Supreme Court: FTC may not seek restitution or disgorgement under 13(b)
On April 22, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously reversed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s decision in FTC v. AMG Capital Management, holding that Section 13(b) of the FTC Act “does not authorize the Commission to seek, or a court to award, equitable monetary relief such as restitution or disgorgement.” The opinion impacts petitioners who were ordered in 2018 to pay an approximately $1.3 billion judgment for allegedly operating a deceptive payday lending scheme and making false and misleading representations about loan costs and payments (covered by InfoBytes here). At the time, the 9th Circuit rejected the petitioner’s challenge to the judgment (based on, among other things, the argument that the FTC Act only allows the court to issue injunctions), concluding that a district court may grant any ancillary relief under the FTC Act, including restitution. As previously covered by InfoBytes, last year the Court granted review and consolidated two cases that had reached different conclusions regarding the availability of restitution under § 13(b): (i) the 9th Circuit’s decision in FTC v. AMG Capital Management; and (ii) the 7th Circuit’s ruling in FTC v. Credit Bureau Center (covered by InfoBytes here), which held that Section 13(b) does not give the FTC power to order restitution.
In examining “whether Congress, by enacting §13(b) and using the words ‘permanent injunction,’ granted the Commission authority to obtain monetary relief directly from courts and effectively bypass the requirements of the administrative process,” the Court unanimously held that § 13(b) “does not explicitly authorize the Commission to obtain court-ordered monetary relief,” and that “such relief is foreclosed by the structure and history of the Act.” As such, the Court determined that it is “highly unlikely” that Congress would grant the FTC authority to circumvent traditional § 5 administrative proceedings by collecting restitution or disgorgement as an equitable relief power. Moreover, the Court discussed § 19 of the FTC Act, which was enacted two years after § 13(b) and “authorizes district courts to grant ‘such relief as the court finds necessary to redress injury to consumers,’ including through the ‘refund of money or return of property.’” The Court noted that since § 19 has limited authority and is only available against those who have engaged in an unfair or deceptive act or practice through which the FTC has issued a final cease and desist order (i.e. through an administrative proceeding), the Court found it “highly unlikely that Congress would have enacted provisions expressly authorizing conditioned and limited monetary relief if the Act, via §13(b), had already implicitly allowed the Commission to obtain that same monetary relief and more without satisfying those conditions and limitations.” Further, the Court stated that it was unlikely that Congress would have granted the FTC authority to “so readily” circumvent traditional § 5 administrative proceedings.
The Court stated that nothing in its opinion, however, prohibits the FTC “from using its § 5 or § 19 authority to obtain restitution on behalf of consumers,” adding that if the Commission “believes that authority too cumbersome or otherwise inadequate, it is, of course, free to ask Congress to grant it further remedial authority”—a request that the FTC made before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Oversight of the Federal Trade Commission in 2020 and again on April 20, 2021 (covered by InfoBytes here). The Court reversed the judgment against the petitioners and remanded the case for further proceedings in line with its opinion.
FTC acting Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter issued a statement following the Court’s decision: “With this ruling, the Court has deprived the FTC of the strongest tool we had to help consumers when they need it most. We urge Congress to act swiftly to restore and strengthen the powers of the agency so we can make wronged consumers whole.”