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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California Attorney General Kamala Harris Promises to Scrutinize Prop 65 Settlements

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As reported on the Conklelaw blog, the California Attorney General’s Office recently released its long-awaited 2013 report of Proposition 65 settlements.  The report reveals that private Proposition 65 bounty hunters collected nearly $17 million in civil penalties, payments in lieu of penalties and attorneys’ fees and costs from businesses during 2013.

Concurrently with the report, the Attorney General’s Office took the unusual step of releasing a letter directed to the Proposition 65 plaintiffs’ bar – a small group of attorneys and law firms who specialize in representing private enforcers.

The letter from the Attorney General’s Office letter characterizes the 2013 report as shining “a light on some of the aspects of private enforcement of Proposition 65 that result in unnecessary burdens for businesses and are cause for public concern.”

The letter expresses particular concern over Proposition 65 plaintiffs’ practice of collecting “Payments in Lieu of Penalties” (also known as PILPs).  PILPs are supposed to offset civil penalties in Proposition 65 cases, and are intended to fund activities that have some nexus to the basis for the Prop 65 enforcement action.  Proposition 65 bounty hunters have broadly interpreted such PILP-funded activities to include funding additional Proposition 65 litigation.  Unlike civil penalties, of which California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is entitled to 75 percent, the state does not receive any portion of PILPs.  In 2013, 21% of the money collected in private settlements was paid as PILPs.

The Attorney General’s Office also criticized the enormous attorneys’ fees routinely collected by private enforcers as part of Proposition 65 settlements, and promised to “redouble” efforts to evaluate attorney’s fees awards.  In 2013, nearly 75 percent of all of the Proposition 65 settlement money, or an astonishing $12.5 million, went straight to the plaintiffs’ lawyers.  Attorney General Harris concluded, “Clearly, the high transaction costs for resolving Proposition 65 cases continue to be cause for concern.  They are the reasons we have been redoubling our efforts to evaluate attorney’s fees awards in the private party settlements submitted to us. . . .”

Attorney General Harris’ pledge to actively scrutinize Proposition 65 settlements is consistent with her “hands-on” approach to attempting to curb private enforcement efforts.  In 2011, for example, the Attorney General filed an opposition to a motion to approve settlement in Held v. Aldo, challenging an attorney’s fee request for more than $5 million by the Chanler Group – one of the most active Proposition 65 plaintiff’s firms – as unreasonable.  Let’s hope Attorney General Harris backs her pledge with more direct and effective oversight to curb abuses of Proposition 65 by private enforcers.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are committed to guiding clients through the constantly changing landscape of Proposition 65 compliance and enforcement.

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California Attorney General Reports Businesses Paid $17 Million to Settle Private Prop 65 Cases in 2013

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And that’s the “good news” – in 2012 it was $20 million.

The California Attorney General’s Office recently released its annual report of Proposition 65 settlements.  The report confirms what most businesses are already painfully aware:  Proposition 65 continues to be a thriving business for private Proposition 65 plaintiffs and their lawyers, who make millions of dollars in the name of the “public interest.”

While private plaintiffs did not reap as much in 2013 as they did in 2012 ($20 million), they did manage to collect $17 million.  That represents the third largest haul for bounty hunters since 2000, when the Attorney General’s Office began collecting the data and publishing annual reports.net

The summary reveals that in 2013 alone, private Proposition 65 plaintiffs acting in the “public interest” and their lawyers entered into a whopping 350 private settlements or consent judgments with businesses alleged to be in violation of Proposition 65, and collected $16,812,396.  In contrast, the Attorney General and local District Attorney each filed a single action.

Proposition 65 requires the State of California to publish a list of chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm.  Businesses are required to warn consumers before exposing them to any one of more than 800 listed chemicals, by either labeling or posting a notice.  If a business does not comply, it can be liable for substantial civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day.

Proposition 65 has become a disturbingly lucrative operation for private enforcers, frequently called “bounty hunters,” who serve dozens if not hundreds of Notices of Violation on unsuspecting businesses.  These bounty hunters threaten to sue unless they are paid off in private settlements.  If a private settlement cannot be reached, they proceed with a lawsuit and try to force a settlement to avoid the cost of defense.

Proposition 65 allows private enforcers to keep 25 percent of all civil penalties collected, with the remaining 75 percent going to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).  In addition, private enforcers pocket 100% of so-called payments in lieu of penalties, or PILPs.  Whereas OEHHA would receive 75% of monies designated as civil penalties, OEHHA does not receive any portion of monies designated as PILPs.  Finally and most significantly, private enforcers’ lawyers are entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs under the State’s private attorney general doctrine.

The 2013 report shows that only one-tenth of all monies collected by private enforcers went to the State of California.  The rest of the money went to the bounty hunters and their lawyers:

  • $12,426,052, or 74%, went directly to the private enforcers’ lawyers as attorneys’ fees and costs
  • $596,977.25, or 3.6%, went directly to private-enforcer plaintiffs
  • $1,998,435, or 12%, went indirectly to private-enforcer plaintiffs as a payment in lieu of penalty
  • $1,790,931.75, or 11%, went to OEHHA.

The report also shows continued aggressive activity by a handful of Proposition 65 private enforcers.  At the top of the list are:

  • Center for Environmental Health (represented by Lexington Law Group) with 62 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $3.3 million
  • Russell Brimer (represented by Chanler Group) with 60 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2.4 million
  • Peter Englander (represented by Chanler Group) with 46 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $1.6 million
  • John Moore (represented by Chanler Group) with 41 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2 million
  • Environmental Research Center (represented by various law firms including Law Office of Karen A. Evans and Michael Freund & Associates) with 34 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $2.8 million
  • Consumer Advocacy Group (represented by Yeroushalmi & Associates) with 25 settlements or consent judgments totaling more than $1.3 million

The Prop 65 outlook for businesses in 2014 does not look much better.  In particular, the June 2013 listing of cocamide DEA, a common ingredient in beauty and personal care products, such as liquid soaps and shampoos, has spawned dozens of lawsuits and hundreds of businesses have been named as defendants.  Numerous settlements have already been approved by the Alameda Superior Court this year, leading to speculation that the total settlements in 2014 will likely exceed the total settlements in 2013.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely represents businesses against Proposition 65 claims and lawsuits brought by private enforcers, as well as counsels businesses on compliance with Proposition 65 in order to avoid becoming a future target of private enforcers.

 

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California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005: A Sleeper That May Awake in 2014

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California has a well deserved reputation for extraordinary efforts to protect consumers.  While the goals behind the regulations may be laudable, California’s many requirements impose enormous burdens on companies doing business in the state, often with questionable public benefit.  Proposition 65 is a familiar example of a regulation that requires elaborate warnings, but does not actually regulate the use of any chemicals.

There are many other examples, including a “sleeper” called the Safe Cosmetics Act.  Enacted in 2005, the Safe Cosmetics Act was heralded by its supporters as a landmark law that would protect the health of millions of Californians who use cosmetics.  In reality, the Safe Cosmetics Act is just another glorified reporting statute, requiring manufacturers of cosmetic products sold in California to file with the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) reports of information that is already on product ingredient labels.

But the Safe Cosmetics Act takes the idea of the consumers’ “right to know” to an extreme by imposing a precautionary rather than risk-based approach.  Unlike Prop 65, the Safe Cosmetics Act requires manufacturers to report use of chemicals that are not just “known” to cause cancer or reproductive harm, but also chemicals that are “suspected” to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  In addition, the Safe Cosmetics Act does not recognize any “safe harbor” levels for reporting – any amount of a “suspect” chemical must be reported.  Finally, cosmetic products that contain a reportable chemical must be reported regardless of whether the likely mode of exposure to the chemical by use of the product differs from the route of exposure identified by the authoritative scientific body as a pathway likely to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  For example, a chemical that has only been identified as “suspected” of causing cancer or reproductive harm when ingested must be reported even if it is contained in a skincare product.

In future blog posts, we’ll address why the Safe Cosmetics Act could become much more significant to personal care products manufacturers beginning in 2014, the risks of liability to manufacturers posed by the Safe Cosmetics Act, and how manufacturers can know if their products contain the regulated  chemicals.  At Conkle, Kremer & Engel, we help our clients meet compliance requirements, despite constantly changing state and federal laws.  With proper counseling, clients can avoid potential liability and minimize disruption to their businesses.

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Navigating Civil Regulatory Issues: CK&E Presentation Highlights Key Regulations for Beauty Companies Doing Business in California

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys were featured speakers at the Beauty Industry West presentation “Navigating in Challenging Regulatory Waters:  Updates on California and Federal Compliance.”  About 150 entrepreneurs, consultants, executives and beauty industry professionals attended the event at the Crowne Plaza Hotel LAX in Los Angeles on October 15, 2013, which included a valuable networking session and a post-presentation Q&A.

CK&E’s presentation about legal regulatory issues for personal care product companies doing business in California included an overview of the California Organic Products Act (COPA), Proposition 65 (California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act) and California’s Green Chemistry Initiative including the new Safer Consumer Products Regulations.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s materials from the BIW event, including the “Navigating Civil Regulatory Issues” presentation and its “Resource Guide for Regulatory Compliance,” are available for download on CK&E’s Regulatory Compliance web page.

Co-presenter Donald Frey, an industry veteran, regulatory expert and product development and innovation consultant, presented on key regulatory issues from the business perspective, including how to effectively deal with regulators. Mr. Frey has generously agreed to share his presentation, available for download here.

Among the questions and answers covered after the presentation were the addition of titanium dioxide (airborne, unbound particles of respirable size) to the Proposition 65 list of chemicals, responsible entities for purposes of compliance with the Safer Consumer Products Regulations, and the determination of organic ingredients under the National Organic Program standards.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are frequent speakers at events of interest to the beauty industry due to their expertise in representing manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, retailers and salons in all aspects of their business, including the challenges of regulatory compliance.

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A Proposition 65 Reform Bill Becomes Law: California Health & Safety Code Section 25249.7 Amended by AB 227

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On October 5, 2013, Governor Brown signed into law a bill that makes immediate changes to Proposition 65.  The amendments, which passed the California Legislature last month, impose a number of restrictions on private enforcers seeking to enforce Prop 65 against businesses that allegedly fail to provide a warning as required by Prop 65.  The bill that became law is Assembly Bill 227 (AB 227), introduced by Assemblymember Mike Gatto (Forty-Third District of California) in February 2013, and discussed in our March 13, 2013 blog post.

However, as AB 227 was enacted, only limited types of businesses are likely to benefit.  The amendments are very narrow, covering only certain exposures to alcohol or food-related chemicals, vehicle exhaust and tobacco smoke.  Thus, the only businesses that are likely to benefit from the amendments are bars, restaurants, parking garages, and those who own or operate premises where smoking is permitted.

In general, the amendments establish a new “safe harbor”:  AB 227 prohibits a Prop 65 lawsuit from being filed by a private enforcer over an alleged failure to provide a warning concerning one of the specified exposures, if the business takes specified action within 14 days of receipt of the notice of violation.   The targeted business can escape a Prop 65 action if, within 14 days, the business:  (1) actually corrects the alleged violation; (2) agrees to pay a civil penalty of $500 per facility or premises within 30 days; and (3) submits a “Proof of Compliance” notifying the private enforcer that the violation has been corrected.  If the business takes the so-called “safe harbor” action in response to the notice of violation alleging failure to warn about exposure to alcohol or food-related chemicals, vehicle exhaust or tobacco smoke, the private enforcer is precluded from filing a lawsuit or collect additional civil penalties or attorneys’ fees from the business.

These types of piecemeal amendments to Prop 65 may increase public demand and political pressure for additional reform.  In May 2013, Governor Brown proposed sweeping, substantive reform to Prop 65, intended to end decades of “frivolous ‘shake-down’ lawsuits” by Prop 65 bounty hunters and their lawyers.  But by September 2013, those efforts stalled as stakeholders involved in the reform effort were unable to reach the consensus needed to generate the two-thirds majority approval that is required for any amendment of Prop 65 in the Legislature.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel constantly tracks the latest developments in Prop 65 in order to provide expert guidance and counseling to clients.  This latest amendment is a demonstration that businesses who receive a Prop 65 warning should immediately seek qualified legal counsel to help them avoid liability and unnecessary payments to Prop 65 claimants and their lawyers.  In fact, businesses are well advised to consult qualified legal counsel to review their compliance with Prop 65 before an immediate response becomes necessary.

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Prop. 65 Reform — Is a Safe Harbor from Bounty Hunters on the Horizon?

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California’s now-infamous Proposition 65 (Prop. 65, Cal. Health & Safety Code § 25249.5) allows a private citizen to file a lawsuit against any business that fails to post adequate warnings about the presence of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  The private enforcer may seek an injunction, penalties of up to $2500 per violation, per day, and an award of attorneys’ fees.

Assembly Member Mike Gatto (43rd District of California)  recently proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 227, that would reform Prop. 65 by providing a “safe harbor” in the form of a 14-day period for businesses to correct alleged violations.  If enacted as proposed, a business who receives a demand under Prop. 65 would have a brief opportunity to demonstrate its compliance with Prop. 65 requirements to the California State Attorney General, or the responsible city attorney or district attorney.  If the business takes advantage of that “safe harbor” then the claimant would be barred from filing a lawsuit against that business.

While the purpose of Prop. 65’s private enforcement provision is to allow private citizens to act on behalf of the public to ensure warnings are properly posted, supporters of AB 227 criticize Prop. 65 as a “bounty hunter” statute that primarily benefits plaintiff’s attorneys.  In 2011, businesses paid a total of nearly $16 million to settle lawsuits brought by  private citizens, of which almost $12 million was paid to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.  In fact, nearly half of the attorneys’ fees were paid to a single firm: The Chanler Group.

AB 227 would give businesses the opportunity to come into compliance with Prop. 65 warning requirements without paying exorbitant settlement fees to prevent costly litigation.  But businesses would have to take swift action.  As CK&E attorneys John A. Conkle, Amy Burke and Mark Riedel discussed in their November 2012 presentation to the Personal Care Products Council, What’s Your Game Plan?, it is important for businesses to develop strategies for ensuring regulatory compliance and for handling notices of violation quickly and efficiently.  AB 227, if signed into law, would be another reason that businesses should prepare contingency plans for the day that they receive a notice of violation from plaintiffs seeking to take advantage of Prop. 65 — a business could avoid being sued at all if it responds quickly and correctly to take advantage of the safe harbor.  CK&E advises clients in regulatory compliance, responding to warning and demand letters, and developing an individualized game plan to suit each client’s needs.

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