U.S. CARES Act: PPP Loans Provide Gifts for Careful Employers

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The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act passed on March 27, 2020, and signed into law by President Trump on March 28, 2020, aims to address some of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The entire act is a $2 Trillion economic stimulus package – the largest ever. Aside from the well-publicized $1,200 per person payments, the CARES Act provides hundreds of billions of dollars for large and small businesses, state and local governments and public health.

Rather than try to summarize the entire CARES Act, we’d like to focus on what many of our clients should pay attention to first: The $349 billion loan fund for small businesses called the “Paycheck Protection Program” (“PPP”) administered by the Small Business Administration. The PPP is designed to be a huge tax-free gift to employers, provided that the employers are careful about how they use it.

The basic points for PPP loans under the CARES Act are:

  1. PPP loans are available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, as well as 501(c)(3) non-profits, sole-proprietors, independent contractors and other self-employed individuals, so long as the business was operational and had paid employees on February 15, 2020. Some businesses with multiple locations, each having less than 500 employees, may also qualify (but generally, this is limited to hospitality businesses with a primary NAICS code starting with “72” – Accommodation and Food Service).
  2. Borrowers must make a good faith certification that the PPP loan is necessary due to the uncertainty of the current economic conditions caused by COVID-19.
  3. PPP loans will be issued through regular lenders who already handle SBA loans, in addition to new lenders electing to provide PPP loans. Your regular bank is likely to offer PPP loans.
  4. The amount of the PPP loan is at the borrower’s choice, but the maximum amount of a PPP loan is 2.5 times the business’ average monthly payroll expenses for the past year, up to $10 million.
  5. Most of the usual “red tape” for SBA loans has been waived, including determinations of borrower eligibility and creditworthiness. PPP loans are non-recourse, and require no personal guarantees. There are no fees, a maximum interest rate of 4%, and all payments are deferred for 6-12 months.
  6. PPP loans can be used for:
    a. “Payroll Costs” including salaries, vacation and sick leave, health insurance, retirement benefits, and state and local payroll taxes. But “Payroll Costs” does not include compensation for an employee’s annual salary in excess of $100,000. There is some uncertainty about this limitation, but indications are that for highly compensated individuals the first $100,000 in salary can be paid with PPP loan funds.
    b. Rent.
    c. Utilities.
    d. Interest on any debt obligations incurred before February 15, 2020.
  7. The total amount of the PPP loan funds that are used for these approved categories within the eight-week period following loan origination would be forgiven, and the forgiven amount is not taxable. In effect, the PPP loan turns into a tax free grant to the extent that it was used for the approved purposes.
  8. Businesses may elect to use PPP loan funds for other purposes not within the approved categories, but funds spent for “non-approved” uses will not be forgiven and the loan must be repaid with interest.
  9. There is an additional important condition that the PPP borrower must maintain the same number of full time employees, and cannot reduce salaries more than 25%, through June 2020. Otherwise portions of the PPP loan may not be forgiven. If the borrower terminated employees or made salary reductions greater than 25% between February 15, 2020 and April 26, 2020, as long as the employer hires back the same number of employees and restores salaries to sufficient levels by June 30, 2020, the PPP loan funds used for approved purposes will still be forgiven.
  10. One further cautionary note is that borrowers receiving a PPP loan are not be eligible for several of the other tax credits, refunds or deferrals available under the CARES Act, so consulting a tax professional about the value of those benefits to particular businesses would be advisable.

The PPP loan portion of the CARES Act is plainly designed to stem the layoffs and furloughs that have been rampant in the wake of the economic seizure that has been imposed by federal, state and local governments’ “stay at home” guidelines and orders intended to stem the COVID-19 outbreak. This can benefit both employees and employers who need to adapt their businesses to the unsettled conditions in which we find ourselves.

Business owners – from sole proprietors to employers of 499 employees (and some with more) should explore very seriously, very quickly, the virtual giveaway that the PPP loan program represents. If taken, PPP loans demand some care in documenting use of funds to assure compliance with the terms required to be granted forgiveness of the loan and receive the tax-free gift from the U.S. government.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay attuned to legal developments and the opportunities they create for our business clients. The CARES Act is a big opportunity that should be carefully considered and acted upon promptly.

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Can Coronavirus be a Force Majeure to Excuse Contract Performance?

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Businesses dealing with Coronavirus developments are suddenly faced with many pressing concerns, from whether they will be allowed to continue to operate, to employee relations and supply and delivery issues. One question that may become urgent is: What are the effects of Coronavirus and COVID-19 events on your business’ existing contracts? Can you cancel that big product order you placed, when government closure orders or other disruptions will make it difficult for you to sell it? Can you be forced to deliver products when you can no longer get the ingredients due to supply chain disruptions? Who bears those risks?

First, Does Your Contract Have a Force Majeure Clause?

All contracts are in some ways a method of allocating risks between the parties. Many (but not all) contracts contain what is commonly called a force majeure clause. These clauses explain what will happen when an unexpected and uncontrollable event disrupts performance of contractual obligations. Such a force majeure event is sometimes loosely referred to as an “Act of God,” but it is more accurately an unanticipated event that the parties could not have controlled. A key element is that the parties could not have reasonably anticipated the event at the time of contracting. As a result, the contract date becomes an important consideration: In a force majeure analysis, a contract entered into during March 2020 may well be treated differently than one entered into in March 2019.

Next, Read and Comply with the Requirements of the Force Majeure Clause

The primary purpose of a force majeure clause is to allocate the risk of such unanticipated events – effectively excusing one party’s failure to perform a contractual obligation due to such an event. It is regarded as a term that is negotiable between the parties, like price or delivery time. Whether the parties have any force majeure clause, and its specific terms, will vary from contract to contract. So it is essential to read your contracts carefully and be sure to comply with their terms.

If a contract has a force majeure clause, the first question that will arise is what kind of event can trigger it? Common events identified may be floods, earthquakes, wars and terrorism. Relatively few force majeure clauses refer to “pandemic,” “epidemic” or “state of emergency,” which seem most applicable here. But some may, and others may include events that result from such occurrences, such as “government action or order.” Others may refer to inability to obtain supplies, which could also be triggered by worldwide Coronavirus effects. And some may just generally refer to “force majeure” without identifying any specific event, or include a “catch all” term of some kind. Courts tend to apply such non-specific force majeure terms narrowly, so it is important to read and understand your specific contract and how its terms are likely to be applied.

Many force majeure terms include written notice requirements. Strict compliance with such notice requirements is often required, including giving written notice of inability to perform the contract within a specified time after the unanticipated event. Here, the Coronavirus pandemic and its effects, such as new government orders, may be viewed as a series of events that have varying effects – whether any one or more triggers the required notice will depend heavily on the contract terms and the specific circumstances.

The decision about whether and when to give the required notice can be daunting: Giving notice too early may itself be a breach of the contract – an anticipatory repudiation in legal terminology – but giving notice too late may waive the force majeure excuse. In many instances, it may be advisable to have communications with the other side about the issues, without formally giving notice.

Then, Give Consideration to the Controlling Law

Another important consideration is what jurisdiction’s laws control the contract. Many contracts include an agreement on which state or country’s law will control. But when the contract does not include such an agreement, it may become a fact question driven largely by where the parties were located, where the contract was made and where the performance was required.

The law of the controlling jurisdiction can be very important because states differ in what they require to apply a force majeure excuse for non-performance. California, for example, invokes a standard of “commercially impracticability,” which is more flexible than the standards of many other states. Some states require that actual impossibility be shown. All states require some showing of causation – meaning that the alleged disruption in fact was a cause of the inability to perform. But some states require that the force majeure be shown to be the sole cause of the inability to perform, and not just one among many causes.

Some states, including California, require substantial effort to mitigate the disruption (meaning, taking all reasonable alternative measures to eliminate or limit the effects of the force majeure), but other states are less demanding of mitigation efforts. For example, if the seller has unanticipated problems getting expected supplies of required ingredients, a court may require that the seller seek other more expensive supplies, or may even require that the seller take legal action against its suppliers. Courts may also require partial performance, if the unanticipated disruption does not preclude all performance.

Be Judicious in Your Use of the Force Majeure Clause

In all instances, the focus will be on the event that caused the disruption, not on the disruption itself. Just showing that performance has become more costly, difficult or inconvenient will not usually suffice to establish a force majeure. Courts may assume that the parties allocated ordinary risks of post-contract changes in costs and profitability, although contract terms can set different standards that could control this assessment.

Business managers should readily see that a contract’s force majeure clause can be a powerful tool in this Coronavirus emergency, but it can be double-edged if not wielded carefully. Managers may also have to face the difficult position of being on both sides of this issue – on the one hand, dealing with a business partner that is unable to perform a contractual obligation, and on the other hand, being unable to perform yourself. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys routinely help clients with complex business matters, including contract terminations and force majeure disputes. In our next blog post on this subject, we will turn to what happens when your contract did not include any force majeure clause. In California, as in many states, the Uniform Commercial Code or other doctrines of Impossibility of Performance and Frustration of Purpose can come into play.

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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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US Takes New Steps to Combat Counterfeit Products

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On January 31, 2020, the White House issued an executive order outlining several new steps to address the ongoing and growing issue of the sale of counterfeit goods through e-commerce platforms over the internet, which harms both manufacturers and sellers of authentic products and the consumers who purchase the fake (and sometimes physically harmful) products. Estimates show that the annual value of counterfeit goods traded internationally rose from $200 billion in 2005 to $509 billion in 2016. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports 27,599 shipment seizures stemming from intellectual property violations in fiscal year 2019. Those most commonly affected by the sale of counterfeit goods include the personal care, apparel, electronics, luxury goods, software, entertainment and media, and automotive industries.

Several agencies, including CBP, the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Postal Service are involved in the anti-counterfeiting efforts. New steps include (1) the revocation or suspension of Importer of Record numbers for those caught importing counterfeit goods; (2) requirements for consigners, carriers, hub facilities, and customs brokers to notify CBP of any importers known to be dealing in counterfeit goods and to cease transacting with such parties, with increased scrutiny and penalties for noncompliance; (3) the creation of a task force between the CBP, DHS, and USPS in order to determine permissible ways to prevent and deter the transport of counterfeit goods through the postal system, including the targeting of particular international posts (for example, the Chinese postal system) for repeated violations; (4) the periodic publishing by DHS of information relating to seizures and violations; (5) DHS and CBP recommendations of best practices for e-commerce platforms and third-party marketplaces; and (6) the prioritization by Federal prosecutors of offenses involving counterfeiting or piracy.

Importantly, per DHS reports, CBP will “treat domestic warehouses and fulfillment centers,” like ones operated by e-commerce giant Amazon, “as the ultimate consignee for any good that has not been sold to a specific consumer at the time of its importation.” As such, e-commerce platforms that store violative products, even if those products are technically in the possession of third-party sellers while they are being stored, will have a “greater responsibility” to cooperate in the identification and removal of such products, and “greater liability” for failure to cooperate. This could potentially benefit private litigants as well – if e-commerce stores have a greater responsibility to inspect, identify, and address counterfeit products, the threshold for a finding of willful or knowing infringement, which can lead to damage multipliers and attorney fee awards, could be reduced. Even the prospect of such increased penalties can create powerful leverage for settlements beneficial to infringement plaintiffs.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has extensive experience helping product manufacturers and distributors investigate and enforce their rights to stop and remedy counterfeiting, parallel importation, gray market and other trademark- and intellectual property-infringement claims. CK&E attorneys are well-versed in the careful initial steps that should be taken promptly when sales of illicit products are suspected. CK&E keeps abreast of the latest laws and techniques that permit manufacturers and distributors to identify, prevent, and report counterfeiters and other IP violators. Stay tuned for additional CK&E blog posts as we monitor important developments relating to e-commerce counterfeiting.

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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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New California Law to Classify Employees and Independent Contractors

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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.

AB 5 has been sent to Governor Gavin Newsom, who recently endorsed it in an op-ed for the Sacramento Bee, and he is expected to sign it 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.

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Amazon and Online Retailers Draw Proposition 65 Notices of Violation

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney John Conkle was recently interviewed by chemical industry publication Chemical Watch in an article about the continued robust private enforcement of Proposition 65 against large retailers such as Amazon, Target, Walmart, CVS and Costco. John, a leading Prop 65 defense attorney who has counseled and defended companies throughout the supply chain, provided his expert insight in the article, which looked at the astronomical number of notices of violation being served on retailers by private enforcers.

In general, Proposition 65 enforcement has steadily risen over the years, reaching its peak in 2018 with 827 settlements and judgments totaling a record $35 million.

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.

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2018 Proposition 65 Trends Show Increasing Risk to Business

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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.

2014-2018 CKE Prop 65 Settlement Chart

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
  • $2.7 Million: Payments Collected by Plaintiffs
  • $3.7 Million: Payments to State Agency
  • $38,395: Average Settlement/Judgment Amount

This blog post was coauthored by Desiree Ho.

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Prop 65: PILPs and ASPs and Fees — Oh My!

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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.

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Prop 65 Settlements Predominantly Benefit Claimants’ Lawyers

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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.

2014-2017 Summary of Proposition 65 Resolutions (Updated from OAG Data as of 3/25/2019)
2014-2017 Summary of Proposition 65 Resolutions
(Updated from OAG Data as of 3/25/2019)

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.

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