Counterfeits Can Take the Joy Out of the Holidays

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As the holiday shopping season reaches peak fervor and consumers seek out the best deals available on hot products, gift-givers are more at risk of purchasing counterfeit products of all kinds.  Recently, news articles have warned of counterfeit Fingerlings – the latest “it” toy – along with fake versions of popular electronics, clothing, personal care products, and many other types of goods.  Government bureaus like the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol regularly release holiday bulletins advising of the escalating volume of phony products entering the United States (for example, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/buyer-beware-counterfeit-goods-and-holiday-shopping-season).  Counterfeits are far from harmless.  Not only are these counterfeit goods generally inferior to authentic products in both quality and safety, fake products are fraud, theft, and infringements of valuable trademarks and other intellectual property.  Sales of counterfeit products can even be criminal.

As a consumer, what can you do to help ensure you’re receiving the genuine article?  The most obvious method is to avoid unfamiliar sources and to buy directly from the manufacturer’s website or from an authorized retailer whenever possible.  If buying on websites like Amazon and eBay (where products are often actually sold by unrelated third parties), it helps to make sure that the seller of the product is the manufacturer or Amazon itself, not an unknown third party.  Often times, third party sellers do not have the ability or desire to properly perform checks on the goods they are selling, and in many cases the third party sellers never actually possess the products – when they receive your order they simply forward the product from a warehouse they have never even seen.  While outlets like Amazon and eBay have some anti-counterfeiting policies and procedures, experience has shown that not every fake product will be screened out.  Consumers should also check the price of the goods to ensure that it is not abnormally low, and examine the packaging and presentation of the product as depicted on the website to help determine whether the product might be fake or foreign-labeled goods.  Compare the look of the product offered with the same product on the manufacturer’s website – if it’s different, that’s a red flag.  Consumers should also not hesitate to contact the manufacturer if they suspect that they have received counterfeit or foreign-labeled goods – in addition to being the primary victims, consumers are often the first line of defense in the fight against counterfeiting.

As a manufacturer or trademark owner, what can you do when you discover your products being sold in an unauthorized channel, with risk of counterfeiting?  Conkle, Kremer & Engel has extensive experience helping manufacturers and distributors to investigate and, when necessary, litigate counterfeit and other trademark- and intellectual property-infringement claims.  CK&E attorneys are well-versed in the careful initial steps that should promptly be taken when sales of illicit products are suspected.  If the seller is cooperative, litigation can often be avoided.  But if the seller is not, that is a strong indicator that the seller has been selling, and will continue to sell, infringing products unless stopped through litigation.  Whatever you choose to do, consult experienced counsel and decide on your course of action promptly – unreasonable delays can seriously harm your ability to protect your rights.

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Sunscreen Ingredient Restrictions in Maui, Hawaii?

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Sunscreen manufacturers and distributors should take note:  Maui County in the state of Hawaii could become the first county in the United States to ban the sale and use of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two active ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in sunscreens.

In November, a Maui Hawaii County Council committee introduced and recommended for approval a bill for an ordinance that would prohibit the sale and use of sunscreen containing the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. These ingredients are commonly used in commercial chemical sunscreens as protection against ultraviolet (UV) light radiation.  The county-level move came after Senate Bill 1150 – introduced in 2017 by Hawaii Senator Will Espero to ban the use and application of sunscreens containing oxybenzone throughout the state of Hawaii – stalled at the end of the legislative session.

The FDA currently approves of only 16 active ingredients for use in over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens, generally recognizing them as safe and effective.  Among the ingredients are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly found in commercial sunscreen products, including from major sunscreen brands such as L’Oreal, Neutrogena and Supergoop.  The European Union already imposes strict limits on the use of oxybenzone in sunscreen products as well as warning requirements.

The Maui County proposal was prompted by environmental concerns and intended to promote the health and welfare of Maui’s coral reefs and marine life. The bill’s supporters claim that oxybenzone and octinoxate have a significant impact on the marine environment, noting that both ingredients have been detected in the ocean surrounding Maui at levels that well exceed the toxicity range for coral reefs.  Opponents of the ban, on the other hand, contend that the ingredients are safe for use, as they have been approved for use by the FDA.

The proposal to ban sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and oxtinoxate, other than prescription products, is now before the full Maui County Council. If approved, manufacturers, retailers and distributors of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and oxtinoxate would have a year to ensure that their products no longer contain the banned ingredients. Businesses or persons found in violation of the law would be subject to civil penalties and administrative enforcement procedures. As of now, the bill does not contain a private right of action to allow consumers to bring actions for violations.  If passed, Maui’s outright ban could still face enforcement and legal challenges – including state preemption and federal Commerce Clause challenges.

While this is a unique development, local efforts to protect against health and environmental concerns are nothing new, but they do not always remain confined to their original purpose.  For example, California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as Proposition 65, was originally passed to protect the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  However, Proposition 65 does not act to ban the use of any chemicals; instead, it imposes warning requirements prior to consumer exposure to certain chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  The 2012 listing of benzophenone to the state’s list of regulated chemicals has already caused many sunscreen manufacturers using octocrylene, another FDA-approved active ingredient that may contain small amounts of benzophenone, to reformulate or use a more purified form of the ingredient.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has many years of experience representing clients in the beauty and skin care industry address challenging regulatory compliance issues.  CK&E attorneys help clients stay out of legal crosshairs by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

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WARNING: Are Your Products and Websites Ready for the New Prop 65 Requirements?

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California’s Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has issued new Proposition 65 Warning Regulations that will go into effect on August 30, 2018. It is important for companies to understand the changed regulations and be proactive in adapting their product labels and even internet marketing to adapt to the new regulations.  The coming changes have introduced a variety of new concepts, imposing additional burdens on businesses selling their products in California, and making it easier for plaintiff Prop 65 attorneys and groups to bring costly private enforcement actions.

The OEHHA has made significant changes to the safe-harbor language requirements that govern the language, text, and format of such warnings. The new regulations introduce the concept of a “warning symbol,” which must be used on consumer products, though not on food products. The “warning symbol” must be printed in a size no smaller than the height of the word “WARNING,” and should be in black and yellow, but can be in black and white if the sign, label, or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow.

Warnings must now also specifically state at least one listed chemical found in the product and include a link to OEHHA’s new website www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.  These are examples of the new format for more specific warnings:

  • For exposure to carcinogens: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to both carcinogens and reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more listed chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer, and [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

Certain special categories of products, such as food and alcoholic beverages, have a specialized URL that must be used. For example, warnings on food products must display the URL www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/food.

Recognizing that many consumer products have limited space “on-product” to fit the long-form warnings, the OEHHA has enacted new regulations allowing abbreviated “on-product” warnings. This short warning is permissible only if printed on the immediate container, box or wrapper of the consumer product. An example of the required format for the abbreviated warnings is:

  • WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov

The new regulations also specifically address internet sales for the first time. Warnings must be provided with a clearly marked hyperlink on the product display page, or otherwise prominently displayed to the purchaser before completion of the transaction.  It will not be sufficient if the product sold on the internet bears the required label, but the internet point of purchase listing does not.

The particular requirements for each specific product can vary, so manufacturers and resellers are well-advised to seek qualified counsel to review their situation before committing to potentially costly label and website changes that may not comply with the new requirements.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the changing regulatory landscape in California and elsewhere.

Although the new regulations take effect August 30, 2018, and the new warning labels are required for products manufactured after that date, companies can begin using the changed labels now. It is definitely not advisable to wait until August 2018 to begin making the required changes.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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Manufacturers, Distributors and Reps Must Be Familiar with California’s Sales Rep Act

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Independent sales representatives are a vital part of many industries, from beauty products and electronics to simple plumbing materials like tankless water heater valves.  Independent sales reps often develop considerable expertise in both the customer base in their territories and their manufacturers’ or distributors’ products, while saving resources that the principal can better use toward product development and customer service after the sale.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have extensive experience on behalf of both representatives and manufacturers/distributors/importers in strengthening those agency-principal relationships, and resolving commission, territorial or termination disputes when they arise.

In California, there is a relatively little-known statute that governs certain contractual requirements and responsibilities in a principal-sales representative relationship, called the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (the “Sales Rep Act”) (California Civil Code § 1738.10).  The Sales Rep Act can be a powerful tool for sales reps, particularly because it offers the possibility of treble damages and attorney fees awards when the representative prevails.  For example, CK&E was counsel for a sales rep who was cheated out of his earned commissions by a principal who denied that it had ever agreed to pay those commissions.  After a jury trial, the sales rep received a jury award of $2.1 million that was then trebled to $6.2 million, plus attorney fees, after CK&E showed that the Sales Rep Act was properly applied in the situation at hand.  When the judgment was affirmed on appeal, that case became one of the most important published California court decisions about the correct application of the Sales Rep Act.   (Reilly v. Inquest Technology, 218 Cal. App. 4th 536 (2013)).

But like many powerful tools, the Sales Rep Act can be hazardous to either side when it is misapplied.  For sales representatives, distributors, manufacturers and importers alike, it is critically important to understand the requirements and potential effects of various factors to both the application and exceptions to the Sales Rep Act.  For example, in a recent matter, CK&E attorneys Eric S. Engel and Evan Pitchford represented a Southern California importer-distributor of plumbing parts that was sued by a terminated sales rep who sought treble damages for commissions claimed owed, plus attorney fees, under the Sales Rep Act.  CK&E was able to demonstrate in a pretrial motion that the sales rep had engaged in prohibited sales of certain parts to a purchaser who did not qualify under the Sales Rep Act.  Those sales precluded the sales rep from claiming the benefits of the Sales Rep Act, and limited the sales rep to just ordinary contract damages at most.  After the Court agreed that the claim under the Sales Rep Act was not available for this sales rep, the lawsuit was quickly settled.

These two examples demonstrate that intimate knowledge of how the Sales Rep Act operates is crucial for both sides of disputes between sales representatives and importers, manufacturers and distributors.  If you are an independent sales representative, distributor, or manufacturer that is facing commission, territorial or termination disputes, you would be well served to consult with counsel who is familiar with the very precise requirements of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (California Civil Code § 1738.10).

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Trade Secrets: Part 2 of CKE Article on Restraints of Trade

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As described in earlier posts, Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors often include post-termination non-competition clauses, which can be tricky for both parties.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is nonetheless possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former rep from working with competitors.  In addition, reps and principals often work across state lines and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.

CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel earlier contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA) to help reps and principals understand and grapple with the non-competition/restraint of trade issues that they face.  In November 2016, the second installment of this article, Trade Secret Protection in Rep Agreements, was published in Agency Sales Magazine to further explain the related issues of trade secret protection in the principal-rep relationship, and how trade secret concerns can limit the ability of a rep to compete with his or her principal during or after termination of the representation.

CK&E is proud to be able to assist reps and principals to negotiate the sometimes difficult legal issues that can help or hinder their effective partnership in serving their customers.

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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California ARB’s Third Product Survey Starts July 1, 2016

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The California Air Resources Board’s ambitious, three-year long data collection effort is rounding third and heading for home.  The mandatory reporting period for the third and final year of the Consumer and Commercial Products Survey (now called “Data Reporting for the Consumer Products Program”) will begin July 1, 2016 and end November 1, 2016.

Businesses will once again be required to report detailed product ingredient information and annual sales for products sold in California during 2015, as they were required to do for chemically formulated consumer and commercial products sold or supplied for use in California during the 2013 and 2014 calendar years.  ARB requires the ingredient and sales information to be reported through its online Consumer Products Reporting Tool.  Veterans of the two prior Surveys may notice that ARB no longer refers to the mandatory reports as “Surveys,” apparently because that name suggested to some that the reports were somehow optional.  They are not optional.  Non-compliance will draw letters from ARB and persistent non-compliance will result in referral to ARB’s Enforcement Division.

Reports must be filed by each “responsible party” listed on the label of a consumer or commercial product that was sold or supplied for use in California during the calendar year, if the product falls into one of the many categories listed for 2015.  The general categories of consumer products that are subject to reporting are personal care products, adhesives, sealants and related products, household and institutional products, pesticide products, solvent and thinning-related products, vehicle and marine vessel aftermarket products, and aerosol coating products.  But for the 2015 Report, ARB has exempted 232 categories of consumer products due to its assessment that the products contain low or no volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions – less than 0.05 tons per day of emissions.  A number of beauty products, including facial cleansers and soaps, nail glues and gel nail polishes, are now exempt from reporting for 2015, even though they were required to be reported for 2013 and 2014 Surveys.  ARB’s full list of exempt consumer products is available here.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys assist clients with achieving compliance with California’s many regulatory requirements, including the Consumer and Commercial Products Survey, so that clients can focus on expanding their businesses in valuable markets.

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The Conkle Firm Attends INTA Annual Meeting in Orlando

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Mark Kremer and Zachary Page attended the Annual Meeting of the International Trademark Association (INTA) in Orlando, Florida this week. The Annual Meeting is INTA’s largest event of the year in which intellectual property attorneys, brand owners and administrative officials gather to discuss developments and trends in trademark law in the United States and across the globe. This year’s Annual Meeting included discussions about rule changes for proceedings in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the impact of TTAB decisions on later litigation, anti-counterfeiting strategies, enforcement strategies in online marketplaces and social media, and changes to international trademark prosecution systems.

CK&E regularly works with clients to identify and protect their intellectual property both in the United States and abroad, and participates in industry conferences like INTA’s Annual Meeting and others to stay abreast of the developing issues affecting the firm’s clients.

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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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