Posts Tagged 'CPSC'



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.

The Leap Year Effect at the CPSC

Leap year occurs every four years when an additional day is added to the calendar—February 29.  This is a corrective measure to account for a lack of precision in the earth’s orbit around the sun.   According to old folk traditions, during a leap year, role reversals are common, upsetting the usual norms of behavior.  We saw two examples of the leap year effect in operation last week when the CPSC considered its 2016 operating plan.

During last week’s meeting, Commissioner Mohorovic proposed that the agency adopt an enforcement policy to eliminate a costly and burdensome p impacting the apparel and footwear industry but that could set a useful precedent for other industries as well.  The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires that manufacturers and importers certify that their products comply with safety regulations.  One of those regulations deals with the flammability characteristics of fabrics used in apparel, sets out testing criteria to determine flammability and exempts from testing those fabrics that, because of their weight and material, inherently do not present the risk that the rule is concerned with.  As the agency rushed to quickly (and somewhat thoughtlessly) implement the requirements of the CPSIA, a majority of commissioners determined that apparel manufacturers needed to certify that exempt fabrics were, indeed, exempt from testing—in other words, they were required to certify that they did not need to test and certify.  Talk about circuitous logic!

But this overreach by the agency is costing the apparel industry—and consumers–$250 million each year in paperwork costs.  These costs have nothing to do with assuring the safety of consumers and are totally related to wasteful paperwork requirements.  Commissioner Mohorovic was able to convince his colleagues to reverse their earlier position and adopt an enforcement policy that abrogates this process of “certifying that you do not need to test and certify.”

In a similar example of good judgment trumping regulatory excessiveness, at last week’s meeting, Commissioner Buerkle convinced her colleagues to agree to direct staff to prepare a briefing package on the attributes of the California revised rule (known as TB-117) addressing the smoldering hazards associated with upholstered furniture.  The flammability hazards associated with upholstered furniture have been flummoxing the agency since it was created.  The agency exacerbated the problem by insisting that any rulemaking address every ignition source for upholstered furniture fires —not only the vast majority of fires that are caused by smoldering cigarettes, but also those caused by open flames such as lighters and candles. This insistence made the process of writing a rule that much more difficult.  And since the majority of fires are caused by smoldering cigarettes, the agency’s approach meant that the risk of upholstered furniture fires went unaddressed while the regulators pursued unrealistic and uneconomical solutions.  Given this dithering on the federal level, California took the practical step of writing a standard that applied to smoldering fires, which account for the vast majority of fires.

Commissioner Buerkle’s proposal asking the staff to analyze the California regulation is a good first step in moving the agency toward a realistic and, hopefully, more timely effort to address this important issue.  After close to 40 years of analysis, it is time that the agency brought this rulemaking to a sensible resolution.  I hope that Commissioner Buerkle’s proposal has given the CPSC staff the latitude to accomplish this objective—one which advances consumer safety in a practice way.

Isn’t it too bad that leap year comes only every four years.

“Means are Inconsequential; Only the Ends Matter”

History is replete with examples of bad things that happen when good people, with good motives, act to achieve an end without regard to the means used.  The CPSC’s letter last week to sellers of self-balancing scooters (most of us call them hover boards) brings squarely to mind that Machiavellian notion about ends justifying means.

The agency’s action came in the form of a letter from the acting director of compliance to sellers of hover boards telling them that their products should comply with the newly-released UL voluntary safety standard addressing the risk of fire associated with some of these products. Those products that do not comply with this voluntary standard will be considered by agency staff “to be defective and . . .may present a substantial product hazard,“  thereby triggering the reporting and recall provisions of §15 of the Consumer Product Safety Act and related penalty provisions.  While this may perhaps be a good safety result, the statute sets out a path for achieving this result and that path involves a bit more by way of due process than just issuing a decree to make it so, as seems to have been done here.  That path forward is set out in §9(b) of the Act and instructs the agency on how to rely on voluntary standards to address an established safety risk.

Few would argue against the need to address the safety issues associated with hover boards that have been highlighted in recent months.  And the CPSC is to be praised for its desire to investigate and fashion an across-the-board solution as opposed to its unfortunate recent tendency to regulate class-wide hazards by recall or retailer intimidation.  But no matter how laudable the motives of the agency may be, short-circuiting the statute is never good practice by a regulator.  Yet, in a striking example of ends justifying means, this is exactly what the agency has done.

9(b) of the Act sets out a process for the agency to use when it wishes to rely on voluntary standards to address safety hazards. That process requires the agency to collect and consider public comments before making a final decision to rely on a standard written by a voluntary standards organization. Once the agency uses this process to rely on a voluntary standard, the reporting and related enforcement provisions of §15(b) apply.  This process has rarely been used by the agency.  Why this is true is inexplicable to me. However, its use would have allowed the agency to quickly put in place a regulatory mechanism to address the risks associated with these products in a way that was consistent with the statute and that respected the due process considerations central to good regulatory practice.  Aside from being the right thing to do, it would also bolster the agency’s enforcement position in the (unlikely) event its actions are ever challenged. Instead, the agency acted by fiat to achieve the result §9(b) contemplates without bothering to follow the statute.

Some may argue that these products are so dangerous that the agency needed to act quickly and just could not be bothered to follow the law.  But again, the statute contemplates this type of imminent hazard situation and instructs the agency on the path to follow in such circumstances, a path that also includes due process protections. The statute was written to balance the public’s legitimate safety concerns with the public’s need for procedural protections to assure a just and fair result.  Hop-scotching over the statute, no matter the reason, is not something the federal government should do.

Saying Goodbye to Another CPSC Star

Several weeks ago, Neal Cohen, the CPSC small business ombudsman, called to tell me that he was leaving the agency.  Neal created the job of ombudsman and it turned out to be one of the most difficult and most under-appreciated but critically important positions at the CPSC.

The office of small business ombudsman was set up in 2010 in an effort to respond to the growing cries, especially from the small business community, that the agency’s regulations implementing the 2008 CPSIA statute were imposing a crushing burden on product sellers, notably small businesses.  When the office was set up, I argued that it should be a true ombudsman, bringing to the agency the concerns of small businesses as well as developing and advocating for solutions to the problems that community faced because of agency action.  Instead, the office was designed to be an outreach and education office—to help the small business community understand and comply with regulations.   While not fully meeting the true definition of an ombudsman, this still was a very important role, especially given the complexity of the rules the agency was in the midst of writing.  And Neal was just the right person to fill the position.

Over the past five years, Neal has worked tirelessly to make sure that businesses, especially small ones, understand their safety obligations as product sellers.  He has designed educational programs, given presentations throughout the country, answered thousands of emails and phone calls, and through that process, has helped the agency put a human and caring face on its work.  The latest achievement of his office, development of the Regulatory Robot, an on-line tool to help businesses understand what regulations they are subject to, will continue to be a testament to his dedication and hard work.

Whoever follows Neal in this role will have big shoes to fill but also a very good role model for how to get done a difficult but important job.  February 19, 2016 will be Neal’s final day at the agency. And as Neal leaves federal service to go into the private sector, no doubt he will come to understand even more the important public service he provided.

All I Want for Christmas Is . . .

A lifetime government job.  And if the commissioners at the CPSC grant tihe pending pettion to ban certain flame retardants, the staffers working on the ban will get that wish.

Earlier this month, the commission held a day-long hearing to consider a petition to ban all organohalogen flame retardants (OFT’s) used in children’s products, the plastic cases for electronics, mattresses and pads, and residential upholstered furniture.  Petitioners assert that the chemicals making up these flame retardants accumulate in the body and could cause cancer and other chronic diseases. Comments on whether to grant the petition will be accepted until mid-January.

So why does granting this petition guarantee lifetime employment for the staff working on it?  First, the breadth of the petition makes for an almost unmanageable task for those trying to write a regulation that would be upheld by a court.  The petition is not just asking for a ban of a single substance; instead it includes at least 83 different flame retardants, each somewhat different from the other, and would apply to substances for which risks are undemonstrated and entirely speculative. The product categories are also very broad and would include thousands and thousands of products where exposure to the OFR’s differ one from another.  Contrary to the assertions of the petitioners, the statute does not allow for regulation based on speculative harm. And like it or not, the statute does require that any regulation be based on risk and exposure.

In this regard, petitioners draw an analogy to the commission’s regulation of lead, a comparison that is entirely inapposite.  Prior to passage of the CPSIA, the agency regulated lead based how exposure contributed to risk of injury.  Congress changed that science-based approach and decreed that mere presence, not exposure, was the trigger for regulation of lead.  However, for other substances, the agency must still find the existence of a hazard and the mere presence of a substance does not necessarily indicate there is a risk of harm.

Establishing the extent of the risk for a wide class of chemicals as they are used in broad product categories is not the only statutory hurdle that must be addressed.  It is entirely unlikely that the ban requested by petitioners would satisfy the cost benefit analysis required both by the statute and by good administrative policy. For example, while barriers, rather than OFR’s, may be an option for upholstered furniture, the costs of implementing that option are extraordinary.  And the agency would need to consider the value of the lives saved from fires that were prevented by the OFR’s.

The statute also calls for the creation of a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel (CHAP) when the agency seeks to regulate chronic hazards like those now under discussion.  As experience has shown, managing the work of a CHAP will keep a number of staffers working hard for the foreseeable future.

This is not to say that the health effects of OFR’s should not be examined.  On the contrary, the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority (soon-to-be enhanced under proposed amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act), and has underway activities looking at these substances.  TSCA clearly gives the EPA the authority to regulate both these chemicals and their uses and the EPA is doing that.  If the pace or outcome of this activity does not satisfy the petitioners, then they should take action at EPA to change that, not go forum-shopping around the government.

This petition illustrates the quicksand the CPSC wanders into when it acts to regulate broad classes of chemicals that may present chronic hazards.  The agency is well equipped to address acute hazards but chronic hazards through chemical exposure present very different challenges.  Should the agency grant the petition and venture into the regulation of whole classes of chemicals, that action could sink the agency into a quagmire that will keep staff busy for years trying to claw out.

Killer Coffee Mugs?! Really?!

Did anyone else notice CPSC’s recall last week of ceramic mugs?  The agency is concerned about 4400 mugs with hairline cracks.  The hazard is not that they break and cut the user, or that there may be sanitary issues with germs being trapped in those cracks, but that hot liquids might seep through the cracks and cause a burn—not that any burns have been cracked holiday cupreported.

I am a potter.  I have a pottery studio and on most weekends you can find me at my pottery wheel.  But I am not a very good potter and I have made my share of ceramic mugs with hairline cracks.  The problem comes about when a pot that is not fully dried is put into the kiln or when the kiln temperature is either too low or too high for the type of clay and glaze being used.  And although, in those circumstances, it is possible to get small cracks in the surface, it is not possible for liquid to quickly flow out through those cracks. As the agency says in its press release, liquids can seep through, and by the time they get to the outer wall, it is just not possible for those liquids to be so hot as to cause a burn.  An annoying moisture ring on your table, yes, but a burn, no.

This is another example of the agency conflating product quality issues with product safety issues.  In this case, presumably the manufacturer reported the issue in an abundance of caution, probably under the agency’s Fast Track program. It used to be that not every report resulted in a recall and that the agency compliance staff was encouraged to exercise judgment and common sense in determining whether a recall was warranted.  But the position of Director of Compliance has gone unfilled for over three years so it is not surprising that leadership direction to the staff is lacking and staff may not feel empowered to make the sensible judgment calls without risking criticism.

As I have written before, when the agency turns a quality issue into a safety issue, it is wandering way outside its mandate.  Unfortunately, the agency has generated such confusion—and fear–in the regulated community with its enforcement policies that companies feel compelled to report things like mugs with hairline cracks.  That the agency compounds the problem by agreeing to a recall in such a case means that the definition of a safety hazard is totally unpredictable.  Apparently a hazard is whatever the agency says it is. Objective indicators, such as the existence of injuries, have no place in that calculation, replaced instead by speculative conjecture.

It is not clear how consumer safety is furthered by this result.  Perhaps it is time to change the agency’s name from the Product Safety Commission to the Product Quality Assurance Commission. It seems as if that is what the agency is trying to do.


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