In March 2015, I wrote about the ongoing dispute between the FTC and LabMD, an Atlanta-based cancer screening laboratory, and looked at whether the FTC has the authority to take enforcement action over data-security practices alleged to be insufficient and therefore “unfair” under section 5(n) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (“FTCA”). On November 13, 2015, an administrative law judge ruled that the FTC had failed to prove its case.
In 2013, the FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD, alleging it had failed to secure personal, patient-sensitive information on its computer networks. The FTC alleged that LabMD lacked a comprehensive information-security program, and had therefore failed to (i) implement measures to prevent or detect unauthorized access to the company’s computer networks, (ii) restrict employee access to patient data, and (iii) test for common security risks.
The FTC linked this absence of protocol to two security breaches. First, an insurance aging report containing personal information about thousands of LabMD customers was leaked from the billing manager’s computer onto peer-to-peer file-sharing platform LimeWire, where it was available for download for at least eleven months. Second, Sacramento police reportedly discovered hard copies of LabMD records in the hands of unauthorized individuals. They were charged with identity theft in an unrelated case of fraudulent billing and pleaded no contest.
Incriminating as it all might seem, Administrative Law Judge D. Michael Chappell dismissed the FTC’s complaint entirely, citing a failure to show that LabMD’s practices had caused substantial consumer injury in either incident.
Section 5(n) of the FTCA requires the FTC to show that LabMD’s acts or practices caused, or were likely to cause, substantial injury to consumers. The ALJ held that “substantial injury” means financial harm or unwarranted risks to health and safety. It does not cover embarrassment, stigma, or emotional suffering. As for “likely to cause,” the ALJ held that the FTC was required to prove “probable” harm, not simply “possible” or speculative harm. The ALJ noted that the statute authorizes the FTC’s regulation of future harm (assuming all statutory criteria are met), but that unfairness liability, in practice, applies only to cases involving actual harm.
In the case of the insurance aging report, the evidence showed that the file had been downloaded just once—by a company named Tiversa, which did so to pitch its own data-security services to LabMD. As for the hard copy records, their discovery could not be traced to LabMD’s data-security measures, said the ALJ. Indeed, the FTC had not shown that the hard copy records were ever on LabMD’s computer network.
The FTC had not proved—either with respect to the insurance aging report or the hard copy documents—that LabMD’s alleged security practices caused or were likely to cause consumer harm.
The FTC has appealed the ALJ’s decision to a panel of FTC Commissioners who will render the agency’s final decision on the matter. The FTC’s attorneys argue that the ALJ took too narrow a view of harm, and a substantial injury occurs when any act or practice poses a significant risk of concrete harm. According to the FTC’s complaint counsel, LabMD’s data-security measures posed a significant risk of concrete harm to consumers when the billing manager’s files were accessible via LimeWire, and that risk amounts to an actual, substantial consumer injury covered by section 5(n) of the FTCA.
The Commissioners heard oral arguments in early March and will probably issue a decision in the next several months. On March 20th, LabMD filed a related suit in district court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief against the Commission for its “unconstitutional abuse of government power and ultra vires actions.”
FTC seems more confident than ever in its authority to go after companies with insufficient data security measures. As of January 2015, FTC had settled 53 data-security enforcement actions, and FTC Senior Attorney Lesley Fair expects that number to increase.
Not everyone is sanguine about FTC’s enforcement efforts. Companies targeted for administrative action complain that the Commission is acting beyond its delegated powers under the Federal Trade Commission Act (the “FTCA”). So far, courts have declined to intervene in any administrative action that is not yet resolved at the agency level.
One such case involves LabMD, Inc., an Atlanta-based cancer-screening laboratory. At least nine years ago, someone downloaded onto the billing department manager’s computer a peer-to-peer file-sharing application called Limewire. Hundreds of files on the computer were designated for sharing on the network, including an insurance aging report that contained personal information for more than 9,000 LabMD customers. In 2008, a third party notified LabMD that the aging report was available on Limewire. The application was promptly removed from the billing department manager’s computer, but the damage allegedly had been done. According to FTC, authorities discovered in October 2012 that data from the aging report and other LabMD files were being used to commit identify theft against LabMD’s customers.
Ten months later, FTC filed an administrative complaint against LabMD alleging that it had failed to employ reasonable and appropriate data security measures. FTC further alleged that LabMD could have corrected the problems at relatively low cost with readily available security measures. By contrast, LabMD’s customers had no way of knowing about the failures and could not reasonably avoid the potential harms, such as identity theft, medical identity theft, and disclosure of sensitive, private, medical information. On these facts, FTC alleged that LabMD had committed an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA.
LabMD tried to get the administrative action dismissed on several grounds, including that the FTCA does not give the Commission express authority to regulate data-security practices. The Commission denied LabMD’s motion, explaining that Congress gave FTC broad jurisdiction to regulate unfair and deceptive practices that meet a three-factor test: section 5(n) provides that, in enforcement actions or rulemaking proceedings, the Commission has authority to determine that an act or practice is “unfair” if (i) it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is (ii) not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and (iii) not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or competition. Commissioners noted that the FTCA as passed in 1918 granted FTC the authority to regulate unfair methods of competition. When courts took a narrow view of that authority, Congress responded by amending the FTCA to clarify that the Commission has authority to regulate unfair acts or practices that injure the public, regardless of whether they injure one’s competitors. According to the Commission, the statutory delegation is intentionally broad, giving FTC discretionary authority to define unfair practices on a flexible, incremental basis. For these and other reasons, the administrative action against LabMD would proceed.
Having failed to get the case dismissed, LabMD sought relief from the federal courts to no avail. On January 20, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed LabMD’s suit for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The court explained that it lacked the power to decide LabMD’s claims in the absence of final agency action. FTC had filed a complaint and issued an order denying LabMD’s motion to dismiss. But neither was a reviewable agency action because neither represented a “consummation of the agency’s decision-making process.” Moreover, “no direct and appreciable legal consequences” flowed from the actions and “no rights or obligations had been determined” by them.
LabMD can challenge FTC’s data-security jurisdiction only after the Commission’s proceedings against it are final. That may well be too late. As a result of FTC’s enforcement action, the company was forced to wind down its operations more than a year ago.
LabMD is one of very few companies to test FTC’s data-security jurisdiction. In 2007, a federal court in Wyoming sided with FTC in holding that the defendant’s unauthorized disclosure of customer phone records was an unfair trade practice in violation of the FTCA. The Tenth Circuit affirmed that decision on appeal.
More recently, a district court in New Jersey gave FTC a preliminary victory against Wyndham Worldwide Corporation. In that case, the court held that FTC’s unfairness jurisdiction extends to data-security practices that meet the three-factor test under Section 5(n). That decision is currently on appeal before the Third Circuit. During oral argument on March 3rd, the three-judge panel signaled little doubt that FTC has authority to regulate unreasonable cybersecurity practices. Instead, the panel was concerned with how the Commission exercises that authority—specifically, whether and how it has given notice as to what data security measures are considered to be “unfair.”
As the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) continues to flex its consumer protection muscles by bringing numerous administrative lawsuits, industry and members of Congress are questioning whether there is a level playing field that allows companies to properly defend themselves against FTC charges. Or, as some say, does the FTC have the “home court advantage” in its role as investigator and prosecutor, armed with very broad authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act –leaving many companies to decide simply to settle rather than face the Goliath FTC. However, some companies have been bucking that trend recently and challenging the FTC’s authority (particularly in the area of regulating data security and FTC officials’ impartiality.
As background, the FTC may begin an enforcement action if it has “reason” to believe that the FTC Act is being or has been violated. Section 5(a) of the FTC Act prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.” The FTC also enforces several other consumer protection statutes, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003, and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
Under Section 5(b) of the FTC Act, the FTC can challenge “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” or violations of certain other laws (such as those listed above) in an administrative adjudication. The way this works is the FTC issues a complaint putting forth its charges. Many companies faced with such complaints inevitably settle with the FTC, rather than endure an administrative trial. Those companies that contest the charges face a trial-type proceeding before an FTC administrative law judge. FTC staff counsel “prosecute” the complaint. The administrative law judge later issues an initial decision. Either party can appeal the initial decision to the full FTC for review.
Many observers, including the American Bar Association, have criticized this situation — where the FTC acts as both prosecutor and judge — as inherently unfair. After the FTC’s decision, the respondent organization (or individual)may appeal to a federal court of appeals. However, at this point, an extensive record has been made and this assumes an organization or individual has the resources to devote to a federal appeal. (In addition, the FTC can also bring consumer protection enforcement directly in court rather than through administrative litigation).
The FTC’s winning record in these administrative proceedings has many observers questioning the process and the FTC’s potential impartiality. House antitrust chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) called out the FTC’s apparent lack of impartiality and fairness, stating “ a company might wonder whether it is worth putting up a defense at all.”
Just a couple weeks ago, however, medical testing company LabMD went on the offense and sought the disqualification of an FTC Commissioner. Facing an administrative proceeding relating to its alleged failure to secure patient information data, LabMD moved to disqualify Commissioner Julie Brill from consideration of its case. LabMD claimed that the Commissioner made numerous statements at industry conferences prejudging its ongoing litigation. Specifically, LabMD claimed Brill stated LabMD that had violated the law, rather than indicating that LabMD was under investigation or in litigation. The FTC opposed the disqualification. However, Commissioner Brill voluntarily recused herself from the case on Christmas Eve to avoid “undue distraction” from the administrative litigation.
As the FTC litigates in several key areas – data privacy, financial services, credit repair, telemarketing – we expect administrative litigation will increase in 2014. While some companies will continue to settle to avoid continued litigation expenses and possible further detrimental outcomes, we think others will take the LabMD route and seek relief when they believe the processes are not transparent or the FTC is exceeding its authority.