Another Artificial All Natural Class Action Rejected

We have posted before about the plaintiffs' bar ongoing war on innocuous product labels, especially the popular "natural" claims --seeking to take advantage of consumer protection acts designed for situations in which buyers actually suffer measurable damages.

A recent skirmish in this war involves plaintiff's claims that certain cooking oils were not "all natural." Introduced in 1911, the oils are primarily utilized for baking, frying, marinades, and dressings. Defendant produced nine varieties of oil, all bearing the Crisco name -- four of which were at issue here. Plaintiff proposed a class action, alleging that defendant engaged in false, unfair, deceptive and/or misleading trade practices by misrepresenting to consumers that Crisco oils are "All Natural," when they are, in fact, made allegedly in part from genetically modified plants.  Plaintiff averred that she was damaged by overpaying for a nonexistent product attribute--"All Natural."  

The federal court rejected this proposed class of consumers who allegedly purchased these natural cooking oils. See Randolph v. J.M. Smucker Co., 2014 WL 7330430 (S.D. Fla., 12/23/14).  Our review will focus on ascertainability and predominance.  

The burden of proof to establish the propriety of class certification rests with the advocate of the class. Rutstein v. Avis Rent-A-Car Sys., Inc., 211 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir. 2000). In order for an action to fall under Rule 23, a party must affirmatively demonstrate his compliance with the Rule. Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1432 (2013) (quoting Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011)). It is not sufficient that a party simply plead conformity with the requirements of the Rule; instead, “a party must not only be prepared to prove that there are in fact sufficiently numerous parties, common questions of law or fact, typicality of claims or defenses, and adequacy of representation, as required by Rule 23(a) . . . [t]he party must also satisfy through evidentiary proof at least one of the provisions of Rule 23(b).” Id.  Conclusory statements are insufficient to meet the burden of proof on a motion for class certification). In fact, the Supreme Court has indicated that only after rigorous analysis may certification be granted. See Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432. The trial court can and should consider the merits of the case to the degree necessary to determine whether the requirements of Rule 23 will be satisfied.  Valley Drug Co. v. Geneva Pharm., Inc., 350 F.3d 1181, 1197 (11th Cir. 2003); see also Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1432 (“Repeatedly, we have emphasized that it may be necessary for the court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question . . . .”).

Before establishing the explicit requirements of Rule 23(a), a plaintiff must first establish that the proposed class is “adequately defined and clearly ascertainable.  This threshold issue of “ascertainability” relates in part to whether the putative class can be identified: an identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria. Bussey v. Macon Cnty. Greyhound Park, Inc., 562 F. App’x 782, 787 (11th Cir. 2014).  These “objective criteria” should be “administratively feasible,” meaning that the identification of class members should be “a manageable process that does not require much, if any, individual inquiries.” Id.  The district court must be satisfied that this requirement can be met even before delving into the rigorous analysis of the explicit Rule 23 elements.  If a plaintiff fails to demonstrate that the putative class is clearly ascertainable, then class certification is properly denied. See Walewski v. Zenimax Media, Inc., 502 F. App’x 857, 861 (11th Cir. 2012).   

Defendant contended that plaintiff had not offered a feasible mechanism for determining the purchasers of the Crisco oils containing the offending “All Natural” label. Second, even assuming that plaintiff could identify the oil purchasers, the court would have to make individualized inquiries, specifically, whether the term “All Natural” was a factor in the individual’s purchasing decisions, and how each individual defines the term “natural.” The court was not persuaded by the argument concerning the ability of class members to self-identify as purchasers, mistakenly believing that in challenging administrative feasibility defendant was seeking to require a class-action plaintiff to present proof that the identification of class members would be "next to flawless."  Nevertheless, the court agreed that the facts and circumstances of the instant case presented plaintiffs with substantial difficulties. During the relevant time period, at least nine different Crisco oils frequented retail establishments, but only four of these oils contained the challenged statement. Moreover, the challenged statement was not placed on all four oils uniformly throughout the class period.  Based on these facts, the likelihood that an individual would recall not only which specific kind of oil, but also, when that oil was purchased, complicated identification of the putative class.

This fact pattern reminded the court of Jones v. ConAgra Foods, Inc., No. C 12-01633 CRB, 2014 WL 2702726 (N.D. Cal. June 13, 2014). In Jones, the plaintiff sought to certify a class of  all persons in the state of California who purchased a certain canned tomato product bearing the label statement  "100% Natural" or "Free of artificial ingredients & preservatives" but which contained certain ingredients. Similar to the case at bar, the plaintiff in Jones argued that the class could be ascertained by reference to objective criteria, namely, whether the consumer claimed he purchased one of the products at issue during the class period.  In finding the class to be unascertainable, the Northern District of California recognized that there were literally dozens of varieties with different can sizes, ingredients, and labeling over time and some such cans included the challenged language, while others included no such language at all. Thus, the court identified this as a “subjective memory problem,” and found that “the variation in defendant's products and labels makes self-identification infeasible.” Id; see also Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, No. 12-CV-01831-LHK, 2014 WL 5794873, at *15 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 6, 2014).

After an extensive review of the record here, the court was inclined to agree that the class was similarly not ascertainable. The fact that putative class members were highly unlikely to retain proof of purchase for such a low price consumer item might be alone insufficient to defeat certification. However, taking the aforementioned variations in Crisco products in conjunction with the fact that the challenged product is a low-priced consumer item, of which the normal consumer likely does not retain significant memory about, the likelihood of a potential class member being able to accurately identify themselves as a purchaser of the allegedly deceptive product, was "slim." Not only would the individual need to recall purchasing Crisco oil, but also the specific variety purchased, and the specific date on which it was purchased beyond simply within the period between “May 2009 [and] the present.” Furthermore, the nature of the product at issue made it less likely for a consumer to recall a specific purchase. Crisco oil is intended to be an additive ingredient to a final product, rather than a final product directly consumed by the user. This fact made it less likely that the consumer would recall the specific purchase of the cooking oil during a specific time frame.

In fact, the named plaintiff’s own testimony reflected this point, failing to recall the number of times Crisco oils were purchased, when they were purchased, and what variations were purchased. Under the facts and record presented, self-identification through affidavit was not administratively feasible.

The Rule 23(b)(3) claim required that common issues predominate, and under the applicable act, FDUTPA, the labels at issue must have been “likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances,” that is, a probability, not simply a mere possibility, of deception. Millennium Commc’ns & Fulfillment, Inc. v. Office of Attorney Gen., Dep’t of Legal Affairs, State of Fla., 761 So. 2d 1256, 1263 (Fla. 3d DCA 2000).  So the issue here was whether the challenged misrepresentation was likely to deceive a consumer acting reasonably in the same circumstances. However, like the hurdles presented when attempting resolve the issue of ascertainability, plaintiff had not demonstrated that an objectively reasonable consumer would agree with her individual interpretation of “all natural.” Plaintiff’s own evidence supported the assertion that the use of GMOs is a widely disputed issue; the fact is that there is a lack of consensus on the use of such products. See also Krzykwa, 946 F. Supp. 2d at 1374-75 (noting that the FDA has “repeatedly declined to adopt formal rule-making that would define the term ‘natural’”).  

Finally, predominance also requires that damages resulting from the injury be measurable on a class-wide basis through use of a “common methodology.” Comcast, 133 S. Ct. at 1430. A model purporting to serve as evidence of damages in this class action must measure only those damages attributable to that theory. If the model does not even attempt to do that, it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3). The Supreme Court has instructed lower courts to conduct a “rigorous analysis” to determine whether the purported damages model fits the liability case. Id. at 1433. Actual damages for a claim brought under FDUTPA is the difference in the market value of the product or service in the condition which it was delivered and its market value in the condition in which it should have been delivered.  Contrary to plaintiff’s contention, more is required than simply demonstrating the existence of a viable damages model.

That is, plaintiff’s theory of liability rested on the fact that defendant’s product contained a “price premium” by virtue of the “All Natural” label.  But plaintiff had not demonstrated that the proposed damages model would be capable of measuring damages on a class-wide basis and tying those damages to the specific issue of liability, that is, the “All Natural” label. Other than the "bald, unsupported assertion" that this method would work, plaintiff presented no hard-and-fast evidence that the alleged premium was capable of measurement.  Nor had plaintiff demonstrated that the model could isolate a premium received by the inclusion of the alleged misrepresentation. See Werdebaugh, 2014 WL 7148923, at *14 (“Plaintiff has failed to show that his proposed damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability.”  Accordingly, plaintiff had failed to present sufficient evidence of a viable damages model capable of estimating damages on a class-wide basis as is required by Comcast.

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