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.
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.
The big breakthrough in the 2018 Farm Bill is that it legalized hemp by changing troublesome language in the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in two important ways. First, it removes hemp and any hemp derivate from the definition of “marihuana.” Hemp is defined as any part or derivative of the cannabis plant with 0.3% or less THC (dry weight). This change means that CBD derived from hemp will no longer be considered a controlled substance under the CSA. Second, the Farm Bill amends the definition of “Tetrahydrocannabinols” or THC to exclude the THC that is found in trace amounts in hemp. This was important because THC is a psychoactive ingredient, and trace amounts that are too small to cause psychoactive effects might otherwise compel hemp and its products to be treated as controlled substances.
This change is exciting news for companies who are eager to follow the market trends of adding CBD to products. Even though CBD remained technically illegal under federal law prior to the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, sales of consumer products containing CBD already exceeded $350 million in 2017. That number is expected to jump significantly with the availability of legal CBD and the entry into the market of companies who were hesitant to incorporate CBD into their products because of the questionable legality. Still, companies that are eager to incorporate CBD into their products should proceed with caution if they want to ensure that their products are legal under federal law.
While some might believe that all CBD is now legal, that is not correct. Not all CBD will be legal, and manufacturers must take care to assure and document that the CBD they use comes from legal sources. For one example, CBD derived from cannabis plants with more than 0.3% THC (dry weight) remains illegal under federal law. CBD is only legal if it is: (1) derived from hemp, and (2) produced by a licensed grower in a manner consistent with the Farm Bill and associated federal and state regulations.
The Farm Bill invites states to submit a plan to the US Department of Agriculture that outlines how the state will monitor, license, and regulate the production of hemp. State departments of agriculture must consult with the state’s governor and chief law enforcement officer on the plan. If a state does not have a plan approved by the USDA, the USDA will have available a federal program for monitoring, licensing, and regulating hemp production. Hemp and its derivatives are only legal if grown under license pursuant to these state or federal programs.
It is clear that not all CBD has become legal overnight. The state and federal licensing and regulatory programs under which hemp can be legally grown will take months to establish. Once such programs are established, businesses should engage in due diligence to ensure that the CBD they are purchasing is derived from hemp grown under license from state or federal programs, and they should maintain documents to be able to demonstrate the chain of production.
This welcome development is a major crack in the dam that prevented cannabis-derived products from entering consumer markets. Watch for more soon, as other federal regulatory agencies such as the FDA consider controlled ways to permit CBD to be added to foods and pharmaceuticals.
CK&E attorneys will continue to monitor and stay up to date on the development of state and federal CBD ingredient and hemp cultivation programs, and are ready to help clients navigate complex and rapidly-changing federal and state regulatory schemes. If you have questions in this or other regulatory areas, contact CK&E at [email protected] or 310-998-9100.
Goop, a life-style branding company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, was recently fined $145,000 by a consortium of California Counties for making exaggerated and false advertising claims about its products. The makers and distributors of everything from clothes to perfume, and face cream to condoms, Goop has a well-documented history of over-the-top marketing claims. In the action brought by the County District Attorneys, the government took exception to the claim made by Goop regarding its Jade Egg product. Goop claimed among other things that the egg product, when inserted into the vagina, prevented uterine prolapse and improved sex. In the parlance of the regulators, this was an unsubstantiated or unapproved new drug claim.
In similar fashion, cannabidiol oil or “CBD” products are at the forefront of aggressive (sometimes overly aggressive) health and medical claims. Everyone knows about “medical” marijuana, and CBD is one of several “active” ingredients found in marijuana and hemp plants which is often associated with the beneficial effects of the plant: pain relief, stress or anxiety relief, anti-nausea, and anti-inflammatory. This phenomenon has lead to a budding market in consumer products featuring CBD, accompanied by assertive health claims. The CBD market already covers a wide range of products, including cosmetics (skin creams), food products (edibles), and even CBD laced beer. To add to the confusion, a compound found in marijuana was recently approved by the FDA for treatment of a rare seizure disorder.
And this highlights the problem, especially for marketers of cosmetics. The only FDA-approved medical claim for marijuana compounds is directed to a rare seizure disorder, and this is a tiny market. To make a valid advertising claim that a skin cream product treats, for example, eczema, psoriasis or a rash, the company or brand would need to have FDA approval of the active ingredient for that particular disease or condition at issue. Absent such approval, the marketing claim would likely be regarded as an unapproved new drug and subject to regulatory fines and seizure. Thus, for example, if you want to make a skin-protectant claim for your product, you would need to use one of the FDA approved ingredients for such claims, and limit the claim to the language approved in the FDA monograph for skin protectants. To illustrate the point, witch hazel is one of the FDA approved skin protectant active ingredients. If you use witch hazel as an ingredient in your product, in the correct percentage, it would allow you to make the claim “[r]elieves minor skin irritations due to either i) insect bites, ii) minor cuts, and/or iii) minor scrapes”.
The point of all this is to make sure that your advertising claims are reviewed and approved by experienced legal counsel. This is a common area for regulatory action, as well as private class actions. The FDA routinely polices the internet looking for unsubstantiated and unapproved new drug claims. When the FDA finds a violation, it sends out a warning letter that will look something like this. You do not want to be the first one on your block to own one of these. Consult your CK&E attorney before you put a label on your product, make an advertising claim on your website, press send on an email blast promotion, or even drop a product catalog in the mail. Yes, even old school mailers can get you in trouble.
One of the hottest trends in many industries is the addition of cannabis-derived extracts to consumer product formulas. This is likely driven by the widespread popularity of local and state attempts to legalize medical or recreational marijuana use. The personal care product industry is no exception to the trend, as any number of new product lines from moisturizers to mascara are being released with cannabis extracts in their formulations. Cannabidiol (CBD) is turning up in all types of consumer food and drink products, from honey to craft beers.
The cannabis plant contains over 113 known cannabinoids, or naturally-occurring compounds that interact with receptors in the human body, including cannabidiol (CBD) and THC. Since psychoactive effects are often attributed to the THC ingredient, it is generally avoided in consumer products, but CBD is considered to have no psychoactive properties and is becoming a popular ingredient, as is its cousin, hemp seed oil. Some believe CBD can have health benefits – but more about that later. In the current confusing state and federal legal environment concerning marijuana, many consumer product companies are wondering, is it legal to include CBD in my products? The short answer is no. The long answer is “it’s complicated.” And the most important answer is that the environment is changing fast, so in the near future the question may become moot.
To understand the current complications, a little background on cannabis extracts is essential. First, hemp and marijuana are both varieties of the cannabis sativa plant. Various cannabis extracts can be sourced from different parts of the cannabis plant in a variety of ways. The most common cannabis extracts used in personal care and many other products are hemp seed oil and CBD oil. Hemp seed oil is produced by cold-pressing the seed of a hemp plant, while CBD oil is generally produced from the leaves and flowering tops of either a marijuana plant or a high-CBD hemp plant. Marijuana has high amounts of THC, the psychoactive ingredient that produces the “high” of marijuana. Hemp, on the other hand, typically contains only trace amounts of THC, but can be bred to have high amounts of CBD. While hemp seed oil differs from CBD oil, the legality of the two are intertwined. In short, hemp seed oil imported from abroad is legal, while hemp seed oil sourced from hemp grown in the United States may be legal in certain circumstances. CBD oil, on the other hand, is at present illegal under federal law under all circumstances.
Sterilized seeds and oil and cake made from the seeds of the cannabis plant (we’ll refer to these as “Hemp Oil” for the sake of simplicity) do not fall under the purview of the Controlled Substances Act (the CSA), which regulates federal U.S. drug policy. Hemp Oil is not deemed to be a controlled substance, so the production, distribution and possession of Hemp Oil is legal. However, there are heavy regulations on the cultivation of “industrial hemp” (cannabis plants with THC concentration <0.3% by dry weight) from which Hemp Oil is derived. In simplified terms, Hemp Oil must be either imported into the U.S. or derived from industrial hemp legally grown pursuant to a 2014 Farm Bill. Pursuant to the 2014 Farm Bill, industrial hemp may only be grown for commercial purposes under specific pilot programs that have been adopted in particular states.
Unlike Hemp Oil, CBD is most easily derived from the leaves and flowering tops of cannabis plants. CBD sourced from the leaves and flowering tops of the marijuana plant is illegal under the CSA, because the leaves and flowers of cannabis plants are not exempt from the definition of the CSA. But CBD can also be derived from industrial hemp, and since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill it was commonly believed that CBD derived from legally grown industrial hemp would be legal. But it’s not that simple. In 2017 the DEA implemented a final rule specifically targeting cannabinoid extracts, which includes CBD extract, regardless of its source. The final rule defined a new category of “marihuana extract” under the CSA that specifically rendered cannabinoid extracts a controlled substance illegal in general distribution and use. The DEA reiterated that any such cannabinoid extracts substance “will continue to be treated as Schedule I.”
The legality of the DEA’s new “marihuana extract” definition is questionable, but at present the new category of “marihuana extract” stands under the CSA, making CBD illegal under federal law. Hemp Oil is still legal and available for use in personal care products if imported into the US or grown pursuant to the state-licensed commercial hemp grower pilot programs. In May 2018, the DEA issued an internal directive acknowledging that products and materials made from the cannabis plant that fall outside of the CSA’s definition of marijuana (such as “sterilized seeds incapable of germination, and oil or cake made from the seeds”) can be “sold and otherwise distributed throughout the United States without restriction under the CSA or its implementing regulations.” But this directive does not make CBD legal in the DEA’s view.
Despite the dubious legal status of CBD oil and to a lesser extent Hemp Oil, many companies are choosing to forge ahead and add cannabis extracts to their products. Many such risk-takers believe that DEA enforcement against CBD-containing products is virtually nonexistent, and demand for consumer products containing CBD is high, so the potential risk is outweighed by perceived market benefits.
That conclusion is reinforced because there is a widespread perception that soon all these concerns could go up in smoke. Congress has begun action to remove industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana under the CSA. Such a move would also remove any extracts derived from hemp from the new definition of “marihuana extract.” Reports indicate that Congress may pass the bill before the end of 2018, effectively making CBD oil derived from hemp legal across the United States. If that comes to pass, the product manufacturers who decided to jump the market and add CBD to their products even when it was legally dubious to do so may feel vindicated.
But CBD is not a magic elixir that relieves brand owners from overreaching in their labeling and advertising. In a future blog post, we’ll address the hazards of claiming health benefits from use of non-medical products, including those containing CBD.
Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the fast-changing regulatory federal and state landscape. If you have questions in this or other consumer product regulatory areas, contact CK&E at [email protected] or 310 998-9100.
A trademark is any word, phrase, symbol or design that uniquely identifies the source of one company’s goods from those of other companies. While the law in the United States recognizes a broad range of “source identifiers” as trademarks, most companies focus their intellectual property protection efforts on brand names, slogans and logos. Especially at the early stages of your business, it is important to focus your protection efforts on the essential elements of your brand. For example, your brewery may have a dozen regular varieties of beer, plus several small release or seasonal brews throughout the year. Seeking trademark registrations for each of your beers may quickly deplete your legal budget, and so a more focused approach is usually the best course of action. For most breweries, their primary protection efforts should focus first on their brewery name and logos, and then on the names of one or two of their flagship beers.
In the United States, a brewery’s trademark rights arise at the time it starts using the mark in commerce. This means that the first person to begin using a trademark in connection with the sale of beer owns that mark, and may be able to prevent others from using confusingly similar marks on beer and beer-related goods and services. That is, a registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is not necessary to own a trademark. However, these “common law” rights are limited in that they can only be applied to the geographic area in which you are selling your beer. Any business that is serious about protecting its brand should seriously consider applying for registration of the essential names and logos.
Some of the benefits that federal trademark registration provides to the trademark owner include:
(1) Preventing infringement problems before they begin by making your marks easy to find in a search of marks registered with the USPTO;
(2) Getting the USPTO to do a degree of enforcement on your behalf by preventing the registration of other marks found to be confusingly similar by the USPTO’s examiners;
(3) Giving you nationwide priority when your marks might otherwise be limited to the geographic area in which you are using the mark;
(4) Putting other companies on notice of your trademark rights so that they cannot claim that their subsequent use of your mark was in “good faith;”
(5) Creating a presumption of validity and ownership of your mark in the event that you need to sue another company for infringing your trademark rights;
(6) Providing the ability to recover treble damages and attorney’s fees in “exceptional” cases of trademark infringement;
(7) Providing the ability to recover statutory damages in cases involving counterfeiting;
(8) Giving you the ability to file for “incontestability” after five years of registration, which severely limits other companies’ ability to invalidate your trademark;
(9) Empowering Customs and Border Protection to block imports that infringe your trademark rights, including counterfeit products, once you record your trademark registration with Customs; and
(10) Granting you the right to use the ® symbol in connection with your beer, further putting your competitors on notice of your trademark rights.
Even if you’re in the planning process, and have not begun selling your beer yet, you may apply on an “intent-to-use” basis, meaning that you have concrete plans to begin using your mark in connection with the sale of beer. An intent-to-use application allows you to claim priority over other companies who might begin using your mark or a confusingly similar mark in the period between your application date and the date you start actually using the mark.
Keep in mind that you may not be able to establish exclusive trademark rights in a mark that is generic or descriptive of your products. For example, if you’re selling an IPA called “Hoppy IPA,” you will likely be unable to stop other breweries from using the name “Hoppy” in connection with their hop-forward beers. The “Hoppy” mark would be deemed descriptive because it describes a characteristic of the beer. The only way to establish trademark rights in a descriptive mark is to show that consumers associate the mark with your company. In the “Hoppy IPA” example, that means that consumers who hear “Hoppy” would need to immediately connect that term with your brewery.
On the other hand, you can reference a characteristic of your beer with a suggestive mark that requires consumers to use some imagination to connect your mark to the product. For example, consider Deschutes’ “Fresh Squeezed” mark for their IPA brewed with Citra hops, which alludes to the citrus notes in their beer. Stronger still are arbitrary names that have no direct connection to your beer or its characteristics (think “Stone Brewing” or “Rogue Ales”) or fanciful names you made up that have no literal meaning (like “Mikkeller” or “CANarchy”).
Stay tuned for Part Two of our brewery-focused trademark posts, in which we will discuss considerations regarding coexistence agreements.
Conkle, Kremer and Engel has assisted its clients in securing and protecting their trademarks for over thirty years. Whether you’re in the planning stages or already operating your brewery, contact Zachary Page or CK&E’s intellectual property team for help identifying or protecting your trademarks.