Business Torts as Little FTC Act Claims: Does the Difference Really Make a Difference?
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Section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (the FTC Act), 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(1), prohibits, among other offenses, "unfair or deceptive acts or practices." Twenty-eight states have en-acted FTC Act analogues, which are commonly referred to as "Little FTC Acts." See chart appended as Exhibit A.
Because these state statutes are based on the FTC Act, states have long looked to precedent under the FTC Act for guidance when they have considered the meaning of unfairness.4 Sixteen states, see Exhibit A, have also adopted some version of the FTC's "Cigarette Rule," which sets forth the following three criteria to gauge whether an act or practice is unfair:
(a) Whether the practice, without necessarily having been previously declared unlawful, offends public policy as it has been established by statutes, the common law or otherwise—whether, in other words, it is within at least the penumbra of some common-law, statutory, or other established concept of unfairness;
(b) Whether it is immoral, unethical, oppressive or unscrupulous;
(c) Whether it causes substantial injury to consumers (or competitors or other businessmen).5
In 1980, the FTC changed its unfairness analysis from the one outlined in the Cigarette Rule. In a statement to Congress, the FTC stated that it would treat an act or practice as unfair only if "it causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers which is not reasonably avoidable by consumers themselves and not outweighed by countervailing benefits to consumers or to competition."6 Five states have expressly adopted the FTC's current unfairness standards in those states' unfairness doctrines. See Exhibit A.
Overview of Per Se Theories and Related Theories under the Little FTC Acts
Generally, Little FTC Act claims—at least claims by private litigants—involve three primary elements: (1) an unfair or deceptive act or practice, (2) within the Little FTC Act's definition of "trade or commerce," (3) which injures an eligible plaintiff.7 In some circumstances, a plaintiff can satisfy the first element of a Little FTC Act claim by using a per se theory of liability. A per se violation of a Little FTC Act occurs when a violation of a different statute or regulation, or a common-law tort, automatically satisfies the conduct standard for a Little FTC Act claim. One can call the underlying statutory violation, regulatory violation, or tort the "predicate violation." One can call the automatic establishment of a Little FTC Act claim "upgrading." Decisions on per se theories reflect several different approaches to upgrading. We discuss these approaches in the following subsections.
First, a court will upgrade a predicate violation to a per se violation of a Little FTC Act if the predicate statute or regulation expressly states that a violation of it is a violation of the state's Little FTC Act. For example, a North Dakota statute on telecommunications services provides that "[a] telecommunications company that violates this section is deemed to have committed an unlawful practice in violation of [North Dakota's Little FTC Act]."8
Conversely, a number of Little FTC Acts themselves name predicate violations that allow upgrading. For example, an Alaska statute states: "The terms ‘unfair methods of competition' and ‘unfair or deceptive acts or practices' include, but are not limited to, the following acts: . . . (34) violating AS 08.66.260– 08.66.350 (motor vehicle buyers' agents); (35) violating AS 45.63 (solicitations by telephonic means); (36) violating AS 45.68 (charitable solicitations) . . . ."9
The benefit of explicit upgrading is that parties have express notice that certain predicate violations expose them to liability (and often, enhanced remedies) under a Little FTC Act.
When a predicate violation states that particular conduct is "unfair" and/or "deceptive," courts often rely on this statutory language to find a per se violation of a Little FTC Act. Following this approach, for example, one court held that any act that qualifies as an unfair claim settlement practice under a Washington state statute is also a per se unfair trade practice that (as Washington law requires) affects the public interest.10
Codified Standards for Upgrading
A handful of states have statutes or regulations that explicitly define standards for upgrading. For example, in Massachusetts, the Little FTC Act allows the attorney general to make rules and regulations that interpret the statute.11 Under this authority, the attorney general has made regulations on the relationship between predicate violations and the state's Little FTC Act. One of these regulations states that an act or practice violates Massachusetts's Little FTC Act if: (1) it is oppressive or otherwise unconscionable; (2) any party subject to the act fails to disclose any fact that would have dissuaded the consumer from entering into the transaction; (3) the act or practice fails to comply with existing state statutes, rules, regulations or laws, meant for the protection of the public's health, safety, or welfare; or (4) the act or practice violates the FTC Act, the Federal Consumer Credit Protection Act, or other federal consumer protection statutes.12 Courts have sometimes referred to these regulations when they have considered per se violations.13
Some courts will upgrade predicate violations to violations of a Little FTC Act even though no statute or regulation specifically calls for upgrading. Courts use judge-made standards to distinguish predicate violations that deserve upgrading from predicate violations that do not. Many of these judge-made standards ask, in substance, whether a predicate violation implicates the goals of a Little FTC Act. For example, a federal court in New York held that "[a]s long as the underlying conduct is consumer-oriented, what is fraud will be a deceptive practice under [the Little FTC Act], although the converse cannot be said."14 The court explained that "[s]uch practices do not seem far removed from the type of deceptive trade practice [New York's Little FTC Act] was intended to prevent."15
Courts have also been persuaded by predicate violations that provide detailed conduct standards. For example, a North Carolina court noted that a predicate statute "defined in detail unfair methods of setting claims and unfair and deceptive acts or practices in the insurance industry, thereby establishing the General Assembly's intent to equate a violation of that statute with the more general provision of [North Carolina's Little FTC Act]."16
Nearly Per Se Violations
Courts sometimes hold that a predicate violation does not automatically satisfy the conduct standard under a Little FTC Act, yet promotes a violation to some degree. This pattern occurs, for example, when (a) the predicate violation shows a violation of the "public policy" aspect of the Cigarette Rule, or (b) the predicate violation "contributes" to a violation of a Little FTC Act. For example, a North Carolina court held: "The Ejectment of Residential Tenants Act . . . embodies the public policy of this state, as determined by the legislature, that residential tenants not be evicted through self-help measures without resort to judicial process. . . . Accordingly, it is clear that conduct which violates the Ejectment of Residential Tenants Act may also constitute a violation of the Unfair and Deceptive Practices Act, thus giving rise to an award of treble damages and attorney's fees under that Act."17
Using similar intermediate reasoning, a federal court in Massachusetts concluded that a violation of the federal Perishable Agricultural Commodities Act (PACA) is not a per se violation of the Massachusetts Little FTC Act. If a plaintiff, however, "can prove harm to consumers or to the public, it is possible that a violation of PACA could lead to [Little FTC Act] liability."18
Illusory Per Se Violations
Courts sometimes state that a predicate violation "is a per se violation" of a Little FTC Act if the plaintiff also proves the usual elements of a violation of the Little FTC Act. One can call this pattern of reasoning an illusory per se violation, because the predicate violation does not reduce the plaintiff's burden of proof from the one that would otherwise exist. For example, the North Carolina Court of Appeals has held that "[i]f a violation of the Trade Secrets Protection Act satisfies the three prong test [under the Cigarette Rule], it would be a violation of [the Little FTC Act]."19
Reverse Per Se Reasoning
In some cases, courts apply what one might call a reverse per se rule. This pattern arises when courts hold that a Little FTC Act claim fails simply because a predicate claim has failed. In these cases, courts seldom state explicitly whether the failure of the predicate violation was independently sufficient to defeat the Little FTC Act claim. For example, one court held that [b]ecause Plaintiffs do not allege any facts that suggest that Defendant's conduct is unlawful beyond the conduct that is the basis for their failed federal [antitrust] claims, Plaintiffs' [Little FTC Act claim] fail[s] as well."20
Some Specific Examples of the Interplay between Common-Law Business Torts and Little FTC Acts
Parties who pursue claims for nonstatutory business torts often simultaneously pursue claims under Little FTC Acts. Parties add Little FTC Act claims in search of a more open-ended conduct standard, to sidestep tort defenses, to seek broader remedies than tort law provides, or all of the above.
Conduct that is actionable under Little FTC Acts does not necessarily satisfy the elements for tort claims. In contrast, conduct that makes out a business tort claim is often held to violate a Little FTC Act as well—on a per se basis or otherwise. This is because Little FTC Acts, having a more open-ended conduct standard, often apply to a broader range of business conduct than tort theories do. Cases involving both types of claims are discussed in further detail below.
One court summarized the interaction between business tort claims and Little FTC Act claims in the following terms: "Conduct that might be actionable under [a Little FTC Act] may not rise to a level sufficient to invoke tort liability. The reverse of that proposition, however, is seldom true. Provided a plaintiff shows that his or her claim is cloaked with the necessary public interest, it is difficult to conceive of a situation where tortious interference would be found but a [Little FTC Act] violation would not."21 Several decisions illustrate the common pattern of a business tort also making out a violation of a Little FTC Act. For example, in a case involving statutory theft and conversion, the court held that the elements of the tortious activity also violated the Little FTC Act. The court explained: "The court [below] found that . . . ‘[t]he defendant's theft of the plaintiff's funds violates the statutes proscribing conversion and theft and, by any standard, qualifies as "immoral, unethical, oppressive [and] unscrupulous."' . . . [W]e cannot conclude that the court erroneously relied on the same [conduct] as the basis for its finding that the defendant had committed an unfair or deceptive act as proscribed under [the Little FTC Act]."22
Applying the converse reasoning, a court concluded that a Little FTC Act claim failed because related common-law claims and federal claims failed. The court stated: "The plaintiff acknowledges that the success of its [Little FTC Act] claim hinges on the success of its claims under the Lanham Act and state common law. Because we affirm the trial court's judgment rejecting the plaintiff's Lanham Act and common law claims, the plaintiff's [Little FTC Act] claim also fails."23
Although Little FTC Acts usually apply more broadly than business tort theories do, not every case follows this pattern. In one Connecticut case, for example, the court held that a claim that failed under the state's Little FTC Act nevertheless amounted to tortious interference. Noting the divergent standards for each claim, the court stated: "The defendant additionally argues that because the court did not find that her conduct amounted to a [Little FTC Act] violation, that same conduct cannot be the basis of a tortious interference claim because the latter carries a lower burden of proof than the former. We disagree with the defendant's assertion. . . . We may readily infer that the court did not hold the defendant liable under [the Little FTC Act] because it concluded that the balance of [the Cigarette Rule] factors weighed against liability. No such balancing test is required for a claim of tortious interference."24
In a similar vein, a court refused to hold that tortious interference rose to the level of a Little FTC Act violation. The court concluded: "[A]lthough there may be certain cases in which conduct is actionable under [Little FTC Act] but does not give rise to a claim of tortious interference, there was still no probable cause to support a [Little FTC Act] violation in this case because the court did not find any conduct by the defendants that was ‘deceitful, unfair or unscrupulous.'"25
Distinctions among theories of liability are the norm in many decisions. For example, in a case involving commercial disparagement, unjust enrichment, defamation, and tortious interference, the court analyzed each claim entirely separately from the Little FTC Act claim.26
As these decisions and others show, no single rule captures the interaction between business tort claims and claims under Little FTC Acts. Although Little FTC Acts generally create a broader theory of liability than business torts do, courts sometimes perceive the difference between the theories as more subtle. Courts might be more apt to rely on doctrinal subtleties when the claimant is a business that stands to recover enhanced remedies if its Little FTC Act succeeds.
A large number of Little FTC Acts have been in existence for thirty to forty years. Courts construing many of these state laws still use the Cigarette Rule approach as they define unfairness. Particularly in those states that allow businesses to sue under Little FTC Acts, parties sometimes assert nonstatutory business torts as a basis for claiming unfairness. The law under Little FTC Acts provides a structure that supports some of these claims.
1 Partner, Wiggin and Dana LLP, Hartford, CT; Chair, Janet D. Steiger Fellowship Project, ABA Section of Antitrust Law; co-author, ROBERT M. LANGER, JOHN T.MORGAN & DAVID L. BELT, UNFAIR TRADE PRACTICES, BUSINESS TORTS AND ANTITRUST (2012–2013 ed.) (volume 12 of West's CONNECTICUT PRACTICE SERIES).
2 Litigation Associate, Wiggin and Dana LLP, New Haven, CT.
3 Partner, Ellis & Winters LLP, Raleigh, NC; Practitioner in Residence, Campbell Law School; Vice-Chair, State Enforcement Committee, ABA Section of Antitrust Law; co-author, Defining Unfairness in "Unfair Trade Practices," 90 N.C. L. REV. 2033 (2012).
4 See, e.g., CONN. GEN. STAT. § 42-110b(b) ("It is the intent of the legislature that in construing subsection (a) of this section, the commissioner and courts of this state shall be guided by interpretations given by the Federal Trade Commission and the federal courts to Section 5(a)(1) of the Federal Trade Commission Act (15 U.S.C. 45(a)(1)), as from time to time amended."). Twenty-three states have substantially similar provisions or a judicial ruling to the same effect. See ABA SECTION OF ANTITRUST LAW, CONSUMER PROTECTION LAW DEVELOPMENTS 378 (2009).
5 FTC v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co., 405 U.S. 233, 244 n.5 (1972); McLaughlin Ford, Inc. v. Ford Motor Co., 473 A.2d 1185, 1191 (Conn. 1984).
6 Letter from the FTC to Sens. Ford & Danforth (Dec. 17, 1980), available at http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/policystmt/ad-unfair.htm. In 1994, Congress codified this standard in a new section 5(n) of the FTC Act, 15 U.S.C.§ 45(n).
7 See Walker v. Fleetwood Homes of N.C., Inc., 653 S.E.2d 393, 399 (N.C. 2007); CONN. GEN. STAT. § 42-110b(a).
8 N.D. CENT. CODE § 42-21-02.4(4); see also ROBERT M. LANGER, JOHN T. MORGAN & DAVID L. BELT, UNFAIR TRADE PRACTICES, BUSINESS TORTS AND ANTITRUST app. E (2012–2013 ed.) (volume 12 of West's CONNECTICUT PRACTICE SERIES) (more than seventy statutes are expressly incorporated by reference in, and made violations of, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act ("CUTPA")).
9 ALASKA STAT. § 45.50.471.
10 Rizzuti v. Basin Travel Servs. Of Othello, Inc., 105 P.3d 1012, 1022 (Wash. Ct. App. 2005).
11 MASS. ANN. LAWS ch. 93A, §2(c).
12 940 MASS. CODE REGS. 3.16.
13 See, e.g., Swenson v. Yellow Transp., Inc., 317 F. Supp. 2d 51, 56 (D. Mass. 2004).
14 M&T Mortg. Corp. v. White, 736 F. Supp. 2d 538, 573 (E.D.N.Y. 2010).
16 Walker v. Fleetwood Homes of N.C., Inc., 653 S.E.2d 393, 399 (N.C. 2007).
17 Stanley v. Moore, 454 S.E.2d 225, 228-29 (N.C. 1995) (emphasis added).
18 Friendly Fruit, Inc. v. Sodexho, Inc., 529 F. Supp. 2d 158, 165–66 (D. Mass. 2007).
19 Drouillard v. Keister Williams Newspaper Servs., Inc., 423 S.E.2d 324, 326 (N.C. Ct. App. 1992).
20 R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Philip Morris Inc., 199 F. Supp. 2d 362, 396 (M.D.N.C. 2002), aff'd per curiam, 67 F. App'x 810 (4th Cir. 2003).
21 Sportsmen's Boating Corp. v. Hensley, 474 A.2d 780, 786 (Conn. 1984). It bears noting that after the facts of Sportsmen's Boating arose, the Connecticut General Assembly eliminated the public interest/public injury requirement under that state's Little FTC Act. See Act of June 8, 1984, Pub. Act No. 84-468, § 2(a), 1984 Conn. Acts 794, 797 (amending CONN. GEN. STAT. § 42-110g).
22 Rana v.Terdjanian, 46 A.3d 175, 190 (Conn. App. Ct.) (quoting decision below), cert. denied, 47 A.3d 886 (Conn. 2012).
23 Mohegan Tribe of Indians v. Mohegan Tribe & Nation, Inc., 769 A.2d 34, 37 n.4 (Conn. 2001); see also Dulgarian v. Stone, 652 N.E.2d 603, 609 (Mass. 1995) ("Defamatory statements are actionable under G.L. c. 93A. However, where allegedly defamatory statements do not support a cause of action for defamation, they also do not support a cause of action under G.L. c. 93A.") (citation omitted).
24 Am. Diamond Exch., Inc. v. Alpert, 920 A.2d 357, 365 n.7 (Conn. App. Ct. 2007) (citation omitted).
25 Landmark Inv. Grp., LLC v. Calco Constr. & Dev. Co., 60 A.3d 983, 992 (Conn. App. Ct. 2013).
26 IN Energy Solutions, Inc. v. Realgy, LLC, 969 A.2d 807, 815–16 (Conn. App. Ct. 2009).