United States: State AGs In The News - December 4th, 2014

Last Updated: December 15 2014
Article by Bernard Nash and Milton A. Marquis

HOT NEWS

States Bring Lawsuit Challenging White House Immigration Order

  • Led by Texas, 14 State AGs and three governors have filed a lawsuit in federal court in the Southern District of Texas, alleging that President Obama's 2014 Executive Order granting relief from deportation to approximately 4.4 million undocumented immigrants violates the U.S. Constitution's Take Care Clause (Art. II, Sec 3 Cl. 5) and the U.S. Administrative Procedures Act, Sections 553 and 706.
  • The lawsuit names as defendants the United States of America plus officials in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Citizenship and Immigration Services.
  • The case is Texas v United States 1:14-cv-00254 (S.D. Tex. Dec. 3, 2014). We will follow this lawsuit as it unfolds in future editions of State AGs in the News.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Sixteen Attorneys General Urge the CFPB to Regulate Pre-Dispute Arbitration Clauses

  • Delaware AG Beau Biden, along with Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley and Kentucky AG Jack Conway, led a group of AGs urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to exercise its statutory authority to regulate the use of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration clauses in connection with contracts for financial services.
  • In their letter to CFPB Director Richard Cordray, the AGs argued that the inclusion of mandatory arbitration clauses in consumer contracts for financial services is counter to the public interest because consumers rarely understand the ramifications and lack the bargaining power to negotiate. The AGs also stated that arbitration can be procedurally unfair to consumers because arbitrators are likely to be biased in favor of the financial services company, as they will be the "repeat players" in arbitration.
  • Before the CFPB can create regulations in this area, the Dodd-Frank Act requires it to conduct a study and issue a report to Congress. The CFPB initiated this process with a public inquiry in April 2012 and published its preliminary results in December 2013.

Consumer Protection

Maryland Attorney General Settles Claims With Verizon

  • Maryland AG Douglas Gansler announced a settlement with Verizon Communications Inc. to resolve allegations that it misrepresented the actual costs of its television, internet, and phone services to consumers through promotional activities.
  • Under the terms of the settlement, Verizon will pay restitution to current and former customers who were charged termination or equipment fees that were not adequately disclosed. In addition to the estimated $1.375 million restitution, Verizon will pay a civil penalty of $250,000 and $75,000 for costs.
  • Verizon also agreed to change its advertising practices and will provide written disclosures of the terms of customers' orders and broader cancellation rights if the first bills do not accurately reflect those orders.

Arizona Attorney General Sues General Motors for $3 Billion

  • Arizona AG Tom Horne filed a lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court against General Motors LLC (GM), alleging that it violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act by selling automobiles that it knew were unsafe. The complaint asks for injunctive relief, along with disgorgement, civil penalties up to $10,000 for each violation, attorneys' fees, and investigation costs.
  • The lawsuit alleges that GM promoted its vehicles as "safe, reliable and high quality" while deliberately concealing defects to ignition, airbags, seatbelts, brakes, and electronic stability control systems. It also alleges that GM failed to timely recall certain models, even though such defects had become apparent. Finally, the lawsuit seeks to address losses in the resale value of certain models based on their record for defects. Although the lawsuit seeks only to account for GM's conduct post-2009 bankruptcy, many of the defects occurred in models produced by GM pre-bankruptcy.
  • GM responded in a statement, saying the lawsuit "misrepresents the facts, the performance of our vehicles and our work to ensure the safety of our customers."
  • A group of 47 State AGs is also investigating GM's recalls and safety procedures, but have not yet filed lawsuits.

Illinois and Ohio Attorneys General Pair With the FTC to Enjoin Credit Monitor

  • Illinois AG Lisa Madigan and Ohio AG Mike DeWine, together with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), settled claims against defendants One Technologies, LP; One Technologies Management, LLC; and One Technologies Capital, LLP, for selling online credit monitoring services to consumers allegedly in violation of the Restore Online Shoppers Confidence Act (ROSCA), Section 5(a) of the FTC Act, the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, and the Illinois Consumer Fraud Act.
  • The complaint alleged that defendants deceptively marketed their credit monitoring services by offering consumers "free" access to their credit scores without adequately disclosing that such access automatically enrolled them in defendants' credit monitoring program for which they were charged a monthly fee of $29.95. The complaint also claimed that consumers were not adequately informed how to cancel the service, and often had to request cancellation numerous times.
  • The consent order requires defendants to pay $22 million in compensation to the FTC and State AGs, and to cease making misrepresentations, express or implied, as to the price of goods and services. It also requires defendants to provide reports on their compliance with the terms of the order and to maintain records related to any goods or services sold with a negative option feature for 10 years.

Florida Also Joins With FTC to Enjoin Computer Services Companies

  • Florida AG Pam Bondi and the FTC filed complaints against multiple companies to prevent them from inducing consumers to purchase unnecessary computer repair services in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act, the Telemarketing Sales Rule, and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act.
  • The lawsuits allege that Inbound Call Experts, LLC; Vast Tech Support, LLC; and a host of related companies provide "free" diagnostic computer scans, offered through deceptive online advertisements and telemarketing efforts. The companies, whose diagnostic scans falsely detect viruses and malware, proceed to sell unnecessary repairs to fix the nonexistent problems. As a whole, defendants have allegedly collected over $120 million in revenues from these practices.
  • On November 12, 2014, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Marra, for the Southern District of Florida, entered temporary restraining orders against the defendants, freezing related assets and placing business operations under a court-appointed receiver.

Vermont Settles Claims Against Discount Club

  • Vermont AG William Sorrell settled claims against Stonebridge Benefit Services, Inc., and J.C. Penney Corporation, Inc., in connection with the sale of discount membership programs to consumers allegedly in violation of Vermont's 2012 Discount Membership Program Act (DMPA).
  • The DMPA prohibits selling memberships to discount clubs unless the consumer provides complete credit card information at the time of purchase. It also requires sellers to periodically remind consumers that they are being charged and precludes clubs from charging members for more than 18 consecutive months without completing the initial sign-up process again.
  • AG Sorrell alleged that J.C. Penney provided Stonebridge with customer credit card information and Stonebridge used this information to sign up and bill consumers for discount club memberships.
  • Pursuant to the Assurance of Discontinuance, Stonebridge will send refund checks totaling $227,651 to all consumers who were billed unlawfully after May 2012, and is required to make refunds to any consumers who were billed prior to May 2012 and submit a complaint. Stonebridge will also pay $175,000 to the state and agreed to strictly comply with Vermont law. In addition, J.C. Penney is enjoined from providing credit card information to Stonebridge.

Thirty-Eight Attorneys General Request Update to FTC Telemarketing Rule

  • Through a letter from the National Association of Attorneys General, a group of 38 State AGs recommended that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) update its Telemarketing Sales Rule to reflect the realities of the current marketplace, and to better protect consumers from telemarketing fraud and abuse.
  • The AGs note in their letter that there has been a marked increase in the number of consumer fraud claims originating from telemarketing activities in recent years and ask the FTC to amend the Telemarketing Sales Rule to prohibit the use of pre-acquired account information to better address the use of negative option sales techniques in telemarketing, and to require telemarketers to create and maintain call records.

Data Privacy

Massachusetts Enters Consent Judgment With Hospital Over Data Breach

  • Massachusetts AG Martha Coakley entered into a Consent Judgment with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Inc. over allegations that the hospital failed to safeguard personal data and protected health information of 3,990 patients and employees.
  • The information was compromised by the theft of an unencrypted personal computer from a physician's office. Although the hospital had a policy in place that required all computers containing personal health information to be secured and encrypted, AG Coakley alleged that it was poorly enforced and that the hospital waited too long to notify affected persons.
  • The hospital agreed to pay $70,000 in civil penalties, $15,000 in costs and attorneys' fees, and $15,000 for future educational programs concerning the protection of personal and protected health information. The hospital also agreed to audit overall security measures and to better secure, encrypt, and track laptops containing personal and protected health information.

Environment

California Reaches Settlement With AT&T Over Electronic Waste

  • California AG Kamala Harris settled claims that Pacific Bell Telephone Company d/b/a AT&T California, AT&T Corp., and AT&T Services, Inc., (collectively AT&T) allegedly failed to prevent electronic equipment, batteries, aerosol cans, and certain gels and liquids from being sent to landfills as regular trash. The consent judgment requires AT&T to pay the state a total of $23.8 million and to implement enhanced environmental compliance measures including the use of "staging bins" prior to placing waste in dumpsters, as well as hundreds of unscheduled annual inspections.
  • In response to the settlement, AT&T issued the following statement: "We take environmental stewardship seriously, and we've cooperated closely with the state and Alameda County to resolve this issue in a way that is in the best interests of the environment, our customers and all Californians. The settlement recognizes the company for taking prompt action, dedicating significant additional resources toward environmental compliance, and improving our hazardous and universal waste management compliance programs."

States v. Federal Government

Supreme Court Grants Cert to Review States' Objections to EPA Mercury Rule

  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to Michigan AG Bill Schuette and 22 other states requesting review of the D.C. Circuit's decision to uphold the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) Rule.
  • The AGs asserted in the Michigan petition that the use of the term "appropriate" in Section 112 of the Clean Air Act required the EPA to consider potential compliance costs when it made a decision to promulgate the MATS Rule—or any rule to regulate hazardous air pollutants from electricity utilities. In its brief in opposition, the EPA argued that it had reasonably construed the Clean Air Act as only requiring the consideration of compliance costs when establishing the appropriate level of regulation, not for the determination of whether to regulate power plants' mercury emissions.
  • The Supreme Court consolidated Michigan's appeal with two other appeals involving the MATS Rule. If affirmed, the MATS Rule will go into effect in 2015 and coal-fired power plants will be required to cut mercury emissions by more than 90% over four years.

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