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.