeals.   If Zen has the resources and is scrappy enough to continue the fight, it will be a long one indeed.

Solving At Least One Magnet Issue

On a related matter, the Commission has stepped up to address a flaw in its rules governing trials before ALJ’s.  When the agency was trying to force the recall of SREM’s sold under the name “Buckyballs”, and when the company had the “hutzpah” to say “no” to the agency’s demand that it recall its magnet product, the agency voted to sue Buckyballs as well.  After the Commissioners voted to bring the action against the company, the agency staff took it upon itself to expand the complaint to sue the CEO of the company in his personal capacity.  While this case was ultimately settled, the settlement did not address whether the staff acted properly in expanding the complaint without an affirmative vote of the Commission.

The agency is currently updating its rules of practice for adjudicative proceedings and those proposed rules are now out for public comment.  Commissioner Mohorovic was able to get into the proposal – unanimously – an amendment that expressly requires the ALJ to refer to the Commission “any proposed amendment [that] would have the effect of adding or removing any person as a respondent to the complaint or adding or removing any count.” Just in case an ALJ tried to reason in such a way that an amendment that should come to the Commission didn’t actually add a party (by, say, reasoning that the CEO of a company is de facto on the complaint already, so it’s fine to add him by name) and thus could be done without Commission approval, the proposal also creates an interlocutory appeal right for any ruling on an amendment made without a Commission decision.

Admittedly, this language is overly broad since one would not want to capture situations where staff needs to add a DBA, for instance, nor should the agency give an interlocutory appeal for amendments that clearly are within staff’s administrative authority, but, for the handful of times in a decade that the agency actually litigates something, the burden of work from overbreadth seems to be insignificant compared to the risk to Commission authority from being too narrow. The staff’s action with respect to the Buckyballs situation demonstrates the need for this kind of correction.  Since the proposed amendments make a number of other changes to the adjudicative procedures, they should be carefully reviewed and comments provided the agency.

The proposed changes to the agency’s adjudicative proceedings are now out for public comment.  Those who practice before the agency and other interested parties should read them carefully and take the time to comment.  As we have seen from the Zen case, this stuff matters.

It’s Not Just Size That Counts

Today, the CPSC announced a civil penalty settlement agreement for an eye-popping $15.45 million.  The settlement involved dehumidifiers sold by Gree Electrical Appliances Inc.  The penalty is the statutory maximum that could be imposed and is well beyond any penalty imposed by the agency at any time in its history.

CPSC alleged that Gree:

  • knowingly failed to report a defect and unreasonable risk of serious injury to CPSC  with dehumidifiers sold under 13 different brand names (the dehumidifiers were recalled in 2013);
  • knowingly made misrepresentations to CPSC staff during its investigation; and
  • sold dehumidifiers bearing the UL safety certification mark knowing that the dehumidifiers did not meet UL flammability standards.

Given the size of the penalty, one should expect that the alleged misconduct to be off-the-charts in terms of the severity of injury to consumers.    Yet, even though the earlier related recall involved well over 2 million items and significant property damage from fires caused by the defective product, there are no reports of injury.  In fact, there is little to distinguish this hazard pattern from others involving defective appliances posing serious fire hazards where penalties have been fractions of the amount imposed in this case. Certainly there was potential for serious injury but the fact remains that there were no injuries.  While there was substantial property damage, presumably this was covered by insurance and it is not the purpose of the CPSC to protect insurance companies.

There is nothing in the agency’s press release or the settlement agreement itself to tell us why this case was so more egregious than other cases involving violations of the requirement to report hazards to the agency.  One has to assume then that it was the alleged misrepresentations to the government and the unauthorized use of the UL mark that bumped the penalty up to the limit.  But other than these general statements and based on what has been made public, it is not clear what actual conduct triggered such a huge penalty.  For those trying to stay on the right side of the law, the government has an obligation to be more transparent in describing the activity that warrants this type of penalty.

Certainly the allegations in the settlement agreement are very serious and, if true, warrant a significant penalty.  But it would be helpful to know whether this penalty is unique to a particular set of circumstances or is just a very large scalp from another “failure-to-report” case. As Commissioner Mohorovic points out in his statement, if the agency wants to change behavior through its penalties, it is important to more fully describe the behavior those regulated should avoid.

While this is a significant case because of the size of the penalty, its importance diminishes because of the agency’s opaqueness in describing the bad acts that occurred.  If you are not confused and troubled by all this, then I suggest you are not paying attention.

 

Does the CPSC See You as a “Bad Guy” or a “Good Guy”?

I believe that it was Albert Einstein who said “What you see depends on where you stand.”  The stands taken by senior managers of the CPSC on a number of topics have changed and that leaves those of us who care both about the agency and consumer safety seeing some concerning developments.

A good example is the way in which the agency seeks to impose and assess penalties.  At one point (dare I say the “good old days”) civil penalties were assessed after an honest negotiation between lawyers for the agency and the company. Only with the most intransigent company did the negotiation break down so that the agency was forced to refer the case to the Department of Justice for resolution.  And in the very rare instances when this happened, it was viewed not as a positive development but as a failure of the process to work well.

Things have changed.  Based on comments made by agency lawyers at a meeting in Washington this past week, what was once viewed as a failure now is viewed, if not quite as a positive development, as at least routine SOP. This conclusion is based on several developments.  First, look at the Enforcement Guidance recently published by the CPSC Office of General Counsel.  It suggests that any penalty negotiation is not a negotiation at all but almost a take it or leave it proposition.  When they say that you should anticipate getting only one meeting to make your case and then they will lock down their decision, how can you infer anything else?  Add to this statements that the penalty initially demanded by the agency already has been vetted with the DOJ and one has to wonder if arguments supporting a differing view will be listened to and considered.

This concern is exacerbated by statements made by senior officials at the same meeting that the agency is exploring ways to publicize referrals to the DOJ, likening them to “grand jury indictments.”   And what to think when another agency official states that penalties are justified because they always are imposed on the “bad guys” and not in “instances where good guys made honest mistakes. . . “.   Add to this a call by the agency chairman for civil penalties in the eight figures during the next year, and what you see is an agency that appears to be punitive rather than collaborative.

It is unfortunate that those regulated by the agency are being lumped into “good guy” and “bad guy” categories. From my experience in the private sector, in different capacities in government and now in private law practice, the vast majority of companies do care about making sure the products they sell are safe and they want clear rules so that they can stay on the right side of the legal line.  They also want a government that will work with them to solve problems when they come up, not just question their judgment and consider them “bad guys” when they protest.  But from my recent conversations, from where many are standing, that is what they are seeing.  For those of us concerned about product safety, that is not a positive development.


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