price gouging liability

Two federal price gouging bills were recently introduced in Congress. Senator Elizabeth Warren led the introduction of the Price Gouging Prevention Act of 2022. The bill prohibits “unconscionably excessive price[s]” at any point in a supply chain or distribution network during an “exceptional market shock” triggered by a range of events – including public health emergencies. The law would apply to any good or service offered in commerce, and would authorize the Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General to enforce the prohibition.  Additionally, during “exceptional market shocks,” the law would require public companies to disclose and explain changes in pricing and gross margins in quarterly SEC filings—raising the specter of SEC enforcement with respect to those disclosures.

With the Biden administration ramping up scrutiny on supply chains and pricing practices, businesses should take a moment to revisit their COVID-19 price gouging compliance.  As we’ve previously highlighted, risk management with ever-shifting price gouging restrictions requires careful consideration of documentation and oversight of pricing practices and decisions. For reputable companies up and down the national supply chain, compliance with the array of state price gouging laws requires more than intuition and a moral compass. Even with the best intentions, many businesses inadvertently run afoul of price gouging laws. Because price gouging statutes can cover more than obvious bad conduct and point-of-sale pricing to consumers, manufactures and suppliers should consider implementing procedures to assess whether they are required to comply with pricing restrictions, whether they are complying, and how to manage compliance. Below we outline some key considerations for businesses.

In an interview on All In with Chris Hayes in January, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., claimed that a factor causing the high prices facing U.S. consumers is “giant corporations who say, wow, a lot of talk about high prices and inflation. This is a chance to get in there and

New York Governor Kathy Hochul has declared a disaster emergency for the state through January 15, 2022 in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases in the state and the newly identified Omicron variant. According to The Wall Street Journal, New York is the first state to declare a state of emergency in response to Omicron, although many states have remained under declared states of emergency since the beginning of the pandemic. New York allowed its previous declared state of emergency to expire on June 24, 2021.

On July 2, 2021, a group of consumers filed a putative class action in Washington District Court alleging Amazon engaged in unlawful price gouging during the COVID-19 pandemic on a variety of products. The case is noteworthy because Washington does not have a specific price gouging statute. Instead, plaintiffs argue that the alleged price gouging is an “unfair or deceptive act[] or practice[] in the conduct of any trade or commerce” in violation of Washington Consumer Protection Act (“WCPA”). Commentators have speculated that one of the purposes for filing in Washington is to pursue, in a state court, nationwide damages from Amazon.

Although many states of emergency have expired, new lawsuits that allege price gouging continue to be filed.  On September 3, 2021, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison filed a complaint in Minnesota state court against Sparboe Farms, Inc. alleging the company engaged in price gouging for the sale of eggs in violation of the Minnesota Governor’s executive order.

In the early days of the pandemic, COVID-19 was synonymous with a mad dash for anti-virus home items like hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and anti-bacterial wipes. Amazon emerged from the shopping frenzy as key source of these products and hosts of others. Even as many states are lifting states of emergency, businesses active during the pandemic, such as Amazon, are facing suits for conduct during the pandemic.