Statement by Paul Alan Levy, Attorney, Public Citizen

"Paul Alan Levy"Note: A judge this week ruled in favor of two eBay customers who were sued by Med Express – a Medina, Ohio company that sells over eBay – after posting truthful negative feedback on eBay about Med Express. The judge’s decision stated, “Plaintiff’s suit was for an improper purpose. The goal was to thwart EBay’s seller rating service for financial gain by obtaining an injunction against out of state defendants, unlikely to be able to defend themselves.” The Court of Common Pleas for Medina County awarded the plaintiffs court costs, attorney fees and other reasonable expenses incurred in connection with the suit. Public Citizen helped represent the defendants. Learn more about Med Express v. Nicholls.

Judge James Leaver was completely correct in requiring Med Express to pay attorney fees for two eBay customers who did absolutely nothing wrong when they left mildly negative feedback regarding their Med Express purchases. As Judge Leaver recognized, the customers were simply participating in eBay’s feedback component in exactly the manner in which eBay intended, and the company had no reason to doubt the veracity of their criticisms.

More important, the judge has rewarded two Ohio lawyers, Cleveland’s Tom Haren and Cincinnati’s Jeffrey Nye, who, in the highest tradition of the Bar, volunteered to represent the two eBay customers without charge, recognizing that they could not otherwise have afforded to represent themselves in defending against a frivolous defamation claim.In the past several years, there has been an uptick in lawsuits in which a company sues a customer because of negative feedback posted online by the customer. In this case, when Med Express received feedback that didn’t help it maintain a ‘perfect seller rating,’ the company asked the customers to remove their feedback. When they declined, Med Express bullied the customers with a lawsuit.

This is an important win for consumers. It shows that consumers have recourse when companies such as Med Express try to bully and silence consumers from telling other potential customers about their bad experiences.

In addition, earlier this year, the lawyer that filed the suit for Med Express agreed to settle the sanctions motion against him by paying a portion of the attorney fees – on top of what the judge ruled this week. This ruling should stand as a warning against both companies and lawyers who are tempted to file foolish defamation lawsuits against consumers.

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Statement of Dr. Michael Carome, Director, Public Citizen’s Health Research Group

Dr. Michael CaromeNote: Today, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with 15 other federal departments and agencies, issued a proposed rule (PDF) that would revise federal requirements for the protection of human subjects in scientific research. Dr. Michael Carome, who served as associate director for regulatory affairs at the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections from 2002 to 2010, is an internationally recognized expert on the protection of human research subjects.

The long-awaited rule from HHS, which has been under development for more than four years, represents a mixed bag of changes. For example, on the up side, the rule would extend federal protections to all clinical trials conducted by institutions that receive federal funding for human research, regardless of how trials are funded. On the down side, the rule would inappropriately mandate that only one institutional review board (IRB) may review clinical trials conducted at multiple institutions, including trials that involve dozens or hundreds of sites. IRBs review human research to ensure it is ethical and complies with regulations.

HHS appears to be overstating the potential benefits of the rule. HHS misleadingly suggests that the rule will greatly enhance informed consent for research by “imposing stricter new requirements regarding the information that must be given to prospective subjects.” In fact, the proposed rule makes few substantive changes to the information that must be disclosed during the consent process.

More broadly, the proposed rule is premised on the dubious assumption that reducing the time and effort IRBs spend reviewing low-risk research will allow them to spend more time and effort reviewing higher risk research, but HHS offers no evidence to back this up. It is far more likely that IRBs – many of which feel overburdened – will spend the same amount of time and effort reviewing moderate- and high-risk research that they currently do, resulting in no enhanced protections for subjects. Without additional, specific requirements for higher risk research, human subjects will continue to remain at risk.

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria commissioned a celebratory painting of Manchester, citadel of the Industrial Revolution, which featured factories billowing sunlit pillows of smoke. Today we might forgive this romantic view of pollution as rooted in the ignorance that the smoke was a regrettable toxic byproduct that poisoned countless people in England.

Yet today, such misplaced celebration of industrial ills persists in the promiscuously large paychecks awarded to energy company executives. That’s according to a report just released by the Institute for Policy Studies.

“Money to Burn,” authored by Sarah Anderson, a veteran CEO compensation observer, critic and reform activist, surveys and analyzes executive pay at the leading fossil fuel companies. She finds that executive pay at the 30 largest firms average $14.7 million, about 10 percent more than average pay for CEOs at the S&P 500. But Anderson exposes a dystopian dynamic. “Our contemporary executive pay incentives . . . directly encouraged the reckless behavior of Wall Street executives that led to the 2008 financial crisis,” she writes. “These same misplaced incentives are today encouraging the recklessness of fossil fuel executives — and deepening our global climate crisis.”

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Ohio Consumers are paying big for FirstEnergy’s maneuvers to profit from its failing and outdated business model.

Billion in Bailouts monopoly-money-firstenergy-bailout

Today, the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio will begin hearings on FirstEnergy’s proposal to guarantee profits for its oldest and dirtiest coal and nuclear plants.

Unable to compete in the energy market due to cleaner and more affordable resources like wind and solar, FirstEnergy is asking regulators to force regulated utilities to buy the entire output of FirstEnergy’s troubled nuclear and coal plants – Davis-Besse nuclear plant, Sammis coal plant as well as its share of coal-fired energy produced by the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation – and then sell the power into the marketplace. Customers would be charged for the difference between what the market will pay and the cost to operate the plants, plus profit. The scheme would be a bailout for FirstEnergy, impose a $3 billion dirty energy tax on customers and discourage investment in clean and efficient energy.  

Not only would the bailout proposal raise rates, it also would lock in the subsidy for 15 years. At a time when climate disruption demands that we phase out our old, dirty energy sources, FirstEnergy is asking customers to prop up theirs for years to come.

Further, the scheme would essentially circumvent the state’s deregulation laws – a policy FirstEnergy championed until it was no longer serving its bottom line. Deregulation, which split the distribution of power from the business of generating power so that utilities could sell energy into a competitive market, initially cost customers billions of dollars. FirstEnergy convinced the PUCO that it needed customers to absorb the debt (bail out) on its plants to be competitive in the new market system. FirstEnergy was allowed to charge Ohio electricity consumers $6.9 billion for its nuclear assets alone.

But FirstEnergy self-serving flip-flop on competition doesn’t end there.

Millions in Lost Efficiency Savings

Last year, FirstEnergy led the lobbying effort to freeze Ohio’s renewable and energy efficiency standards, claiming that they inhibited competition and inflated energy costs. The efficiency standard alone saved customers $1 billion since its implementation in 2009 and was on track to save billions more in coming years. In response to the freeze, FirstEnergy was the only utility in the state to take immediate steps to cut its efficiency programs, even though its own PUCO filings have consistently argued that its programs are cost-effective. For example, one document filed in 2012 projected savings of more than $100 million for FirstEnergy’s Ohio Edison customers.

And that still doesn’t complete FirstEnergy’s record on fleecing customers.

Millions in Overcharges

Two years ago, the company was penalized more than $40 million for overcharging its customers for renewable energy credits. The year before that, FirstEnergy gamed the capacity auction for the territory in which it operates to increase their profits through strategic closing of coal plants. Doing so created capacity shortages and prices increased for customers.

More Cost to Come?

Instead of innovating to meet the challenges of climate disruption and embracing the plummeting cost of clean energy, FirstEnergy is doubling down on coal and nuclear. And by doing so and resisting low cost tools like energy efficiency, FirstEnergy could make it harder and more costly for the state to comply with new federal carbon pollution goals.

It’s time to stop letting FirstEnergy call the shots on the Buckeye State’s energy future, a mistake that already has cost Ohio’s families and households and continues to threaten Ohio’s response to climate change.

Take action against FirstEnergy today:

Tell the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) to reject the bailout of FirstEnergy.

 Allison Fisher is the Outreach Director for Public Citizen’s Climate and Energy Program

"Allison Fisher" "Public Citizen"Statement of Allison Fisher, Outreach Director, Public Citizen’s Energy Program

Congratulations to the D.C. Public Service Commission for showing courage today in rejecting Chicago-based Exelon’s acquisition of Pepco. The deal would have been bad for D.C. consumers, and the Commission was right to reject it – and refuse to succumb to Exelon’s extensive lobby campaign. Commissioners rightly listened to the many public interest voices opposed to the deal and determined that it failed to meet the District’s standard of public interest. It is heartening to see that the system works.

In rejecting the deal, D.C. regulators recognized that Exelon’s economic interest and business model are fundamentally incompatible with the District’s established policies of promoting renewable energy and localizing the generation of electricity, and that the potential harm of the merger to the District and its electric utility customers outweighed the benefit to shareholders – who would have received a $1.842 billion windfall had the merger been approved.

We applaud the Commission for basing its decision on the merits of this case. The District was the last jurisdiction to consider the merger and the only jurisdiction to reject it. While their colleagues in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey yielded to corporate pressure and conditionally approved the takeover, D.C. regulators listened to the Office of People’s Counsel, four D.C. Councilmembers, 27 District advisory neighborhood commissions and more than 1,000 District residents – all of whom opposed the deal.

Ultimately, the conflict between what is good for Exelon and what is good for the District could not be resolved through stipulations and superficial fixes. At the end of the day, D.C. regulators chose what is best for D.C. residents. For this we commend them and congratulate the engaged D.C. citizenry who held them to it.

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