Archive for June, 2019

De-Enforcement

Thursday, June 27th, 2019
Credit: AFGE

For the past two years, the Trump Administration has sought to give the impression it is dismantling large parts of the federal regulatory system. The effort is not only wrong-headed – it has largely been unsuccessful. Many of the moves to eliminate rules have been thwarted by court challenges.

Yet the administration has found another way to advance its goal of allowing rogue corporations to operate with much lower levels of oversight: it is reducing the ranks of federal employees whose job it is to enforce the regulations that remain on the books.

A recent overview by the Wall Street Journal found that staffing at the Environmental Protection Agency is down by about half since its height during President Obama’s second term. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was said to have the fewest workplace inspectors in decades.

Fewer inspectors means fewer inspections and lower levels of penalties imposed for infractions. Last year, Public Citizen and the Corporate Research Project, using data from Violation Tracker, published a report showing how penalty levels were sinking at virtually all the key agencies. The evidence suggests that the trend is continuing.

Some of the staffing decline is due to attrition. Many regulatory agency employees have retired or resigned because they can no longer bear to work to see their mission undermined by the political appointees Trump has installed. More than 700 left the EPA in first 12 months after the administration took office.

Trumpworld is no longer depending entirely on attrition to hollow out the EPA. Now the administration is engaged in a direct attack on the remaining employees at the agency. EPA management has just informed the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union at the EPA, that it will unilaterally impose changes in working conditions on 9,000 staffers.  

The changes, which AFGE is challenging with an unfair labor practice filing, would, among other things, bar employees from telecommuting and would severely limit the amount of time rank-and-file union representatives can spend on grievances and other workplace matters. AFGE reps would also be evicted from the office space at the agency currently being used for union activity. Grievance and arbitration rights themselves would also be put in jeopardy.

The moves by EPA management appear to be an indirect way of implementing harsh policies that Trump tried to implement through executive order last year, but which were blocked by a federal judge. “In the Trump world, there is no bargaining, only ultimatums,” stated Tim Whitehouse, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former EPA enforcement attorney.  “Under these rules, important safeguards against political purges within the civil service would be removed.”

Trump has received a great deal of deserved criticism for his attacks on federal prosecutors and Congressional oversight, given the corrosive effect on the rule of law. The administration’s actions against staffers at agencies such as the EPA are just as dangerous for our system of regulatory enforcement.

Battles Over Background Reports

Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
Credit: NELP

The Ban the Box movement seeks to remove barriers to employment for job applicants with a prior arrest or conviction. The goal is to have all candidates considered on their merits and to give those with criminal records a chance to explain their specific circumstances.

Yet there is another problem relating to employer use of criminal records and other personal background information: sometimes the information they obtain on a candidate is inaccurate or may refer to someone else with a similar name.

Employers who use such faulty information in their hiring decisions can find themselves the target of a class action lawsuit. These suits are based on provisions of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), which requires employers to get written consent from a job candidate before obtaining background-check reports containing criminal records as well as credit history and other personal information. Before making an adverse decision based on data in the report, the employer must give the applicant a copy and allow time for the person to challenge any inaccuracies in the document.

You will not be surprised to learn that employers often break these rules.

I’ve been compiling information on employment-related FCRA lawsuits as part of the latest expansion of Violation Tracker. I found that over the past decade employers have paid out $174 million to resolve such cases, while companies providing those reports have paid out another $152 million when they have been sued directly.

The dollar totals derive from 146 successful class actions brought against a variety of employers in sectors such as retail, banking, logistics, security services and private prisons.

Since 2011 more than 40 employers have paid out FCRA employment settlements of $1 million or more. In one of the largest cases, Wells Fargo paid $12 million in 2016 to thousands of applicants whose FCRA rights were allegedly violated. Other large payouts by well-known companies include: Target ($8.5 million), Uber Technologies ($7.5 million), Amazon.com ($5 million), Home Depot ($3 million), and Domino’s Pizza ($2.5 million).

More cases are pending. A $2.3 million settlement involving Delta Air Lines is awaiting final court approval. In January a federal judge in California certified a class of five million Walmart job applicants.

Suits have also been brought against staffing services such as Aerotek (which paid a $15 million settlement) and temp agencies such as Kelly Services ($6.7 million).

Providers of background-check reports also have obligations under the FCRA, including a duty to employ reasonable procedures to ensure the accuracy of the information they report. The Violation Tracker compilation includes 30 provider class actions with settlements amounts as high as $28 million.

The FCRA cases are the fourth compilation of employment-related class actions to be added to Violation Tracker, following ones covering wage theft, workplace discrimination, and retirement-plan abuses. With the addition of the FCRA cases and the updating of data from more than 40 federal regulatory agencies and the Justice Department, Violation Tracker now contains 369,000 civil and criminal entries with total penalties of $470 billion.

Will Prosecutors Get Tough with the Largest Corporate Lawbreakers?

Thursday, June 13th, 2019

By the standards of corporate law enforcement, the Justice Department is throwing the book at Insys Therapeutics. To resolve a civil and criminal case alleging that the company paid illegal kickbacks to healthcare providers to market its powerful opioid Subsys, DOJ required Insys to pay a total of $225 million in fines and forfeitures. Its operating subsidiary had to plead guilty to five counts of mail fraud.

A few weeks earlier, a federal jury in Massachusetts delivered guilty verdicts against the Insys founder John Kapoor (photo) and four former top executives on racketeering charges relating to the kickbacks and other actions such as misleading insurance companies about the need for Subsys, which was supposed to be used in limited circumstances by cancer patients but which Insys tried to get prescribed more widely.

Although Insys itself was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, the company has felt the effects of these legal setbacks. It has been forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, its stock price has plunged, and it has agreed to sell off Subsys.

If Insys ends up going out of business entirely – and if Kapoor and the others end up in prison for a substantial period of time – this will serve as a warning to other players in the pharmaceutical industry that there can be dire consequences for serious misconduct.

Yet the challenge for prosecutors is whether they can apply similar punishments to larger malefactors in the drug business and related sectors. Insys, after all, had only $82 million in revenue last year and has a workforce of only 226. Its disappearance from the scene would not cause major disruptions.

Consider the case of Johnson & Johnson, with over $80 billion in annual revenues and about 135,000 employees. Despite a carefully cultivated image of purity in connection with its products for infants, J&J has been involved in a series of scandals over the past decade. Violation Tracker shows that it has paid out more than $3 billion in penalties.

The company has received a lot of unfavorable attention in recent months in connection with allegations that it covered up internal concerns about possible asbestos contamination of its baby powder and other talc-based products. J&J has been hit with a flood of lawsuits and has already received some massive adverse verdicts.

The company is also on the defensive for its role in the opioid crisis, facing a lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma, which has already collected substantial settlements in related cases brought against Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutics. J&J may wish it had settled.

An expert witness in the case recently accused the company of contributing to a “public health catastrophe” and charged that its behavior in some ways was even worse than that of widely vilified Purdue. It remains to be seen whether a company of the size and prominence of J&J will be subjected to the same kind of federal prosecutorial offensive launched against Insys. It is only when business giants face existential threats for their misdeeds that we may see real change in corporate behavior.