Jeffrey A. Babener: Search for Certainty in Direct Selling: A Legal and Business Rationale for H.R. 3409

October 19, 2017

Previously published in World of Direct Selling

In July, 2016 the FTC concluded an investigation and settlement with Herbalife, without formal prosecution or litigation. No finding of wrong doing was made and no finding of “pyramid.” A substantial fine was paid. More significantly, Herbalife was obliged to radically change its MLM operating model to an extent that differentiated it from most other leading direct selling companies. 

Industry observers postulated that the FTC had achieved by settlement a result that it could not have achieved through protracted litigation. And so why the result? Many experts, who follow the industry and FTC, understood the dynamics of why a publicly traded company, in the midst of a multi-year short seller attack (where its stock had spanned a volatile range of $27 to $80 over a four year period) might accede to onerous terms to bring an end to a cloud of uncertainty over its business. Many would argue that it was just a prudent move at a particularly vulnerable point of time in the financial markets. Interestingly, the fine paid was eclipsed by the surge in market cap and stock valuation as a result of the settlement, a fact that did not elude Wall Street.

Herbalife may have prevailed financially, but the FTC was playing “long ball” in terms of its long term legal position. Would the bevy of operating restrictions carry over to a change in the legal environment for the entire direct selling industry? Was the FTC emboldened to approach the direct selling industry as if it had just changed the direction of direct selling law unilaterally by settlement as opposed to achieving a change in the law by persuading a court to change the rules? Absolutely. Did it really change direct selling law? Well, sometimes history is written by the victor, whether correct or not. Or maybe that’s for the historians. 

Post FTC/Herbalife Settlement, former FTC Chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, in her October, 2016 presentation to the U.S. Direct Selling Association, announced a vision for a new FTC paradigm outlook on legitimate direct selling that was totally at odds with decades of case authority, state legislation and operating models of a 50 year old industry. To many observers, her position seemed to be drawn from “whole cloth” and fashioned as a “top down” bureaucrat “take it or leave it” style, i.e., “that’s the way it is, live with it!,” and “we know better than you…too bad.” Her position stunned CEOs of major direct selling companies. (The anxiety was heightened by another long time, and industry criticized, tactical practice of the FTC, referenced in the industry as “trial by ambush,” in which the FTC filed for a temporary restraining order and asset freeze at commencement of suit…leaving a company without any funds to defend itself….another issue for another day…) 

My Way or the Highway…Bending the Arc of Direct Selling History

Her new theory of legitimate (vs. pyramid) direct selling was premised on a percentage analysis of non-participant consumption (perhaps mandating as high as two-thirds requirement to meet the FTC’s new standards), i.e., that the acid test for pyramid was demonstration of consumption by non-participants rather than the 40 year case standard established in the famous Koscot case, demonstration of consumption by the “ultimate user,” which could be either a non-participant or a participant….in one “fell swoop” distributors who used product became “second class” ultimate users and direct selling companies were on notice that their model, one that long recognized personal use and one that the FTC as late as its 2004 Advisory opinion recognizing personal use, was in jeopardy.

Almost by fiat, she announced proposed upcoming FTC guidance (as of 2017, not yet issued) that would require complete overhaul of the model of many leading direct selling companies: 

(1)       She renounced use of the famous Amway Safeguard Standard, adopted in the landmark FTC case, In re Amway, 1979 as being irrelevant, overrated and not really relied on by courts in pyramid cases.

(2)       She redefined the famous Koscot standard to require compensation to upline to be based on sales to the nonparticipant retailer customer rather than the Koscot’s language, ultimate user, effectively making distributors “second class” “ultimate users.”

(3)       She pivoted away from a legal analysis in the most recent BurnLounge case, which demanded, in pyramid cases, a factual analysis of the “primary motivation” test in which a court asks “what is the primary motivation for distributors when they make purchases”…instead migrating to a punch list of operating restrictions imposed on Herbalife in its recent settlement.

(4)       She essentially described a new legal standard, the percentages test, an arbitrary new rule in which upline distributors were limited to receive commission credit for only one-third of sales volume attributed to personal use by downline distributors, whether or not such purchases were reasonable in quantity and for actual use by the distributor “ultimate user.”

(5)       She announced that a long time practice of almost all leading direct selling companies, autoship to distributors, should be prohibited.

(6)       She pivoted away from a well-established component of leading direct selling programs, stating that monthly activity volume requirements may not include any purchases by distributors.

(7)       She asserted that the long time practice of established direct selling companies, tracking of performance activity connected to wholesale purchasing should be banned.

In the absence of “inventory loading,” almost all of the new restrictions on long standing industry “practices” had never been of particular concern in 40 years of cases or robust legislation at the state level.

All in all, a Molotov cocktail was thrown into the garden of direct selling occupied by icons like Avon, Mary Kay, Amway, etc.

Confusion Gives Birth to H.R. 3409? … Time for Clarity 

Nature abhors a vacuum…

Markets abhor uncertainty…

It was, as if the former Commissioner was talking right past those companies and models that had marshalled an important American economic channel for decades. Actually, right past case history and precedent. 

A $36 billion dollar industry had lived with and understood court guidelines for many decades, but the Chairwoman proposed to upend 40 years of legal precedent to bend the arc of direct selling history.

Did industry leaders feel ambushed? Well, that is a “charged” word…but, yes. Direct Selling executives were rooted in the stability of historical case authority and state legislation respecting the role of personal use and rooting legitimacy in the Koscot standard, rewards must be related to sales to ultimate users (which includes personal use in reasonable amounts by distributors), the Amway standard, which asks companies to mandate that distributors achieve some level of retail sales, adhere to the 70% rule which prohibits reorders unless distributors have resold product or used it for personal use in an amount of at least 70% and offer a reasonable repurchase policy for repurchase of inventory of terminating distributors, and the BurnLounge standard that rejected the FTC argument against recognition of the validity of personal use and opted for a case by case factual analysis of “primary intent” of distributor purchasing rather than a lock step rigid rule.

Was it a wholesale rejection of legal precedent and legislative standards? Probably. Did it veer away from standards carefully formulated in famous case precedents of Koscot, Amway, BurnLounge? Yes. Did it part company with the FTC’s own 2004 Advisory Opinion accepting the validity of “personal use” recognition, all the way to the point of even suggesting that the concept of MLM buying clubs was commendable? With all due respect, Yes. Did the position even conflict with the BurnLounge deposition testimony of the FTC’s own economist, who recognized the validity of personal use? Yes. Did the Commissioner’s position ignore the clear and growing trend in at least a dozen states where legislation called out the recognition of distributor personal use as a valid end destination to the ultimate user? Yes. Again, respectively, this state trend was missed altogether. (Actually, the Direct Selling Association points out that at least 21 states have adopted anti-pyramid legislation that also mirrors the anti-inventory loading/repurchase requirements seen in H.R. 3409.) Whether or not this omission was merely an oversight, who knows?

A close point by point FTC “fact check” is worthy of a read and a cup of coffee:

Fact Checking the FTC’s New Legal Guidance 

Jeffrey Babener, 2016

For those of a more studious nature, check out the detailed analysis on the evolving legal standards in case authority (including Koscot, Amway and BurnLounge) and at the legislative level:

BurnLounge Appeal Decision: Guidance on Pyramid v. Legitimate MLM and the Role of Personal Use in Pyramid Analysis

Jeffrey Babener, 2014

Also see legal analysis of the FTC punch list of operational restrictions arising from the Herbalife settlement:

FTC v. Herbalife: Post-Settlement Legal Guidance for the Direct Selling Industry

Jeffrey Babener, 2016

Anxious is the understatement for the business environment promoted by Chairwoman Ramirez. Her position on legitimacy challenged the models of virtually every direct selling company. And with the foregone expectation that an even greater regulatory regime would inherit the White House in November, 2016, there was an expectation of “but wait there’s more, not less, regulation coming…so live with it.”

And then “poof,” the totally unexpected happened in the November, 2016 election. An anti-regulation President was elected with the opportunity to nominate a new majority of the FTC; the designated head of a “deregulation” task force was named, the largest shareholder of one of America’s leading direct selling companies; and within months of the election, the term of FTC Commissioner Ramirez came to an end.

And thus uncertainty replaced anxiety in the direct selling industry…which brings us to the legal and business rationale for pending H.R. 3409, denominated the Anti-Pyramid Promotional Scheme Act of 2017for the first time in history, proposed federal anti-pyramid legislation:

Two Different Views of H.R. 3409…the Next Challenge

Can you hear me now?...the Verizon guy…

Pending before Congress is H.R. 3409, a bi-partisan bill entitled the Anti-Pyramid Promotional Scheme Act of 2017

It is the first of its kind at the federal level. Interestingly, anti-pyramid statutes have been enacted in almost all states for half a century, and specific anti-pyramid laws that are almost identical to proposed H.R. 3409 have provided guidance for more than 20 years in more than a dozen states.

However, no federal anti-pyramid statute has ever appeared on the books. The FTC Act Section 5 broadly prevents “unfair or deceptive practices,” and yet it has been the principal vehicle for anti-pyramid enforcement other than the SEC and U.S. Department of Justice, whose mandate is to prosecute fraud, securities fraud and securities violations.

The stated purpose of H.R. 3409: To amend the Federal Trade Commission Act to prohibit pyramid promotional schemes and to ensure that compensation is not based upon recruitment of participants into a plan or operation, but on sales to individuals who use and consume the products or services sold, and for other purposes.

Now, does that sound any more controversial than the “mother and children protection act of _____.” Well, guess again. Opponents of H.R. 3409 see a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They see it as a bill that seems innocuous on its face, but that is really intended to rob the FTC of its flexibility to chase after any pyramid scoundrel by actually defining the parameters of a pyramid rather than allowing the FTC to employ a vague statute, without specificity, to chase after direct selling businesses with assertions that their practices are “deceptive and unfair.” In other less democratic countries, critics refer to such styles of governance as “a government of ‘men’ as opposed to a government of ‘laws.’”

The bipartisan sponsors of H.R. 3409 and the direct selling industry, led by the Direct Selling Association, assert that the legislation is anything but “flim flam.” And quite honestly, a close look at H.R. 3409 does make it difficult to believe that it is anything other than robust consumer protection legislation...and that the “boogey man” is not hiding around the bend, ready to pounce on the innocent consumer. In fact, H.R. 3409 comes down like a sledge hammer on scams and schemes:

(1)       It condemns inventory loading;

(2)       It calls out as evil pyramid headhunting recruitment schemes;

(3)       It forbids payment of commissions or rewards that are unrelated or not based on sale of products and services to the “ultimate consumer;”

(4)       It absolutely rejects programs in which distributor product purchases are made in unreasonable amounts, either for resale or actual personal and family use;

(5)       And it demands, as a condition of legitimacy that companies adopt a repurchase policy in which terminating distributors will be refunded for returned product inventory, in resalable condition, that has been purchased within 12 months of termination.

If there is any new concession to the industry, it is that, in the course of protecting the consumer, H.R. 3409 also codifies case authority and state legislation in recognizing the legitimacy of reasonable personal use by distributors as being a sale to an “ultimate user.”

And there lies the rub…the parties are talking past each other…and in the words of Larry David’s grandmother...everyone is farmisht (confused as to what is the state of the law for legitimate direct selling). It is difficult to imagine that anyone could cogently argue that “uncertainty” is a good thing for a 50 year old channel of distribution in the U.S. H.R. 3409, at the very least, provides a good starting template for input from all groups of good will, consumer groups, the FTC, Congress, the States and the direct selling industry. Perhaps, even the President, who has served as a spokesperson for at least two MLM companies, will place this issue on the Executive Branch anti-regulation task force agenda. 

Why H.R. 3409? … Just One More Reason…Time for Clarity and Certainty in the Markets

It is hard to stand on shifting sands.

In the absence of some definitive resolution, the collision of the Ramirez FTC paradigm and the half century model of direct selling and 40 years of federal case authority and state legislative authority produces nothing but operational paralysis for a $36 billion industry and its 20 million participants.

Proponents and opponents of H.R. 3409 may debate ad infinitum on the goals of protecting the consumer or protecting the rights of direct selling distributors. But, a very clear unenunciated reason for passage of H.R. 3409 is that the overreaching positions of the FTC have created total uncertainty in the marketplace, and H.R. 3409 brings clarity and synchronicity to actual case authority and a clear federal standard that allows “business to be business” again. H.R. 3409 bursts the bubble of confusion.

Jeffrey A. Babener is the principal attorney in the law firm of Babener & Associates. For more than 30 years, he has advised leading U.S. and foreign companies in the direct selling industry. He has lectured and published extensively on direct selling. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, where he was an editor of the USC Law Review, followed by an appointment as a law clerk to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. He is an active member of the State Bars of California and Oregon. 

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