For years consumer product safety advocate groups have bemoaned the seeming lack of aggressiveness from the Consumer Product Safety Commission (“CPSC”). As an example, they complain that the CPSC levied no civil penalties on companies in 2020, 2 in 2019, and only 1 in 2018, penalties being a surrogate in their minds for enforcement. As counsel for many companies, we know that this is not the case and CPSC compliance activity has remained vigorous. But perhaps the ongoing criticisms led Acting Chairman Robert Adler to publicly announce in mid-November the CPSC’s recent vote to refer a case to the DOJ for prosecution of a civil penalty.
With the Commission evenly split 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans, and the incoming Biden administration only one month away, in early November seven industry groups penned a memorandum to the Biden Transition Team to advocate for greater power for, and greater use of existing power, by the agency. This is an important message because these leading advocates may well populate the Commission at high levels in the next few years.
The people who signed the document are capable and well intentioned. We share their goals for a strong, more effective CPSC but we question their proposed remedies. The Agency has a wealth of statutory authorities at its disposal. It just needs the resources, financial and technological, to better use them as well as a greater focus on priority areas. In this post, we will focus on the general, non product-specific proposals except to note that furniture and juvenile products are top of the list.
The memorandum, published on November 11th, was signed by leaders of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Reports, Cuneo Gilbert & LaDuca, Kids In Danger, Public Citizen, and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). Among the many actions advocated in the memo, the groups included a plea to the Biden Administration to utilize the CPSC to:
- File more formal administrative or legal complaints to seek recalls (although we note that the voluntary approach is far more effective and less resource intensive);
- Make more frequent public preliminary determinations that corrective action will be warranted (without recognizing the legal requirements for findings and due process to justify this commercially devastating action);
- “[R]everse the current trend and go back to imposing meaningful civil penalties on corporate violations of consumer product safety law” (without recognizing the real world deterrent effect of the threat of any penalties for public-facing companies.)
Section 6(b) still the Misunderstood Villain Subject to Much False News
Perhaps one of the most controversial CPSC-related statutory provisions is Section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act (“CPSA”). The section requires the CPSC to take reasonable steps to ensure that disclosure of information identifying a specific product, manufacturer, or private labeler, is accurate, fair in the circumstances, and reasonably related to effectuating the purpose of the CPSA and related laws. Information voluntarily submitted to the Commission under Section 15 (reports of potentially defective or unsafe products) is shielded from disclosure, even from FOIA requests, without the agency first going through procedural mechanisms to ensure release of the information doesn’t run afoul of 6(b). This provision resulted from unfair and devastating harm to companies from unjustified public condemnations and announcements by CPSC.
There is no known evidence to support the claim that the CPSC has been prevented by law from disclosing important information about unsafe products. The law provides for accelerated disclosures where justified. Nevertheless, consumer advocates have for years put forward the rallying cry that manufacturers have a veto over CPSC’s release of information that harms the public. The advocates’ memo calls for Congress to repeal Section 6(b). Absent such a bill, the advocates call for clarification that Section 6(b) does not extend to records released under FOIA, which currently runs contra to Supreme Court precedent from 1980.1
The memorandum also calls for significantly less reliance on consensus standards as both the basis for compliance action and regulatory action. Cost-benefit analysis would be downgraded (even though it is a hallmark of the Clinton and Obama Administrations.) These proposals are fraught with problems and fail to recognize that globally the product safety system has as its essential underpinning consensus standards, which results in a very safe consumer product ecosystem in the United States.
Finally, the advocates state that CPSC is woefully underfunded, given the incredibly important mission of consumer protection. Many CPSC observers share this sentiment. The memo calls for a drastic expansion of the agency, and increased budget for the CPSC.2 In fact, the memo advocates for a doubling of CPSC appropriations, an impractical request.
What This Means: Aggressive Advocacy and Activity Inside and Outside the Agency
For those regularly following the CPSC, the issues discussed in the advocates’ memorandum with great passion are nothing new. What changes, however, is the context. While Senate Leadership has been unable to confirm a third Republican commissioner nominee or a Chairman nominee with the failed attempts to confirm Ann Marie Buerkle and Nancy Beck (thus far), the Commission sits at a 2-2 position. Bob Adler, an Obama appointee, has been acting Chairman for over one year, allowing for an essentially Democratic-controlled agency under a Republican administration except for the deadlock on most regulatory actions. We will eventually see who gets nominated by the Biden administration and whether eventual new leadership will implement and advocate on the inside for the positions advocated to the Transition Team.
One can safely presume that the CPSC will be far more aggressive in the coming years. Companies would be well-served to protect themselves by ensuring their houses are in order—effective safety procedures in place up and down the supply chain.
1 Consumer Product Safety Commission v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102 (1980).
2 CPSC requested a budget of $135 million for FY 2021.