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.
On September 11, 2019, California lawmakers passed California Assembly Bill 5 (AB 5), codifying and clarifying the California Supreme Court’s landmark 2018 decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, which fundamentally altered the test for determining the classification of workers as employees or independent contractors in California. We previously blogged about the Dynamex decision, under which workers are presumed to be employees for purposes of claims for wages and benefits arising under Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders, and companies must meet a three-pronged “ABC” test to overcome this presumption and establish that an individual is an independent contractor. AB 5 would codify the ABC test into law.
Under AB 5, a new Section 2750.3 would be added to the California Labor Code. Section 2750.3, subsection (a)(1), will state that, for purposes of the Labor Code, the Unemployment Insurance Code, and the wage orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission, a person providing labor or services for remuneration shall be considered an employee rather than an independent contractor unless the hiring entity demonstrates that all of the following conditions are satisfied: (A) The person is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact; (B) The person performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) The person is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation or business of the same nature as that involved in the work performed.
Under the new law, California workers can generally only be considered independent contractors if the work they perform is outside the usual course of a company’s business. Conversely, a company must classify workers as employees if the company exerts control over how the workers perform their duties, or if their work is part of a company’s regular business.
AB 5 has far-reaching implications for California businesses who classify their workers as independent contractors because it extends the scope of the Dynamex ruling from only Industrial Wage Commission Orders to include claims for wages and benefits under the Labor Code and Unemployment Insurance Code. The Dynamex decision applied only to rules governing minimum wages, overtime and meal and rest breaks, but under AB 5, individuals classified as employees must also be afforded workers’ compensation in the event of an industrial injury, unemployment and disability insurance, paid sick days and family leave.
However, AB 5 is also narrower than the Dynamex decision in that it exempts certain occupations from the new test. The new Labor Code section would provide limited exemptions for certain occupations, including direct sales salespersons, licensed estheticians, licensed electrologists, licensed manicurists (until January 1, 2022), licensed barbers and licensed cosmetologists from the application Labor Code Section 2750.3 and the holding in Dynamex, provided that the individual: • Sets their own rates, processes their own payments, and is paid directly by clients; • Sets their own hours or work and has sole discretion to decide the number of clients and which clients for whom they will provide services; • Has their own book of business and schedules their own appointments; • Maintains their own business license for the services offered to clients; and • If the individual is performing services at the location of the hiring entity, then the individual issues a Form 1099 to the salon or business owner from which they rent their business space.
If a company can meet its burden of showing that the individual meets the above criteria, then the determination of proper classification for that individual would be governed by S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, the 1989 decision that has been the prevailing law for wage order cases in California prior to Dynamex. Borello established an 11-factor inquiry into the degree of control a company exerts over the worker’s performance of his or her duties: whether the hiring entity has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired; the right to discharge at will, without cause; whether the worker is engaged in a distinct occupation or business; the kind of occupation and the skill required in the particular occupation; who supplies the instrumentalities, tools and the place of work for the person doing the work; the length of time for which services are to be performed; the method of payment; whether or not the work is part of the hiring entity’s regular business; and whether or not the parties believe they are creating an employer-employee relationship.
Another aspect of AB 5 worth noting is that it would not allow an employer to reclassify an individual who was an employee on Janaury 1, 2019 to an independent contractor due to the measure’s enactment.
With the law set to become effective on January 1, 2020, companies, particularly in the salon and beauty industry, would be wise to reassess the classification of their workers to ensure compliance with the new law. The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have extensive experience advising businesses on best practices regarding proper worker classification, and will be continually monitoring developments related to AB 5 as they occur.
However, under the Proposition 65 regulations as amended last August, retailers are now legally responsible for compliance only under certain prescribed circumstances. In addition to having to provide Internet warnings for products sold online, a retailer is responsible for providing a warning if: • the retailer is selling the product under its brand or trademark; • the retailer knowingly introduced a listed chemical into the product or knowingly caused a listed chemical to be created in the product; • the retailer covered, obscured or altered a warning label that was affixed to the product; • the retailer received a notice and warning materials for the exposure but sold the product without posting or displaying the warning; or • the retailer has actual knowledge of the potential exposure requiring the warning and there is no upstream entity that can be held liable for the violation. Actual knowledge means specific knowledge of the exposure received from any reliable source. If the source of this knowledge is a Prop 65 notice of violation, the retail seller is deemed to have actual knowledge five business days after receipt.
Despite the new regulations, retailers are continuing to be served with notices of violation. For example, while Amazon has received 1,027 notices of violation since the California Attorney General’s Office began keeping track in 2000, most of those notices were served in recent years: 255 in 2016, 404 in 2017, 180 in 2018 and 57 so far this year. Private enforcers often include retailers in their notices to apply settlement pressure on manufacturers, distributors and other entities upstream in the supply chain, who are often required to enter into indemnity agreements with their retailers. Retailers should continue to be vigilant about having adequate indemnity agreements in place, ensuring that the products they sell have been tested for compliance with Proposition 65 and if warnings are required, to provide the appropriate warnings.
Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys routinely assist clients in ensuring compliance with Proposition 65 and other regulations, and defend businesses against Proposition 65 when a notice of violation is received.
The definition of “beer” got a little broader in California, thanks to the passage of Assembly Bill 205 (AB 205), which was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on July 9, 2019.
AB 205, introduced by Assemblymember Tom Daly (D-Anaheim), expands the definition of “beer” under California’s Alcohol Beverage Control Act (California Business & Professions Code Section 23006) by allowing beer to be produced using honey, fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices and other food materials as adjuncts in fermentation.
Under the prior law, beer was strictly defined as a grain-derived beverage – “any alcoholic beverage obtained by the fermentation of any infusion or decoction of barley, malt, hops or any other similar product, or any combination thereof in water.” Accordingly, the prior definition of “beer” required a wine license in order to use fruit in the fermentation process.
However, California’s old definition of “beer” was out of step with federal regulations adopted in 2006 by the Department of the Treasury and its Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which allow the use of honey, fruit, fruit juice, fruit concentrate, herbs, spices and other food materials as adjuncts in fermenting beer. And while AB 205 is largely seen as bringing California’s definition in line with federal regulations, Assemblymember Daly’s office explained that AB 205 “modifies the definition of beer in a way that will allow California breweries to expand their market, satisfying the consumer’s desire for more varied and unique styles of beer.”
The new definition is likely to have swift impact. California has more craft breweries than any other state, with more than 980 craft breweries as of January 2019, per the California Craft Brewers Association trade association. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys counsel clients in the craft brewery industry.
On April 3, 2019, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Raef Cogan joined the Personal Care Products Council (“PCPC”) in Sacramento, California to lobby members and staff of the California Legislature on pending legislation important to members of the personal care products industry, including Senate Bill 574 and Assembly Bill 495.
SB 574, also known as the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019,” would require cosmetic manufacturers to disclose fragrance of flavor ingredients that appear on any one of 27 “designated lists.” CK&E attorneys explained during the meetings that a viable version of this bill may be presented in the future, but that as written SB 574 threatens cosmetic companies’ confidential business information, results in duplicative regulation and relies on faulty, unscientific “lists” to determine what information manufacturers must disclose.
AB 495, is entitled the “Toxic Free Cosmetics Act,” and would dramatically increase the number of cosmetics listed as “adulterated,” without justification. CK&E attorneys explained that under AB 495 as proposed, any cosmetic that contained even trace amounts of identified ingredients would be labeled “adulterated” and would be banned outright. Some ingredients sound scary, like lead, but are in fact naturally occurring and cannot be completely eliminated from cosmetic (or many other) products. Others are preservatives that have been deemed completely safe for use in cosmetics by the FDA and other regulatory bodies.
Both SB 574 and AB 495 are coming up for committee vote soon. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will stay apprised of the results and will provide updates on this legislation that is important to the cosmetics industry.
PCPC California Lobby Day also featured presentations from Allen Hirsch, Chief Director of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (“OEHHA”), Karl Palmer from the Department of Toxic Substances Control (“DTSC”), Joseph Calavita from the Air Resources Board, and Senator Bill Quirk, Chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. The regulators spoke about important upcoming actions by their agencies. Senator Quick focused on the importance of protecting our environment from toxins, primarily greenhouse gasses. Each of these presenters stressed a need for more information sharing between the industry and the respective regulatory and legislative bodies.
SB 574, the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019”
SB 574, the “Toxic Fragrance Chemicals Right to Know Act of 2019,” was introduced last month. It would require cosmetic manufacturers, starting July 1, 2020, to disclose whether any of their cosmetic products contains a toxic fragrance or flavor ingredient.
Fragrance or flavor ingredients that appear on any one of 27 “designated lists” would be subject to public disclosure. The designated lists include chemicals listed as known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity pursuant to California’s Proposition 65; chemicals classified by the European Union as carcinogens, mutagens or reproductive toxins; chemicals included in the European Union Candidate List of Substances of Very High Concern; and Group 1, 2A or 2B carcinogens identified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) among many others.
Existing law – the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 (“Safe Cosmetics Act”) – requires cosmetic manufacturers to disclose to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) Safe Cosmetics Program whether any of their cosmetic products contain chemicals known or suspected to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. The Safe Cosmetics Act’s list of reportable ingredients is compiled from a more far limited set of five designated lists. This self-reported information, in turn, is publicly available through the CDPH’s Safe Cosmetics Database.
While the Safe Cosmetics Act does not exempt fragrances and flavorings from being reported, the reportable chemicals in those cases are often identified simply as “trade secrets.” The proposed legislation would require the disclosure of the identities of the reportable chemicals or ingredients, but for trade secret purposes, would not require the weight or amount of a fragrance or flavor ingredient to be disclosed or any disclosure of how the fragrance or flavor is formulated. In addition, a manufacturer would not have to disclose any fragrance or flavor ingredients that are not found on any of the 27 designated lists. It is important to note that SB 574 as proposed would not ban or otherwise regulate the use of any fragrance or flavor ingredients.
AB 495, the “Toxic Free Cosmetics Act”
AB 495, also introduced in February 2019, would amend both California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law and the Safe Cosmetics Act.
California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law prohibits the manufacture, sale, delivery, holding or offer for sale of adulterated cosmetics. AB 495 would greatly expand the definition of an “adulterated cosmetic” to include cosmetics that contain specific ingredients. Any cosmetic that contains lead or asbestos or any of the following 13 intentionally added ingredients – without regard to the amount or exposure levels – would be banned from sale in California:
Mercury and related compounds
Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
The bill would also amend the Safe Cosmetics Act by requiring referrals to be made to the Department of Justice for any sale of adulterated cosmetics, as well as any violation of the Safe Cosmetics Act.
It has become clear that California’s leadership position on cosmetic regulation has effectively driven changes in cosmetic products and labeling throughout the United States. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will continue to follow and update these important developments affecting the cosmetics industry.
Update on AB 495 as of April 9, 2019
Efforts to pass AB 495 have temporarily stalled. On April 9, 2019, the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee postponed a scheduled vote to move the bill to the Assembly Health Committee due to lack of support. The bill is not expected to be brought back again until next year. It is anticipated that the bill will be in a revised form when reintroduced. Conkle, Kremer & Engel will continue to monitor the developments of AB 495.
2018 turned out to be the most lucrative year ever for Proposition 65 attorneys and their clients, according to settlement data collected by the California Office of Attorney General (OAG). The famous “right-to-know” law has been on the books for more than 30 years, and requires businesses to provide 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 – or face hefty civil penalty and attorneys’ fees demands from the OAG, a district attorney or, far more commonly, private enforcers who initiate their claims by sending Notices of Violation.
Reviewing the recent trends, the indications are that the private enforcer claimants are becoming more efficient at extracting as much as possible from the unfortunate businesses who receive Notices of Violation. Even though California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) is supposed to benefit from Proposition 65 recoveries, the chart below shows graphically that the vast majority of the money obtained by the claimants stays with the claimants – and most of it stays with the claimants’ attorneys. In 2018, less than 12% of the money obtained by private enforcers went to OEHHA, and more than 79% went to the claimants’ attorneys.
The claimants’ increasing efficiency is shown clearly by the fact that, even though the number of Notices of Violation sent to businesses dropped by approximately 13% (2,710 in 2017 and just 2,364 in 2018), the number of settlements and judgments increased from 693 in 2017 to 834 in 2018. The average settlement shot up by 13%, from $38,395 in 2017 to $44,097 in 2018. This was buoyed in large part by a huge increase in the attorneys’ fees and costs collected by plaintiffs’ attorneys. In 2017, plaintiffs’ attorneys took in $20.2 million in attorneys’ fees and costs. In 2018, plaintiffs’ attorneys recovered $29.1 million in attorneys’ fees and costs.
The small circle of private enforcers making these claims remains an exclusive club. The claimants active in 2018 included: Alicia Chin; Amy Chamberlin; Anthony E. Held, Ph.D., P.E.; Anthony Ferreiro; APS&EE, LLC; As You Sow; CA Citizen Protection Group, LLC; Center for Advanced Public Awareness, Inc.; Center for Environmental Health; Consumer Advocacy Group, Inc.; Dennis Johnson; Donny Macias; Ecological Alliance, LLC; Ecological Rights Foundation; Ema Bell; Environmental Law Foundation; Environmental Research Center, Inc.; EnviroProtect, LLC; Erika McCartney; Evelyn Wimberley; Gabriel Espinosa; Hector Velarde; John Moore; Estate of Karen Charlene Calacin; Kim Embry; Kingpun Cheng; Laurence Vinocur; Maureen Parker; Michael DiPirro; Paul Wozniak; Peter Englander; Precila Balabbo; Russell Brimer; Safe Products for Californians, LLC; Sara Hammond; Shefa LMV Inc.; Susan Davia; The Chemical Toxin Working Group, Inc.; and Whitney R. Leeman, Ph.D.
Questions still remain as to the effects on the Proposition 65 industry of the OAG’s amended settlement guidelines that went into effect October 1, 2016, and the new clear and reasonable warning requirements that went into effect August 30, 2018. We posited some theories in our previous blog post on the issue, but it’s too early to tell the collective effects of these changes on the net Proposition 65 costs for businesses. One thing is for certain: The risks to businesses are increasing as Proposition 65 claimants are demanding more money than ever to resolve their claims. Absent any meaningful Proposition 65 reform, that trend will only continue. Unfortunately, Proposition 65 is notoriously difficult to reform because it requires a two-thirds majority approval of each house in the Legislature and any amendment must further the purposes of Proposition 65.
The best approach for businesses is to be proactive to try to meet the Proposition 65 challenges before they become very costly burdens. Aside from carefully reviewing your compliance, the most important factor in reducing costs of resolution is to act promptly when you receive a Notice of Violation to contact qualified counsel experienced in Proposition 65 issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel keeps up to date on developments in Proposition 65 and provides expert guidance to clients to ensure compliance with Proposition 65 and other regulations.
2018 by the Numbers
2,364: Notices of Violation Served
834: Number of Settlements/Consent Judgments
39: Number of Active Prop 65 Plaintiffs
$36.7 Million: Paid by Businesses to Resolve Claims
$29.1 Million: Attorneys’ Fees & Costs Collected by Plaintiffs’ Attorneys
$3.3 Million: Payments Collected by Plaintiffs
$4.3 Million: Payments to State Agency
$44,097: Average Settlement/Judgment Amount
2017 by the Numbers
2,710: Notices of Violation Served
693: Number of Settlements/Consent Judgments
38: Number of Active Prop 65 Plaintiffs
$26.6 Million: Paid by Businesses to Resolve Claims
$20.2 Million: Attorneys’ Fees & Costs Collected by Plaintiffs’ Attorneys
We previously blogged about Proposition 65 trends based on data about settlements and judgments collected and made public by the California Attorney General’s Office. One trend we noted was the downward shift in civil penalty offsets known as “payments in lieu of penalties” (PILPs) or “additional settlement payments” (ASPs), due to recent amendments to the Proposition 65 regulations to rein in such payments. We’ll refer to these offsets collectively as ASPs and look at how the amendments have affected the Proposition 65 “industry”.
By way of background, Proposition 65 generally allows claimants (termed private enforcers) to keep 25% of the civil penalties as well as recover their attorneys’ fees and costs in enforcement actions. The state’s regulating agency, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) retains the other 75% of the civil penalties. While Proposition 65 authorizes penalties of up to $2,500 “per day for each violation,” the reality is that civil penalties make up a very small portion of an overall settlement or judgment: The vast majority of the payment is earmarked as attorneys’ fees and costs paid to the claimant’s lawyers.
In the past, Proposition 65 private enforcers have often demanded additional payments that were treated as offsets to civil penalties. In other words, whatever the appropriate amount of civil penalties, they would carve out a portion of it as ASPs, because the claimants could keep the ASP portion entirely or direct it to a related entity – in addition to retaining their 25% share of the civil penalties. OEHHA does not receive any part of an ASP.
The practice became concerning enough that the Attorney General’s Office amended the regulations, effective October 1, 2016, to impose additional requirements for ASPs. According to the Final Statement of Reasons for the rulemaking, the amendments were intended, among other things, to “ensure that [OEHHA] receives the civil penalty funds specified in Proposition 65, so that it has adequate resources for Proposition 65 implementation activities” and to “limit the ability of private plaintiffs to divert the statutorily mandated penalty to themselves or to third parties, in the form of [ASPs].”
The regulations as amended also reflect the Attorney General’s position that ASPs should not be included in any settlement that is not subject to judicial approval and ongoing judicial oversight. The effect has been that, since 2017, only one private settlement agreement has included ASPs. Several others were reported in 2017 and 2019, but a review of the settlement agreements showed that the private enforcer in those cases erroneously reported its 25% portion of the civil penalties as ASPs.
While this can be seen as a bright spot, it may have the unintended consequence of lowering the incentive for certain private enforcers to settle early and privately, increasing costs to businesses who receive a Proposition 65 “notice of violation” – the official precursor to legal action. Indeed, since the amendments, we have continued to see a high number of court judgments contain ASP provisions, since those are still allowed under the amended regulations but subject to additional scrutiny by the Attorney General. In 2017, 90 of the 345 court judgments called for payment of ASPs (totaling $1,421,660) and in 2018, 109 of the 366 court judgments included ASPs (totaling $1,915,083). While not all plaintiffs are as aggressive about collecting ASPs, some NGO plaintiffs (such as As You Sow, Center for Advanced Public Awareness, Center for Environmental Health, Consumer Advocacy Group, Ecological Rights Foundation and Environmental Research Center) still show a strong preference for ASPs in resolving their claims. It is possible that OEHHA’s move to restrict ASPs results in more lawsuits and fewer pre-litigation settlements, but may not ultimately reduce ASPs as much as anticipated.
More problematically, the amendments seem to have had the unintended effect of driving up the civil penalties and attorneys’ fees and costs. The amended regulations provide that ASPs should not exceed the 75% share of the civil penalty paid to OEHHA. Previously, ASPs in both private settlements and judgments often exceeded the total civil penalties. The regulations now effectively place a cap on the amount of ASPs: ASPs that exceed 75% of the civil penalties may cause the Attorney General to file an opposition. So to maximize their own recovery private enforcers are now settling for what seems to be high civil penalties and ASPs that are a hair below 75% of that amount. Legally, that is a very doubtful practice – since ASPs are an offset to civil penalties, a defendant should pay the same total amount based on statutory factors, regardless of whether any part of the payment is earmarked as an ASP or if all of it is treated as a civil penalty.
One of the most stunning observations of the trends in Proposition 65 recoveries is that the attorneys’ fee portion of Proposition 65 settlements has increased every year. As we will discuss further in a later blog post, in 2018 the total amount of attorneys’ fees and costs collected by Proposition 65 plaintiffs shattered all records. Attorneys’ fees made up 79% of all Proposition 65 recoveries in 2018 – up from 76% in 2017. The claimants’ attorneys collected an astonishing $29,117,784 – an increase of nearly $9 million over 2017. It is not a big leap to infer that there is a connection between this and the changed regulations reducing claimants’ ability to rely on ASPs – claimants may be increasing the attorneys’ fees portion of their recovery to make up for perceived “losses” in ASPs.
What do the amended regulations and the settlement trends mean for businesses defending against Proposition 65 claims? For one, settling early and privately in an out-of-court settlement is a recommended strategy. ASPs should not be part of such early agreements. This means anyone receiving a notice of violation should act promptly to obtain qualified legal counsel, because private enforcers can sue in court after giving 60 days’ notice. Certain defense strategies can be utilized to try to force an out-of-court settlement for a non-cooperating private enforcer, or at least make a court judgment less appealing to the claimant. Businesses should also take steps to minimize civil penalties and thereby ASPs by taking immediate corrective action as well as ensure that their legal counsel put together a defense that supports a minimal civil penalty recovery under the law.
Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced at helping clients defend against Proposition 65 claims, resolving them cost-effectively and efficiently, as well as implementing proactive strategies to avoid Proposition 65 and other regulatory issues.
Over the last several years, the California Attorney General’s Office (OAG) has released annual reports of Proposition 65 settlements through 2017. 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 fully released by OAG). 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 or obtaining judgments in 693 cases. The recoveries totaled more than $26 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 $20 million, or 76% of all private settlements, and civil penalties retained by claimants represented an additional $1,431,496 or 5.4% of all Prop 65 recoveries.
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.
As usual, a new year means new laws, especially in California. For 2019, one law that all employers need to be aware of is SB1343, which amended Government Code Sections 12950 and 12950.1 to impose new sexual harassment training requirements on most employers. Previously, only employers of at least 50 employees were required to train their supervisory employees. Starting now, if you have 5 workers, including both employees and contract workers, you have to comply with several training requirements:
– Within the next year, all supervisory employees must complete two hours of sexual harassment training.
– The definition of “supervisor” is fairly broad and covers more than just your managers. Under California Government Code 12926(t), “Supervisor” means “any individual having the authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or the responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend that action, if, in connection with the foregoing, the exercise of that authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.”
– Within the next year, all nonsupervisory employees must complete one hour of sexual harassment training.
– For all employees, the training must be provided within six months of the employee’s assumption of a position with the company.
– After January 1, 2020, each employee must receive sexual harassment training once every two years.
– Beginning January 1, 2020, seasonal and temporary employees, and any employees hired to work for less than six months, must receive sexual harassment training within 30 calendar days after the hire date or within 100 hours worked, whichever occurs first. If the temporary employee is employed by a temporary services employer (i.e., a temporary staffing agency), the temporary services employer is required to provide this training, not the client.
California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is required to develop online sexual harassment training courses. DFEH has stated that it expects to have such training programs available on its website by late 2019. If they are available on time, employers can direct their workers to those online courses, but otherwise employers must develop or provide their own training.
Constant vigilance is required for employers to comply with rapidly changing requirements. Employers should consult with experienced counsel particularly in regard to interpretation of new requirements such as these. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced with counseling employers in the face of the changing legal landscape in employment law. CK&E attorneys help companies identify and reduce areas of exposure to liability for employment claims, including wage and hour, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims.