The prognosis for the U.S. economy remains uncertain, but it is clear that 2022 has been a bumper year for corporate penalties. Including an update that will be posted soon, Violation Tracker will end up documenting more than $56 billion in fines and settlements. Among them are a dozen individual penalties in excess of $1 billion.
Many of the largest cases were brought by state attorneys general against large drug companies and pharmacy chains for their role in fueling the opiate crisis. Teva Pharmaceuticals entered into a settlement worth up to $4.25 billion to resolve allegations it deceptively marketed opioid products. Allergan paid $2.37 billion in a similar case.
Settlements were even higher in cases involving the failure of large pharmacy chains to question extraordinarily high volumes of suspicious opioid prescriptions. Walgreens paid $5.7 billion, CVS $5 billion and Walmart $3.1 billion.
The biggest Justice Department penalties were imposed on foreign companies in criminal cases. Allianz, the German insurance company and asset manager, paid $5.8 billion to resolve allegations that it misled public pension funds into investing in complex and risky financial products, causing them to suffer heavy losses. Denmark’s Danske Bank A/S paid $2 billion to settle charges that it lied to U.S. banks about its anti-money-laundering controls in order to help high-risk customers in countries such as Russia transfer assets.
Glencore, a commodity trading and mining company headquartered in Switzerland, paid $1.2 billion in a case involving international bribery. In another case brought under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, ABB Ltd, also based in Switzerland, paid DOJ a penalty of $315 million. It was also offered a leniency agreement called a deferred prosecution agreement, even though it was not the first time the company had been caught up in a bribery case.
In another case in which DOJ targeted a foreign company for actions abroad, the French building materials company Lafarge (part of the Holcim Group) paid $777 million to resolve allegations that it gave material support to terrorist groups such as ISIS when it made payments in exchange for permission to operate a cement plant in Syria.
Coming in just under a billion was the $900 million settlement DOJ reached with the drug company Biogen to resolve allegations that it paid illegal kickbacks to physicians to induce them to prescribe its products. This was the largest penalty among some 200 resolutions of cases brought under the False Claims Act during the year.
The biggest environmental fine of 2022 was the $299 million paid by automaker FCA US LLC (formerly the Chrysler Group and now part of Stellantis) to resolve criminal charges that it defrauded regulators and customers by making false and misleading representations about the design, calibration, and function of the emissions control systems on more than 100,000 of its vehicles. The allegations were similar to those faced by Volkswagen in its emissions cheating scandal, for which it paid around $20 billion in fines and settlements in previous years.
This year also saw an environmental settlement of $537 million paid by Monsanto (owned by Bayer) in a case involving the contamination of water supplies with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Privacy was the focus of numerous large cases, especially ones involving the tech giants. Google paid $391 million in a settlement with 40 state attorneys general of allegations the company misled consumers about the collection and use of their personal location data. Twitter had to pay $150 million to resolve allegations by DOJ and the Federal Trade Commission that it misrepresented how it employed users’ nonpublic contact information.
Employment-related cases tend to have lower regulatory penalty amounts, but private class action cases can result in sizeable settlements. This year saw Sterling Jewelers pay $175 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that for years it had discriminated against tens of thousands of women in its pay and promotion practices. Business services company ABM Industries agreed to pay $140 million to settle litigation alleging it failed to keep accurate records of time worked by its janitor employees, causing them to be underpaid.
There were also cases that overlapped employment issues and antitrust. Cargill, Sanderson Farms and Wayne Farms agreed to pay a total of more than $84 million to settle allegations that they violated antitrust laws by sharing poultry workers wage and benefit information, thereby depressing compensation levels.
In 2022 large corporations once again paid vast sums of money in connection with a wide range of misconduct. At the same time, they are spending more than ever to tout their supposed social responsibility credentials. The country would be a lot better off if big business focused less on ESG PR and more on compliance.
Update: After this blog was posted, several other major penalties were announced. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced the largest penalty in its history against Wells Fargo, which was ordered to pay a fine of $1.7 billion and provide $2 billion in customer restitution to resolve allegations that the bank imposed illegal fees and interest charges on borrowers for automobile and home loans. The Federal Trade Commission fined software company Epic Games $520 million for violating online privacy protections for children. And a subsidiary of Honeywell was fined more than $160 million for paying bribes in Brazil.