7th Circuit overturns precedent, rejects restitution under Section 13(b) of FTC Act
On August 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit held that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act does not give the FTC power to order restitution, overruling that court’s 1989 decision in FTC v. Amy Travel Service, Inc. As previously covered by InfoBytes, in June 2018, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois granted the FTC’s motion for summary judgment against a credit monitoring service and its sole owner in an action filed under Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The court concluded that no reasonable jury would find that the defendants’ scheme of using false rental property ads to solicit consumer enrollment in credit monitoring services without their knowledge could occur without engaging in unfair or deceptive practices. The FTC argued that the defendants’ scheme, which used the promise of a free credit report to enroll the consumers into a monthly credit monitoring program, violated the FTC Act’s ban on deceptive practices. The court agreed, holding that the ad campaign was “rife with material misrepresentations that were likely to deceive a reasonable consumer.” Additionally the court agreed with the FTC that the defendants’ website was materially misrepresentative because it did not give “the net impression that consumers were enrolling in a monthly credit monitoring service” for $29.94 a month, as opposed to defendants’ claim that consumers were obtaining a free credit report. The court also found that the defendants’ websites failed to meet certain disclosure requirements imposed by the Restore Online Shopper Confidence Act. The court entered a permanent injunction and ordered the defendants to pay over $5 million in “equitable monetary relief” to the FTC.
On appeal, the 7th Circuit affirmed the district court’s liability determination, and affirmed the issuance of the permanent injunction. However, the appellate court took issue with the restitution award ordered pursuant to Section 13(b) of the FTC Act. The appellate court noted that the FTC has long viewed Section 13(b) as authorizing awards of restitution, and even acknowledged that the 7th Circuit agreed with the FTC’s position in its decision in Amy Travel. However, subsequent to the Amy Travel decision, the Supreme Court, in Meghrig v. KFC W., Inc., clarified that “courts must consider whether an implied equitable remedy is compatible with a statute’s express remedial scheme.” Applying Meghrig, the 7th Circuit noted that “nothing in the text or structure of the [FTC Act] supports an implied right to restitution in section 13(b), which by its terms authorizes only injunctions.” The panel emphasized that the FTC Act has two other provisions that expressly authorize restitution if the FTC follows certain procedures, but the current reading of Section 13(b), based on Amy Travel, allows the FTC “to circumvent these elaborate enforcement provisions and seek restitution directly through an implied remedy.” Therefore, based on the Supreme Court precedent in Meghrig, the panel concluded that Section 13(b)’s grant of authority to order injunctive relief does not implicitly authorize an award of restitution, overturning its previous decision in Amy Travel and vacating the district court’s award of restitution.