Yet Another Artificial "Natural" Class Action Shot Down in the Food Court

A federal court has found numerous issues precluding class certification of three proposed class actions challenging the labels of defendant's food products.  See Jones  v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. 12-01633 (N.D. Cal. 6/13/14).

This was a putative consumer class action about allegedly deceptive and misleading labels on three types of food products. The court acknowledged that the Northern District has seen a flood of such cases in recent years.  Plaintiffs have challenged, with limited degrees of success, marketing claims on everything from iced tea to nutrition bars. Plaintiffs here moved to certify three separate classes under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(2) and 23(b)(3)–one for each type of food product at issue. The complaint, as is typical, alleged (1) unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business acts and practices in violation of California Business and Professions Code section 17200 (“UCL”), (2) misleading, deceptive, and untrue advertising in violation of California Business and Professions Code section 17500 (“FAL”), (3) violations of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), and (4) restitution based on unjust enrichment.  Also, as typical, the claims centered on marketing about "natural" - "100% Natural" and a "natural source" of antioxidants. 

Lengthy and comprehensive opinion. Let's focus on just some of the key arguments. Although there is no explicit ascertainability requirement in Rule 23, courts have routinely required plaintiffs to demonstrate ascertainability as part of Rule 23(a). See, e.g., Astiana v. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., 2014 WL 60097, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2014) (“apart from the explicit requirements of Rule 23, the party seeking class certification must also demonstrate that an identifiable and ascertainable class exists.”). A class is not ascertainable unless membership can be established by means of objective, verifiable criteria. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 787 F. Supp. 2d 1075, 1088-90 (N.D. Cal. 2011).  Without an objective, reliable way to ascertain class membership, the class quickly would become unmanageable, and the preclusive effect of final judgment would be easy to evade.  Id. at 1089.  While there are a few outliers, multiple courts have concluded that the ascertainability requirement cannot be met in the context of low-cost consumer purchases that customers would have no reliable way of remembering. See, e.g., In re POM Wonderful LLC, 2014 WL 1225184, at *6 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2014) (unascertainable because “[f]ew, if any, consumers are likely to have retained receipts during the class period” and “there is no way to reliably determine who purchased Defendant’s [juice] products or when they did so.”); Red v. Kraft Foods, Inc., 2012 WL 8019257, at *5 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2012) (finding unascertainable a proposed class of purchasers of various cracker and cookie products marketed as healthy despite including partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and other unhealthy ingredients); Hodes v. Van’s Int’l Foods, 2009 WL 2424214, at *4 (C.D. Cal. July 23, 2009).

Even assuming that all proposed class members would be honest, the court found it hard to imagine that they would be able to remember which particular products they purchased from 2008 to the present, and whether those products bore the challenged label statements. As defendant pointed out with the Hunt's class, there were “literally dozens of varieties with different can sizes, ingredients, and labeling over time” and “some Hunt’s cans included the challenged language, while others included no such language at all.”  The court also noted a concern that the defendant would be forced to accept class members estimates without the benefit of cross-examination; this was not a case in which the consumers were likely to have retained receipts or where the defendant would have access to a master list of consumers.

Second, there was a standing issue. California courts require plaintiffs who are seeking injunctive relief under these claims -- a change in defendant's sales practices -- to express an intent to purchase the products in the future. See, e.g., Rahman v. Mott’s LLP, 2014 WL 325241, at *10 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 29, 2014) (“to establish standing [for injunctive relief], plaintiff must allege that he intends to purchase the products at issue in the future”); Jou v. Kimberly-Clark Inc., No. 13-3075, 2013 WL 6491158, at *4 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 10, 2013) (“[b]ecause Plaintiffs fail to identify any allegation in their
Complaint that suggests that they maintain an interest in purchasing the diapers or wipes, or
both, in the future, Plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged standing to pursue injunctive relief").

Here, plaintiffs could point to no evidence that the class reps intended to buy the specific products again. Some still had leftover product and had not used them at all since the litigation was filed. Without any evidence that plaintiffs planned to buy such products in the future, they did not have standing to bring an injunctive class. 

Turning to the damages classes, the court found additional problems. Here, there was a lack of cohesion among the class members, both because consumers were exposed to label statements that varied by can size, variety, and time period (and the challenged ingredients also differed), but more importantly because even if the challenged statements were facially uniform, consumers’
understanding of those representations would not be. Plaintiff's' expert did not explain how the challenged statements, together or alone, were a factor in any consumer’s purchasing decisions. She did not survey any customers to assess whether the challenged statements were in fact material to their purchases, as opposed to, or in addition to, price, promotions, retail positioning, taste, texture, or brand recognition. The expert acknowledged in her deposition that some
customers have never noted the “natural claim,” some have never looked at the ingredients list, some would buy a product regardless of whether the product says “natural,” and some do not care about labeling statements.

This rather startling admission might have something to do with the fact that there is no single, controlling definition of the word “natural.” See Pelayo v. Nestle USA, Inc., 2013 WL 5764644, at *4-5 (C.D. Cal. 2013) (discussing lack of a common understanding of the term “all natural” that is shared by reasonable consumers). It is undisputed that the FDA has not defined the word “natural.” See Lockwood v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., 597 F. Supp. 2d 1028, 1034 (N.D. Cal. 2009). Moreover, it was not clear that the challenged ingredients here are not “natural.”

Here, there are numerous reasons why a customer might buy the products, such as Hunt’s tomatoes, and there was a lack of evidence demonstrating the impact of the challenged label statements. Accordingly, Plaintiffs lacked common proof of materiality.

Multiple courts have refused to certify classes where such individual purchasing inquiries predominated, and the court was not convinced that the common questions would predominate over the individual questions. Who purchased what, when during the relevant class period, which kind of products they purchased, how many they purchased, and whether the kinds they purchased contained the alleged false nutritional information. Whether this is viewed as a predominance question, an ascertainability question, or a manageability question, it was clear that the defendant had no way to determine who the purchasers of its products are, i.e., the identity of class members. And thus it was true that individualized purchasing inquiries will be required to determine how many and which kind of products each class member bought.

Finally, In Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1433-34 (2013), the Supreme Court
held that in order to satisfy the predominance inquiry, plaintiff must also present a model that
(1) identifies damages that stem from the defendant’s alleged wrongdoing and (2) is
“susceptible of measurement across the entire class.” 133 S.Ct. at 1433-34. “At class certification, plaintiff must present a likely method for determining class damages, though it is not necessary to show that his method will work with certainty at this time.” Chavez, 268 F.R.D. at 379.  Here plaintiffs' first theory called for return of the purchase price. That method did not account for the value class members received from the products, and so it was incorrect. The products were not
“economically worthless.”  In the alternative, plaintiffs proposed calculating damages via a benefit-of-the-bargain analysis.  But their expert failed to identify a comparator product in order to calculate the alleged percentage of overpayment.  

For a variety of good reasons, certification denied.

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