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December 2007 Archives

New State Laws for 2008

Just in time for the new year, new state laws are set to take effect. According to, at least 31 states will begin enforcing new laws on January 1, 2008. The National Conference of State Legislatures has compiled a list of key state laws new for 2008, organized by topic. A few highlights: A new Arizona law punishes employers who willfully hire illegal immigrants. In California, drivers are now prohibited from smoking with children in the car. In Georgia, divorcing parents should be aware of new child custody laws. In New Jersey, Governor Richard J. Codey has signed legislation requiring HIV testing for pregnant women and newborns. Property owners in New York should see property tax relief in the new year. These are just some of the new state laws set to take effect now or on January 1, 2008.

EEOC Ruling on Retiree Benefits and Medicare

A ruling by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows employers to reduce health benefits for employees over the age of 65 who are receiving (or are qualified to receive) Medicare benefits. The EEOC states that the rule was necessary in light of a 2000 federal appeals court decision which declared that if an employer provides retiree health benefits, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act requires that the health insurance benefits received by Medicare-eligible retirees be the same -- or cost the same -- as the health insurance benefits received by younger retirees. The new rule went into effect on December 26, 2007.

EPA Rejects California Emissions Proposal; State to Sue

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rejected California's effort to impose tighter vehicle emissions standards, in part because of new federal legislation aimed at raising vehicle fuel economy standards and reducing energy consumption. The San Jose Mercury News reports that "the Bush administration said the new energy bill signed Wednesday, with its increase in fuel economy and renewable fuels, does enough for now. . . But [California] officials say that comparison ignores a key difference that the courts have defended this year: The California standard goes beyond fuel economy, and is designed to reduce global warming." On Thursday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the state would sue the EPA over its decision. The Los Angeles Times reports that EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson's decision to reject California's proposal was in contradiction with his own staff's written findings and conclusions.

Bush Signs Alternative Minimum Tax Relief Law

President Bush has signed into law a bill providing relief from the alternative minimum tax (AMT) for many middle-income households. Reuters reports that the AMT "was enacted in 1969 to make sure rich people did not take advantage of so many breaks that they paid no income tax. But more middle class people have been exposed to the AMT as their incomes have risen with inflation." Reuters also states that the AMT tax relief "will ensure that most families earning less than $150,000 a year will not pay the tax. If Congress had failed to enact relief, families making $67,000 could have been subject to the tax." According to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the AMT is a separately figured tax that eliminates many deductions and credits, thus increasing tax liability for an individual who would otherwise pay less tax.

Bush Signs Fuel Efficiency, Energy Bill

President Bush has signed into law a bill that will raise vehicle fuel economy standards and require an increase in ethanol use by fuel suppliers. In signing the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, Bush called the legislation "a major step forward in expanding the production of renewable fuels, reducing our dependence on oil, and confronting global climate change." Some highlights of the bill include setting of the national fuel economy standard for cars and trucks at 35 miles per gallon by 2020 (which will increase fuel economy standards by 40 percent and save billions of gallons of fuel), and increasing the supply of alternative fuel sources by requiring fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of ethanol in 2022. The Associated Press reports that the bill also "requires improved efficiency standards for lighting, commercial and government buildings, and appliances such as refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers," including a 70 percent increase in light bulb efficiency.

Fed Proposes Mortgage Protections

The Federal Reserve Board has voted for a proposal that would amend Truth in Lending regulations to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive home mortgage lending and advertising practices. The proposal was approved by a 5-0 vote and is intended for implementation under the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act (HOEPA). Under the proposal, creditors would be prohibited from extending credit without considering the borrower's ability to repay the loan, and would be required to verify borrowers' income and assets before making the loan. The plan also limits prepayment penalties for homeowners who pay their loans off early. The Associated Press reports that the Fed's new proposals "are geared to providing safeguards to the riskiest 'subprime' borrowers, already painfully stung by the housing and credit debacles."

New Jersey Ends Death Penalty

New Jersey today became the first state to ban the death penalty in over 40 years, when Governor Jon Corzine signed a bill that commutes all death sentences in the state to sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole. In announcing the signing of the bill, Governor Corzine declared that Monday was "a momentous day -- a day of progress -- for the State of New Jersey and for the millions of people across our nation and around the globe who reject the death penalty as a moral or practical response to the grievous, even heinous, crime of murder." The Associated Press reports that "the bill passed the [state] Legislature largely along party lines, with controlling Democrats supporting the abolition and minority Republicans opposed."

Merck Recalls Children's Vaccine

Merck and Co., Inc. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced a recall of about 1.2 million doses of a children's vaccine. The affected lots of haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine were distributed in the U.S. starting in April 2007, and are being recalled because manufacturer Merck and Co., Inc. cannot assure the sterility of these specific vaccine lots, based on suspected contamination of equipment used in the vaccine's production. A CDC Q&A has detailed information about the recall, including product descriptions, lot numbers, instructions for health care providers, and advice for concerned parents. Reuters reports that the affected vaccine "protects against Hib disease (Haemophilus influenzae type b), which used to be the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children less than 5 years old."

House Extends "Do Not Call" Registration

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to make "Do Not Call" registration permanent, meaning that consumers will not need to renew their participation every five years, as was originally mandated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The "Do Not Call" registry allows Americans to choose whether or not they want to receive telemarketing calls. Once a phone number is added to the registry, after 31 days most telemarketing calls will stop. Both residential and cellular phone numbers can be added to the "Do Not Call" registry.

Congress Seeks Alternative Minimum Tax Reform

Congress is attempting to work out a bill that would eliminate payment of the alternative minimum tax (AMT) by millions of Americans in 2008, according to a report from National Public Radio (NPR). The NPR story states that "if Congress doesn't pass a fix soon, the AMT could hit 20 million more taxpayers than it did last year, and millions of others could have their refunds delayed." Because tax laws give preferential treatment to certain income, and allow special deductions and credits for certain expenses, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) tries to ensure that anyone who benefits from these tax advantages pays at least a minimum amount of tax. The AMT is a separately figured tax that eliminates many deductions and credits, thus increasing tax liability for an individual who would otherwise pay less tax.

Supreme Court Decisions Trigger Drug Sentencing Changes

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday issued two decisions giving federal judges greater discretion in setting sentences for drug offenses under the federal sentencing guidelines.

In Kimbrough v. U.S., recognizing that under federal criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines, a drug trafficker dealing in crack cocaine is subject to the same sentence as a trafficker dealing in 100 times more powder cocaine, the Court declared that a federal district court judge may consider the disparity between the treatment of crack and powder offenses under federal sentencing guidelines, and the judge has discretion to find a sentence under those guidelines "greater than necessary" when sentencing for a cocaine offense. The decision indirectly addressed a race-based disparity in sentencing for crimes involving different forms of cocaine. Reuters reports that "blacks account for about 80 percent of the federal crack cocaine convictions. The guidelines call for lighter prison terms for the sale of powder cocaine, a drug more popular with whites and Hispanics."

In the second case, Gall v. U.S., the Court upheld as reasonable a district court judge's decision to give a 36-month probation sentence to a former college student who had been involved in a conspiracy to distribute "ecstacy" pills, although federal sentencing guidelines advise a 30-37 month prison sentence in such cases.

In the wake of these decisions, the U.S. Sentencing Commission -- the federal agency that establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts -- on Tuesday voted unanimously to give retroactive effect to a recent amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that reduces penalties for crack cocaine offenses.

FDA: Heartburn Drugs Pose No Heart Risk

Two of the most popular prescription heartburn medications on the market do not carry a risk of causing heart problems, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. After completion of a comprehensive review of known safety data for Prilosec and Nexium -- including studies provided by manufacturer AstraZeneca PLC -- the FDA concludes that long-term use of these drugs is not likely to be associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, heart failure, and heart-related sudden death. Prilosec and Nexium are prescribed for treatment of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and other conditions caused by excess stomach acid.

Bush Outlines Mortgage Relief Plan

President Bush today announced a relief plan for as many as 1.2 homeowners who are struggling with adjustable-rate mortgages and in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure. Saying that "in recent years some lenders made loans that borrowers did not understand, and some borrowers took out loans they knew they could not afford," Bush outlined a plan includes a five-year interest rate freeze to qualifying homeowners whose adjustable-rate mortgages are set to increase in 2008 and 2009. Under these adjustable rate mortgages, homeowners typically enjoy low interest rates at the outset, but interest rates increase over the life of the mortgage, raising monthly payments by hundreds of dollars in some cases.

GE Recalls Microwave Combo Ovens Due to Fire Risk

General Electric is recalling about 92,000 built-in combination microwave-conventional wall ovens because a door switch in the microwave oven can overheat and ignite plastic oven components, creating a fire hazard. The affected General Electric built-in combination ovens were sold in department stores from January 2000 to December 2003, under the brand names "GE," "GE Profile," and "Kenmore." The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received 35 reports of property damage attributable to the microwave (upper) oven defect, but reports that the lower conventional oven poses no hazard. A CPSC Press Release contains detailed information about the recalled ovens (including model numbers and photos), repair/rebate options for consumers who purchased the affected ovens, and company contact information.

Holiday Decorating Safety Tips

With millions of Americans decorating their homes in celebration of the holiday season, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is urging families to keep safety in mind when stringing holiday lights, decorating Christmas trees, lighting candles, and using fireplaces in their homes. Check out a CPSC Press Release and Full PDF Brochure from the CPSC, for in-depth safety tips on holiday decorations. CPSC estimates that every year there are more than 14,000 candle-related fires, 200 fires caused by dried-out Christmas trees, and about 10,000 people treated in hospital emergency rooms as a result of falls, cuts, shocks and burns related to holiday decorating.

Study Looks at Trying Juveniles as Adults

A panel of independent health experts appointed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has examined the effectiveness of strengthened laws that require the transfer of criminal defendants under age 18 to the adult justice system. The Task Force on Community Preventive Services, while acknowledging that "the rationale for the transfer of juveniles to the adult justice system is to deter future criminal activity," found that the "transfer policies have generally resulted in increased arrest for subsequent crimes, including violent crime, among juveniles who were transferred compared with those retained in the juvenile justice system." The Task Force report concludes that these transfer policies "do more harm than good."