When It Sounds Too Good To Be True

Last week, it was the SEC; this week, it’s the FTC or Federal Trade Commission. That’s the agency that, among other things, enforces federal laws against unfair or deceptive business acts or practices, including false advertising.

So what happened?

The FTC settled a lawsuit against a chiropractor who sold a “breakthrough” weight-loss system for $1,895 a pop. He also licensed and franchised the system to other chiropractors and professionals to sell.

Although the defendant didn’t admit or deny the allegations, he agreed to stop making the following claims about his system:

  1. That you could lose twenty to forty pounds, or more, in forty days.
  2. That you could do that safely and without cutting calories or exercising.
  3. That you could burn between 2,000 and 7,000 calories per day.
  4. That you could treat diabetes, psoriasis, and other conditions.

I’m no doctor, but as far as I know, it’s not possible to lose that much weight or burn that many calories without starving yourself or exercising like you’re on meth. According to the complaint, the people who bought the system were told—only after the fact—to eat about 500 calories per day. To put that in perspective, the bowl of cereal you had this morning was at least 200 calories. Good luck getting through the rest of the day.

The defendant also agreed to pay $2 million in refunds; to pay $30 million more if he violates the settlement agreement; to stop presenting friends, relatives, or business partners as satisfied customers who endorsed his system; and to stop using a non-disparagement clause in his contract that punished people for criticizing the system.

Buyer, beware: All that glitters ain’t gold, and there’s no substitute for good nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

SEC Lights Up Another Cannabis Company

In what may be a sign of maturity for the industry, the Securities and Exchange Commission has sued another marijuana-related business for violating federal securities laws.

Last month, the SEC charged a California-based company and two former executives with a classic pump-and-dump scheme. First, the Commission says, the defendants touted phony revenue to drive up the price of the company’s stock. Then they unloaded their own shares for millions of dollars. According to the complaint, much of the revenue came from a series of sham transactions with a shell company that the executives controlled. So the SEC charged them with fraud as well as offering and selling unregistered securities.

The company and one of the executives have settled the case without admitting or denying liability. The executive agreed to pay more than $12 million, among other penalties.

Meanwhile, the company has turned over a new leaf, so to speak, overhauling its management, business model, and board of directors.

The SEC will continue to scrutinize the market, however, which highlights something cannabis companies should already know: get your ducks in a row, and run your business the right way.

Puff and pass if you want, but don’t pump and dump.

Securities Fraud: But Was It Even A Security?

What is a security, anyway? The California Court of Appeal tackled that question recently in a case about a loan between friends.

A good starting point is that the law considers a security to be an investment contract, but there’s more to it than that. You may be familiar with common examples like publicly-traded stocks and bonds, but sometimes it’s a tougher call.

California law recognizes two tests to determine whether a deal or transaction is a security. One is the state’s risk-capital test, and the other is the federal Howey test (from a U.S. Supreme Court case). California courts may apply either one to your case, their goal being to protect the public from shady investment schemes.

The narrower risk-capital test asks whether you indiscriminately solicited passive investments from the public at large. A passive investment is one whose success depends mainly or exclusively on the efforts of people other than the investors.

The broader federal test simply asks whether you solicited people to invest passively.

In this case, the defendant had persuaded a guy he knew to invest in his land-development deal. The investment was a $280,000 promissory note that promised to pay out as follows:

  1. If the land were sold, the guy would share in the net profits from the sale.
  2. If the land were developed, he would receive one residential acre of his choosing.
  3. If neither event took place within one year, he could call the note and get interest on top of principal at a rate of ten percent.

But things didn’t exactly pan out, and some years later, the local district attorney’s office charged the defendant with securities fraud.

The trial court partly dismissed the case because it ruled that the promissory note wasn’t a security but a simple loan.

The government appealed that ruling, but the appeals court agreed. Even under the federal test, the note wasn’t a security because it was carefully negotiated between the parties, and it called for repayment whether the venture succeeded or not. The defendant had even personally guaranteed it.

So the case could’ve been a breach of contract, or it could’ve been a fraud.

But it wasn’t a securities fraud because the note wasn’t a security.

New California Criminal Laws in 2017

Let’s get right to it.

We already covered three of them in prior posts. One was Proposition 64, which legalized recreational marijuana. Another was Proposition 57, which expanded parole eligibility for nonviolent felons and cut back on prosecuting kids as adults. A third was Assembly Bill 1909, which made it a felony for prosecutors to commit Brady violations in bad faith.

Here are five more.

Ransomware is a form of extortion. This is Senate Bill 1137. It amended the Penal Code to punish anyone who introduces ransomware into a computer system or network. It doesn’t matter whether you actually got the ransom or not; it’s a felony punishable by two, three, or four years in the county jail. See Pen. Code § 523.

New business search warrants, less drama. This is Senate Bill 1087. It amended the Evidence Code to make it easier for innocent businesses to comply with search warrants for their records. Now, if a business is not a subject of the underlying investigation, it may be able to produce its records by mail or in some other arms-length way. That’s a lot better than having agents show up to go through your stuff. See Evid. Code § 1560(f).

New motion to vacate a conviction or sentence based on immigration consequences or fresh evidence of innocence. This is Assembly Bill 813. It allows you to ask a court to throw out your case in two situations even though you’ve served out your sentence. The first is if you pleaded guilty because of a legal mistake that undermined your ability to understand the immigration consequences of your plea. The second is if you can present fresh evidence that you were innocent. See Pen. Code § 1473.7.

No more possibility of probation for sex offenses where the victim was unconscious or too intoxicated to consent. This is Assembly Bill 2888. It eliminated probation as a possible sentence for rape, sodomy, oral copulation, or sexual penetration with a foreign object if the victim was unconscious or too intoxicated to consent. It extended a rule that already applied to other, serious sex offenses. See Pen. Code § 1203.065.

No more statute of limitations for felony sex and child-molestation cases. This is Senate Bill 813. It eliminated the statute of limitations for a litany of sex crimes, which now may be prosecuted at any time. Previously, they had to be prosecuted within ten years, or if the alleged victim was under 18, before he or she turned 40. See Pen. Code § 799.

When It Rains, It Pours

Here’s another case that blurs the line between civil and criminal laws.

It started as a civil dispute between a homeowner and contractor. The homeowner hired the contractor to paint her house and install ten windows. Six months later, he had painted her house and installed eight-and-a-half windows, but no one was happy. He wanted $8,000 more to finish the work, but she’d already paid him $61,000 and refused to pay more.

The contractor sued for the $8,000 balance, but he had a problem: apparently, he didn’t actually have a contractor’s license. Or he couldn’t produce a valid one, anyway.

He may not have realized that, in California, an unlicensed contractor can’t sue for a breach of contract no matter how good a job he may have done. Not only that but he can be sued for every penny that he was paid even if he did great work. Which is what happened here. The homeowner lawyered up and countersued for the $61,000 that she had paid him.

Then his luck got worse.

Because he couldn’t produce a contractor’s license, he was charged criminally with six misdemeanor counts of contracting without a license. Yes, it’s a crime, too. He pleaded no contest to one count, and the other six were dismissed. He was put on probation and ordered to pay restitution as part of it.

At the restitution hearing, the government demanded that he pay back the entire $61,000 that the homeowner had paid him plus her attorneys’ fees. He testified that he did the work right and that she owed him $8,000. She testified that he didn’t do it right because some of the paint had faded, chipped, bubbled, and peeled in the three years since. He argued that any damage was due to natural weathering because the house was so close to the ocean, and he called an expert who testified to that.

The trial court sided with the contractor, but on appeal, he was ordered to pay back everything, including her attorneys’ fees.

Why?  The law was clear that he didn’t have a right to the money no matter how well he performed, so legally, she never should’ve had to pay for his work in the first place.

Wasn’t this a criminal case, not a civil one? Yes, but the civil rule applied to criminal restitution.

Wasn’t this an unfair windfall for the homeowner? Perhaps.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbled.

SEC Reports Enforcement Results for 2016

As we wind down the calendar year, the Securities and Exchange Commission has already reported its enforcement results for the fiscal year that ended September 30.

In case you missed it, here’s the press release. Naturally, there’s some self-patting on the back, but if the past predicts the future, the agency is looking to file cases. Its numbers have climbed steadily over the last dozen years, and it continues to ramp up its use of big-data analytics and the whistleblower program, which it launched in 2011.

Here are some highlights from 2016.

  • The agency filed a total of 868 cases, which was a new single-year high.
  • It filed a record number of cases involving investment companies or advisers and a record number under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
  • It obtained over $4 billion in judgments and orders, which matched the haul from each of the last two years.
  • It awarded more money to whistleblowers ($57 million) than in all prior years combined.

California’s Next Gold Rush Is Green

Last week, California legalized recreational marijuana. So did Maine, Nevada, and Massachusetts, and four other states passed medical-marijuana laws: Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota.

It marked the end of prohibition as we know it, which didn’t work for alcohol and doesn’t work for pot. Too many millions of people enjoy it responsibly or know others who do, and it’s safer than alcohol or tobacco. As a much-beloved sportscaster used to say, the game’s now in the refrigerator; the door’s closed, the light’s out, the eggs are cooling, the butter’s getting hard, and the Jell-O is a-jigglin’. Hopefully, Uncle Sam does the right thing, too.

Through Proposition 64, California voters enacted the Control, Regulate, and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act of 2016. It’s called the Adult Use of Marijuana Act for short. For a deep dive on the issues, see the state’s official voter guide to the election. It’s a big file, but a summary of Prop 64 starts on page 90, and the full text follows on page 178.

What do you need to know right now? These six things.

It legalized recreational marijuana for adults age 21 or older. You may now grow up to six plants on your property, and you may buy or possess up to 28.5 grams of cannabis, which is an ounce, or eight grams of concentrated cannabis.

It taxes the sale and cultivation of marijuana. It imposes an excise tax of 15% on retailers, on top of existing state and local sales taxes, as well as a cultivation tax on growers of $9.25 per ounce of flower and $2.75 per ounce of leaf. It will generate billions of dollars in tax revenue in the coming years, and it will save millions of dollars in costs to law enforcement.

It imposes standards on the testing, labeling, packaging, and marketing of marijuana. It prohibits marketing to minors, and it bars shops from operating within 600 feet of a school, daycare center, or youth center unless the local government approves. It also bars them from selling alcohol or tobacco.

It continues to punish those who use, grow, or sell outside the rules. It’s a misdemeanor to have more than 28.5 grams, grow more than six plants, or sell without a license. It’s punishable by up to six months in county jail, a $500 fine, or both, and you’re subject to large civil monetary penalties for each day you’re in business. Or you could face a felony based on your criminal history, your selling to or employing underage people, or the environmental impact of your unlicensed grow. Separate penalties continue to apply to minors and people age 18 to 21. Finally, you can’t use pot on the road, in a public place (except for shops that allow it), or anywhere that you can’t use tobacco.

It allows people to petition to clear their records. If you’re currently serving or have ever served a sentence for an eligible marijuana offense, you can petition the court to reduce your conviction and sentence or dismiss your case entirely. The court will presume that you’re entitled to this relief unless prosecutors prove by clear and convincing evidence that you’re not. If they can’t, the court will grant your petition unless it finds that doing so would endanger public safety. Many counties have already prepared to process these petitions.

The state will tax, license, and regulate marijuana businesses, and it will issue its first licenses by January 1, 2018. Cities and counties may further tax or regulate the industry or just ban it outright (but not ban its transportation through their jurisdiction). The main state agencies are as follows:

  • The Bureau of Marijuana Control (formerly the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation): to license and regulate retailers, distributors, and testing facilities
  • The Department of Food and Agriculture: to license and regulate growers
  • The Department of Public Health: to license and regulate edibles
  • The Department of Fish and Wildlife: to regulate the environmental impacts of growing
  • The State Water Resources Control Board: to regulate the environmental impacts of growing on water quality
  • The Department of Pesticide Regulation: to regulate the use of pesticides in growing
  • The Marijuana Control Appeals Panel: to hear appeals from people and businesses affected by an agency’s decision

E-Discovery and the Rise of Machines

Every day, people and businesses create electronic data about themselves and the world around them, and with modern computing and mobile devices, we often create more data than we could possibly sift through with human eyes.

So what happens when litigants have to review their data in order to respond to a subpoena or discovery request? If you’re a business, are you even sure you understand all that you’ve got? If so then how do you make sure that you’re accurately separating what’s responsive from what’s not, separating what’s relevant from what’s not, holding on to what’s legally privileged, and not missing anything? It’s been a problem in large corporate and commercial cases for a while now, but it’s becoming more prevalent with the sheer volume of electronic data that we create and transmit every day.

The historical solution has been the only one we knew: tackle reams of paper with the brute force of people and hours committed to reviewing every page. But nowadays, in a lot of cases, if you were to print out all that data, you couldn’t afford to pay enough competent people to carefully review all that paper in time.

With electronic discovery, or e-discovery, the solution is still to throw time and bodies at the problem but, also, to expedite the review by scanning or uploading files into a database that reads them electronically, removes duplicates, and renders them searchable.

An emerging solution, however, is predictive coding, or technology-assisted review (“TAR”). With predictive coding, you can teach a computer to analyze a large data set by feeding it small but meaningful subsets that humans have tagged as relevant, privileged, or whatnot. After these initial inputs, you run tests, gauge the computer’s accuracy, and make adjustments. Once you’ve honed the machine’s understanding of the data, you deploy it to code the universal set cheaper, faster, and more accurately than we ever could.

How far has predictive coding come along?

Last week, an influential federal judge had to decide whether he could force litigants to use it to review and produce data. In 2012, this judge was among the first, if not the very first, to approve its use in civil discovery. By 2015, he wrote, the law had come to firmly support a litigant’s choice to use it, but in this case, the litigant had chosen not to.

The plaintiff who requested the discovery wanted the defendant to use predictive coding, but the defendant, who was producing the discovery, preferred to have its own staff run keyword searches instead.

The judge found that he could not compel a litigant to use predictive coding today, but tomorrow, the answer could be different:

“To be clear, the Court believes that for most cases today, TAR is the best and most efficient search tool…. The Court would have liked the [defendant] to use TAR in this case. But the Court cannot, and will not, force [it] to do so. There may come a time when TAR is so widely used that it might be unreasonable for a party to decline to use TAR. We are not there yet. Thus, despite what the Court might want a responding party to do … [the plaintiff’s] application to force the [defendant] to use TAR is denied.”

Every Man’s Evidence, Everywhere

They say the public has a right to every man’s evidence, but in a world full of digital evidence, what if it’s stored on servers in other countries?

We wrote about this case two summers ago. Back then, the Microsoft Corporation had just defied a federal search warrant that demanded a subscriber’s emails (and other data) as part of a criminal investigation. Microsoft had already produced all of the data that it stored on servers in the United States, but it refused to access and turn over the emails because they were stored in the Republic of Ireland. Instead, the company moved to quash the warrant, which the magistrate denied, and it was appealing that denial to the district court when we last wrote about it. As it happened, the district judge agreed with the magistrate and held the company in contempt of court for not obeying the warrant.

Well, three weeks ago, Microsoft won big in the court of appeals. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the warrant couldn’t be enforced against the emails because the federal law in question—the Stored Communications Act—did not authorize warrants to reach beyond the territorial jurisdiction of the United States. Courts must presume that a law applies only within the United States unless Congress clearly says otherwise, and it hadn’t done so here. One judge wrote separately to explain why it was a closer case and to urge Congress to update the Stored Communications Act for the 21st century.

For now, the decision binds federal courts in New York, Vermont, and Connecticut.

The Scope of Fraud for Government Contractors

This summer, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important decision for government contractors and the whistleblowers who sue them under the federal False Claims Act.

The bottom line may be this: contractors must abide by a myriad of rules, regulations, and contractual provisions in doing business with the government, but if they don’t, not ever misstep, only the material ones, can give rise to liability for fraud.

The case began with the tragic death of a teenage girl.

For five years, the girl had received counseling services at a clinic owned by a Medicaid contractor. When she was seventeen, she died from a bad reaction to a drug that she was prescribed there after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Afterward, her parents learned that only one of the five employees who treated her was properly licensed. The employee who prescribed the drug had claimed to be a psychiatrist but, in fact, was a nurse who lacked the authority to prescribe without supervision. The employee who diagnosed her had claimed to be a psychologist but, in fact, had graduated from an unaccredited online school and been denied a license.

Those employees weren’t the only ones, either. Some 23 employees at the clinic weren’t licensed to provide mental-health services but did it anyway, counseling patients and prescribing drugs in violation of Medicaid’s regulations. The clinic’s director knew about it and helped misrepresent their qualifications.

Thereafter, the girl’s parents filed a whistleblower lawsuit under the False Claims Act. They alleged that the contractor had defrauded Medicaid by billing for services that its employees were not licensed or qualified to render and by not disclosing that fact. First, the trial court dismissed the case on the ground that, even if the contractor had violated Medicaid’s rules, its violations didn’t make its bills false because those rules were not an express condition of payment. Then, the court of appeals reversed, holding that such rules were implied conditions of payment even if they weren’t expressly identified as such.

By the time the case got to the Supreme Court, the issue had boiled down to whether the parents could sue under a theory of implied false certification. Under this theory, when the contractor submitted its bills, it impliedly certified that it had complied with all conditions of payment. Therefore, since it knowingly failed to disclose its regulatory violations, its bills were false, and they triggered liability under the False Claims Act.

So did the Court endorse this implied-certification theory?

Yes and no.

The Court held that liability depends on whether a defendant’s misrepresentation about its compliance was material to the government’s payment decision. In other words, the question is whether the government would have paid the bill if it knew of the defendant’s noncompliance. In this case, the contractor had used billing codes that corresponded to specific job titles when it knew that its staff didn’t measure up, so the Court sent the case back down for the lower courts to decide whether that misrepresentation was material.

The Court also held that liability doesn’t depend on whether the government calls something a condition of payment. That may be relevant, but it’s not conclusive. The question remains whether the condition was material to the government’s payment decision. Otherwise, the government might label every applicable rule or regulation an express condition of payment, and there are just too many of them for that.

To illustrate the difference, the Court used two examples. First, suppose the government orders guns but doesn’t specify that they actually be able to shoot. Obviously, that would be a material condition whether or not the government spelled it out. Second, suppose the government contracts for health services but expressly requires providers to use American-made staplers for the paperwork. That likely wouldn’t be a material condition, especially if the government routinely paid out on claims knowing that foreign staplers were used.

Ratings and Reviews

The National Trial Lawyers
Mani Dabiri American Bar Foundation Emblem