Government enforcers often work together in the U.S., including on consumer protection matters. Attorneys general have a history of collaboration with each other and with the federal government. Furthermore, the federal government realizes the benefit of authorizing attorneys general to enforce many federal consumer laws, because the federal government also has limited resources and attorneys general are closest to affected communities in their states.
Circumstances often present when attorneys general successfully collaborate with each other and with other government enforcers include:
- There is an important problem that is a priority for the parties and is appropriate for collective enforcement.
- The action will, to the extent possible, further the development of the law in a specific area of importance to the parties.
- The parties will be advantaged by acting collectively, will be able to draw upon their collective resources to address the breadth or magnitude of the problem, and will be able to ensure consistent enforcement or standards across jurisdictional lines.
- The joint action will avoid unnecessary duplication of effort or avoid subjecting a business or entity to redundant and/or inconsistent investigations and/or litigation.
- The joint action is the most efficient and effective means of resolving a matter.
- The joint action may allow consumers to benefit from injunctive or other relief that may otherwise be unavailable.
- A joint action will ensure a level playing field on a regional, national, or global basis for legitimate business practices.
- Other parties or the targets/defendants request involvement of the parties in a combined or global fashion to resolve all claims related to an issue at the same time.
The Relationship Between Attorneys General
Attorneys general often work together through working groups, joint investigations, settlement discussions, and litigation concerning a particular entity, business, industry, or business practice. Depending upon the scope of the practice, attorneys general may form multistate enforcement groups that include only a few states or almost every state.
In multistate matters, where many attorneys general work together, efficiencies can be even greater as resources are shared and injunctive terms can be applicable throughout all of the jurisdictions in which they were obtained/agreed to.
Collaboration among attorneys general from 2018 to 2020 led to numerous multistate settlements based on alleged violations of state consumer protection laws, including settlements with the following entities:
- Equifax Inc.
- Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V., its U.S. subsidiary FCA US, LLC, its Italian affiliate V.M. Motori S.p.A. and V.M. North America, Inc.
- Johnson & Johnson and Ethicon, Inc.
- Neiman Marcus Group, LLC
- Robert Bosch GmbH and Robert Bosch LLC
- Santander Consumer USA Inc.
- Uber Technologies, Inc.
- Wells Fargo & Company, acting for Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. and their current and former parents
Note that because attorneys general have their own sovereign power, settlements are typically filed by each participating attorney general in their own state’s courts (if their state law requires such a filing for the settlement to be valid), and do not typically all file together in the same court except when there is a reason to be in federal court such as when the attorneys general are enforcing a federal law. For example, if 40 attorneys general settle with a company, there are 40 different settlement agreements. This requires extensive collaboration by attorneys general and by opposing counsel.
Another way attorneys general often collaborate is by using the “power of the pen”, banding together to write letters or comments that are policy-oriented documents sent to members of Congress (federal), congressional committees or federal agencies expressing the viewpoint of the attorneys general signatories, including on consumer protection issues.
The Relationship of Federal Laws and Agencies to State Attorneys General
The federal government has expanded attorneys’ general enforcement authority by passing federal statutes that grant the state attorneys general power to enforce federal law:
- The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act significantly changed the American financial regulatory environment and granted attorneys general substantial authority to enforce the Act’s substantive provisions.
- The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) imposes certain requirements on operators of websites or online services that collect personal information of children under 13. COPPA authorizes attorneys general to bring a civil action on behalf of the residents of their state in a district court of the U.S. when the attorney general has reason to believe that COPPA has been violated.
In addition to Dodd-Frank and COPPA, there are several federal consumer laws that authorize dual enforcement by both the federal government and the attorneys general.
Attorneys general also routinely work collaboratively with federal agency partners to protect and educate consumers. This collaboration includes joint investigations, enforcement actions, and creating educational materials to help members of the public be more informed consumers. While the attorneys general work with many federal agencies who have responsibilities related to consumer protection matters, some of the most frequent include:
- The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)
- The U.S. Department of Justice Consumer Protection Branch
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
Neither the state or federal government nor private industry can alone provide consumers the protections they need. All agencies and most importantly, America’s consumers, benefit when state and federal agencies work together.