Section 13(b) Gets its Day in Court: “It seems the problem you have is the text” – Justice Kavanaugh

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This morning, the Supreme Court heard its long-anticipated arguments in AMG Capital Management, LLC v. Federal Trade Commission. As we have previously explained, in AMG, the FTC’s use of Section 13(b) of the FTC Act to obtain monetary remedies is under the High Court’s microscope. While the outcome won’t be known for months, the Justices questioning at oral argument seem to suggest that the case might not break the FTC’s way.

The facts of AMG are straightforward. Scott Tucker was the owner of a single-proprietor business, AMG Capital Management. The business’s sole function was to provide payday loans. The FTC sued Scott Tucker, the owner of AMG, under Section 13(b) of the Act, asserting that the terms disclosed in the loan notes AMG provided to consumers did not reflect the harsher terms that Tucker actually enforced. The district court found Tucker liable, and pursuant to Section 13(b), levied a staggering $1.27 billion in equitable monetary relief to be paid by Tucker to the Commission. Tucker appealed this ruling to the Ninth Circuit. Tucker’s primary argument on appeal was that Section 13(b) forecloses monetary relief. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, and AMG’s petition to the Supreme Court on this issue was granted.

While some of the Justices at oral argument—particularly Justice Barrett and Alito—seemed concerned that reversing the Ninth Circuit’s judgment would provide an undeserved windfall to Tucker, a clear majority of the Court was more focused on the FTC’s broad interpretation of the statutory text. Justice Kavanaugh expressed the problem clearly and succinctly, when he stated to FTC counsel that, although he felt sympathy for the FTC’s concern with stemming bad actors, a regulatory agency is bound by its statutory mission. In Justice Kavanaugh’s words, “It seems the problem you have is the text.”

Although FTC counsel argued that prior case law from the nineteenth century allowed monetary equitable relief along with injunctive relief, Justice Roberts pointed out that those cases largely involved courts using their inherent equitable powers. An executive agency, by contrast, only retains equitable powers to the extent it is given them by statute. And while FTC counsel argued that the legislative intent when Section 13(b) was codified was to imbue it with broad equitable powers, AMG’s counsel effectively rebutted that argument, explaining that the best “way we determine Congress’s intent is by looking at the words on the page.”

While nothing is certain until a final decision is rendered, following oral arguments it seems even more likely that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act will be limited to its plain terms, allowing the FTC to use the statutory provision to obtain injunctive relief in court, and only that. As multiple Justices noted, Section 19 and Section 5(l) of the Act provide alternative avenues for relief. While Section 13(b) may be a more efficient method for the FTC to obtain monetary remedies, the majority of the Justices at oral argument signaled that efficiency alone is not a sufficient basis for imbuing an agency with such a powerful remedy.

All is not lost for the FTC. Again, here, Justice Kavanaugh led the way with a proposed solution for the Agency, when he asked, “Why isn’t the answer here for the Agency to seek this new authority from Congress for us to maintain a principle of separation of powers?”  With a new Congress about to be seated and proposed language that would amend Section 13(b) floating around the Hill, congressional clarification very well might be the FTC’s best path forward.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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