Posts Tagged 'Penalties'

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.

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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