ADA Lawsuits Attacking Website Accessibility Mount

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Over the past few months, we have seen an increase in pre-litigation letters and lawsuits charging Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) violations against commercial websites. These notice and demand letters and lawsuits allege that businesses’ websites violate the federal ADA and similar state laws because they do not give full and equal access to individuals who have disabilities (including blindness, visual impairment and hearing impairment). ADA lawsuits have been filed in federal and state courts throughout the country. No state is immune from such suits, and no business is too small to receive such ADA demands and claims.

One of the factors undoubtedly is the rise of law firms, and consortiums of firms, that specialize in filing such suits. The law firms often work with repeat-plaintiffs with disabilities, much like law firms that specialize in Proposition 65 private enforcement claims in California who work with repeat plaintiffs who purchase products that are then made the subject of notices of violations and lawsuits. The subjects of ADA and Prop 65 laws differ greatly, but the common element is that liability can be fairly easy to establish under both ADA and Prop 65, and both statutes allow awards of attorneys’ fees to the law firms that can far exceed the damages awarded. Some of the law firms that commonly send ADA letters making demands and file lawsuits about website accessibility problems include Pacific Trial Attorneys (Newport Beach, CA), Nye, Stirling, Hale & Miller (Santa Barbara, CA), The Sweet Law Firm (Pittsburgh, PA), Block & Leviton, LLP (Boston, MA), and Carlson Lynch (Chicago, IL).

While there is no universally mandated standard, many large businesses and state and federal agencies follow WCAG 2.1, Level AA standards, which were created by the Web Accessibility Initiative, an internationally recognized organization. Generally, WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliance requires that websites have text components for all images and videos such that assisted technology software may read this content to users. Among other requirements, the standards also require that websites have proper contrast between background images and overlapping font so that visually impaired individuals can use assisting software to be able to read and navigate the website.

To minimize the risk of receiving an ADA violation letter or being sued, we recommend you take at least the following steps:

  1. Request that your digital team ensure and confirm that your website conforms with WCAG standards and, if so, what version/level as there were several earlier WCAG standards prior to the current WCAG version 2.1. To reduce the chances of such claims being made against your company, request your digital team to make your website WCAG 2.1 Level AA compliant and keep it that way until a more updated standard comes into general use.
  2. Add a footer entitled “Accessibility” or “Accessibility Statement” to your website. The footer should preferably appear on the homepage and each webpage, preferably near your “Privacy Policy” and “Terms of Service” footers.
  3. Add a webpage that is linked to the Accessibility Statement footer (e.g. https://www.conklelaw.com/accessibility-statement). This webpage should include an Accessibility Statement discussing your commitment to ensuring accessibility to all and providing contact information to report accessibility barriers and assistance with purchasing products or navigating the website. If you want help formulating your Accessibility Statement, seek qualified counsel to assist you.
  4. Instruct your digital team to periodically review the website as it is updated to ensure there are no access barriers, that all newly uploaded content (including temporary pop-up offers, sale announcements, discount codes, rebates, etc.) complies with WCAG standards, and that all customer service representatives are trained to handle website accessibility inquiries. This training should include advising a responsible person in your digital team of any reported accessibility barriers, and being specifically trained to help disabled customers place orders.

Even if you have not taken these steps before receiving a demand letter or lawsuit from one of the ADA plaintiffs’ lawyers, it’s possible to reduce liability by taking prompt steps. If you received such a website accessibility notice of violation or legal complaint, contact qualified counsel promptly to assist in minimizing the impact and avoid similar future claims. All of the ADA violation matters that Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have defended have been resolved fairly quickly with modest settlements. Others accused of website ADA violations have not been so fortunate, with some reporting having paid tens of thousands of dollars. CK&E attorneys are well qualified to help with all types of ADA and accessibility compliance concerns, whether for websites or physical facilities.

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2019 Was Another Lucrative Year For Prop 65 Bountyhunters

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As recently featured in the Los Angeles Times, Proposition 65 continues to be big business for a handful of plaintiffs’ lawyers and their select group of clients, but it’s highly questionable how much benefit California residents and consumers receive.

According to settlement data released by the California Office of the Attorney General, in 2019, 909 businesses paid close to $30 million to settle Proposition 65 claims asserted against them. The average settlement payment was nearly $33,000. Of this staggering sum, almost $24 million, or 80%, went directly into the pockets of plaintiffs’ lawyers. In sharp contrast, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), which implements Proposition 65, received only about 11% of the settlement payments, or $3.3 million. The plaintiffs – so-called “private enforcers” – took a share of more than $2.7 million.

Proposition 65, otherwise known as California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, is a “right to know” law. Prop 65 requires businesses to provide “clear and reasonable” warnings for exposures to any one of the more than 900 chemicals on the Proposition 65 list that are known to cause cancer, reproductive harm or birth defects, before they can be sold in California. The obligation to warn can fall on all parties in the supply chain – manufacturers, producers, packagers, importers, suppliers, distributors and retailers. Businesses that fail to provide such warnings risk receiving a written “Notice of Violation”, a precursor to a Proposition 65 enforcement lawsuit.

Violations of Proposition 65 can cost businesses tens of thousands of dollars in civil penalties, the noticing party’s attorneys’ fees, and defense costs. The deck is stacked against the business alleged to be in violation: In general, all the noticing party has to show is an exposure to a listed chemical. The burden of proof then shifts to the business to show that no actionable exposure has occurred, which is a difficult burden to meet under the law and can require costly expert witnesses. Accordingly, most Proposition 65 cases settle either out-of-court in a private settlement agreement, or in court through a court-approved consent judgment.

One chemical, di(2-ethylhexyl phthalate) or DEHP, accounted for more than half of the 2019 settlements. DEHP, a phthalate, is on the Proposition 65 list as a chemical known to cause cancer and reproductive harm. DEHP is commonly used in plastics to make them flexible. According to OEHHA, DEHP can be found in various types of plastic consumer products, including some shower curtains, furniture and automobile upholstery, garden hoses, floor tiles, coverings on wires and cables, rainwear shoes, lunchboxes, binders, backpacks, plastic food packaging materials, and medical devices and equipment. In 2019, businesses settled claims over DEHP exposure from such products as cosmetic cases, goggles, gloves, erasers, hangers and bedding storage cases. The phthalate diisonoyl phthalate (DINP) and lead are two other chemicals that were the frequent subjects of 2019 settlements.

Proposition 65 claims in 2019 were again dominated by a small group of plaintiffs’ lawyers whose practices consist of sending out Notices of Violation and extracting settlements from businesses.

The private enforcers that have sent Notices of Violation this year include:

• APS&EE (represented by Law Offices of Lucas T. Novak)
• Anthony Ferreiro (represented by Brodsky & Smith, LLC)
• As You Sow (represented by Danielle Fugere and Chelsea Linsley of As You Sow)
• Audrey Donaldson (represented by Voorhees & Bailey, LLP)
• Berj Parseghian (represented by KJT Law Group PLC)
• Brad Van Patten (represented by Law Offices of George Rikos)
• CA Citizen Protection Group, LLC (represented by Khansari Law Corporation and Blackstone Law)
• Center for Environmental Health (represented by Lexington Law Group)
• Clean Label Project (represented by Davitt, Lalley, Dey & McHale, PC)
• Consumer Advocacy Group, Inc. (represented by Yeroulshalmi & Yeroulshalmi)
• Consumer Protection Group, LLC (represented by Blackstone Law)
• Dennis Johnson (represented by Voorhees & Bailey, LLP)
• Ecological Alliance, LLC (represented by Custodio & Dubey LLP)
• Ecological Rights Foundation (represented by Law Offices of Brian Gaffney)
• Ema Bell (represented by Brodsky & Smith, LLC)
• Environmental Health Advocates, Inc. (represented by Nicholas & Tomasevic LLP and Glick Law Group)
• Environmental Research Center, Inc. (represented by Michael Freund & Associates, Law Office of Richard M. Franco and Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group)
• EnviroProtect, LLC (represented by Kawahito Law Group APC)
• Erika McCartney (represented by Environmental Law Foundation)
• Evelyn Wimberley (represented by Law Offices of Stephen Ure, PC)
• Gabriel Espinoza (or Gabriel Espinosa) (represented by Brodsky & Smith, LLC)
• Keep America Safe and Beautiful (represented by Custodio & Dubey LLP and Sy & Smith, PC)
• Key Sciences, LLC (represented by Kyle Wallace and Davitt, Lalley, Dey & McHale)
• Kim Embry (represented by Nicholas & Tomasevic LLP and Glick Law Group)
• Kimberly Ann Harrison (represented by Law Office of Rick Morin, PC)
• Laurence Vinocur (represented by The Chanler Group)
• Mary Elizabeth Romero (represented by Agency D&L)
• Maureen Parker (represented by Law Offices of Stephen Ure, PC)
• My Nguyen (represented by Seven Hills LLP)
• Paul Wozniak (represented by The Chanler Group)
• Precila Balabbo (represented by Brodsky & Smith, LLC)
• Public Health and Safety Advocates, LLC (represented by Law Offices of Danialpour & Associates)
• Ryan Acton (represented by O’Neil Dennis)
• Sara Hammond (represented by Joseph D. Agliozzo, Law Corporation)
• Shefa LMV, Inc. (represented by Law Office of Daniel N. Greenbaum)
• Susan Davia (represented by Sheffer Law Firm)
• Tamar Kaloustian (represented by KJT Law Group PLC)
• The Chemical Toxin Working Group, Inc. (represented by Khansari Law Corporation)
• Zachary Stein (represented by KJC Law Group APC)

Businesses should be aware of and ensure compliance with Proposition 65’s requirements if their products are sold in California. In the event a Notice of Violation is received, businesses should contact qualified legal counsel. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are highly experienced in defending businesses against Proposition 65 claims as well as counseling businesses on compliance, in order to minimize the risk of enforcement actions.

2019 Prop 65 By the Numbers:

• 1,000: Notices of Violation Served
• 909: Number of Settlements/Consent Judgments
• $29.7 Million: Paid by Businesses to Resolve Claims
• $23.7 Million: Attorneys’ Fees & Costs Collected by Noticing Parties’ Attorneys
• $2.7 Million: Payments Collected by Noticing Parties
• $3.3 Million: Payments to OEHHA
• $32,706: Average Settlement/Judgment Amount

The number of enforcement actions in 2019 was not a fluke. Similar numbers have been accumulated in prior years. Just in the first few months of 2020, a considerable number of new enforcement actions have been pursued. 2020 Prop 65 enforcement actions will be reviewed in an upcoming blog post.

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New SDS Multi-Language Website Posting Required for Some Disinfectants and Cosmetics

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To protect workers in the professional salon industry from risks of frequent exposure to what may be considered hazardous chemicals, starting July 1, 2020, California Assembly Bill No. 647 (“AB 647”) will require product manufacturers or importers of commercial products including a “hazardous substance” that constitutes a “cosmetic” or a “disinfectant” to post on their websites Safety Data Sheets (“SDS”) translated into multiple languages considered to be commonly used in the beauty industry.

AB 647 enacts California Labor Code Section 6390.2, which applies to businesses that manufacture or import a “hazardous substance or mixture of substances” that constitutes a cosmetic or is used as a disinfectant, and that are required under existing law to create a SDS for the product. The new law requires businesses to not only post their products’ SDS in English on their business website, but also translate and post the SDS in Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean – languages considered common to the beauty care industry. These SDS must be posted by the product’s brand name or other commonly known name, in a manner generally accessible to the public. If a separate SDS exists based on color or tint, such as for hair dyes used in salons, each separate SDS must also be translated and posted.

“Cosmetic” means any article, or its components, intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to, the human body, or any part of the human body, for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance. Soap is not considered a cosmetic. (California Health and Safety Code § 109900)

Disinfectants are defined under the Health & Safety Code sections applicable to Barbering and Cosmetology professions as any product registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) that has demonstrated bactericidal, fungicidal and virucidal activity, in liquid form to disinfect non-electrical tools and spray or wipe form to disinfect electrical tools and shears. (16 CCR § 977) A “hazardous substance” for purposes of AB 647 means any chemical found on the Director’s List of Hazardous Substances that exceed certain specified limits.

AB 647 does not impose any new legal requirements for manufacturers and importers of cosmetics and disinfectants to create SDS where SDS were not previously required. Rather, AB 647 only requires manufacturers and importers of such products that are already required to develop or maintain SDS to post and maintain those SDS in the required languages on their websites.

AB 647 amended the Labor Code with the intent of protecting “workers in the professional salon industry from the risks of being exposed to harsh chemicals on a daily basis,” said the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Ash Kalra.
The new law does not apply to cosmetics and disinfectants that are consumer products. The Labor Code generally exempts hazardous substances contained in products intended for personal consumption by employees in the workplace, or consumer products packaged for distribution to, and use by, the general public. However, professional use products (with hazardous ingredients), would need to comply because they are used by employees in the workplace.

“Disinfectants” as used in the new law are defined as any product registered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) that has demonstrated bactericidal, fungicidal and virucidal activity, in liquid form to disinfect non-electrical tools and spray or wipe form to disinfect electrical tools and shears. Although this language is directed toward disinfectants used on tools, it might be construed to apply when disinfectants can be used on other surfaces.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s team of attorneys provides counseling on regulatory compliance matters, and can assist businesses in determining whether they need to comply with AB 647 and other laws and regulations affecting personal care products.

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The California Consumer Privacy Act (“CCPA”) Is Enforceable Beginning July 1, 2020. Is Your Business Ready?

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You may have noticed a recent influx of personal emails about updates to businesses’ privacy policies and terms and conditions. This may be due, in part, to the California Consumer Privacy Act (“CCPA”) allowing individuals to bring private rights of action against businesses. While the CCPA was effective January 1, 2020, it will be enforceable by the California Attorney General beginning July 1, 2020.

What is the CCPA?

The CCPA grants California consumers the right to control the personal information that businesses collect about them. Through the CCPA, California residents have the right to know what personal information is being collected, whether their personal information was sold or disclosed (and to whom), and may request that businesses delete their personal information. Under the CCPA, personal information is any data that identifies, relates to, or describes a particular person or household. Information such as a person’s name, address, and email address (even a computer IP address) are considered personal information. This applies to information collected online and offline, so the CCPA may apply to businesses even if they do not have a website.

Not all businesses need to comply.

The CCPA applies to for-profit businesses that collect consumers’ personal information and meet one or more of these criteria:

(1) The business has an annual gross
revenue in excess of $25M;

(2) The business collects, buys,
receives, sells, or shares the personal information of 50,000 or more
California-resident consumers, household, or devices; or

(3) The business derives 50% or more of
its annual revenue from selling consumers’ personal information.

Even small consumer-oriented businesses should take particular note of the second criteria: If the business’ website collects what the Act classifies as “personal information,” such as email addresses or the IP Address of the computer accessing the website, it may not take very long to collect that kind of information about 50,000 California-resident devices or consumers and make the business subject to the Act.

Upon receiving a verified consumer request, businesses meeting any of the above-mentioned criteria must give California residents the means to exercise their rights under the CCPA and cannot discriminate against them for exercising these rights. Businesses must complete the consumer’s request within 45 days, although an extension of time may be available, and the process of responding to consumer requests must be supported by reasonable security procedures and practices.

What happens if a business does not comply?

A failure to cure any alleged violation of the CCPA within 30 days of notification of alleged noncompliance will subject businesses to an injunction and civil penalties of no more than $2,500 per violation or $7,500 per intentional violation. And if personal information is improperly disclosed or stolen due to the absence of reasonable security procedures and practices, businesses may be subjected to civil action for injunctive or declaratory relief, damages of $100 to $750 per consumer, per incidentor actual damages (whichever is greater), or any other relief that the court deems proper.

Are you ready to comply with the CCPA? Attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel are staying current with the CCPA to guide their clients through compliance.

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More “Essential” Changes for Personal Care Products Businesses

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On March 18, Conkle, Kremer & Engel first published an alert about the first California city and county stay-at-home orders and their “essential” business exceptions. And on March 20, CK&E updated that blog post to assess the effects of California’s March 19, 2020 statewide “stay at home” Order. But that “California State Order” was vague as to what particular businesses qualify as “essential” to be able to remain in operation at their facilities, and how its terms interacted with the city and county orders also in effect. On March 22, 2020, the California State Public Health Officer responded to the confusion by releasing a “Guidance” list of particular types of businesses that are considered “Essential Workforce” and are permitted to continue to operate at their facilities during the Coronavirus pandemic. Despite the head-spinning changes in the past several days, the California’s State Guidance list at least provides some measure of certainty – and hope – for the personal care products industry.

There are several provisions in the Guidance that appear to permit personal care products manufacturers and sellers to continue to operate, at least in particular ways: There are express exceptions for:

  • “personal care/hygiene products”
  • “cleaning [and] sanitizing supplies”
  • “services that are necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation, and essential operation of residences”
  • “support required for cleaning personnel”
  • “manufacturing [and] distribution facilities [for] consumer goods, including hand sanitizers”
  • “workers supporting the production of protective cleaning solutions”
  • as well as other general references to “sanitation” and “consumer products”

Taken together, these exceptions in the California State Order Guidance make reasonably clear that personal care products that are functional for hygiene should be among the types of products that are essential during a period when cleanliness is potentially life-saving.

While the California State Order Guidance does not include specific reference to “non-hygienic” cosmetic products, the California State Order itself refers to the Department of Homeland Security’s materials on the nation’s “Critical Infrastructure Workforce.” Among those materials, there are specific references to “soap, detergents, toothpaste, hair and skin care products, cosmetics, and perfume” in the Chemical Sector-Specific Plan (see Section A3.5) and the Chemical Sector Profile). For now, based on these materials and barring further developments, businesses appear to be permitted to continue making all personal care products, whether “hygienic” or not.

However, some caution is advisable because enforcement officials could nonetheless decide to distinguish between “hygiene”-related products (such as soaps, shampoos, cleansers and washes, body lotions, and skin creams) and products that are not as “hygiene”-oriented (like hair coloring products, nail polishes, fragrances, and cosmetics). It appears those businesses that can plan to potentially pivot to producing a larger proportion of “hygienic” products may have greater success in remaining open as the situation evolves. Having readily available concise documentation summarizing the “hygiene” products that your company is manufacturing could be helpful if you or your employees receive government inquiries. Of course, if ordered by a government agency to stop production, it is advisable to stop immediately and seek legal guidance – it is not advisable to disregard a direct government order of any kind.

As a final point, the Los Angeles County Order was also updated, and there is now a clear mandate closing barber shops and salons in Los Angeles County, which under previous versions of the order were permitted to operate as essential businesses. We know that this will create tremendous personal hardships for stylists and salon owners, and we are sorry to have to report this development. But however unfortunate this is for the stylists and salon owners (as well as customers, distributors and manufacturers), this development in itself does not alter our broader view that California currently allows continued production and sale of personal care products.

CK&E will continue to monitor developments important to our clients, in the personal care products industry and otherwise, during these uncertain and fast-changing circumstances. Our goal is to help clients continue their business in safe and socially responsible ways, within the bounds of the law as it evolves to meet the challenges of this coronavirus crisis.

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The Personal Care Product Industry as “Essential Activity” in the Coronavirus Pandemic

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March 20, 2020 Update to Post:

Very Fast-Moving Developments on the Subject of Essential Business Activity

Since Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s first publication of this blog post on March 18, 2020, there have already been significant additional developments, including more government orders. In the early evening of March 19, Los Angeles County and the State of California each issued “stay-at-home” orders that have noteworthy differences from the March 16 San Francisco Bay Area orders. All of these orders appear to be operating in parallel effect, so different requirements may apply depending on your business locations.

With respect to the Los Angeles County order, both establishments selling “personal care products” and “businesses that supply other essential businesses [like grocery stores and pharmacies]” are categorized as “Essential Business” and exempt from the closure effects in Los Angeles County. This “personal care products” exemption is like the Bay Area orders. The Los Angeles County order additionally includes establishments providing “personal grooming services,” like salons and barber shops, emphasizing the importance of personal hygiene to combat the Coronavirus and indicating that, top to bottom, the supply chain of personal care products should continue to operate in Los Angeles County. At least, for now.

The State of California’s order, which applies statewide, appears to be much broader in general application than many county orders, but is quite vague as to what activities are “Essential” and therefore permitted. Instead of listing the specific exempt businesses like the county orders, the California state order refers to the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s (“CISA”) list of 16 “Critical Infrastructure Sectors,” which are somewhat malleable business categories that may cause confusion as to which businesses might be exempt. On March 19, CISA released a guidance memorandum that appears to contemplate the manufacture of personal hygiene and cleaning products as being “critical,” but again is not nearly as specific to personal care products as are the various California county orders. Even though it is possible that the California state order supersedes county, city or other local orders, the state order is somewhat unclear as to what business activity is prohibited or remains permitted. For that reason in particular we have, for now, continued to look to the various more specific county orders to provide advice to clients.

CK&E’s personal care product industry sources inform us that there will likely be additional official guidance on the California state order sometime next week, and it is anticipated that such guidance should include specific permission for personal care products manufacturers and sellers to continue at least some scope of business activity. Underlying the various orders there continues to be a strong policy argument to keep personal care products businesses running – they make products that can help reduce the risk of spreading and being infected by Coronavirus.

CK&E will continue to monitor events as they develop and provide up-to-date information to its clients in personal care and other industries in order to assist in navigating through these uncertain and fast-changing circumstances.

Original March 18, 2020 Post:

With states and counties temporarily shuttering certain categories of businesses to combat the Coronavirus pandemic, many manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of personal care products and cosmetics may wonder whether their businesses fall under such executive orders and are required to close. If the March 16, 2020 “stay-at-home” orders issued by six of California’s San Francisco Bay Area counties are any indication, it appears that at least some categories of personal care products, and the businesses that deal in them, may be considered “Essential Activities,” allowing such businesses to remain in operation.

Those Bay Area executive orders (used as a model by Orange County, California for a similar March 17 order, subsequently amended and narrowed March 18) have two pertinent “Essential Activities” sections. The first includes “personal care products” and “products necessary to maintain the sanitation of residences,” and the second includes “businesses that supply other essential businesses [like grocery stores and pharmacies] with the supplies necessary to operate.” These two categories certainly should include personal cleaning and protective items like shampoos, soaps, washes, lotions, balms, and creams, as these products are essential elements of the personal hygiene deemed necessary to combat the Coronavirus. The California Health and Safety Code has long required workers to maintain standards of personal cleanliness with respect to hair, hands, and skin, and in the wake of government directives to wash hands frequently, news outlets like the Washington Post and the Boston Globe have recently quoted medical experts for the importance of moisturizing skin to keep a strong barrier against disease.

With respect to “elective” or “non-hygienic” personal case products such as hair treatments, coloring products, makeup, and nail polish, while the Bay Area orders do refer to the continued sale of all “personal care products” without limitation, it is unclear whether manufacturers or sellers of non-hygienic personal care products will be considered “Essential Activities” in practice. Many hair and nail salons have been closed, and governments have already begun issuing warnings and citations to non-essential companies who have remained open in the face of lockdown orders.

For comparison, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a national emergency declaration to provide “hours-of-service regulatory relief to commercial vehicle drivers transporting emergency relief in response to the nationwide coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.”  Among the transported products that are within emergency FMCSA regulatory exemptions are: “Supplies and equipment, including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap and disinfectants, necessary for healthcare worker, patient and community safety, sanitation, and prevention of COVID-19 spread in communities.” US DOT’s FMCSA reportedly considers its regulatory exemptions applicable to mixed shipments of general consumer goods and some of these types of products that are important to healthcare worker, patient and community safety.

Based on these developments, and to the extent possible, businesses dealing in a variety of personal care or cosmetics products may want to consider pivoting to a larger share of production of hygiene-centric products to remain “essential” until issuance of further guidance.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has decades of advising clients in the personal care, cosmetics, and beauty industry, including with respect to a wide range of regulatory and employment-related matters. CK&E is working with the Personal Care Products Council and closely monitoring the fast-developing Coronavirus legal landscape in order to assist clients with their immediate business, workplace, and workforce needs in this uncertain time.

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What California Employers Must Know About Coronavirus and COVID-19

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Federal, California and other state and local governments continue to grapple with responding to and reducing the spread of Coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 
(SARS-CoV-2))
and the disease caused by it, COVID-19. In addition to grappling with the personal and family effects, employers must ensure that they have a response plan in place to address Coronavirus’ impact on their business. In doing so, employers must be conscious of responding appropriately in light of the legal and business implications. In some ways, employers are in uncharted territory, but there are guideposts in existing laws and regulations. Here are some of the important considerations for employers to keep in mind in responding to Coronavirus:

Stay Up to Date on Government Guidance

In order to make an educated decision regarding what course of action will best protect employee safety, employers need to stay informed about the latest developments regarding the spread of the virus and adhere to government guidance for responding to the virus.

The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) has provided Interim Guidance for Business and Employers  meant to help prevent workplace exposures based on the information currently known about the virus. Given the rapidly evolving nature of this situation, employers should check the CDC’s website frequently for updates.

Employee Education to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

Some basic steps employers should take to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus and protect workers’ health and safety include:

  • > Educate employees on Coronavirus signs and symptoms and precautions to take to minimize the risk of contracting the virus
  • > Encourage employees to wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching their mouth, nose, and eyes with unwashed hands
  • > Practice social distancing, including minimizing non-essential travel, meetings and visitors
  • > Provide employees who continue to work in the office with hand sanitizer, flu masks, disinfecting wipes and paper towels, instruct them on proper use, and direct them to diligently clean frequently touched surfaces and objects (such as doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and mice)
  • > Actively encourage employees who show any symptoms of the disease caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) or are close to others who have, to stay home and not come to work

Formulate a Response Plan

Employers should move quickly to implement workplace policies to prevent the spread of the virus and protect employees. Some examples of potential elements of an employer’s response plan may include:

  • > Establish processes to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plan
  • > Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and existing state and federal workplace laws
  • > Increase the frequency and thoroughness of worksite cleaning efforts, particularly in common areas such as bathrooms, break rooms and kitchens
  • > Seriously consider new policies and practices to reduce congregations and increase the physical distance between employees, customers, vendors and others, to reduce the chances for exposure – for example, staggered break times, phone or video conferences instead of meetings
  • > To the extent feasible, ensure that employees have the requisite computer, phone and other technological capabilities to perform their work from home
  • > Formulate plans for suppliers and workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, such as staggered schedules and breaks, off-hours deliveries, or having some tasks performed by outside contractors
  • > Encourage employees who are feeling sick to stay home or work remotely, even if they are not showing Coronavirus symptoms
  • > Prepare to respond to employees who may be nervous or concerned about contracting COVID-19. Employers should be understanding of  employees’ concerns and evaluate each request or issue based on the individual employee’s specific circumstances.

Legal Implications of Workplace Strategy

Although there is currently no California law or regulations addressing an employer’s legal obligations relating specifically to Coronavirus, workplace safety and health regulations in California require employers to protect workers exposed to airborne infectious diseases. Therefore, it is important for employers to understand the legal issues implicated by Coronavirus and the guiding legal principles which will inform the employer’s response to the virus.

OSHA Standards for Maintaining a Safe Workplace

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1) requires employers to provide workers with working conditions free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others.

Cal/OSHA Requirements

The Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD) standard (California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5199) requires employers to take certain actions to protect employees from airborne diseases and pathogens such as Coronavirus. The regulations apply only to specific industries, such as health care facilities, law enforcement services and public health services, in which employees are reasonably expected to be exposed to suspected or confirmed cases of aerosol transmissible diseases.

The ATD requires such employers to protect employees through a written ATD exposure control plan and procedure, training, and personal protective equipment, among other things. However, the requirements are less stringent in situations where the likelihood of exposure to airborne infectious diseases is reduced. For more information, Cal/OSHA has posted guidance to help employers comply with these safety requirements and to provide workers information on how to protect themselves.

Medical Leave, Paid Sick Leave Issues and Disability Discrimination

If an employee is forced to miss work due to the need to be quarantined or the need to care for a family member for similar reasons, employers must determine whether the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other leave laws apply to an employee’s absence. If the employee has exhibited symptoms and is required to be away from work per the advice of a healthcare provider or is needed to care for a family member, leave laws may apply to the absence.

The FMLA regulations state that the flu ordinarily does not meet the Act’s definition of a “serious health condition,” it may qualify if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. In addition, eligible employees might be entitled to FMLA leave when taking time off for examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists, and evaluations of the condition, under the FMLA definition of “treatment.”

In contrast, if the employer itself implements health and safety precautions that require the employee to be away from work, an employer should proceed with caution before designating any time away from work as leave under a specific law. Doing so may require that the employee provide such leave when it otherwise would not be required to do so.

Review your sick leave, PTO (paid time off), or vacation policies. Consider reminding workers that the use of paid sick leave (PSL) is available to help workers who are sick to stay home. However, the employer cannot require that the worker use PSL – that is the employee’s choice. Employers may require employees use their vacation or PTO benefits before they are allowed to take unpaid leave, but cannot mandate that employees use PSL.

Employees in California at worksites with 25 or more employees may also be provided up to 40 hours of leave per year for specific school-related emergencies, such as the closure of a child’s school or day care by civil authorities (Labor Code section 230.8). Whether that leave is paid or unpaid depends on the employer’s paid leave, vacation or other PTO policies.

Paying Workers During a Pandemic

Depending on your organization’s business, some employees may be directed to work from home, temporarily furloughed, or work a reduced schedule.

Furloughs and Layoffs

Short-term layoffs or furloughs are generally permitted as long as the criteria for selection are not protected classes such as race, national origin, gender, etc. Exempt employees generally should continue to receive their full salary for each workweek in which they perform work. In contrast, hourly workers need not be paid for time not worked. A short-term layoff or furlough of less than six months should not implicate notice obligations under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, but may require advance notice under the California WARN Act, which was recently interpreted as having been triggered by certain short-term furloughs.

If non-exempt employees’ work schedules are reduced due to a temporary closure, they need not be paid according to their regular schedule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, they may be eligible for state Disability Insurance (“DI”), and Paid Family Leave (“PFL”) benefits for caring for themselves or their family members. Employees receiving reduced hours because of the effects of COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment insurance (“UI”). In California, the Governor’s Executive Order waives the one-week unpaid waiting period for DI and UI, so workers can collect those benefits for the first week out of work.

Resources for Additional Information about Coronavirus from the CDC

For more information about the Coronavirus and how businesses and individuals should best respond, refer to the below resources provided by the CDC and California’s Employment Development Department:

CDC: About Coronavirus and COVID-19

CDC: What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

CDC: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers

CDC: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

EDD: Coronavirus 2019 and COVID-19

CK&E Can Help

During these uncertain and rapidly changing developments, employers need to be proactive and careful as to the steps they take to protect their businesses, employees, customers and vendors. Lawyers at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have decades of experience advising California employers and companies doing business in California about labor, regulatory, consumer and contract concerns. We remain available and ready to help our clients navigate these difficult times. Please contact John Conkle, Amanda Washton or any of our attorneys to discuss your concerns.

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California Air Resources Board Moves to Update Consumer Product VOC Limits

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If you are a manufacturer of Hair Finishing Spray, No Rinse Shampoo, Personal Fragrance Products, Hair Shine or Temporary Hair Color (as well as a number of other consumer products) who sells in California, you might want to start thinking about product reformulation options.

Over the past few months, California’s Air Resources Board (“CARB”), the state agency responsible for investigating, regulating, and enforcing air pollution and emissions standards, has been developing revisions to the regulations relating to volatile organic compounds (“VOCs”) in various consumer products. VOCs are potentially harmful chemical compounds released into the indoor and outdoor environment, including through the manufacture and use of everyday products like cleaning sprays, air fresheners, hair care products, waxes and polishes, insect repellant, and laundry products. CARB consumer product regulations provide definitions for various categories of products and establish limits on the percentages of VOCs for many of the various categories.

From time to time, CARB revisits certain categories and schedules reductions in the permissible VOC limits. The latest round of proposals for VOC limit reductions include the Hair Finishing Spray, No Rinse Shampoo, Personal Fragrance Products, Manual Aerosol Air Freshener, Aerosol Crawling Bug Insecticide, and Charcoal Lighter Material product categories, including substantial reductions of up to 25% of VOCs by product weight. CARB is also considering adding the Hair Shine and Temporary Hair Color product categories to the list of planned reductions. The reductions are proposed to be phased in incrementally, effective 2023 and 2027, to permit manufacturers the time necessary to phase out current product lines and replace them with compliant products.

Final rules have not yet been set, but manufacturers who make and sell such consumer products would be wise to begin preparing to reformulate products to meet the requirements on the anticipated timetable. CARB will be conducting workshops and meetings throughout 2020 to continue to discuss VOC limits and definitions for these categories and others, including working with manufacturers and other industry experts to determine the feasibility of the proposed changes. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will monitor the results of CARB’s work in reducing VOCs and continue to report on the developments.

CK&E routinely assists manufacturers who sell products in California to ensure that their products meet CARB VOC standards and that their product labeling is appropriate, per CARB regulations, for the types of product being sold. CK&E works directly with CARB regarding VOCs and labeling, including representing manufacturers in CARB enforcement actions, in which CARB has the power to levy substantial fines against manufacturers whose products do not comport with VOC limits. With CK&E’s knowledge and assistance, manufacturers can avoid or reduce liability and business disruptions from such potential issues. If your business is facing CARB-related or other regulatory issues, please contact CK&E for a free consultation.

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AB 51 at a Crossroad: Can California Employers Still Compel Employees to Arbitrate Disputes?

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California Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”) has been in the news because it imposes a far-reaching ban on California employers requiring employees to arbitrate employment disputes. AB 51 was set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but its effect was temporarily stopped by a court injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller on December 30, 2019, in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce. A fuller hearing on whether the court will extend the injunction is set for January 10, 2020. If the injunction is extended, AB 51 will remain in limbo as long as that case remains pending, and very possibly permanently.

AB 51, if it is allowed to take effect, would have far-reaching implications for California employers who use arbitration agreements for resolution of disputes with employees. AB 51 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 10, 2019, and applies to “contracts for employment entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2020.” The law prohibits any person from requiring applicants and employees, as a condition of employment, continued employment, or the receipt of any employment-related benefit, to waive any rights, forum, or procedure established by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and the California Labor Code.

The Impact of AB 51
Although AB 51 was originally promoted to target the #MeToo movement and was characterized as a anti-sexual harassment law, because many sexual harassment claims against employers have been kept from public view by resolutions in private arbitrations rather than public court proceedings. But the new law covers much more than just sexual harassment claims. In practical effect, AB 51 would prohibit most employers from requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements for nearly all types of employment law claims, including any discrimination claims covered under FEHA and for any claims brought under the California Labor Code. AB 51 also precludes employers from threatening, retaliating or discriminating against, or terminating any job applicant or employee for refusing to consent to arbitration or any other type of waiver of a judicial “right, forum, or procedure” for violation of the FEHA or the Labor Code.

Nor can employers avoid AB 51 by having a standard arbitration agreement that requires applicants or employees to “opt out” to avoid. The law effectively prohibits employers from using voluntary opt-out clauses to avoid the reach of the bill. New California Labor Code Section 432.6(c) states that “an agreement that requires an employee to opt out of a waiver or take any affirmative action in order to preserve their rights is deemed a condition of employment.”

In addition, new Government Code Section 12953 states that any violation of the various provisions in AB 51 will be an unlawful employment practice, subjecting the employer to a private right of action under FEHA. Although this will presumably require an employee to exhaust the administrative remedy under FEHA, this provision would nevertheless lead to further exposure for California employers who utilize arbitration agreements with their employees. Importantly, however, AB 51 explicitly does not apply to post-dispute settlement agreements or negotiated severance agreements.

Federal Preemption of AB 51?
Generally, the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq., (“FAA”) preempts state laws like AB 51 that attempt to regulate or restrict arbitration agreements. Under the FAA, a state may not pass or enforce laws that interfere with, limit, or discriminate against arbitration, and state laws attempting to interfere with arbitration have repeatedly been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as preempted by the FAA. AB 51, however, expressly states that it does not invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the FAA. Proponents of AB 51 argue that it is not preempted by the FAA because it only impacts “mandatory” arbitration agreements and does not affect “voluntary” agreements.

Impending Court Challenges
Many questions surrounding the validity and application of AB 51 remain unanswered. Therefore, legal challenges on the ground that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA were inevitable. On December 6, 2019, the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction to halt enforcement of AB 51 until its legality is determined. The January 10, 2020 hearing of the preliminary injunction may give strong indication which way the Court will turn on the issue for the time being, but the ultimate determination will likely take years to wend its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Should Employers Do In Response to AB 51?
As this challenge to AB 51 makes its way through the courts, employers with ongoing arbitration agreements (or those interested in implementing arbitration programs) face a difficult choice starting in 2020: Play it safe and strike all mandatory arbitration agreements, or maintain the status quo until the litigation plays out. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every employer.

Employers currently using arbitration agreements should consider either staying the course based on the assumption that AB 51 will be held preempted by the FAA and therefore unenforceable, or suspending their arbitration programs until more clarity on AB 51 is provided. Employers implementing arbitration programs after January 1, 2020 should consider including in their arbitration agreements specific language to conform with Labor Code 432.6 and emphasizing the voluntary nature of the agreement.

The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel remain vigilant on employment law developments to advise businesses on all aspects of employee legal relations, including updates on the use of arbitration agreements as uncertainty looms.

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The Conkle Firm Presents at Personal Care Product Council’s Emerging Issues Conference in Marina del Rey

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Zachary Page and Eric Engel being introduced for PCPC Emerging Issues Panel on Product Counterfeiting and Brand Protection

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Eric S. Engel and Zachary Page presented to beauty industry professionals on hot and developing legal issues in brand protection, grey market and product counterfeiting at the Personal Care Products Council’s November 20, 2019 Emerging Issues Conference. The Conference was held on the 10th Floor of the Marina del Rey Marriott, with a spectacular view over the nearby marina and beach.

Among the topics covered by Zach were issues of registering U.S. trademarks for CBD products, and other previously unregisterable brands. The 2019 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com put new importance on registering important copyrights well in advance of their need for infringement claims, and Zach discussed the close relationship with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s “DMCA Clock” to takedown infringing online publications. Trends toward false advertising claims based on “natural” and “organic” labeling were also discussed, as were the dramatic increase in medical claim class action and other lawsuits. Zach also briefed the gathered industry experts on the various issues that affect uses of models and others without adequate documentation of consent, which can raise serious right of publicity as well as copyright concerns.

Eric addressed grey market and counterfeiting case development, including the importance of creating “materially different” packaging for U.S. and foreign products. Simple and low-cost ways to help DHS/CBP protect brands against importation of foreign-labeled versions of their own products, as well as counterfeits, was outlined. Also outlined were cost-effective techniques such as recording trademarks online with CBP’s IPR e-Recordation system, Lever Rule Protection, providing CBP with effective Product Identification Training Guides (PITG), conducting IPR Webinars for CBP distribution, and posting e-Allegations online. On combating counterfeiting, Eric addressed Amazon.com specifically because it now accounts for more than half of U.S. online consumer sales, and more than half of Amazon’s online sales are on behalf of third parties in its “marketplace.” Amazon acknowledges no responsibility for sales in its marketplace, beyond closing seller accounts and refunding its customers’ money when they can show that they were sold counterfeit and defective products. Eric discussed the developments in Amazon’s selling and fulfillment practices and in the law of counterfeiting and products liability that suggest that Amazon’s currently-strong denials of responsibility for third party’s products and sales practices may be less compelling in coming years.

CK&E attorneys regularly give presentations to personal care product industry professionals to help them understand and proactively address the latest legal concerns that affect and can inhibit growth of their businesses.

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