- North Carolina’s heartbalm law strikes again, as judge orders man who slept with married woman to pay jilted husband $8.8 million [Virginia Bridges, Raleigh News & Observer, more on homewrecker tort]
- Cornell economist Rick Geddes explains the federal government’s postal monopoly [David Henderson]
- Trademark swagger: “Chicago Poke Chain Sends C&D To Hawaiian Poke Joint Demanding It Not Be Named ‘Aloha Poke'” [Timothy Geigner, Techdirt] “Shipyard Brewing Loses Its Lawsuit Over Ships and The Word ‘Head'” [same]
- “Man files lawsuit under False Claims Act against manufacturer of batteries for use in intercontinental ballistic missile launch controls, asks for $30 mil, settles for $1.7 mil. What follows is—in the trial court’s words—a “hellish” dispute over the man’s attorneys’ fees. Third Circuit: We feel you; the order reducing requested fees is affirmed in almost every respect.” [John K. Ross, Short Circuit, on U.S. ex rel. Palmer v. C&D Technologies]
- Using the law to suppress one’s competition: New York Taxi Workers Alliance cheers City Council’s move to cap Uber and ridesharing [Reuters] It’s totally normal and not at all suspicious that the city council president who wants tougher enforcement against Airbnb is also president of the state’s hotel lobby [Eric Boehm, Reason; Biloxi, Mississippi]
- For those still keeping score, it’s improper and prejudicial for the head of the nation’s law enforcement apparatus to declaim publicly against a criminal trial in progress, whether or not the defendant happens to be his own campaign manager [David Post, Volokh; April Post and podcast on inapplicable “fruit of the poisonous tree” claim]
The citizen-suit provision of the Clean Water Act (CWA) “allows any individual or organization that can establish standing to bring litigation against both private parties and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” and incentivizes such suits by allowing filers to collect attorney’s fees. While some valuable enforcement actions may result, writes Marc Robertson for the Washington Legal Foundation,
it is not difficult for shakedown litigators to identify targets. One especially easy theory to advance in citizen-suit litigation is unlawful stormwater pollution. Stormwater regulations are exceedingly broad, and almost any business whose production process generates as a by-product anything that could be classified as a pollutant is vulnerable to a lawsuit. In many cases, attorneys’ fees can far exceed the damage from the alleged violations, leading companies to settle rather than litigate.
Recently, DOJ filed statements in three ongoing lawsuits that allege violations of stormwater discharge limits. … those suits are just three of more than 150 notices of violation submitted by this same law firm since 2016.
The similarly worded complaints, against industrial facilities in the Los Angeles area, alleged that pollutants at each facility washed off the property during rainstorms. While the government seldom exercises its right to intervene in citizen suits, DoJ in its three filings asked the court to examine whether the actions were truly an effective way to enforce the CWA or were serving other, less public goals. [Alfonso Lares v. Reliable Wholesale Lumber Inc. filing]
“Responding to the surge of website accessibility lawsuits filed under Title III of the ADA, 103 members of Congress from both parties sent a letter to Attorney General Sessions urging action to stem the tide of website accessibility lawsuits.” The group is led by Ted Budd (R-N.C.) and J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.) [Minh N. Vu and Samuel Sverdlov, Seyfarth Shaw]
Related, more trouble coming down the road: “The World Wide Web Consortium just published an expanded version of the WCAG to add 17 more requirements to address new technologies and other digital barriers for individuals with disabilities.” [Kristina M. Launey and Minh N. Vu, Seyfarth Shaw]
And yet more: federal-level reform is one thing, but a California state court decision in Los Angeles sets the stage for costly liability under the state Unruh Act no matter how Washington goes.
My new piece at CNN begins by noting that antitrust law has moved on since the Truman era, even if the U.S. Department of Justice hasn’t quite:
In 1948 the US Supreme Court ordered Hollywood studios to sell their movie theaters, following the then-popular idea that the government should police marketplace competition by restraining businesses’ vertical integration — or as we might put it these days, by ordering content kept separate from distribution.
The surprise in 2018 is not so much that US District Judge Richard Leon rejected the government’s challenge to the $85 billion AT&T-Time Warner merger. That much was expected by most antitrust watchers. The shock came from the stinging way he rejected the government’s evidence — using language such as “gossamer thin” and “poppycock.”
CNN, of course, is owned by merger participant Time Warner. The question is not whether vertical integration will happen in video delivery, but whether older companies will be allowed to catch up. For Washington to block a merger like this, I suggest, “would be as futile as attempting to separate Net from Flix or You from Tube.”
Dusting off rarely used powers held under the Class Action Fairness Act, the U.S. Department of Justice and some state attorneys general have begun to file in opposition to class action settlements. In a case against defendants Ashburn Corporation and online discount wine retailer Wines ‘Til Sold Out (WTSO), which had already drawn objections from CEI’s Ted Frank, DoJ and AGs from 19 states succeeded in getting some settlement terms rewritten, in a deal then denied final approval by the trial judge, who saw additional problems. [Alison Frankel, Reuters; Perry Cooper, Bloomberg Law and more; Nicholas Malfitano, Legal Newsline] For Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, the wine case was the ninth in which his office had intervened against a class settlement it viewed as unfair [Brnovich press release] “If your state’s AG isn’t joining the briefs of the bipartisan coalition led by Arizona defending consumers against class action abuse, you should be asking their office some tough questions.” [@tedfrank on Twitter]
Under the circumstances, eight years (as opposed to 27) was long enough for Sholom Rubashkin to serve behind bars for bank fraud and other financial misconduct, especially since by interfering in his bankruptcy proceedings the U.S. government had itself driven up the cost of his actions to creditors, thus pushing him into a higher sentencing range. There were other irregularities in his trial as well. But let’s hope that President Trump extends clemency to other equally deserving inmates who lack the money and influence to call forward a campaign on their behalf [Mark Joseph Stern, Slate] More: Des Moines Register, WLF, NBC.
- Big news: U.S. Department of Justice changes sides in Lucia v. SEC, challenge to constitutionality of SEC use of administrative law judges [Thaya Brook Knight, Cato; Knight and Ilya Shapiro in August; Kevin Daley, Daily Caller]
- Cyan v. Beaver County Employees Retirement Fund, oral argument Nov. 28: SCOTUS considers limits on securities class actions in state courts [Washington Legal Foundation]
- GAO: 2013 financial-agency guidance on leveraged lending was in effect a rulemaking, but wasn’t submitted to Congress as required. Time for review [Michelle Price, Davide Scigliuzzo, Reuters]
- Missed, from last March: shareholder class action lawyers suing Sprint sought to charge for 6,905 hours of work by (as it turned out) disbarred attorney [Joe Palazzolo and Sara Randazzo, WSJ; Doug Austin, eDiscovery Daily Blog]
- Joseph Stiglitz would like to outlaw Bitcoin [Jim Epstein, Reason]
- Bad idea watch: “Chicago Council Considers Banning Cashless Stores” [Charles Blain, Market Urbanism Report]
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded an earlier Justice Department memo which had prescribed a hands-off approach to enforcing some aspects of the federal ban on marijuana in states that have legalized the drug for medical or recreational use. A needless step backward for federalism and state autonomy, or a necessary implication of the rule of law and the associated geographical uniformity of federal law? Some commentaries: Ken White/Popehat; Jacob Sullum (“Although [the] move reflects Sessions’ well-known opposition to marijuana legalization, it is not clear how big an impact it will have on the cannabis industry, because federal prosecutors have always had broad discretion but limited resources in this area”); Jonathan Blanks (“This move endangers state-legal businesses and violates the principle of federalism that has been central to the Republican Party for decades”); Jonathan Adler; Ilya Somin; Jeffrey Miron (“Marijuana liberalizations (decriminalization, medicalization, and legalization) have generated none of the negatives asserted by Sessions [who compares the drug to opiates and links it to violence]; in fact, the evidence shows minimal impact on use, health, traffic safety, education, or crime”).
Congress still needs to step in to quash web accessibility suits. Pulling back rulemaking at the Department of Justice does not stop any of the private suits, nor does it curtail the wide-open scope of liability under the perceived precedent of the Winn-Dixie case [Minh Vu, Seyfarth Shaw]
Today, in an action to further uphold the rule of law in the executive branch, Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo prohibiting the Department of Justice from issuing guidance documents that have the effect of adopting new regulatory requirements or amending the law. The memo prevents the Department of Justice from evading required rulemaking processes by using guidance memos to create de facto regulations.
In the past, the Department of Justice and other agencies have blurred the distinction between regulations and guidance documents. Under the Attorney General’s memo, the Department may no longer issue guidance documents that purport to create rights or obligations binding on persons or entities outside the Executive Branch….
“Guidance documents can be used to explain existing law,” Associate Attorney General Brand said. “But they should not be used to change the law or to impose new standards to determine compliance with the law. The notice-and-comment process that is ordinarily required for rulemaking can be cumbersome and slow, but it has the benefit of availing agencies of more complete information about a proposed rule’s effects than the agency could ascertain on its own. This Department of Justice will not use guidance documents to circumvent the rulemaking process, and we will proactively work to rescind existing guidance documents that go too far.”
This is an initiative of potentially great significance. For many decades, critics have noted that agencies were using Dear Colleague and guidance letters, memos and so forth — also known variously as subregulatory guidance, stealth regulation and regulatory dark matter — to grab new powers and ban new things in the guise of interpreting existing law, all while bypassing notice-and-comment and other constraints on actual rulemaking. To be sure, many judgment calls and hard questions of classification do arise as to when an announced position occupies new territory as opposed to simply stating in good faith what current law is believed to be. But the full text of the memo shows a creditable awareness of these issues. Note also, even before the Justice memo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s statement in September, on revoking the Obama Title IX Dear Colleague letter: “The era of ‘rule by letter’ is over.”
Another notable pledge in the DoJ press release:
The Attorney General’s Regulatory Reform Task Force, led by Associate Attorney General Brand, will conduct a review of existing Department documents and will recommend candidates for repeal or modification in the light of this memo’s principles.
Note also this recent flap over certain financial regulations and the possibility that they may have been issued without notice to Congress, which could preserve Congress’s right to examine and block them under the terms of the Congressional Review Act.