Followup: The Company That Took The FTC To Court

Readers who watched the Cato forum last November on prosecutorial fallibility and accountability, or my coverage at Overlawyered, may recall the story of how a Federal Trade Commission enforcement action devastated a thriving company, LabMD, following a push from a spurned vendor. Company founder and president Mike Daugherty, who took part on the Cato panel, wrote a book about the episode entitled The Devil Inside the Beltway: The Shocking Exposé of the U.S. Government’s Surveillance and Overreach into Cybersecurity, Medicine and Small Business.

Last month two separate federal appeals courts issued rulings offering, when combined, some consolation for Daugherty and his now-shuttered company. True, a panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, finding qualified immunity, disallowed the company’s claims that FTC staffers had violated its constitutional rights by acting in conscious retaliation for its criticism of the agency. On the other hand, an Eleventh Circuit panel sided with the company and (quoting TechFreedom) “decisively rejected the FTC’s use of broad, vague consent decrees, ruling that the Commission may only bar specific practices, and cannot require a company ‘to overhaul and replace its data-security program to meet an indeterminable standard of reasonableness.’” [More on the ruling here and here]

As usual, John Kenneth Ross’s coverage at the Institute for Justice’s Short Circuit newsletter is worth reading, both descriptions appearing in the same roundup since they were decided in such quick succession:

Allegation: Days after LabMD, a cancer-screening lab, publicly criticized the FTC’s yearslong investigation into a 2008 data breach at the lab, FTC staff recommend prosecuting the lab. Two staffers falsely represent to their superiors that sensitive patient data spread across the internet. (It hadn’t.) The FTC prosecutes; the lab lays off all workers and ceases operations. District court: Could be the staffers were unconstitutionally retaliating for the criticism. D.C. Circuit: Reversed. Qualified immunity. (Click here for some long-form journalism on the case.)…

Contrary to company policy, a billing manager at LabMD—a cancer-screening lab—installs music-sharing application on her work computer; a file containing patient data gets included in the music-sharing folder. In 2008 a cybersecurity firm finds it and tells LabMD the file has spread across the internet. (Which is false.) When LabMD declines to hire the cybersecurity firm, the firm reports the breach to the FTC, which prosecutes the case before its own FTC judge. LabMD does not settle; the expense of fighting forces the company to shutter. The FTC orders LabMD to adopt “reasonably designed” cybersecurity measures. Eleventh Circuit: The FTC’s vague order is unenforceable because it doesn’t tell LabMD how to improve its cybersecurity.

Our friend Berin Szóka of TechFreedom sums it up: “The court could hardly have been more clear: the FTC has been acting unlawfully for well over a decade.” He continues by calling this “a true David and Goliath story”:

Well over sixty companies, many of them America’s biggest corporations, have simply rolled over when the FTC threatened to sue them [over data security practices]. … Only Mike Daugherty, the entrepreneur who started and ran LabMD, had the temerity to see this case through all the way to a federal court. …After losing his business and a decade of his life, Daugherty is a hero to anyone who’s ever gotten the short end of the regulatory stick.