Prop 65 Settlements Predominantly Benefit Claimants’ Lawyers

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Over the last several years, the  California Attorney General’s Office has released annual reports of Proposition 65 settlements.  These reports make one thing clear – Proposition 65 continues to be a lucrative source for private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers, as the total settlement payments continues to rise through the years.

In the past, we noted that private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers collected at total of $17 million in settlement payments (comprised of civil penalties, “PILPs” or “Payments in Lieu of Penalties” [also known as “Additional Settlement Payments”] and attorneys’ fees and costs) in 2013, and $20 million in 2012. The trend since then has been upward on all fronts, with one notable recent qualification regarding PILPs.

Proposition 65 contemplates that private claimants will share any civil penalties collected, with 75 percent going to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and 25% being kept by the private claimants.  However, Prop 65 claimants are allowed an alternative remedy of PILPs, in which the claimants can pocket 100% of the PILPs and share nothing with OEHHA. All private claimants needed to do is establish that the PILP payments will go to fund some kind of activities with a nexus to the basis for the litigation, and show how those funds would be spent.  Until recently, this was not a big obstacle for Prop 65 claimants. As can be seen from the OAG reports, many Prop 65 claimants are special-purpose entities that contend their own business of pursuing Prop 65 claims serves the environmental interests they are trying to protect through pursuit of more Prop 65 claims.  As a result, these entities could pocket the PILP money to self-fund their own activities to make more Prop 65 claims. Being able to keep all of the PILP money, rather than the alternative of having to give 75% of civil penalties to OEHHA, undoubtedly made PILPs very attractive to Prop 65 claimants. Perhaps the only bright spot in the chart below is the significant reduction (by more than 50%) in PILP recoveries, which followed an amended regulation that went into effect on October 1, 2016 to tighten requirements for PILP settlements. We’ll develop more on this amendment and its effects in a future blog post.

Finally, but clearly most significantly in terms of dollars spent on settlements of Prop 65 claims, private claimants’ lawyers are entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. As seen in OAG reports, and displayed graphically below, this attorney fee recovery constitutes by far the largest portion of Prop 65 settlements.

Since 2012, total settlement payments have increased substantially, reaching their high-water mark in 2016 but not declining very much in 2017 (2018 figures have not yet been released). Between 2014 and 2017, Prop 65 settlement payments totaled well over $25 million per year.  Overall, the settlement payments are comprised of attorney fee recoveries to claimants’ lawyers, PILP recoveries to claimants, and a smaller number of civil penalties that are shared 25% with claimants and 75% with OEHHA. In sum, every dollar shown in the chart below, other than the OEHHA portion shown in red, has gone to either the Prop 65 claimants or the claimants’ lawyers:

When viewed graphically, it becomes all the more evident that the vast majority of Prop 65 settlements benefit claimants and their lawyers, not OEHHA or any other government agency charged with protecting the public. Questions must arise whether this was really the intent of Proposition 65, however beneficent was its purpose.

2016 was the biggest year for Prop 65 private claimants, according to data released by the California Attorney General’s Office.  In 2016, private claimants settled 760 cases, suing smaller businesses and larger entities like K-Mart, Michaels, Williams-Sonoma, and Twinings.  The settlements for that year totaled over $30 million.

Of the $30 million collected in settlement payments in 2016, attorneys’ fees made up more than $21.5 million, or 71.5% of all private settlements.  In addition, while civil penalties amounted to just over $5 million, or 18% of all private settlements, private claimants can take 25% of any civil penalty assessed as a “bounty.”  In 2016, the civil penalties retained by claimants represented a sum of $1,361,500, or 4.51% of all private settlements.  PILP money made up 10.42% of all private settlements.  That means approximately $3.1 million landed in the hands of private claimants and their attorneys, in addition to the attorneys’ fees and civil penalty bounties they received.

A few firms did particularly well that year.  In 2016, The Chanler Group brought in 242 settlements for over $7.4 million.  83% of this figure, or over $6 million, was paid out in the form of attorneys’ fees and costs.  Brodsky & Smith brought in 99 settlements for nearly $2.5 million.  90% of the nearly $2.5 million, or $2.2 million, in settlement payments went to the lawyers as attorneys fees and costs.

Some claimant representatives obtained settlements that were not quite as disproportionately in favor of attorneys’ fees and costs.  For example, the Center for Environmental Health brought in 93 settlements in 2016, for a total of $4 million, broken down as follows: 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 16% as PILP payments, and 74% as attorneys’ fees and costs.  Similarly, the Consumer Advocacy Group brought in approximately $4 million across 71 settlements, recovering 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 14% as PILP payments, and 75% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Environmental Research Center brought in 55 settlements for nearly $5 million, and the breakdown of payments was split more evenly: 36% as civil penalties, 31% as PILP payments, and 33% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

In 2017, private claimants continued to pursue Prop 65 claims, settling 688 cases.  The settlements totaled more than $25 million. As can be readily seen in the chart above, although the total claimants’ recoveries were somewhat lower, they were on par with 2015 recoveries. Further, attorneys fees were proportionately even higher in 2017 than in preceding years, and the reduction was primarily in the PILP recoveries. Attorneys’ fees made up more than $19.4 million, or 75.6% of all private settlements, and civil penalties retained by claimants represented an additional $1,210,786 or 4.7% of all private settlements.

If these trends continue, total Prop 65 settlement payouts will continue to rise, imposing the “unnecessary burdens for businesses” that “are cause for public concern,” as the OAG noted in 2014. Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely represents businesses against Prop 65 claims and lawsuits brought by private claimants, and works with businesses to develop compliance strategies to minimize the risk that they will be future targets of Prop 65 claimants.

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The Unintended Industry of Proposition 65: Plaintiffs’ Lawyers

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One of the unfortunate and unintended consequences of California’s extensive regulatory efforts has been to create a small industry of plaintiffs’ law firms and repeat clients apparently determined to extract settlement money from businesses.  Proposition 65 was implemented with the best spirit of consumer protection in mind.  But those regulations have since transmogrified into tools that primarily profit a small group of plaintiffs’ attorneys, to an extent that has become increasingly burdensome for consumer product manufacturers, resellers and property owners.

Proposition 65 provides for private enforcement actions, which enable individuals or groups to enforce the statutes against consumer products companies, property owners and others.  Prop 65 is a “right to know” law intended to help consumers make informed decisions about their purchases. The combination of a growing list of substances, difficulty in determining exposure levels with scientific certainty, sparse judicial and government oversight, and a right to attorneys’ fee awards under the statute, have transformed Prop 65 into a lucrative business model for a handful of law firms and closely-related consumer groups.  Hundreds of Prop 65 actions are settled each year, with about 70% of the settlement money paid being allocated to attorneys’ fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

California’s published statistics from 2013-2017 show an accelerating trend of more Notices of Violations filed each year.  In 2016 alone, for example, 1,576 Notices of Violation were sent to businesses selling products in California, while 2,710 Notices of Violation were sent in 2017.  The attorneys’ fee provisions of Prop 65 undoubtedly have much to do with that trend.  In 2016, 760 judgments or settlements were reached totaling $30,150,111, of which $20,062,247 was paid as attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ lawyers.  In 2017, 688 judgments or settlements were reached totaling $25,767,500, of which $19,486,362 was paid as attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs’ lawyers.

With that kind of monetary motivation, it is easy to see why some law firms make a practice of filing and serving Prop 65 Notices of Violations.  This effectively creates a small industry of lawyers who pursue Prop 65 claims, often for a small group of repeat-plaintiffs who appear again and again with the same lawyers.  Public records identify at least the following law firms, attorneys and their associated plaintiff clients, who pursue multiple Prop 65 claims:

  • The Chanler Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Anthony Held, Ph.D., P.E.; Whitney R. Leeman, Ph.D; Mark Moorberg; John Moore; Paul Wozniak; and Laurence Vinocur
  • Lexington Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Center for Environmental Health
  • Yeroushalmi & Yeroushalmi
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Consumer Advocacy Group, Inc.
  • Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Environmental Research Center; and Center for Advanced Public Awareness, Inc. (“CAPA”)
  • Law Office of Daniel N. Greenbaum
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Shefa LMV, Inc.
  • Klamath
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation
  • Lucas T. Novak
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff APS&EE, LLC
  • Custodio & Dubey
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Ecological Alliance, LLC
  • Sheffer Law Firm
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Susan Davia
  • O’Neil Dennis, Esq.
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Alicia Chin
  • Bush & Henry, Attorneys at Law, P.C.
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Michael DiPirro
  • Brodsky & Smith, LLC
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Gabriel Espinosa; Kingpun Chen; Precila Balabbo; Ema Bell; and Anthony Ferreiro
  • Law Offices of Stephen Ure
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Evelyn Wimberley
  • Lozeau Drury
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiffs Environmental Research Center, Inc.; and Community Science Institute
  • Robert Hancock of Pacific Justice Center
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Erika McCartney
  • Khansari Law Corporation
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff The Chemical Toxin Working Group, Inc.
  • Law Office of Joseph D. Agliozzo
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Sara Hammond
  • Glick Law Group
    • Represents repeated Prop 65 plaintiff Kim Embry

If you are unfortunate enough to receive a Prop 65 Notice of Violation from one of these lawyers or plaintiffs, or from any others, don’t ignore it.  The problem will probably not go away by ignoring it, and prompt action can help keep the matter from getting far worse.  Handling it yourself is also usually not a great plan.  Remember that the plaintiffs who sent the Notice of Violation are almost always represented by counsel experienced in Prop 65 matters.  You should contact experienced counsel to help you respond promptly and handle the matter with minimum disruption to your business.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience advising clients about how to avoid regulatory compliance issues, and we regularly defend clients against Notices of Violations of Proposition 65 and other California regulations. CK&E uses its extensive experience to help clients who are accused of regulatory violations quickly and effectively resolve claims, so clients can focus on growing their business.

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