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EPA Increases FIFRA Maximum Civil Penalty Amount

On January 10, 2018, the U.S. EPA raised the maximum civil penalty to $19,446 per violation of the federal pesticide law, the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). 83 Fed. Reg. 1190 (Jan. 10, 2018). This is EPA's third increase to the FIFRA maximum penalty limit in less than two years, marking a more than 250% increase from 2016 levels. Periodic increases are required by the 2015 amendments to the Federal Civil Penalties Inflation Adjustment Act and are applied to each statute EPA administers. The annual increases are intended to keep the maximum civil penalty amounts, originally enacted long ago, in step with today's dollars.

The FIFRA maximum per violation civil penalty varies depending on when the violation occurred and when the penalties were assessed: 

Maximum Per Violation Civil Penalties Under FIFRA 7 U.S.C. § 136 l (a)(1).

If violation occurred between...

or penalties were assessed...

Maximum Penalty is...

Dec. 7, 2013 - Nov. 2, 2015

before Aug. 1, 2016


If violation occurred...

and penalties were assessed...

Maximum Penalty is...

After Nov. 2, 2015

Aug. 1, 2016 - Jan. 14, 2017


Jan. 15, 2017 - Jan. 14, 2018


after Jan. 15, 2018


High Penalty Amounts Pose a Significant Risk

FIFRA violations involving the distribution or sale of a product (e.g., misbranded labeling), are assessed by the number of transfers or shipments, going back as much as five years. Violations involving retail products with high volumes of individual consumer purchases, at the maximum penalty of $19,446 per violation, can quickly reach mythological proportions. For example, 1,000 individual sales of one problematic product in one year, in theory, would result in a potential maximum civil penalty under the rules of more than $19 million.

In practice, EPA applies discretion in using its penalty authority and follows the 2009 FIFRA Enforcement Response Policy (ERP), which serves as a guide for EPA staff and attorneys when determining the appropriate penalty amount to seek from an alleged violator. The ERP uses a formulaic method that weighs several relevant factors to determine the appropriate per-violation penalty, including size of business, the culpability of the violator, the gravity of the violation, and the extent of actual or potential harm. In addition to these adjustment factors, the policy also provides for a "graduated" penalty calculation that incrementally reduces the applicable penalty per violation on a "per product violation" basis. EPA will also consider whether the penalty sought exceeds the violator's ability to continue in business.

Despite the various adjustment opportunities under the ERP, potential penalties can still reach very significant sums. For instance, for 1,000 sales (violations), even if given the ERP's maximum 60% downward gravity adjustment, the initial penalty amount would still be more than $7.5 million. However, the adjusted penalty generated by the ERP is merely the number EPA would assert in a civil or administrative complaint, and often serves as a starting point for settlement negotiations. Penalties may be reduced even further during negotiations, which, in some cases, may entail up to an additional 40% in reductions for showings of good faith or special circumstances. EPA also has discretion in choosing the number of violations to assess, which can dramatically affect the outcome.

The significant increase in potential FIFRA penalties makes it more important than ever to assure FIFRA compliance. Registrants should build FIFRA compliance procedures and management tools into their business processes, taking into account their internal operations but also the actions of their supplemental distributors (i.e., subregistrants), for which registrants are held jointly and severely liable under FIFRA. Supplemental distributors and retailers have independent duties as well, and are vulnerable to compliance errors and enforcement if they are not familiar with FIFRA obligations. There are ways to reduce compliance risks, such as regular internal compliance audits, and taking advantage of the significant penalty relief allowed under EPA's Audit Policy, which requires, among other things, the prompt self-disclosure of violations to EPA that were independently discovered and corrected by the auditor. Distributors and retailers that have planned ahead also can rely on the safe harbor of a FIFRA § 12(b)(1) guarantee obtained from the registrant, which provides enforcement indemnity against any claim that a product is not properly registered under FIFRA.

© 2020 Keller and Heckman LLP


About this Author

Michael Novak, Keller Heckman Law Firm, Environmental and Business Law Attorney

Michael Novak practices environmental and business law for chemical manufacturers and other clients, including agricultural, antimicrobial, and biochemical pesticide producers. His practice focuses on the regulation of pesticides and other chemicals under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA); the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA); TSCA; EPCRA; and other federal and state regulatory programs.

Mr. Novak has expertise in pesticide regulatory issues associated with product registration, including the registration...

votaw, KH, portrait

James Votaw has an extensive practice focusing on environmental and health and safety regulation.Within that arena, he concentrates on the regulation of conventional and nanoscale chemicals, pesticides, consumer and industrial products, and industrial processes and wastes.

For his clients, Mr. Votaw obtains pre-market product approvals and exemptions, including the first U.S. approval of a nanoscale pesticide. He negotiates testing orders, defends enforcement actions, advises on restrictions and disclosures associated with the chemical content of products, counsels on release and other environmental reporting, and supports environmental regulatory and liability aspects of commercial transactions (including, but not limited to regulatory due diligence and private label distribution arrangements).Further, he participates in technical rulemaking proceedings, provides strategic and regulatory compliance counseling within existing and emerging industries, initiates compliance training, conducts internal investigations, performs compliance auditing, offers facility permitting services and develops product compliance plans and systems.