While states continue to lift their COVID related states of emergency, new price gouging claims are being made and ongoing price gouging litigation continues to wind through the courts. The federal government also now appears more poised than ever to intervene in price gouging issues.
One of the bellwether price gouging cases from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic was recently reversed and remanded by New York’s First Judicial Department of the Appellate Division.
New York Attorney General Letitia James announced in May 2020 that her office had filed a lawsuit against a wholesale grocery distributor – Quality King Distributors – and its CEO for price gouging. The lawsuit alleged that between January 2020 and April 2020, Quality King raised the price of Lysol when its costs had not increased, “dramatically boost[ing] its gross profit margins for Lysol Spray, almost quintupling them over its pre-crisis margins.” Quality King sold 46,104 cans of Lysol during the time in question, and “each time one of these  cans of Lysol was sold at retail for an inflated price – and each time a person bought any other Lysol product whose price Quality King had inflated – Quality King’s price-gouging caused injury to a consumer,” the lawsuit stated. The Attorney General seeks, among other relief, disgorgement of all profits from the illegal practice and a civil penalty of $25,000.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James has filed a petition to compel Tyson Foods to comply with a subpoena in connection with ongoing price gouging investigations by the state. New York’s price gouging statute imposes civil penalties on sellers of essential goods charging unconscionably excessive prices during an abnormal disruption of the market. The subpoena requests information relating to prices, dates of sale, purchasers, costs, and profit margin for Tyson’s meat products sold in New York from December 1, 2019 through April 2022.
On July 11, 2022, the United States District Court for the District of Kansas approved a $264 million settlement against Mylan and certain of its subsidiaries in the case In Re EpiPen (Epinephrine Injection, USP) Marketing, Sales Practices, and Antitrust Litigation in a matter broadly tagged as price-gouging litigation. Plaintiffs filed class action lawsuits against Mylan, the owner of EpiPen, and Pfizer, Inc., a manufacturer and seller of EpiPen, alleging, “anticompetitive conduct including, among other things: engaging in a ‘hard switch’ and selling EpiPens only in packs of two; entering into discount agreements with schools that were conditioned on the schools not purchasing competing products; securing multiple overlapping patents on minor changes to the EpiPen and engaging in ‘sham’ patent litigation to forestall generic competition; and paying excessive rebates to commercial insurance companies, pharmaceutical benefits managers, and state-based Medicaid agencies conditioned on those companies and agencies not reimbursing the use of competing products.” The plaintiffs claimed that the defendants broke various state antitrust laws and the federal civil RICO statute. The suits, filed in the Northern District of Illinois, the District of Kansas, the District of New Jersey, and the Western District of Washington, were joined in August of 2017 in the District of Kansas.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., and California have taken recent steps to further protect the infant formula market from price gouging. On June 7, 2022, the D.C. Council passed the “Infant Formula Consumer Protection Emergency Act.” The Act, which will remain in effect for 90 days, targets companies selling baby formula at extremely high prices. The Act provides that companies may be subject to a $5,000 fine, for first-time offenses, or a $10,000 fine, for subsequent offenses, if they sell infant formula at a price greater than 20% of what they previously sold substantially similar formula in the District over the 90-day period prior to February 17, 2022. If the retailer never sold a substantially similar formula product in that 90-day period, they would face fines if they sell infant formula at a price greater than 20% of the average price of substantially similar infant formula product from substantially similar retailers.
On May 24, 2022, the FTC announced a widespread inquiry into the ongoing infant formula shortage. The agency had been tasked by the White House with investigating any price gouging or unfair market practices in the industry. The agency is seeking public comments on “various factors that may have contributed to the infant formula shortage…as well as its impact on families and retailers.”
With the federal government’s increasing focus on enforcing price gouging compliance, attention has turned to the Defense Production Act (the “DPA”). Passed in 1950 in response to the Korean War, the DPA is modelled on the War Powers Acts of 1941 and 1942 and gives the President, among other things, sweeping power to control the domestic economy during times of crisis. Despite these origins, the DPA is routinely invoked in a variety of circumstances, including in response to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and now COVID-19 (the DPA as later amended in 1988 is also the basis for the president’s authority to block certain foreign investment into the U.S. on national security grounds through the Committee of Foreign Investment in the U.S. – or CFIUS).
While the majority of price gouging enforcement has occurred at the state level (see Proskauer on Price Gouging — A Coast-to-Coast Reference Guide), the federal government has also been active, and several federal price gouging bills have been introduced, though none have been signed into law. See, e.g., S. 3574 (empowers the FTC and Attorney General to enforce civil and criminal penalties for price gouging); H.R. 6472 (prohibits “unconscionably excessive” pricing “indicating the seller is using the circumstances related to” the emergency to increase prices); H.R. 6264 (creates a new criminal offense for price gouging during a state of emergency); H.R. 6450 (based on California law, limits raising price of consumer goods to no more than 10% after an emergency declaration).