Can Congress Amend Section 13(b) to Allow for Retroactive Restitution?

Now that the Supreme Court has decided AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission (regardless of your rooting interests, quite a day, eh?) all eyes turn toward Congress, as it considers whether to amend Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. As we explained yesterday, in AMG, the Supreme Court definitively (9-0) held that the current text of the statute only allows for injunctive relief.

While the official line is that the FTC does not lobby Congress, the Agency is making its preferences known. In the words of Acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter:

In AMG Capital, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of scam artists and dishonest corporations, leaving average Americans to pay for illegal behavior. . . . With this ruling, the Court has deprived the FTC of the strongest tool we had to help consumers when they need it most. We urge Congress to act swiftly to restore and strengthen the powers of the agency so we can make wronged consumers whole.

Putting aside issues with this characterization, there can be no doubt that the FTC is actively and aggressively seeking explicit allowance of monetary remedies. But the possibility of a legislatively revitalized Section 13(b) in the near future raises some big questions. Here’s one: if Congress amends Section 13(b) to explicitly allow for monetary remedies, would the FTC be able to use the new legislative language to pursue monetary remedies against companies whose alleged wrongful actions pre-dated the statutory change? For defendants in the approximately 75 pending federal court cases alleging Section 13(b) violations, this is a very important question.

Without a clear statutory provision providing for retroactive liability, it is highly unlikely that the courts would allow the FTC to use the new statutory language to “look back” at actions committed prior to the newly enacted legislation’s codification date. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that, in the absence of a clear statutory intent, there is a generally applicable presumption against retroactivity, in which courts “presume that the [new] statute does not apply to [prior] conduct.” Martin v. Hadix, 527 U.S. 343, 352 (1999). The Supreme Court has raised serious Constitutional concerns regarding the retroactive imposition of burdens or obligations on parties based on newly enacted statutory provisions. Due to those concerns, in 1994, the Supreme Court in Landgraf v. USI Film Prods, 511 U.S. 244, established a two-part test to determine whether new statutory language may apply retroactively.

Under the Landgraf test, courts first look to see if the statute facially applies retroactively. If the statute is silent as to its retroactive reach, the court must examine whether the statute’s retroactive application “takes away or impairs vested rights acquired under existing laws, or creates a new obligation, imposes a new duty, or attaches a new disability, in respect to transactions or considerations already past.” Id. at 269.

The Landgraf Court specifically referenced “a statute introducing damages liability” as the type of statute that courts should not apply retroactively. Id. at 285 n. 37. The point of any new Section 13(b) would, of course, be to do just that, introducing new “damages liability” for conduct that previously would only have occasioned injunctive relief.

Parties currently at odds with the FTC over past practices can take some comfort in the Supreme Court’s language in Landgraf. If Congress amends the statute and does not include an express retroactive provision, parties arguing that the new law should not apply to their past conduct will have the better argument.

The question becomes more thorny if the new legislative language explicitly calls for retroactive applicability, which the House bill introduced by Representative Tony Cardenas (D-CA) expressly does. But, if Representative Cardenas’s proposed expansive language is adopted, while the statute’s text would be clear as to retroactivity, its constitutionality would not be. Even where a retroactivity provision is expressly incorporated in a statute, the Supreme Court in Landgraf explained that the Constitution’s “Due Process Clause [] protects the interests in fair notice and repose that may be compromised by retroactive legislation.” Id. at 266.

While any retroactive statutory changes would implicate due process, imposing monetary penalties retroactively is arguably the clearer Due Process violation, because the legislative change directly implicates a taking of property without due process. The Supreme Court's dictum that "a justification sufficient to validate a statute's prospective application under the [Due Process] Clause may not suffice to warrant its retroactive application" should be applicable in this instance. See Landgraf, 511 U.S. at 266. In the face of this due process challenge, the FTC will likely be required to show that a company was on "notice" that there may have been a monetary obligation for the conduct at issue when the conduct occurred.

Of course, the FTC will argue that, when the conduct occurred, there had been 40 years of case law in their favor, which put companies that are currently litigating under Section 13(b) on notice. This argument is not as strong as it seems at first glance. Can a company be on notice when the plain language of the statute does not allow for monetary remedies? Aren’t companies entitled to rely on the plain language of the statute as interpreted by the highest court in the land, notwithstanding that lower courts have gotten it wrong for decades? This is an issue that will be front and center for companies currently in litigation with the FTC under Section 13(b).

And while the outcome of any such constitutional challenge may be unclear, what is clear is that any legislation purporting to retroactively establish monetary liability, when the Supreme Court in AMG so clearly held that the prior statutory language could not establish such liability, will be challenged. Thus, while AMG clarified the current ambit of 13(b), the role of the courts in establishing the contours of a future 13(b) is likely far from over.

Of course, the constitutional issue posed by retroactivity will not ripen without a revised Section 13(b); as any congressional observer should know, new legislation is uncertain. From Politico this morning:

An aide for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee signaled there’s already some partisan bickering over the upcoming hearing and how to address the [13(b)] issue through legislation. "A 9-0 vote by the Supreme Court sends a clear signal that the FTC did not use their authorities in the most effective means to seek restitution,” the aide said. “It is unfortunate when Committee Democrats will not let all commissioners appear before the Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss a consensus solution."

* * *

Subscribe here to Kelley Drye’s Ad Law Access blog and here for our Ad Law News and Views newsletter. Visit the Advertising and Privacy Law Resource Center for update information on key legal topics relevant to advertising and marketing, privacy, data security, and consumer product safety and labeling.