Opposing Government Retaliation Against Free Speech

Cause of Action Institute Files Amicus Brief in Support of LabMD’s Bivens Claim Against FTC Officials

Cause of Action Institute filed an amicus curiae brief (“Brief”) in Michael Daugherty, et al v. Alain Sheer, et al[1] in support of Appellees Michael Daugherty and LabMD, Inc. in their Bivens lawsuit against certain FTC employees in their individual capacities seeking monetary damages. The Brief argues that the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Act does not displace Bivens or immunize First Amendment retaliation, and that  the misconduct and collusion of individual FTC staff directly infected the investigation and administrative prosecution of LabMD after the company’s CEO spoke out against the agency.

In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, 403 U.S.C 388 (1971), the Supreme Court first recognized an implied private action, directly under the Constitution, for damages against federal officials alleged to have violated a citizen’s constitutional rights.

As our Brief argues, Appellees’ complaint “alleges a straightforward First Amendment retaliation claim actionable under Bivens: LabMD’s CEO, Michael Daugherty, publicly criticized the Defendants’ abusive investigation of LabMD. In response, Defendants retaliated by ramping up the investigation to harm LabMD; bamboozling the Commission into authorizing an administrative prosecution based on false pretenses and stolen files; and then continuing to retaliate against LabMD throughout the enforcement action (including by subpoenaing its CEO’s book drafts and allegedly importuning the creation of false evidence for use against LabMD).”

Importantly, the Brief continues, “Defendants’ conduct led to the destruction of LabMD, formerly a thriving cancer-detection business supporting numerous jobs. That is a plausible Bivens claim. Therefore, Appellees should be entitled to discovery and the opportunity to make their case on the merits.”

Cause of Action Institute adamantly opposes any administrative action that exceeds Constitutional bounds. As the Brief states, “[i]t is never permissible for federal law enforcement to retaliate against citizens or businesses for exercising their First Amendment rights, no matter how vigorously law enforcement may disagree with or is offended by the speaker’s message.”

In March, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia partially rejected Defendants’ motion to dismiss. As Judge Tanya Chutkan wrote, “[i]n the court’s view, Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights to criticize the actions of the federal government without fear of government retaliation are as clearly established as can be, and a serious escalation of an agency’s investigation or enforcement against Plaintiffs for publicly criticizing the agency would appear to violate that clearly established constitutional right.”[2]

In July, the FTC issued a final rule permitting indemnification of FTC employees in certain circumstances for claims made against them as a result of actions taken by them in the scope of their employment.[3] This general statement of policy relating to FTC management and personnel was published without the opportunity for public notice and comment, pursuant to the Administrative Procedure Act. As the agency stated, “[t]his policy is applicable to actions pending against FTC employees as of its effective date, as well as to actions commenced after that date.”[4] According to Bloomberg Law, the “FTC didn’t mention the LabMD case when it rolled out its new liability protection policy, but Daugherty said he believes there’s an obvious connection. ‘We’re hard pressed to believe this isn’t about us,’ he said.”[5]

Nichole Wilson is strategy officer at Cause of Action Institute.

[1] 17-5128 Michael Daugherty, et al v. Alain Sheer, et al (1:15-cv-02034-TSC)

[2] https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/district-of-columbia/dcdce/1:2015cv02034/175313/24/

[3] “Indemnification of Federal Trade Commission Employees,” July 5, 2017; Federal Register Number: 2017-14008 https://www.regulations.gov/document?D=FTC-2017-0049-0001

[4] Id.

[5] Bloomberg Law, “FTC Tackles ‘Intimidating’ Threat of Lawsuits Against Staff,” Alexei Alexis, July 12, 2017 https://biglawbusiness.com/ftc-tackles-intimidating-threat-of-lawsuits-against-staff/