Illinois attorney general taking increasing consumer-activism role

By Jon Campisi | Sep 14, 2017

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has, for much of her career as the state’s top law enforcer, put a strong focus on consumer protection and related activities.

As a tried-and-true consumer activist, Madigan, in office since 2003, joins the ranks of her fellow attorneys general across the country in what is a trend toward more consumer-protection actions, which some legal experts attribute to a de-emphasis on the regulatory state since President Donald Trump took office.

In May, the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Madigan, after being elected, “quietly refocused her mission: heavy on consumer advocacy, easy on corruption-busting,” despite the fact that she was swept into office alongside dozens of reform-minded legislators on promises that they would “clean house” following public disgust over ethics and corruption violations within the state government.

A review of news releases from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office since the beginning of the year indicate that Madigan has held true to this mission, announcing settlements stemming from a number of consumer-related actions, including financial, environmental and product-safety issues.

Lisa Madigan  

Madigan doesn’t seem to be alone in her emphasis on consumer protection; in an August piece for the online publication The Recorder, attorney Daniel Suvor wrote that in recent months there has been a “steady drumbeat of news from state capitals across the country as state attorneys general take on an ever-increasing role in consumer protection.”

Suvor noted the increase in the formation of multistate committees that investigate and punish wrongdoing in the realm of consumer protection that now seems to be commonplace. 

He says the catalyst for this is likely the recent shift in federal regulatory priorities under the Trump administration.

“Under the new administration, formerly active federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission have signaled that they intend to ease enforcement, making way for state attorneys general to take the lead,” Suvor wrote.

Suvor also pointed to the Dodd-Frank Act, which gave state attorneys general the ability to enforce regulations that come from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Illinois lawyer Thomas Zimmerman Jr., who has focused much of his career on consumer-protection law, agreed that the increase in enforcement activities at the state level can be directly attributed to the rolling back of regulations at the federal level under the Trump administration.

Zimmerman said state attorneys general are filling the void by increasing their enforcement activities, and private attorneys are also getting involved by filing more class-action lawsuits.

He was among plaintiff lawyers pursuing a class action at federal court in Chicago against Subway claiming foot-long sandwiches were really only 11-inches long. An appeals court rejected a proposed settlement last month, calling it a racket that lined plaintiff lawyers' pockets but did little else.

“We as private attorneys are [bringing] class action lawsuits to try to obtain recovery for any financial harm that’s been caused by the company who is violating the regulation but also try to seek to change the company’s behavior so that they comply with the laws and the regulations,” Zimmerman told the Record.  

Zimmerman, who has been practicing class-action litigation for more than 20 years, said there is an increase in consumer-protection enforcement activities by state attorneys general from time to time if there is a particular area of the law that is being violated in greater frequency than usual, but nothing seems to be comparable to what is going on in the current climate.

“Now, it’s different,” Zimmerman said. “It’s more to fill a void that has been created by a lack of enforcement by the current administration.”

On the East Coast, freshman Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced in July the formation of a Consumer Financial Protection Unit in his office, the purpose of which is to better protect consumers from financial scams, according to a news release.

Shapiro appointed Nicholas Smyth as assistant director of the Office of Attorney General’s Bureau of Consumer Protection.

Smyth helped to create the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Shapiro said that his office would put much focus on lenders who “prey” on seniors, families with students, and military service members, including for-profit colleges and mortgage and student loan servicers. 

“Protecting the public from financial scams is a key priority of mine, and Nick Smyth will help us expand our capacity to bring complex cases against financial companies that try to rip off Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said in a news release.

The release said that Shapiro recently filed a lawsuit over plans by US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to roll back a critical student-lending rule and that his office also banded with fellow attorneys general in urging the Federal Communications Commission to allow telephone companies to block illegal robo-calls.

Like Madigan, Illinois' attorney general, Shapiro was also elected to office amid a corruption scandal.

His predecessor, Kathleen Kane, was convicted on corruption charges, getting sentenced last year to 10 to 23 months in prison stemming from a case in which she illegally leaked grand jury information in an attempt to discredit a critic and then lied about it to another grand jury.  

As Pennsylvania’s first elected female democratic attorney general, Kane was seen as a rising star, but her career ended toward the close of her first term after her conviction and subsequently was sent to state prison.  

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