Federal Court Grants Defense Motion to Deny Class Certification

A federal court earlier this month denied class certification in a case involving allegedly defective Sonicare Diamond Clean and Healthy White powered toothbrushes.  Coe v. Philips Oral Healthcare, Inc., No. C13-518MJP (W.D. Wash., 10/10/14).  Readers should note this was another example of a putative class defendant taking the initiative and moving preemptively to strike class allegations.

Plaintiffs sought a certification of a nationwide class of toothbrush purchasers under the Washington Consumer Protection Act-- something having to do with the attachment of the metal shaft of the device affecting the brush strokes per minute.  Defendant moved to deny class certification. We have posted about this tactic before.  Fed.R.Civ. P. 23 does not preclude affirmative motions to deny class certification. In Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, Inc.,571 F.3d 935 (9th Cir. 2009), the Ninth Circuit affirmed the right of defendants to bring preemptive motions, provided that plaintiffs are not procedurally prejudiced by the timing of the motion. Id. at 994.

Resolution of the class certification issue, said the court, turned primarily on the choice-of-law analysis, which determines whether Washington law or the laws of putative class members' home states should apply. If Washington law applied, common questions were more likely to predominate for a nationwide class, and a class action may seem more efficient and desirable. On the other hand, if the consumer protection laws of the consumers' home states apply, variations in the laws will overwhelm common questions, precluding certification. The next inquiry then was whether sufficient discovery had taken place to allow for the choice-of-law analysis. The court concluded it had.

Defendant showed that an actual conflict exists between the Washington Consumer Protection Act ("WCPA") and the consumer protection laws of other states.  Because a conflict exists, the court applied Washington's most significant relationship test in order to determine which law to apply. In adopting the approach of the Second Restatement of Law on Conflict of Laws (1971), Washington has rejected the rule of lex loci delicti (the law of the place where the wrong took place).  Instead, Washington's test requires courts to determine which state has the "most significant relationship" to the cause of action.  If the relevant contacts to the cause of action are balanced, the court considers the interests and public policies of potentially concerned states and the manner and extent of such policies as they relate to the transaction. 


Washington, observed the court, has a significant relationship to alleged deceptive trade practices by a Washington corporation. Washington has a strong interest in promoting a fair and honest business environment in the state, and in preventing its corporations from engaging in unfair or deceptive trade practices in Washington or elsewhere. Conversely, said the court, the putative class members' home states have significant relationships to allegedly deceptive trade practices resulting in injuries to their citizens within their borders. The Toothbrushes were sold and purchased, and representations of their quality made and relied on, entirely outside of Washington. No Plaintiff resides in Washington. While Plaintiffs contend Philips Oral Healthcare spent considerable time and resources analyzing the problem and attempting to fix it at their Washington facilities, thus increasing Washington's relationship to the action, the crux of Plaintiffs' action involves the marketing and sale of the Toothbrushes, which took place in other states.

Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit recently recognized the strong interest of each state in determining the optimum level of consumer protection balanced against a more favorable business environment, and to calibrate its consumer protection laws to reflect their chosen balance. Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2012). Washington has formally adopted § 148 of the Restatement in the fraud and misrepresentation context. FutureSelect Portfolio Mgmt., Inc. v. Tremont Grp. Holdings, Inc., 180 Wn.2d 954, 331 P.3d 29, 36 (2014). Section 148 of the Restatement and its comments make clear that the alleged misrepresentation to consumers and the consumers' pecuniary injuries, both of which occurred in consumers' home states and not in Washington, should be considered the most significant contacts in this particular case. Restatement (Second) of Law on Conflict of Laws § 148 cmts. i, j (1971).


Thus, the court agreed with defendant that consumers' home states had the most significant relationship to their causes of action. Therefore, the consumer protection laws of those states, and not WCPA, would apply. Material differences between the various consumer protection laws prevent Plaintiffs from demonstrating Rule 23(b)(3) predominance and manageability for a nationwide class. Accordingly, the Court granted defendant's motion to deny certification of a nationwide class under WCPA.

 

Seventh Circuit Rejects Coupon Settlement Terms

The Seventh Circuit has rejected the award of attorneys' fees award for a settlement that would provide the class coupons as a remedy for allegedly printing credit card expiration dates on sales receipts. See Redman v. Radioshack Corp., No. 14-1470 (7th Cir., 9/19/14).

Judge Posner wrote for the panel.  The court had consolidated appeals in two class actions brought under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (“FACTA”), 15 U.S.C. § 1681c(g). The Act prohibits putting "the expiration date upon any receipt provided to the cardholder at the point of the sale or transaction.”  The goal is security: a thief can of course guess at the expiration date—the date is unlikely to be more than a few years in the future and there are only 12 months in a year; so if he guesses 60 times he’s very likely to hit the jackpot. But if he guesses wrong the first few times that he places a bogus order, the card issuer typically will get suspicious and refuse to authorize his next order.  Additional reasons for requiring deletion of the expiration date include that expiration dates combined with the last four or five digits of an account number can be used to bolster the credibility of a criminal who is making pretext calls to a card holder in order to learn other personal confidential financial information.

If a violation of the statute is willful, a consumer whose receipt contains as a result of the violation data that should have been deleted, but who sustains no harm because no one stole his identity as a result of the violation, is nevertheless entitled to “statutory damages,” as distinct from compensatory or punitive damages, of between $100 and $1000. 15 U.S.C. § 1681n(a)(1)(A). (Statutory damages are in effect bounties—means of inducing private persons to enforce a
regulatory law.)  Let's put aside the court's discussion of willfulness, and focus on the class issues.

The named plaintiffs (realistically, class counsel) agreed with RadioShack on terms of settlement. The essential term was that each class member who responded positively to the notice of the proposed settlement would receive a $10 coupon that it could use at any RadioShack store. The class member could use it to buy an item costing $10 or less (but he would receive no change if the item cost less than $10), or as part payment for an item costing more. He could stack up to three coupons (if he had them) and thus obtain a $30 item, or a $30 credit against a more expensive item. He could also sell his coupon or coupons, but the coupons had to be used within six months of receipt because they would expire at the end of that period. With regard to three‐coupon stacking, the only way a member of the class could obtain more than a single coupon would be to buy one or more coupons from another class member, because the settlement allows only one coupon per
customer no matter how many of his or her RadioShack purchases involved the alleged erroneous receipts. Although the class was assumed to contain 16 million members, notice of the proposed settlement was sent to fewer than 5 million. Of those potential class members who received notice of the proposed settlement, some 83,000 —a little more than one half of one percent of the entire class, assuming the entire class really did consist of 16 million different consumers— submitted claims for the coupon in response.

The court of appeals had lots of problems with the trial court's handling of the proposed settlement, and offered a number of important observations on coupon settlements in particular.

The magistrate judge’s statement that “the fact that the vast majority of class members—over 99.99%—have not objected to the proposed settlement or opted out suggests that the class generally approves of its terms and structure” was "naive, as was her basing confidence in the fairness of the settlement on its having been based on “arms‐length negotiations by experienced counsel.” The fact that the vast majority of the recipients of notice did not submit claims hardly shows “acceptance” of the proposed settlement: rather, said Judge Posner,  it may show oversight, indifference, rejection, or transaction costs. The bother of submitting a claim, receiving and safeguarding the coupon, and remembering to have it with you when shopping may exceed the value of a $10 coupon to many class members. And “arm’s‐length negotiations” are inconsistent with the existence of a conflict of interest on the part of one of the negotiators— class counsel—that may warp the outcome of the negotiations. The magistrate judge’s further reference to “the considerable portion of class members who have filed claims” questionably treated one‐half of one percent as being a “considerable portion.”

Another controversial term of the proposed settlement was that RadioShack would pay class counsel $1 million  in attorneys’ fees, plus pay various administrative costs including the cost of notice. The agreed upon attorneys’ fees, plus the $830,000 worth of coupons at face value, plus the administrative costs, added up to about $4.1 million. Class counsel argued that since the attorneys’
fees were only about 25 percent of the total amount of the settlement, they were reasonable. The district court, agreeing, approved the settlement, precipitating this appeal by two groups of class members who objected to the settlement in the district court.

On appeal, the 7th Circuit noted that he law quite rightly requires more than a judicial rubber stamp when the lawsuit that the parties have agreed to settle is a class action. The reason is the "built‐in conflict of interest" in class action suits. The defendant typically is interested only in the bottom line: how much the settlement will cost it. And class counsel, as rational “economic man,” presumably is interested primarily in the size of the attorneys’ fees provided for in the settlement, for those are the only money that class counsel, as distinct from the members of the class, get to keep. The optimal settlement from the joint standpoint of class counsel and defendant, assuming they are self‐interested, is therefore a sum of money moderate in amount but weighted in favor of attorneys’ fees
for class counsel. The named plaintiff often is the nominee of class counsel, and in any event he is dependent on class counsel’s good will to receive the modest extra compensation ($5,000 in this case) that named plaintiffs typically receive. 

Critically the judge must assess the value of the settlement to the class and the reasonableness of the agreed‐upon attorneys’ fees for class counsel, bearing in mind that the higher the fees the less compensation will be received by the class members. When there are objecting class members, the judge’s task is eased because he or she has the benefit of an adversary process: objectors versus settlors (that is, versus class counsel and the defendant).

Here, the trial judge accepted the settlors’ contention that the defendant’s entire expenditures should be aggregated in determining the size of the settlement; it was this aggregation that reduced the award of attorneys’ fees to class counsel to a "respectable‐seeming" 25 percent. But the roughly $2.2 million in administrative costs should not have been included in calculating the division of the spoils between class counsel and class members. Those costs, said the panel, are part of the settlement but not part of the value received from the settlement by the members of the class. The costs therefore shed no light on the fairness of the division of the settlement pie between class counsel and class members. Of course, without administration and therefore administrative costs, notably the costs of notice to the class, the class would get nothing. But also without those costs class counsel would get nothing, because the class, not having learned of the proposed settlement (or in all likelihood of the existence of a class action), would have derived no benefit from class counsel’s activity.

Therefore, said the court, the ratio that is relevant to assessing the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee that the parties agreed to is the ratio of (1) the fee to (2) the fee plus what the class members received. At most they received $830,000. That translates into a ratio of attorneys’ fees to the sum of those fees plus the face value of the coupons of 1 to 1.83, which equates to a contingent fee of 55% ($1,000,000 ÷ ($1,000,000 + $830,000)). Computed in "a responsible fashion by substituting actual for face value," the ratio would have been even higher because 83,000 $10 coupons are not worth $830,000 to the recipients. Anyone who buys an item at RadioShack that costs less than $10 will lose part of the value of the coupon because he won’t be entitled to change. Anyone who stacks three coupons to buy an item that costs $25 will lose $5. Anyone who fails to use the coupon within six months of receiving it will lose its entire value. (Six‐month coupons are not unusual, but redemption periods usually are longer. See, e.g., In re Mexico Money Transfer Litigation (Western Union & Valuta), 164 F. Supp. 2d 1002, 1010–11 (N.D. Ill. 2000) (35 months); Henry v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 1999 WL 33496080, at *10 (N.D. Ill. 1999) (nearly three years).) 

The court found it significant that no attempt was made by the magistrate judge or the parties to the proposed settlement to estimate the actual value of the nominal $830,000 worth of coupons. Couponing is an important retail marketing method, and Judge Posner postulated that it would have been possible to obtain expert testimony (including neutral expert testimony by the court’s appointing an expert, as authorized by Fed. R. Evid. 706), or responsible published materials, on consumer response to coupons. And likewise it should have been possible to estimate the value of
couponing to sellers—a marketing device that in some circumstances must be more valuable than cutting price, as otherwise no retailer would go to the expense of buying and distributing coupons.

The court re-emphasized that in determining the reasonableness of the attorneys’ fee agreed to in a proposed settlement, the central consideration is what class counsel achieved for the members of the class rather than how much effort class counsel invested in the litigation. The court noted that in so doing it was not  taking sides in a controversy over the interpretation of the coupon provisions
of the Class Action Fairness Act, which states in part that If a proposed settlement in a class action provides for a recovery of coupons to a class member, the portion of any attorney’s fee award to class counsel that is attributable to the award of the coupons shall be based on the value
to class members of the coupons that are redeemed. Judge Posner thinks "this is a badly drafted statute." To begin with, read literally, the statutory phrase “value to class members of the coupons
that are redeemed” would prevent class counsel from being paid in full until the settlement had been fully implemented. For until then one wouldn’t know how many coupons had been redeemed. An alternative interpretation of “value … of the coupons that are redeemed” would be the face value of the coupons received by class members who responded positively to notice of the class action. In this case that would be 83,000 of the millions of class members who received notice, though not all 83,000 will actually use the coupon.

Perhaps there is no need for a rigid rule—a final choice, for all cases, among the possibilities suggested. In some cases the optimal solution may be part payment to class members and
class counsel up front with final payment when the settlement is wound up. That might be appropriate in a case such as this, said the court. What was inappropriate, however, was an attempt to determine the ultimate value of the settlement before the redemption period ended without even an estimate by a qualified expert of what that ultimate value was likely to prove to be.

Some had called this  an “all‐coupon” case (only benefit was a coupon), but class counsel call it a “zero‐coupon” case. They argued that a coupon that can be used to buy an entire product, and not just to provide a discount, is a voucher, not a coupon. “Voucher” was indeed the term used in the settlement agreement, because the parties didn’t want to subject themselves to the coupon  provisions of the Class Action Fairness Act. But the idea that a coupon is not a coupon if it can ever be used to buy an entire product didn't make any sense to Judge Posner, certainly in terms of the
Act. Why would it make a difference, so far as the suspicion of coupon settlements that animates the Act’s coupon provisions is concerned, that the proposed $10 coupon could be used either to reduce by $10 the cash price of an item priced at more than $10, or to buy the entire item if its price were
$10 or less? Coupons usually are discounts, but if the face value of a coupon exceeds the price of an item sold by the issuer of the coupon, the customer often is permitted to use the coupon to buy the item—and sometimes he’ll be refunded the difference between that face value and the price of the item.

This case illustrated, said the panel, why Congress was concerned that class members can be shortchanged in coupon settlements whether a coupon is used to obtain a discount off the full
price of an item or to obtain the entire item; class counsel’s proposed distinction between discount coupons and vouchers also would impose a heavy administrative burden in distinguishing
coupons used for discounts on more expensive items (“coupons” in class counsel’s narrow sense of coupon) and the identical coupons used to pay the full prices of cheaper items (“vouchers” in class counsel’s lexicon and not “coupons” at all).  Assessing the reasonableness of attorneys’ fees based on a coupon’s nominal face value instead of its true economic value was no less troublesome when the coupon may be exchanged for a full product.

The difficulty of valuing a coupon settlement exposed for the court another defect in the proposed settlement: placing the fee award to class counsel and the compensation to the class members in separate compartments. The $1 million attorneys’ fee is guaranteed, while the benefit of the settlement to the members of the class depends on the value of the coupons, which may well turn out to be much less than $830,000. This guaranty is the equivalent of a contingent‐fee contract that entitles the plaintiff’s lawyer to the first $50,000 of the judgment or settlement plus one‐third of any amount above $50,000—so if the judgment or settlement were for $100,000 the attorneys’ fee would be $66,667, leaving only a third of the combined value (to plaintiff and lawyer) of the
settlement to the plaintiff. Another questionable feature of the settlement for the appeals court was the inclusion of a “clear‐sailing clause”—a clause in which the defendant agreed not to contest class counsel’s request for attorneys’ fees. Because it’s in the defendant’s interest to contest that request in order to reduce the overall cost of the settlement, the defendant won’t agree to a clear‐sailing clause without compensation—namely a reduction in the part of the settlement that goes to the class members, as that is the only reduction class counsel are likely to consider. The existence
of such clauses thus illustrates the danger, said the court, of collusion in class actions between class counsel and the defendant, to the detriment of the class members.

The panel was also bothered by the fact that class counsel did not file the attorneys’ fee motion until after the deadline set by the court for objections to the settlement had expired. That violated Rule 23(h). See In re Mercury Interactive Corp. Securities Litigation, 618 F.3d 988, 993–95 (9th Cir. 2010); see also Committee Notes on the 2003 Amendments to Rule 23. From reading the proposed settlement the objectors knew that class counsel were likely to ask for $1 million in attorneys’ fees, but they were handicapped in objecting because the details of class counsel’s hours and expenses were submitted later, with the fee motion, and so they did not have all the information they needed to justify their objections. 

So, coupon settlement and fee rejected.

Class Complaint Dismissed WITH Prejudice

The Second Circuit recently affirmed a trial court decision dismissing a proposed class action challenging the marketing of certain cosmetic products.  See DiMuro v. Clinique Labs, LLC, No. 13-4551 (2d Cir. 7/10/14) (unpublished).

Plaintiffs filed a putative class action complaint asserting claims under the Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois consumer fraud statutes, along with claims for breach of express warranty, breach of implied warranty, and unjust enrichment, arising from defendants’ marketing of seven different cosmetic products sold under the “Repairwear” product line. But while plaintiffs’ consolidated class action complaint asserted claims arising out of the marketing of seven different products, the named plaintiffs only alleged to have purchased and used three of the seven products.

Plaintiffs argued that they nevertheless had class standing to bring claims for Repairwear products that they did not buy-- a commonly attempted but seldom successful tactic.  Here, each of the seven different products have different ingredients, and defendant allegedly made different advertising claims for each product. Unique evidence would therefore be required to prove that the 35-some advertising statements for each of the seven different products were false and misleading. As a result, the court could not conclude that claims brought by a purchaser of one product would raise a set of concerns nearly identical to that of a purchaser of another Repairwear product. Accordingly, plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims for the four products that they did not purchase.

The court also affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims because plaintiffs failed to plead them with the requisite particularity under Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b).  Rule 9(b) requires that a complaint specify the statements that the plaintiff contends were fraudulent, identify the speaker, state where and when the statements were made, and explain why the statements were fraudulent.  E.g., Mills v. Polar Molecular Corp., 12 F.3d 1170, 1175 (2d Cir. 1993). One of the cardinal purposes of Rule 9(b) is to “provid[e] a defendant fair notice of plaintiff’s claim, to enable preparation of [a] defense.” See DiVittorio v. Equidyne Extractive Indus., Inc., 822 F.2d 1242, 1247 (2d Cir. 1987). Plaintiffs’ consolidated complaint was wholly conclusory and lacked the particularity required to ensure that defendant received fair notice of the claims.

Specifically, plaintiffs’ "group-pleading" as to the products and the advertisements at issue was
inconsistent with Rule 9(b)’s particularity requirement in that the complaint failed to specify which
of the alleged statements were fraudulent and with regard to what product.  It simply alleged that the products, collectively, cannot work. Given that the seven different products have different ingredients, different intended uses, and that defendant made different advertising claims for each one, this was wholly insufficient to satisfy Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to address the different product ingredients, different intended uses, and different claims.

The complaint also failed to allege that any of the named plaintiffs even used the product, let alone used the product as directed. Similarly, the named plaintiffs did not allege what results they received from their use of the product. They only alleged that they received “no value,” “did not receive what they bargained for,” or “did not get what they paid for.” Since they did not allege which particular advertising claims each of the named plaintiffs relied on when purchasing the product, the conclusion that they did not receive what they bargained for had no ascertainable meaning. 

Plaintiffs’ claims for breach of express warranty and breach of implied warranty also relied on
allegations that the products did not perform as advertised. These allegations were wholly conclusory, and did not provide a sufficient factual basis to establish a plausible breach of any specifically identified express or implied warranty.

Pretty standard stuff, really, but let's turn to the most useful aspect of the analysis.  The complaint was dismissed with prejudice.  Leave to amend is given when justice so requires.  But what too often happens is that plaintiffs file a conclusory, fishing expedition of a complaint; the defendant expends considerable cost to point out the many deficiencies of the pleading; the court dismisses appropriately dismisses the complaint, and plaintiffs use the opinion as their model to draft an amended pleading-- often repeating the process several times, until they finally get a minimally acceptable pleading that bears little resemblance to their original complaint.  Here, the court recognized that plaintiffs are “not entitled to an advisory opinion from the Court informing them of the deficiencies in the complaint and then an opportunity to cure those deficiencies.” Bellikoff v. Eaton Vance Corp., 481 F.3d 110, 118 (2d Cir. 2007). Moreover, a plaintiff need not be given leave to amend if the plaintiff fails to specify either to the district court or to the court of appeals how amendment would cure the pleading deficiencies in its complaint. The district court’s decision to deny plaintiffs leave to amend their complaint was not an abuse of discretion. First, the plaintiffs failed to provide any detail as to what facts they would or could) plead to cure their pleading deficiencies. Second -- and this is very commonly the case --  much if not all of the information necessary for a properly pled complaint was and had always been in the possession of the plaintiffs. For example, which particular representations they relied upon, if and how they had used the products, what the results were.   Useful discussion of why leave should NOT be granted in these consumer fraud cases.

Motion to Dismiss Granted in Juice Case

A California federal court has rejected a proposed class action complaint arising from alleged misleading labeling and advertising of vegetable juice products as "raw" and "organic." See Alamilla, et al. v. The Hain Celestial Group Inc., et al., No. 3:13-cv-05595 (N.D. Calif. 7/2/14).

Specifically, the complaint asserted that the effects of a pressure treatment in the making of the products were "similar to those of cooking and pasteurization, namely the destruction of vitamins, nutrients, live enzymes, nutritional value, and health benefits." On their own, said the court, these allegations might seem to state a plausible claim that the defendants' representations could lead a reasonable consumer to conclude that pressure treatment did not deprive the juice of its nutritional value in the same way that pasteurization does.

But, the court said, the complaint also incorporated by reference two articles that contradicted the plaintiffs' claim. In particular, the complaint quoted and incorporated by reference a published article that concluded that pressurization has "little or no effects on nutritional and sensory quality aspects of foods."  Although the plaintiffs did not include this specific conclusion language in their complaint, there was no doubt they had incorporated by reference the entire text of the articles they quoted in their complaint.

The articles the plaintiffs cited contradicted the allegation upon which their entire complaint hinged—namely, that pressure treatment deprives juice of nutritional value to a similar degree as pasteurization. Courts "need not accept as true allegations contradicting documents that are referenced in the complaint." Lazy Y Ranch LTD v. 24 Behrens, 546 F.3d 580, 588 (9th Cir. 2008). "A plaintiff can plead himself out of court by alleging facts which show that he has no claim, even though he was not required to allege those facts." See Sprewell v. Golden State Warriors, 266 F.3d 979, 988-989 (9th Cir. 2001). 

Accordingly, the complaint was dismissed with prejudice.
 

Class Certification Denied on Ascertainability Grounds

A federal court in New Jersey last week rejected a class certification effort by plaintiffs complaining about the marketing of Skinnygirl Margaritas. See Stewart v. Beam Global Spirits & Wine, Inc., No. 1:11-cv-05149 (D.N.J., 6/27/14).

Plaintiffs essentially allege that despite being marketed and sold as an "all natural" product and a "healthy alternative to other commercial Margarita products" defendants' low-calorie, pre-mixed alcoholic beverage product known as "Skinnygirl Margarita" allegedly did not live up to these claims. Plaintiffs purportedly purchased Skinnygirl Margarita based on these alleged representations by defendants in magazine advertisements and on the product packaging.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, and the issue quickly became ascertainability. In recent years, the Third Circuit, like many courts, has increasingly emphasized the importance of ascertainability of a class with respect to classes certified under Rule 23(b)(3). See, e.g., Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300, 305-08(3d Cir. 2013); Hayes v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.,725 F.3d 349, 354-56 (3d Cir. 2013); Marcus v. BMW of N. Am., LLC,687 F.3d 583, 592-94 (3d Cir. 2012).  In Marcus, the Third Circuit recognized that "an essential prerequisite of a class action, at least with respect to actions [brought] under Rule 23(b)(3), is that the class must be currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria." Marcus, 687 F.3d at 592-93; see also Hayes, 725 F.3d at 355 ("As 'an essential prerequisite' to class certification, . . . plaintiff must show by a preponderance of the evidence that the class is ascertainable.") (citations omitted); Carrera, 727 F.3d at 306 ("a plaintiff must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the class is 'currently and readily ascertainable based on objective criteria,' and a trial court must undertake a rigorous analysis of the evidence to determine if the standard is met.") (citations omitted).

Several important objectives are served by virtue of the ascertainability requirement for Rule 23(b)(3) class actions: (1) the requirement eliminates serious administrative burdens that are incongruous with the efficiencies expected in a class action by insisting on the easy identification of class members; (2) the requirement protects absent class members by facilitating the best notice practicable' under Rule 23(c)(2); and (3) the requirement protects defendants by ensuring that those persons who will be bound by the final judgment are clearly identifiable. Marcus, 687 F.3d at 593; see also Hayes,725 F.3d at 355. 

Ascertainability thus consists of at least two important elements -- the class must be defined with reference to objective criteria, and there must be a reliable and administratively feasible mechanism for determining whether putative class members fall within the class definition.  See Hayes, 725 F.3d at 355. Ascertainability necessitates an inquiry into whether the defendants' records can ascertain class members, and if not, whether there is a reliable, administratively feasible alternative.  The Third Circuit has made clear that where class members are impossible to identify without extensive and individualized fact-finding or mini-trials, then a class action is inappropriate. Marcus, 687 F.3d at 593.

When considering a plaintiff's proposed mechanism for ascertaining the class, the courts have cautioned against approving a method that would amount to no more than ascertaining by potential class members' "say so" -- by, for example, having potential class members submit affidavits that promise they meet the class definition. Without further indicia of reliability, permitting such a method would essentially force defendants to accept as true absent persons' declarations that they are members of the class, raising serious due process implications.   

Defendants argued that the proposed class members cannot be identified from sales records; they pointed out that the named plaintiffs themselves had no objective evidence, or even consistent testimony, regarding their own alleged purchases. Some defendants were several steps removed from the actual retail purchases, and as a result, never had any record of which consumers bought the product. Absent proper records, it would be impossible to determine class membership without significant inquiry, resulting in a mini-hearing on the merits of each case.  

Plaintiffs proposed a mechanism for ascertaining the Classes which required that putative class members submit affidavits or attestations regarding their membership in the Classes. And defendants responded that they cannot be required to simply accept the self-serving say so of proposed class members; they must be permitted to exercise its due-process right individually to probe each putative class member's statements regarding their claimed purchase. Defendants had a due process right to challenge not only the named plaintiffs' claims that they purchased Skinnygirl Margarita, but also the claims of absent class members. That means individualized fact-finding and mini-trials as to every single absent class member's claim, which in turn means that class treatment is per se inappropriate.

So, plaintiffs' only suggested method for ascertaining the putative class members rested entirely on the submission of affidavits by individuals who claim that they purchased Skinnygirl Margarita; those affidavits would actually  need to include: (1) dates of purchases of Skinnygirl Margarita; (2) locations and retail establishments where purchases were made; (3) frequency of purchases; (4) quantity of purchases; (5) cost of purchases, etc. These types of information would be vital to determining whether each putative member fits within the class definitions in this case.

Moreover, even assuming that the affidavits sought all that information, obtaining this information by way of affidavits did not appear to be an effective method for ascertaining the Classes. Without any independently verifiable proof of purchase through receipts, retail records, or otherwise, putative class members would likely not accurately remember every Skinnygirl Margarita purchase they made during the class period, let alone where these purchases were made and the prices they paid each time. The submission of affidavits supplying such information would be very likely to invite speculation, or worse, not to mention that this process would result in an extremely burdensome task for the Court or a claims administrator even attempting to verify class members' claims. See Weiner v. Snapple Beverage Corp., 2010 WL 3119452, at *13 (S.D. N.Y. Aug. 5, 2010). Such a method cannot fairly be construed as an administratively feasible one which utilizes objective criteria.

Defendants have a right to cross-examine the plaintiffs on their alleged purchases, and cannot be forced to accept as true absent persons' declarations that they are members of the class, without further indicia of reliability.  Despite plaintiffs' attempt to argue otherwise, the rulings in cases like Marcus, Hayes, and Carrera make clear that relying on affidavits of putative class members as the primary method of ascertaining the members of the class is not a prudent course of action for a district court and is generally insufficient to meet the requirements of Rule 23. Such affidavits essentially amount to nothing more than reliance on the subjective "say so" of the putative members that they meet the class definition and are entitled to relief, and practically ignores the need for a class definition based on objective criteria. 

Class certification denied.

 

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.

Class Certification Reversed in Unfair Trade Practices Case

A Florida appeals court recently decertified a class action with an unusual theory: a car maker who allegedly used headlights that can be too easily stolen in its luxury vehicles. See Porsche Cars v. Peter Diamond, et al., No. 3D12-2829 3d DCA Fla. 6/12/14).  One wonders why and how theft of auto parts is not the responsibility of the thief, but perhaps we digress. 

This case focuses on Porsche’s High Intensity Discharge Headlights. The Headlights are an upscale amenity in the luxury car market.  The intense blue-white light given by the Headlights is closer to natural daylight than the yellowish light of regular headlights. The Headlights provide better nighttime visibility than older types of headlights. Since model year 2000, the Headlights have been offered as standard or optional equipment across the Porsche vehicle line. The Headlights were mounted on modules that were slid into a plastic tray in the fender and clamped in place. This mounting made the Headlights less expensive to install and repair. Plaintiffs alleged it made them "easier" to steal. 

In this proposed class action, the class representatives asserted unfair trade practices and unjust enrichment claims. They alleged the defendant distributed a product highly susceptible to theft without taking any remedial steps. Specifically, the defendant allegedly failed to “notify owners of the flaw and potential risk of theft so they could take their own precautions,” to “offer replacement lights at reduced costs,” and to “work with law enforcement agencies to assist in the prevention of the theft of their headlights.”  This, the representatives members allege, violated the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (“FDUTPA”).  There was an unjust enrichment claim, and the plaintiffs also alleged that the defendant distributor could have redesigned the vehicles in
various ways, even though a car distributor does not design or manufacture vehicles.

The opinion did not reach the issue of whether such a factual theory of damages is viable (it would have been nice to see a blow struck for common sense). But the decision focused on the legal issues raised by the class action. The trial court certified the case as a rule 1.220(b)(3) class action. In a (b)(3) class action, common issues must predominate over individual issues. Fla. R. Civ. P. 1.220(b)(3). Common issues predominate when, considering both the rights and duties of the class members, the proof offered by the class representatives will necessarily prove or disprove the cases of the absent class members.  The class representative’s case must not merely raise a common question, but that proof of the class representative’s case must also answer the question.

FDUTPA declares unlawful unfair methods of competition, unconscionable acts or practices, and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any trade or commerce.  The term “unfair” is
not defined in FDUTPA. Here, the trial judge defined unfair trade practice as one that “offends established policy” and “is immoral, unethical, oppressive, unscrupulous or substantially injurious to customers.” This definition derives from a 1964 Federal Trade Commission policy statement. In 1980, however, the Federal Trade Commission updated its definition of unfair trade practice. The new definition established a three-pronged test for “unfairness,” which requires that the injury to the consumer:
(1) must be substantial;
(2) must not be outweighed by any countervailing benefits to consumers or competition that the practice produces; and
(3) must be an injury that consumers themselves could not reasonably have avoided.

The court held that Florida law adopted the definition of unfairness contained in the 1980 Policy Statement. The state legislature provided that violations of FDUTPA include violations of the standards of unfairness and deception set forth and interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission or the federal courts. The Florida Legislature amended FDUTPA in 1983, 2001, 2006, and 2013, for the specific purpose of adding to Florida Law the latest interpretations by the Federal Trade Commission or federal courts that occurred since the last statutory amendment.  In light of this history, the 1980 Policy Statement is clearly one of the “standards of unfairness” interpreted by the Federal Trade Commission and federal courts. 

The trial court erroneously adopted the premise that the distributor’s actions could be found to be an unfair trade practice regardless of whether class members knew and could have avoided the risk of the Headlight thefts. From this premise, it reasoned “an individual class member’s pre-purchase knowledge of the potential risk of theft was not relevant to the Plaintiff’s FDUTPA claim.” Since the premise was wrong, so was the conclusion.  The individual class member’s knowledge of the risk of Headlight theft bears on whether the practice was unfair because it impacts whether the consumer could reasonably avoid the risk. Given the nature of the claim in this case—that the Headlights functioned great as headlights but were too susceptible to theft—an individual class members knowledge of the risk of  theft goes to the heart of his or her claim.


To prove an unfair trade practice, the class must prove that the injury caused by the allegedly unfair trade practice could not have been reasonably avoided by the consumers.  The idea behind the reasonably avoidable inquiry is that free and informed consumer choice is the first and best
regulator of the marketplace: consumers may act to avoid injury before it occurs if they have reason to anticipate the impending harm and the means to avoid it, or they may seek to mitigate the damage afterward if they are aware of potential avenues toward that end.  A jury might well find that a consumer who knew the Headlights were targeted by thieves had avenues available to reasonably avoid the risk. This is particularly true where, as here, the alleged problem of theft was greater in some geographic locations than others. How about consumers park in only safe areas, install alarm systems extending to the mounting module, or, if these options were not acceptable, decline to purchase or lease a Porsche with the Headlights? Given the theory of this case, the knowledge of some class members that the Headlights were prone to theft could not be ignored.

Similarly, the determination of unjust enrichment would turn on individual facts. A court would be hard pressed to conclude that a distributor was unjustly enriched when class members with the sophistication and knowledge of the product continued to seek out the Headlights even when they knew of the thefts.

The court concluded that when the individual knowledge and experience of the consumer is an
important element of the cause of action and its defense, there can be no class-wide proof that injury was not reasonably avoidable.

Class certification reversed and remanded. 

Beer Claims Rejected Under Twombly

A federal court in Ohio recently dismissed claims alleging that a brewer deliberately overstated the alcohol content of its beers.  See In Re: Anheuser-Busch Beer Labeling Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, MDL No. 2448 (N.D. Ohio 6/2/14).  

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendant routinely and intentionally added extra water to its finished product to produce malt beverages that “consistently have significantly lower alcohol content than the percentages displayed on its labels.” (Amended Complaint ¶ 17) This practice allegedly results in consumers receiving “watered down beer containing less alcohol than is stated on the labels of Anheuser-Busch’s products.” Readers are probably very familiar with this company and may know that it employs five separate quality control checks to give its consumers the taste and consistent quality they expect. (Your humble blogger is a huge fan of their holiday commercials.) Speaking of water, Anheuser-Busch reduced total water use at its breweries by 37 percent in the last four years.

The Federal Alcohol Administration Act (“FAAA”), 27 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq., enacted in 1935, governs the manufacture and sale of alcohol nationwide. The FAAA empowers the federal government to adopt regulations that ensure manufacturers “provide the consumer with adequate information as to the identity and quality of the products, [and] the alcoholic content thereof.” 27 U.S.C. § 205(f). In pursuit of this goal, several regulations have been promulgated that specifically address the labeling of malt beverage products. In particular, 27 C.F.R. § 7.71(c)(1) provides that for malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, a tolerance of 0.3 percent (.003) will be permitted, either above or below the stated percentage of alcohol. In addition to the federal statutes and regulations, some state and local governments have enacted laws addressing the manufacturing and sale of alcoholic products, including malt beverages. Often the state and local governments adopt or refer to the federal regulations established under the FAAA in their own statutes and regulations, and it was undisputed that each state at issue in this litigation had adopted the federal regulation.

It was crucial that there was no allegation in the Complaint that the alleged mislabeling of alcohol content in Anheuser-Busch’s products has ever exceeded the tolerance amount of 0.3%. Further, Plaintiffs made very clear in their arguments and statements to the court that they had not alleged, and they had no reason to believe, that Anheuser-Busch has ever included a statement of alcohol content on its labels that varied by more than 0.3 percent from the actual alcohol content of the products in question.

Defendants moved to dismiss.  In order to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide the grounds of the entitlement to relief, which requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1964-65 (2007). That is, factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if
doubtful in fact). Accordingly, the claims set forth in a complaint must be plausible, rather than just conceivable. See Twombly, 127 S. Ct. at 1974. Conclusory allegations, or legal conclusions asserted in lieu of factual allegations are not sufficient. Bishop v. Lucent Tech, Inc., 520 F.3d 516, 519 (6th Cir. 2008).

The court here noted that there may be circumstances in which vagueness or ambiguity in the legislative language compels a court to look beyond the words employed to discern the meaning of a statute or regulation. However, neither vagueness nor ambiguity exists in the present case. On its face, 27 C.F.R. § 7.71(c)(1) is clear, specific, and unambiguous: “For malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume, a tolerance of 0.3 percent will be permitted, either above or
below the stated percentage of alcohol.” 27 C.F.R. § 7.71(c)(1). There was no dispute that the products at issue were malt beverages containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume and that the stated percentage of alcohol on the labels of these products is within 0.3 percent of the actual percentage of alcohol in the product. 

Despite this seemingly straightforward match between the regulation and the agreed upon facts in this case, Plaintiffs presented an argument in an attempt to modify or, in their words, “clarify” the plain and unambiguous language set forth in the regulation.  For example, the meaning of "tolerance."  The court reasoned that the words of a statute or regulation are to be taken in their natural and ordinary significance and import; and if technical words are used, they are to be taken in a technical sense. The word “tolerance” is undefined in the regulation. When terms are undefined, the everyday understanding and regular usage of the term should instruct the court’s interpretation. Common sense, non-technical interpretations are the default. Cty. of Oakland v. Fed. Housing Finance Authority, 2013 WL 2149964, *3-4 (6th Cir 2013). The ordinary meaning of the word “tolerance” is the allowable amount of variation in any specified quantity.  In its ordinary usage, a “tolerance” is not limited or nullified by the alleged intent, motivation, or cause behind a variation or deviation. Thus, if given its ordinary meaning, there could be no dispute that the tolerance established was to be afforded without regard to the alleged cause or hypothetical intent behind any deviation of 0.3 percent or less between the alcohol content listed on the labels and the actual alcohol content within the regulated products.

The court thus rejected plaintiffs unsupportable view that the word “tolerance” should not be afforded its ordinary meaning, but should be considered to be a term of art that allows only “unintentional deviations” from the goal of absolute accuracy. Plaintiffs offered no legal or industry specific authority for this proposition. None of their cited sources had any connection to the regulation of alcoholic beverages, or other food and beverage labeling; none are sanctioned by the FAAA.   Thus, there was no legal or other relevant authority that would support giving the word
“tolerance” anything other than its ordinary meaning.

Since the leeway afforded by the CFR section is provided without regard to the supposed cause of any deviation or variation, and without regard to the alleged intention behind any statement of alcohol content within the defined tolerance range, the motion to dismiss was granted, with prejudice.

Long-lasting Lipstick Class Kissed Off

A federal court has rejected a proposed class of plaintiffs who alleged that they purchased deceptively labeled lipstick and foundation, in part because of an inability to show class-wide damages. See Algarin v. Maybelline, LLC,  No. 12-03000 (S.D. Cal., 5/12/14).

Maybelline manufactures, markets, sells, and distributes SuperStay 24HR Lipcolor, a line of lipcolors, and SuperStay 24HR Makeup, a line of skin foundations, Plaintiffs alleged these products were marketed to provide "all day comfort,” that withstands “heat, sweat, and humidity,” but allegedly do not. Plaintiffs alleged they paid a price premium because of the company's claims. On behalf of a proposed California class of consumers who bought the SuperStay products, they asserted claims under the California Unfair Competition Law and Consumers Legal Remedies Act.

In assessing the motion for class certification, the court found that there were issues with the proposed class definition. Plaintiffs defined the class as: “[a]ll California consumers who purchased SuperStay 24HR Lipcolor and/or SuperStay 24HR Makeup for personal use."  Given the number of differences between the two products, including but not limited to, pricing differences, claims differences, labeling differences, and ultimately merits differences, the Court questioned whether creating sub-classes would be needed. Beyond that, though not explicitly stated in Rule 23, courts have held that the class must be adequately defined and clearly ascertainable before a class action may proceed. See Chavez v. Blue Sky Natural Beverage Co., 268 F.R.D. 365, 376 (N.D. Cal. 2010) .  A class is sufficiently defined and ascertainable if, among other things, it is administratively feasible for the court to determine whether a particular individual is a member. See O’Connor v. Boeing N. American, Inc., 184 F.R.D. 311, 319 (C.D. Cal. 1998).   It must be administratively feasible to determine whether a particular person is a class member as an identifiable class exists if its members can be ascertained by reference to objective criteria, but not if membership is contingent on a prospective member’s state of mind. While here the class definition seemed ascertainable in the sense that class membership might be determined based on an objective criterion -- whether members purchased either the SuperStay lipcolor of the SuperStay makeup --  Plaintiffs failed to provide a reliable method of determining who the actual members of the class were. So it was not ascertainable in the sense that members could actually ever be determined. Plaintiffs failed to show how it was “administratively feasibile" to determine whether a particular person was a class member. The court correctly noted that this inquiry overlaps with the “manageability” prong of Rule 23(b)(3).

Specifically, Maybelline argued that purchasers were unlikely to have documentary proof of purchase of products like these years later, and Maybelline does not maintain a purchaser list or other identifying method. In such a situation, the Court and the parties would necessarily rely on class members to self-identify. There are a number of cases that stand for the proposition that where a court has no way to verify if a purchaser is actually a class member, class certification may be improper. See e.g., Red, 2012 WL 8019257, at *4;  Hodes v. Int’l Foods, 2009 WL 2424214, at
*4 (C.D. Cal. July 23, 2009). Here, the relevant purchase was not a memorable “big ticket” item, but rather small-ticket items that cost around $10.00; it was extremely unlikely the average purchaser would even remember she purchased the specific SuperStay products versus a competitor product.

The court also observed that expert evidence shows that materiality and reliance varied from consumer to consumer, such that these elements were not an issue subject to common proof. Under the claims alleged, a representation is considered material if it induced the consumer to alter his position to his detriment. If the issue of materiality or reliance is a matter that would vary from consumer to consumer, the issue is not subject to common proof, and the action is properly not certified as a class action. Maybelline introduced evidence of who the reasonable consumer in the target audience was and what drives her in making purchasing decisions. With cosmetics such as the ones at issue here, customers can readily discern how well they work and whether they lived up to the claimed representations. Accordingly, repeat purchasers can not be considered injured in the manner proposed by Plaintiffs. A repeat purchase indicates satisfaction. The evidence suggested that duration was not the only motivating factor in making the purchases; actual duration expectations varied widely among purchasers; and very few consumers actually read the package the way plaintiffs' counsel did and thus could have been “injured” in the manner alleged by Plaintiffs.

This undermined both the commonality and the typicality prerequisites. Based upon the evidence presented, the named Plaintiffs’ reliance on the alleged misrepresentations was not typical of other class members.

Under Rule 23(b)(2), the court concluded that the injunctive relief requested by the plaintiffs wasn't appropriate for the class as a whole. Class members who bought the cosmetics and used them became well aware of the realities of the products, and wouldn't benefit from the relief sought.

Under Rule 23(b)(3), the Plaintiffs sought individual monetized relief that would require an assessment of each class member's claim based on purchase history.  Given the number of individual purchasing inquiries, as well as the evidence showing materiality and reliance varied from consumer to consumer, it was evident that common issues did not predominate.  As is standard, Plaintiffs proposed the “price premium” method of determining class-wide damages, contending  that their damage theory was “simple."  It was not obvious to the Court, however, that the alleged 24 hour/no transfer claim commanded the alleged premium of $1.00-$3.00. Indeed, that was pure speculation on the part of Plaintiffs. Pricing could have been equally impacted by a higher quality of ingredients, the selection of colors offered, or the unique costs Maybelline expended in the research and development of these products. Plaintiffs’ method of using comparable products from other sellers is inconsistent with the law. To establish that any difference in price was attributed  to the alleged misrepresentation, the Court needed to compare a product, exactly the same but without the challenged marketing claim. Such a task was nearly impossible as no two products are completely identical.

Moreover, Maybelline did not sell retail and does not set retail prices. Establishing a higher price for a comparable product would be difficult where prices in the retail market differ and are affected by the nature and location of the outlet in which they are sold and/or the use of promotions and coupons. The Court could not simply assume that all retailers throughout California purchase and sell the products at one price. 

Finally, the existence of an economic injury was also not a common question as many purchasers were satisfied with the products. Economic injury is not a common question when many purchasers find the class products were worth the amount paid and fully satisfied.

Class motion denied.

Class Discovery Sufficient for Merits Summary Judgment

Readers know that courts will sometimes, perhaps often, bifurcate discovery in a proposed class action between the discovery needed to assess certification issues and that related to merits issues. This procedural tool can save the parties costs, and expedite the crucial decision on class status, which needs to be made as soon as practicable.

Sometimes that class discovery can shed light on summary judgement issues as well.  In a recent case, the Eighth Circuit held that a class plaintiff was not entitled to merits discovery before the court considered summary judgment based solely on the class certification discovery.  See Toben v. Bridgestone Retail Operations, LLC,  No. 13-3329 (8th Cir. 5/13/14).

Patricia Toben filed a putative class action alleging a violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA).  Plaintiff alleged on behalf of the proposed class that defendant's service shop improperly charged 6 percent of labor charges as a shop supply fee. Defendant responded that the supply fee covered a wide array of essential stuff, such as cleaners and rags. Specifically, Bridgestone identified over 70 examples of shop supplies covered by the fee.

After limited discovery, Toben moved for class certification. Bridgestone moved for summary judgment. Toben moved to stay summary judgment pending merits discovery. The district court denied the stay and granted summary judgment.  Plaintiff appealed.

The court of appeals noted that plaintiff had set forth some kinds of facts she hoped to elicit from further discovery, but had not shown that the facts sought exist.  It is well settled that Rule 56 does not condone a fishing expedition where a plaintiff merely hopes to uncover some possible evidence. Mere speculation that there is some relevant evidence not yet discovered will never suffice.  Here, class discovery revealed relevant information about the shop supply fee, and plaintiff identified no documents or specific facts she believed would contradict that.

If all one had to do to obtain a grant of a Rule 56d motion were to allege possession by movant of certain information, every summary judgment decision would have to be delayed while the non-movant goes fishing in the movant's files.  Plaintiff's motion for a stay provided only "speculative hope" of finding evidence to support her claim.

Thus, the court could not conclude that the district court abused its discretion in denying it. Summary judgment affirmed.

 

 

 

Fail Safe Class Rejected in TCPA Case

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the taut Cold War thriller "Fail-Safe", starring Henry Fonda and Walter Matthau. (If I recall, there is no music in the entire B&W film.) In honor of the film, we post about a modern day fail-safe issue, less dramatic of course.

A crucial implicit requirement for class certification is that the plaintiff propose a workable, ascertainable class definition. One sub-set of this issue is the highly improper "fail-safe" class in which absent class members can use an imprecise class definition to affirm their membership when the class wins, but assert they were never members of the class when the defendant wins. A recent federal case sees the court striking class allegations that fall under this impermissible “fail safe” class rubric. See Sauter v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., No. 2:13-cv-846 (S.D. Ohio, 5/7/14).

The Plaintiff brought a putative class action against the Defendant for alleged violations of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227. Plaintiff alleged that the class received phone calls from CVS, which utilized an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS) to call, without the Plaintiffs' consent.  The call allegedly provided general information about a prescription refill and the location of his local CVS pharmacy.  (actually sounds kind of useful, but we digress)

Defendant made a Motion to Strike Plaintiff's Class Allegations. Most courts recognize that a motion to strike class action allegations may properly be filed before plaintiffs have filed a motion for class certification. See, e.g., Pilgrim v. Universal Health Card, LLC, 660 F.3d 943, 945 (6th Cir. 2011); Bearden v. Honeywell Intern., Inc., No. 3:09-01035, [2010 BL 63279], 2010 WL 1223936, at *9 (M.D. Tenn. Mar. 24, 2010).  A court may strike class action allegations before a motion for class certification where the complaint itself demonstrates that the requirements for maintaining a class action cannot be met. See Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 160 (1982) ("Sometimes the issues are plain enough from the pleadings"). 

The big issue here was whether the complaint proposed a fail-safe class.   A class definition is impermissible where it is a class that cannot be defined until the case is resolved on its merits. See Randleman v. Fidelity Nat'l Title Ins. Co., 646 F.3d 347, 352 (6th Cir. 2011). A fail-safe class is defined to in essence include only those who are entitled to relief.  Such a class is prohibited because it would allow putative class members to seek a remedy but not be bound by an adverse judgment — either those class members win or, by virtue of losing, they are not in the class and are not bound.

The various subclasses here included those who received calls and did not provide prior express written consent, and those who received calls who had expressly revoked their consent for such calls.  Thus, each of the Plaintiff's proposed classes was defined to include only those individuals who did not expressly consent to the receipt of the defendant's phone calls made with the use of an ATDS. Because the TCPA prohibits calls to cellular telephones using ATDSs unless prior express consent has been given, defining the class to include anyone who received such a call without prior express consent meant that only those potential members who would prevail on this liability issue would be members of the class.  In other words, the proposed classes consisted solely of persons who could establish that defendant violated the TCPA. Thus, if the Plaintiff successfully demonstrated that the Defendant made calls using an ATDS without the class members' prior express consent, then the class members would win, said the court. However, if the Plaintiffs were unsuccessful in meeting their burden of proof, the class did not even not exist and the apparent class members (folks who got a call) would not be bound by the judgment in favor of the Defendant. This was the very definition of a prohibited fail-safe class.

So, motion granted; class allegations struck.

 

Comcast Requirement of Class-wide Damages Dooms Class

A California federal court has denied class certification to a putative class of consumers who bought food products marketed as healthy, which allegedly were not because they contained hydrogenated oils and corn syrup. See Lucina Caldera, et al. v. The J.M. Smucker Co., No. 2:12-cv-04936 (C.D. Cal.).

On June 6, 2012, Plaintiff filed a consumer class action on behalf of individuals who purchased Defendant’s Uncrustables and Crisco Original and Butter Flavor Shortening products. Plaintiff alleged that the packaging of these products misled consumers into believing that they were healthful, when allegedly they were not because they contain trans fat and high fructose corn syrup. Based on these allegations, Plaintiff asserted the usual claims: (1) violation of Cal. Bus. &
Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq. (“UCL”), unlawful prong; (2) violation of the UCL, fraudulent prong; (3)
violation of the UCL, unfair prong; (4) violation of California False Advertising Law (“FAL”), Cal.
Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500, et seq.; (5) violation of California Consumer Legal Remedies Act
(“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.; (6) breach of express warranty under California law; and (7) breach of implied warranty of merchantability under California law.

The court denied with prejudice the Plaintiff’s attempt to certify the proposed classes.

Under Rule 23(b)(3), a plaintiff must show that “the questions of law or fact common to class
members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members,” and that “a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.”
Predominance “tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation.” Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997). It focuses on the
relationship between the common and individual issues, requiring that the common issues be
qualitatively substantial in relation to the issues peculiar to individual class members. See Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1022 (9th Cir. 1998). The post-Dukes predominance inquiry
requires the court to consider whether other issues unique to individual class members are likely to render adjudication by representation impractical. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2556 (2011).  Defendant here argued that Plaintiff failed to satisfy the predominance requirement because she had not identified any method of proving damages on a classwide basis, and thus determining damages would involve individualized inquiries that predominate over common questions.

The predominance requirement is satisfied only if Plaintiff is able to show that class damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability. Leyva v. Medline Industries, Inc., 716 F.3d 510, 514 (9th Cir. 2013); see Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426, 1435 (2013).  As the Supreme Court reemphasized in Comcast, in order for Rule 23(b)(3)’s predominance requirement to be satisfied, a plaintiff must bring forth a measurement that can be applied classwide and that ties the plaintiff’s legal theory to the impact of the defendant’s allegedly illegal conduct. Thus, after Comcast, the question is whether a plaintiff has met its burden of establishing that damages can be proven on a classwide basis. See In re Diamond Foods, Inc., Sec. Litig., 2013 WL 1891382, at *252 (N.D. Cal. May 6, 2013).

Here, the court concluded, the Plaintiff failed to meet this burden.  Plaintiff did not offer any method of proving damages on a classwide basis. Plaintiff merely stated that damages could be proven on a classwide basis based on Defendant’s California sales data. However, this is not a case where class members would necessarily be entitled to a full refund of their purchase price. Accordingly, defendant’s sales data alone would not provide sufficient information to measure classwide damages. The class sought restitution, Restitution based on a full refund would only be appropriate if not a single class member received any benefit from the products. See In re POM Wonderful LLC, 2014 WL 1225184, at *3 & n.2 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2014). Plaintiff failed to offer any evidence, let alone expert testimony, that damages could be calculated based on the difference between the market price and true value of the products.

As evidenced by named Plaintiff’s own deposition testimony, class members undeniably received some benefit from the products. Awarding class members a full refund would not account for these benefits conferred upon class members. Accordingly, classwide damages could not accurately be measured based on Defendant’s sales data alone. (Plaintiff’s Motion to certify the injunctive relief
classes also was denied without prejudice.)

 

TCPA Class Rejected on Defendant's Motion

Readers may know that there is a fair amount of litigation alleging violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. What's interesting about this proposed TCPA class action, Ryan v. Jersey Mike's Franchise Sys., No. 3:13-cv-01427-BEN-JLB (3/28/14), is that the decision comes on defendants' motion to deny class certification, an aggressive and perhaps seldom used preemptive motion. 

A court is required to determine whether or not to certify the action as a class action at an early "practicable time." Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)(l)(A). Rule 23 is not a mere pleading standard, and a party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate his or her compliance with the Rule.  Wal-MartStores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011). It may be necessary for a court to probe behind the pleadings before coming to rest on the certification question. In making the class certification determination, a court is required to engage in "rigorous analysis." Id. That analysis frequently entails "some overlap with the merits of the plaintiffs underlying claim." Id.

Several courts have approved the use of preemptive motions to deny class certification before a plaintiff has filed a motion to certify a class. E.g., Vinole v. Countrywide Home Loans, 571 F.3d 935, 941 (9th Cir. 2009). Such motions may be appropriately granted before discovery has been completed, as district courts have broad discretion to control the class certification process and have the discretion to determine whether discovery will be permitted. A party seeking class certification is not always entitled to discovery on the class certification issue.  See Doninger v. Pac Nw. Bell, Inc., 564 F.2d 1304, 1313 (9th Cir. 1977). A motion for class certification can be properly denied without discovery where plaintiffs cannot make a prima facie showing of Rule 23's prerequisites or where discovery measures are not likely to produce persuasive information substantiating class action allegations. 

Plaintiff here alleged that defendants transmitted unauthorized bulk spam text messages to the cellular phones of unwilling customers in order to promote their shop. Plaintiff alleged that these text message were aggravating and required consumers to pay their cell phone providers to not receive the spam messages. Plaintiff claimed that defendants assembled lists of consumer cell phone numbers, "without any authorization" to use the numbers.  Plaintiff alleged that the defendants then sent massive amounts of spam commercial text message advertisements, using auto-dialers or robo-callers.  Plaintiff further alleged that the texts were sent to mobile phone users with whom the defendants had "no prior business relationship."

The court described that the defendant store had a customer loyalty program known as the "Shore Points" in which it issued customers loyalty cards that they could use to earn and redeem "loyalty points" for free products. Each card had a unique bar code number and was linked in a database to a telephone number provided by the customer when the card is issued. Defendants claimed the only numbers in their records were numbers provided by their customers. Defendants explained that messages are only sent to members of the loyalty program who gave their cell phone numbers to the stores.  Plaintiff admits that he was given a loyalty card on one of his visits to the store, and he got a test message advertising the store, and offered free chips and a drink with the purchase of any sub.

Readers know that the typicality requirement is to assure that the interest of the named representative aligns with interests of the class.  E.g.,  Hanon v. Dataproducts Corp., 976F.2d 497, 508 (9th Cir. 1992). In determining whether the typicality requirement is satisfied, a court determines whether other members have the same or similar injury, whether the action is based on conduct which is not unique to the named plaintiffs, and whether other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct.

Here, plaintiff said he did not remember ever giving a phone number,  but was "not 100% sure. I suppose it's possible." He argued that not remembering interactions with fast food attendants made him a "more typical consumer, not less typical."

On defendants' motion, the court concluded that class certification was inappropriate in this case; plaintiff was fatally inconsistent and uncertain about critical issues relating to the possible consent to receive text messages. These consent issues were critical to any theory of recovery, including the TCPA. While plaintiff stated under oath in his deposition that he did not provide his phone number, it was clear he did not remember his conversation with the cashier. His inconsistency and uncertainty rendered class action treatment inappropriate.  Plaintiff could not represent a class of individuals who did not give out their phone numbers because he was unsure whether he did not give the defendants his phone number.

While it was quite possible that most people would not remember such details, that did not make plaintiff an appropriate representative of a class to assert the rights of others.  Discovery would not allow him to resolve the uncertainty regarding his own experience. An inability to remember key details may be typical, but the typicality requirement of a class action lawsuit demands more.  Plaintiff's conflicting accounts of critical facts that would determine what kinds of claims he could bring meant that the necessary alignment of interests is impossible. Motion granted, no class.

 

Juice Class Decertified at Close of Discovery

A federal court recently decertified a class action filed on behalf of  juice buyers, recognizing the grave ascertainability problems in the case alleging that the beverage maker misleadingly advertised its drink's health benefits. See In re Pom Wonderful LLC Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., No. 2:10-ml-2199-DDP-RZ (C.D. Cal. 3/25/14).

Back in 2012, the court had certified a damages class comprised of all persons who purchased a Pom Wonderful 100% juice product between October 2005 and September 2010. After the  completion of discovery, Pom moved to decertify the class, in light of the facts developed and in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013). On a motion for decertification, as at the certification stage, the burden to demonstrate that the requirements of Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23(a) and (b) are met lies with the party advocating certification. E.g., Marlo v. United Parcel Serv. Inc., 639 F.3d 942, 947 (9th Cir. 2011).

The court noted that the Ninth Circuit has adopted a rather narrow reading of Comcast, which holds that, under rigorous analysis, “plaintiffs must be able to show that their damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability.” Leyva v. Medline Indus., Inc., 716 F.3d 510, 514 (9th Cir. 2013). Thus, the court proceeded to examine plaintiffs’ damages models and the relationship of those models to the plaintiffs’ legal theories. Plaintiffs' expert advanced two damages models. The "Full Refund" model concluded that consumers spent $450 million on Pom’s 100% pomegranate juice and juice blends during the class period, and that class damages are 100% of the amount paid, or $450 million.  Defendant argued that the Full Refund model was invalid because it failed to account for any value consumers received. Even putting aside any potential health benefits, defendant argued, consumers still received value in the form of hydration, vitamins, and minerals.  The court agreed.  The California consumer acts authorize a trial court to grant restitution to private litigants asserting claims under those statutes. Colgan v. Leatherman Tool Group, Inc.,135 Cal.App.4th 663, 694 (2006). “The difference between what the plaintiff paid
and the value of what the plaintiff received is a proper measure of restitution.” In re Vioxx Class Cases, 180 Cal.App.4th 116, 131 (2009). “A party seeking restitution must generally return any
benefit that it has received.” Dunkin v. Boskey, 82 Cal.App.4th 171, 198 (2000).  Since the model did not account for this, it did not comport with Comcast.

The second or "Price Premium" model assumed that, absent the alleged misrepresentations, “demand for Pom would have been less and the Pom market price would have been lower.” The Price Premium model quantified alleged damages “by comparing the price of Pom with other refrigerated juices of the same size.”  This model yielded a damage calculation of “about $290 million.”  The parties agreed that the Price Premium model depended upon a “fraud on the market” theory. Plaintiffs essentially asserted (1) that a presumption of reliance dependent upon defendant’s alleged material misrepresentations establishes the existence of a fraud on the
entire juice market, (2) that because of that fraud on the market, every consumer who purchased defendant’s juices was similarly damaged, regardless of motivation or satisfaction, and (3) damages could therefore be measured on a class-wide basis. But, the court was not aware of any authority applying a fraud on the market theory to this type of consumer action. (It's a securities thing!)  Putting that issue aside, a plaintiff alleging a fraud on the market must show that the relevant market is efficient. See Smilovits v. First Solar, Inc., 295 F.R.D. 423, 429 (D. Ariz. 2013). This court was not persuaded that the market for defendant’s high-end refrigerated juice products operates efficiently.

Third, whether the entire class can be said to have relied upon the alleged  misrepresentations for liability purposes, this did not necessarily speak to the adequacy of a damages model. Plaintiffs must be able to show that their damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability.  Plaintiff's expert made no attempt upon a sound methodology to explain how defendant’s alleged misrepresentations caused any amount of damages. Instead, the expert  simply observed that Pom’s juices were more expensive than certain other juices. Rather than
answer the critical question why that price difference existed, or to what extent it was a result of Pom’s alleged actions, the expert simply assumed that 100% of that price difference was attributable to the alleged misrepresentations. Rather than draw any link between Pom’s actions and the price difference between the juice average benchmark price and average Pom prices, the Price Premium model simply calculated what the price difference was. This damages “model” did not comport with Comcast’s requirement that class-wide damages be tied to a legal theory.

The other basis for the decision was ascertainability.  In situations where purported class members purchase an inexpensive product for a variety of reasons, and are unlikely to retain receipts or other transaction records, class actions may present such daunting administrative challenges that class treatment is not feasible.  See, e.g., In re Phenylpropanolamine Prods., 214 F.R.D. 614, 620 (W.D. Wash. 2003) (describing critical manageability problems concerning sales of a three dollar medication, despite possibility of fluid recovery); Sethavanish v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., 2014 WL 580696 at *5 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 13, 2014) (denying certification because proposed class of nutrition bar purchasers would not be ascertainable).  Here, plaintiffs acknowledged that, based on the volume of product sold, every adult in the United States is a potential class member. Realistically, the class included at least ten to fifteen million purchasers. These millions of consumers paid only a few dollars per bottle, and likely made their purchases for a variety of reasons, observed the court. Few, if any, consumers were likely to have retained receipts during the class period, which closed years before the filing of this action. This case therefore fell well toward the unascertainable end of the spectrum. Here, at the close of discovery and despite plaintiffs’ efforts, there was no way to reliably determine who purchased defendant’s products or when they did so.

Class decertified.

Certification Rejected in Dietary Supplement Claim

The important issues of ascertainability and choice of law led a federal court to deny class certification in litigation relating to the dietary supplement VPX Meltdown Fat Incinerator.  See Karhu v. Vital Pharm., Inc., No. 13-60768 (S.D. Fla., 3/3/14).

Plaintiff filed a class complaint against Vital Pharmaceuticals Inc.  to recover damages based upon VPX's alleged false advertisements, and to enjoin any further alleged misrepresentations. He sought to bring the suit on behalf of all persons in the United States who have purchased Meltdown for purposes other than resale since April 4, 2008. The claims included:  (1) breach of express warranty under the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act ("MMWA"), 15 U.S.C. § 2301, et seq.; (2) breach of
express warranty; (3) unjust enrichment; and (4) violation of the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act ("FDUTPA"), Fla. Stat. § 501.201, et seq.

The court concluded that the case would be unmanageable as a class action. First, the court saw no practical method of verifying membership in the proposed Class of Meltdown purchasers. No central record of Meltdown customers existed, and it was unlikely that each Meltdown purchaser since 2008 has retained a proof of purchase. Second, the claims of the Nationwide Class would implicate the laws of multiple states. The varied requirements of the states' laws would require different proof on each claim depending on the locations of the class members. These legal permutations would render an eventual trial unwieldy, and would overshadow the common factual questions that otherwise allegedly united the class members' claims.

Regarding ascertainability, a plaintiff seeking class certification must first craft a class definition clear enough to allow the court to understand whether a particular individual is a member of the class, and that membership is ascertainable. A class is ascertainable only if the court can determine whether a given person is a class member through administratively feasible methods. See In re Checking Account Overdraft Litig., 286 F.R.D. 645, 650–51 & n.7 (S.D. Fla. 2012). Here, plaintiff failed to propose a realistic method of identifying the individuals who purchased Meltdown. The courts have come to recognize that purchasers are less likely to retain receipts or other records of minor purchases, and thus cannot rely on those proofs to ascertain the identities of class members. See Red v. Kraft Foods, Inc., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 186948, at *14–19 (C.D. Cal. Apr. 12, 2012).

Nor could the court trust individuals to identify themselves as class members through the submission of affidavits. Accepting affidavits of Meltdown purchases without verification would deprive VPX of its due process rights to challenge the claims of each putative class member.  On the other hand, having VPX contest each affidavit would require a series of mini-trials and defeat the purpose of class-action treatment. Using affidavits to determine class membership would also invite fraudulent submissions and could dilute the recovery of genuine class members, said the court.

Regarding predominance, the court noted that the MMWA does not define a stand-alone federal cause of action for breach of express written warranty, but instead borrows state law causes of action for breach of both written and implied warranties. Under choice of law analysis, the law governing each class member's warranty claim is the law of the state where he or she purchased the Meltdown. The court noted that state law varied on issues such as privity and reliance. In short, varied state laws would govern the MMWA claims of class members across the country, imposing different legal requirements and overshadowing the allegedly common factual bases of the claims. Moreover, some of these laws would require individualized proof inappropriate for class treatment. In light of the differences among applicable laws and the potential need for individualized proof, the court found that individualized legal and factual issues predominate over the common aspects of the proposed class MMWA claims, rendering class certification inappropriate under Rule 23(b)(3).

Class certification denied.

Ice Cream Class Action Melts

Happy New Year to all our readers. Let's start 2014 with a delicious class action decision, a Late night snack for our readers.

A California court recently rejected a proposed statewide class in a suit accusing Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. of falsely advertising ice cream products as “all-natural.”  See Astiana v. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., No. 4:10-cv-04387 (N.D. Cal., 1/7/14).  Yes, we are starting off the year right where we left off, another all natural complaint.

Readers probably know that with a $5 correspondence course from Penn State in making ice cream, two regular guys named Ben and Jerry opened their first ice cream scoop shop in Burlington, Vermont, in 1978. 

Here, plaintiffs claimed that both the packaging and the advertising for the Ben & Jerry's ice cream products were deceptive and misleading to the extent that the cocoa in some of them was allegedly alkalized with a "synthetic" agent. Plaintiff filed the complaint in this action in 2010, alleging six causes of action – "unlawful business practices" in violation of Business & Professions Code § 17200; "unfair business practices" in violation of § 17200; "fraudulent business practices" in violation of § 17200; false advertising, in violation of Business & Professions Code § 17500; restitution based on quasi-contract/unjust enrichment; and common law fraud.  Everything but the ...pretty typical in these kinds of label attacks.

The parties originally reached a tentative settlement, which fell apart because of cy pres problems and S'mores issues regarding settlement distribution procedures.

Eventually, plaintiffs moved for class certification. Before certifying a class, the trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis to determine whether the party seeking certification has met the prerequisites of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. Mazza v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 666 F.3d 581, 588 (9th Cir. 2012). The party seeking class certification must affirmatively demonstrate that the class meets the requirements of Rule 23. See Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S.Ct. 2541, 2551 (2011); see also Gen'l Tel. Co. of Southwest v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 156 (1982).  As a threshold matter, and apart from the explicit requirements of Rule 23, the party seeking class certification must also demonstrate that an identifiable and ascertainable class exists. Mazur v. eBay Inc., 257 F.R.D. 563, 567 (N.D. Cal. 2009).

The court here found that the motion must be denied, for two primary reasons – plaintiff had not established that the class was ascertainable, and she had not established that common issues predominated over individual issues.

While there is no explicit requirement concerning the class definition in Rule 23, courts have held that the class must be adequately defined and clearly ascertainable before a class action may proceed. See Xavier v. Philip Morris USA Inc., 787 F.Supp. 2d 1075, 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2011); Schwartz v. Upper Deck Co., 183 F.R.D. 672, 679-80 (S.D. Cal. 1999). A class definition need not be Berry, berry extraordinary, but should be precise, objective and presently ascertainable. See Rodriguez v. Gates, 2002 WL 1162675 at *8 (C.D. Cal. May 30, 2002). That is, the class definition must be sufficiently definite so that it is administratively feasible to determine whether a particular person is a class member. See Xavier, 787 F.Supp. 2d at 1089.

Defendant contended that because cocoa can be alkalized using one of several alkalis – some of which are "natural" and some of which are allegedly "non-natural" (i.e., "synthetic") – it would be necessary to determine which class members bought an ice cream containing alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient.  However, there was no way to identify which class members bought which type of ice cream, particularly given that Ben & Jerry's is a wholesale manufacturer that does not maintain records identifying the ultimate customers or their purchases. What a cluster it would be.

The district court agreed with the defendant that the class was not sufficiently ascertainable. The class was defined as persons who bought Ben & Jerry's labeled "all natural" which contained alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient. However, plaintiffs provided no evidence as to which ice cream contained the allegedly "synthetic ingredient" (assuming that alkali can even be considered an "ingredient"). More importantly, plaintiffs had not shown that a means exists for identifying the alkali in every class member's ice cream purchases. The packaging labels said only "processed with alkali," because that is all the FDA required.

A second basis for rejecting the class was the predominance requirement. This inquiry requires the weighing of the common questions in the case against the individualized questions, and the predominance analysis under Rule 23(b)(3) can be more stringent than the commonality requirement of Rule 23(a)(2).  Rule 23(b)(3) focuses on the relationship between the common and individual issues. The inquiry is rigorous as it tests whether proposed class is sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. See AmChem Prods., 521 U.S. at 623-24. 

Defendant asserted that reliance, materiality, and causation were all inherently individual; for example, its experts established that consumer choice is affected by many different factors, and plaintiff had no evidence to show that "all natural" has any uniform meaning or that it would have any major impact on a consumer's decision to purchase (or not to purchase) a particular brand of ice cream. Defendant also contended that the likelihood of confusion from the label must be "probable," not just "possible," and that studies showed that at most 3% of consumers who saw "all natural" on the packaging expected that the alkali used to process the cocoa was "natural."

Defendant similarly argued that the only way to test materiality and reliance would be to determine how much each consumer would have de-valued the ice cream products given the alleged presence of the "synthetic" alkalizing agent. However, this also could not be done on a class-wide basis, because consumer choice is affected by myriad factors. 

Most importantly, the damages claim was Half-baked, as the evidence showed that no one paid a premium for the "all natural" Ben & Jerry's ice cream, as Ben & Jerry's charges its wholesale customers the same price regardless of flavor and regardless of the contents of the label. When Ben & Jerry's changed its label and removed the "all natural" label from some ice cream packages, the prices did not decrease (neither the wholesale nor the retail prices);  so there was no support for plaintiff's speculation that "all natural" ice creams command a premium.

The Court agreed. Whichever way one approached it, plaintiff had not met her burden of showing that there was a class-wide method of awarding relief that was consistent with her theory of deceptive and fraudulent business practices, false advertising, or common law fraud (or the alternative theory of restitution based on quasi-contract). Plaintiff had not offered any expert testimony demonstrating that the market price of Ben & Jerry's ice cream with the "all natural" designation was higher than the market price of Ben & Jerry's without the "all natural" designation. More importantly, plaintiff had not offered sufficient expert testimony demonstrating a gap between the market price of Ben & Jerry's "all natural" ice cream and the price it purportedly should have sold for if it had not been labeled "all natural" – or evidence demonstrating that consumers would be willing to pay a premium for "all natural" ice cream that was made with cocoa alkalized with a "natural" alkali, and did in fact pay such a premium.

Under Comcast, the plaintiff is required to provide evidentiary proof showing a class-wide method of awarding relief that is consistent with plaintiff's theory of liability. See 133 S.Ct. at 1432. Here, however, plaintiff provided no such damages evidence, and the failure to offer a damages model that was capable of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3) barred her effort to obtain certification of the class. 

Federal Court Rejects Consumer Class Action

 A California court recently rejected the class certification motion by a Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. customer alleging the chain falsely advertised its meat as humanely raised and free of antibiotics and hormones. See Alan Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. et al., No. 2:12-cv-05543 (C.D. Cal. 2013). While the case was initially broader, plaintiff’s allegations came to center on the
representations allegedly made in Chipotle’s in-store menu signboards and Chipotle’s paper menus.

The court concluded that the proposed class action failed to satisfy the requirements of Rule 23(b)(3). Class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) is proper, inter alia, only when common questions present a significant portion of the case and can be resolved for all members of the class in a single adjudication. The predominance inquiry under Rule 23(b) tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. See Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 623 (1997).  Rule 23(b)(3) also requires the court to find that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

Here, the court found that common questions did not predominate over individual issues, and the class action device was not a fair and efficient way to provide a fair opportunity for class members to obtain relief, or for Chipotle to defend itself against claims. Many key issues could only be handled individually. Most fundamentally, the questions of when a class member ate at Chipotle,
the exact location where he or she ate, and which meat (if any) he or she ate are all not subject to class treatment.  Here, the dispute concerned a very low price transaction that neither the class members nor Chipotle maintained any specific record of, or could be expected to recall. 

More importantly, the alleged misconduct took place only with regard to certain products at varying locations within limited time frames. That was critical, because certain stores were allegedly serving certain conventional meats only at certain times because of shortages. Therefore, a class member would need to know with some certainty – and Chipotle should be allowed some mechanism for confirming or contesting that certainty – the date, location, and particular meat purchased. That kind of certainty in a class action that  encompasses purchases more than five years ago and, said the court, was not practical. Credit card records could provide some evidence of class members’ purchases, but credit card records would not provide the critical detail of which meat was purchased in any given transaction. 

Further, the important question of whether a class member saw a point-of-purchase sign when a particular purchase was made cannot be handled on a class-wide basis. For each purchase when naturally raised meat was allegedly not being served, the court observed there were at least four possibilities: (1) the sign was there and the class member saw it, (2) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to Chipotle’s conduct, (3) the sign was there and the class member did not see it due to the class member’s negligence, and (4) the sign was not there. Many of the individual issues regarding liability were also reasons why the class action mechanism was not fair and efficient in this case.

In a burst of realism, the court was "confident" that very few people in a class would be able to provide the necessary information. People will either (1) lie, (2) attempt to present the facts but be unable to do so accurately, or, most likely, (3) not know.  This would even impact a theoretical future settlement.  Money would be given out basically at random to people who may or may not actually be entitled to restitution. This is unfair both to legitimate class members and to Chipotle.

The decision is the latest instance of an emerging trend in consumer class action cases: a recognition of the often insurmountable task of reliably identifying disparate members of a proposed class where few, if any members, have documentary proof of their purchases.  Here, it is treated as part of the predominance inquiry, and in other cases as part of ascertainability.

 

Report Issued on "New Lawsuit Ecosystem"

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute for Legal Reform has released a report examining the developing lawsuit “ecosystem” and areas of litigation of most concern to the business community. The report examines the trends and players in six key litigation areas, offers insights into new emerging liability threats, and explores the growing alliance between state attorneys general and the plaintiffs’ bar.  One key feature notes how alleged deceptive marketing claims against food and beverage makers are on the rise.  Readers will recall our many posts about the trend for plaintiffs to parse labels and bring putative class actions even when they were not injured by the product. The report is entitled "The New Lawsuit Ecosystem.”

The report delves into the areas of law where entrepreneurial plaintiffs’ lawyers have been prospecting for new liability: Class actions against food makers alleging misleading advertising;
Data privacy suits against businesses over allegations that they inadvertently violated released or misused customer information; Claims against brand-name drug manufacturers for injuries allegedly stemming solely from generic products they did not make or sell; Speculative theories of liability seeking to recover for risks of harm or “economic loss,” not actual injuries.

The report also looks at the increasingly troubling trend of state attorneys general turning over the keys to their offices and litigation powers to private plaintiffs’ lawyers. Plaintiffs’ lawyers often develop the legal theories, decide whom to target, and then “recruit” state attorneys general
to retain them on a contingency fee basis to bring the lawsuits. This process provides significant advantages to plaintiffs’ lawyers: it eliminates the need to represent individuals who were actually injured by a defendants’ product or conduct; avoids any contribution those individuals may have
made to their own injuries; reduces traditional defenses; heightens the plaintiffs’ lawyers’ subpoena power; and gives them the ability to seek fines, not just damages. State attorneys general have these powers because they are to be used sparingly, and only to advance appropriate public policies. They are not to be used to maximize personal profit, which is the goal
of private contingency fee lawyers who are often personal or political allies of the state attorneys general.

Very interesting read.


Among those contributing to the report were my colleagues Mark Behrens, Phil Goldberg, Victor E. Schwartz and Cary Silverman.

Federal Court Rejects Fraud Class Action

A federal court stayed a  rejected proposed class action pending the outcome of plaintiffs' petition for interlocutory appeal of the class certification denial.  See Wiedenbeck v. Cinergy Health Inc., No. 12-cv-508-wmc (W.D. Wis., 9/20 class decision; stay 10/15/13).

Readers may be interested in the logic of the denial. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants used false or misleading infomercials to induce the purchase of a medical benefit plan that was deceptively limited, and then acted in bad faith in denying coverage under the plan.  The plaintiffs sought class certification for their fraud claim for a class of for all Wisconsin residents who purchased an insurance policy since Jan. 1, 2007.

Before addressing the specific requirements for class certification, the court discussed various Seventh Circuit precedents, including Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 547 F.3d 742 (7th Cir. 2008), in which the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court‟s order certifying a class because common issues of law or fact did not predominate over issues particular to each putative class member's purchase of the defendant's dryer. Thorogood alleged that the words “stainless steel” imprinted on the dryer were deceptive because the dryer drum was not made entirely of stainless steel.  In rejecting plaintiff‟s motion, the Seventh Circuit concluded that a fraud claim necessarily would turn on each class member's understanding of the meaning of the “stainless steel” label, reasoning that at least some portion of the class -- and, based on the court‟s pointed query, “Does anyone believe this besides Mr. Thorogood?”, perhaps all -- would not share the plaintiff‟s understanding of this point-of-sale advertisement. 

The court concluded that this case was arguably even less suited for class treatment than Thorogood.  Plaintiffs relied on different television commercials with different language; moreover, the record demonstrated that given the dates they aired, some class members could not have seen the alleged uniform representations. Defendants used at least 10 different "call scripts" for telemarketing, and transcripts of calls showed each representative responding to specific, individual questions posed by or information received from the customer, meaning the content of actual consumer calls necessary would vary.  There was evidence some consumers received other, material information about the policy at issue, which may have impacted their individual purchase decisions. For example, it is undisputed that purchasers had ten days to cancel the policy from receipt of a member handbook provided post-purchase.  Thus, there was evidence of no common misrepresentation, and no evidence of a common understanding by class members. 

Readers will note the response to plaintiffs' argument that a fraud claim is subject to common proof because the reasonableness of a consumer's reliance (or whether the reliance is justified) is allegedly judged from an “objective” standard. Even if true, an intentional misrepresentation claim under Wisconsin law still requires a plaintiff to demonstrate that he or she actually relied on the false representation (i.e., was misled), which is separate from any inquiry as to whether the reliance was justified or reasonable. And for this element, plaintiffs provided no basis for proving reliance or causation on a class-wide basis.  The courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to certify a class where a fraud claim turns on an individual's understanding in order to demonstrate causation or reliance.  Accordingly, plaintiffs could not meet the commonality prong of Rule 23. 

Final point worth noting, the court also declined to certify a single issue class. There was no common representation, so there really was no single issue as asserted by plaintiffs.

 

Consumer Fraud Class Claim Dismissed in Beverage Case

Readers have seen our warning about the trend in food and beverage claims attacking virtually every aspect of the product's label as a supposed consumer fraud act violation. A federal court earlier this month dismissed just such a proposed class action challenging the labeling on VitaRain Tropical Mango Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage.  See Maple v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 12-5166 (E.D. Wash., 8/1/13).

Plaintiffs alleged in their amended complaint that one defendant manufactured and bottled a product known as VitaRain Vitamin Enhanced Water Beverage. VitaRain came in four flavors: Tropical Mango, Raspberry Green Tea, Kiwi Strawberry, and Dragonfruit. The product was marketed and distributed by another defendant and sold at Costco warehouses throughout the
country. Plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink in particular was marketed as a natural product but in fact contained “unnatural” ingredients, including large amounts of “synthetic caffeine.” Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink (1) lacked a front-facing disclosure that the beverage contained caffeine; (2) failed to disclose the relative amount of caffeine in the beverage; and (3) falsely claimed that the beverage is a “natural tonic” and
contains “natural caffeine.” Plaintiffs further alleged they “reasonably believed that they [had] purchased a Drink similar to vitamin water.” 

On behalf of a putative class consisting of all Washington residents who purchased the product over the four years preceding the filing of the lawsuit, the named plaintiff asserted claims for (1) violations of the Washington Consumer Protection Act; (2) misrepresentation; and (3) negligence.

Defendant Costco moved to dismiss the amended complaint, contending, inter alia, that some
of plaintiff’s claims were preempted by federal law; and that parts of the amended complaint failed to meet the pleading standards of Rules 8 and 9(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

To withstand dismissal, a complaint must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Naked assertion[s],” “labels and conclusions,” or “formulaic recitation[s] of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. at 555, 557.  A claim has facial plausibility only "when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).

First an interesting civil procedure issue. Ordinarily, when the district court considers matters outside the pleadings it must convert a motion to dismiss brought under Civil Rule 12(b)(6) into a Civil Rule 56 motion for summary judgment. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(d). However, a court may consider certain materials without converting the motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. See, e.g., United States v. Ritchie, 342 F.3d 903, 908 (9th Cir. 2003). Such materials include documents attached to the complaint, documents incorporated by reference in the complaint, or matters of judicial notice.  A document may be incorporated by reference into a complaint where the
plaintiff refers extensively to the document or the document forms the basis of plaintiff’s claim. In such cases, the defendant may offer that document and the district court may treat the document as part of the complaint for the purposes of a motion to dismiss. Here, the court concluded that judicial notice of the product label was appropriate and that it could consider the labeling without converting Costco’s motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment.

Defendants argued that plaintiff’s claims were expressly preempted by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetics Act (“FDCA”), as amended by the National Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”), 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. The FDCA “comprehensively regulates food and beverage labeling.” Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co., 679 F.3d 1170, 1175 (9th Cir. 2012).  And specifically, they govern whether and how a label must disclose the presence of caffeine.  Here, the Amended Complaint sought "to create and impose”  two new requirements which would directly conflict with federal law: (1) a requirement that caffeinated beverages disclose the fact that they contain caffeine on the front label; and (2) a requirement that labels state the “relative amount” of caffeine by providing a “daily value” amount.  By virtue of imposing these new and conflicting requirements, defendants contended, plaintiff’s claims were preempted.  The court agreed; defendants showed that these food labeling requirements are expressly covered by the regulations. Federal law preempts any state law that would impose additional requirements on how food labels present nutrition information.  See Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423, 426 (7th Cir. 2011).  Specifically, the court held that federal law preempts plaintiff’s claims that (1) defendants were required to disclose that the drink contained caffeine on the front label of the drink and (2) that defendants were required to state the “relative amount” of caffeine in the drink. Therefore Costco’s motion to dismiss was granted as to these claims.

Next, defendants contended that plaintiff had also failed to adequately plead causation, an element of the remaining consumer fraud-based allegations. Specifically, defendants argued that plaintiff had not alleged that he even read the complained-of labels before purchasing the VitaRain drink. The court noted that while the amended complaint contained detailed allegations about what was, and what was not, on the label of the VitaRain Tropical Mango drink he allegedly purchased, nowhere did he state that he actually read the label, or that his purchasing decision was driven by the alleged deceptive statements on the label.  Broad conclusory statements on causation. such as that class members have suffered "as a result of" purchasing the energy Drink, were insufficient, especially in light of Plaintiff’s failure to allege that he even read the allegedly deceptive labels prior to purchasing the drink.

Finally, on the misrepresentation claims, defendants suggested that plaintiff could not prove the reliance elements of his fraudulent misrepresentation and negligent misrepresentation claims because he had not alleged that he saw the alleged misrepresentations prior to purchasing
the drink. The court dismissed plaintiff’s misrepresentation claim for the same reason that the CPA claim was dismissed: Plaintiff failed to adequately plead reliance because he had not alleged that he based his purchasing decision on the complained-of labels or that he even read the labels
prior to purchasing the drink.  The court refused to credit the naked assertion that he would not have purchased the drink had the label not contained such statements in light of the missing averments.

Claims dismissed (with leave to amend).

 

Another Plaintiff Fails to Obtain Class Certification for Claims About Products Not Actually Purchased

We've posted before about the curious phenomenon of plaintiffs suing about the labeling on a product they never even purchased.  Recently class certification was denied in yet another case alleging false labeling on a product the named plaintiff did not buy  See Major v. Ocean Spray Cranberries Inc., No. 12-03067 (N.D. Cal., 6/10/13). We flag this case for our readers, because of the court's emphasis on the Rule 23(a) element of typicality instead of the equally applicable notion of standing.

Plaintiff alleged that she purchased several of defendant’s products in California. Her Complaint stated that Plaintiff purchased various “Ocean Spray juices and drinks” that were allegedly improperly labeled "No Sugar Added," or were bearing improper nutrient content claims, or had misrepresentations that the products were free from artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.  She alleged the usual causes of action, including violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq. (counts 1–3); violation of the False Advertising Law (“FAL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq., (counts 4–5); violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq. (count 6); restitution based on unjust enrichment or quasi-contract (count 7); and breach of warranty (8).

She sought certification of a class of similar purchasers. Rule 23(a)(3) requires that a named plaintiff’s claims be typical of those that would be advanced by the proposed class. Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(a)(3). The test for Rule 23(a) typicality in the Ninth Circuit is whether other members have the same or similar injury, whether the action is based on conduct which is not unique to the named plaintiffs, and whether other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct. See Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1175 (9th Cir. 2010); Ries v. Arizona Beverages USA LLC, 287 F.R.D. 523, 539 (N.D. Cal. 2012).

In the context of cases involving several products at issue —like this one— district courts have held that the typicality requirement has not been met where the named plaintiff purchased a different product than that purchased by unnamed, absent class, plaintiffs. Wiener, 255 F.R.D. at 666; see also Gonzalez v. Proctor & Gamble Co., 247 F.R.D. 616 (S.D. Cal. 2007); Lewis Tree Serv., Inc. v. Lucent Techs. Inc., 211 F.R.D. 228 (S.D.N.Y.2002); Kaczmarek v. Int’l Bus. Machs. Corp., 186 F.R.D. 307, 313 (S.D.N.Y. 1999).

With that standard in mind, here the court found that plaintiff, the proposed class representative, had not met her burden of showing that her claims are typical of those of the proposed class members pursuant to Rule 23(a)(3).  The primary reason behind the court’s determination that the typicality requirement had not been met is that plaintiff’s proposed classes were so broad and indefinite that they encompassed products that she herself did not purchase. See Wiener, 255 F.R.D. at 666. In her deposition, plaintiff asserted that she purchased five of the defendants’ products. But the putative class definitions that plaintiff wanted the court to certify would have included a whole host of other products that plaintiff had nothing to do with. For example, the putative class would include any of defendant’s products “represented to contain no artificial colors, flavors or preservatives but which contained artificial colors, flavors or preservatives.”  The putative class also included entire lines of products; as an example, any product from the “Sparkling” line of products. However, in both of these examples, plaintiff failed to make an allegation that she purchased all of such products, all the products in these product lines. As such, the claims of the unnamed plaintiffs who purchased products plaintiff herself did not buy were not fairly encompassed by the named plaintiff’s claims.

The second basis of the finding that plaintiff's claims failed to meet the Rule 23(a) typicality requirement is the fact that the labels and nutrition claims on each of the products at issue was unique to that product itself. For example, plaintiff based her mislabeling causes of action with regard to the Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry drink product, in part, on the claims made on the specific label of this specific drink product -- language that included specific claims about blueberries, applicable only to drinks containing blueberries. The evidence needed to prove plaintiff’s claim that the Diet Sparkling Pomegranate Blueberry drink contained false or misleading labeling was not probative of the claims of unnamed class members who purchased products within the “Sparkling” line that did not contain blueberries. 

Certification denied.

 

Supreme Court Remands Two Class Actions in Light of Comcast

Earlier this week I spoke at a CLE seminar on the topic of class actions, and part of my focus was the recent Supreme Court decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013).  Since that decision, the Court has granted cert, vacated, and remanded for reconsideration two class action cases involving allegations of defects in washing machines:  Whirlpool Corp. v. Glazer, No. 12-322 (U.S. 4/1/13); Sears, Roebuck & Co. v. Butler, No. 12-1067 (U.S. June 3, 2013).


In Glazer, the lower court had certified a class of purchasers of washing machines despite admitted variations in laundry habits; differences in remedial efforts; variation in service performed on the machines.  And despite the fact that a reported 97% of the class had never complained of a problem or suffered the alleged defect. 678 F.3d 409 (6th Cir. 2012).

In Butler, the lower court had granted certification of two classes of more than 100,000 members in six states who purchased 20 different models of machines; again many never had the problem alleged.

So where does Comcast, ostensibly an antitrust case, fit here?  The Court reaffirmed that a class action is an exception to the rule of individual adjudication. And to get there, Rule 23 is not merely a pleading standard. Just as Dukes made clear that a rigorous analysis of the Rule 23(a) prerequisites, such as commonality, is required, the same principles apply to Rule 23(b) elements, such as predominance. And a court cannot refuse to consider class certification arguments just because those arguments also might be relevant to the merits of plaintiffs' claims.

In Glazer the district court made noises about some of the defense arguments on certification going to the merits, and the Sixth Circuit had about two sentences on predominance -- suggesting the absence of the rigorous analysis required.

In Butler, 702 F.3d 359 (7th Cir. 2012), the Seventh Circuit suggested predominance was met because it would be more efficient to resolve the question whether the machines were defective in a single class trial; predominance is a question of efficiency.  That would seem to run afoul of Rule 23, which incorporates efficiency in the notion of superiority, but not as a definition of or synonym for predominance. Indeed the Advisory Committee notes suggest that efficiencies flow only when predominance is present. Prior Court opinions instruct that predominance implies a notion of cohesion.  And the Butler court's treatment of the need for individual damages trials seems flatly inconsistent with the Comcast Court's statements on the need for proof on a class-wide basis.

 Two to keep an eye on.

 

 

Another Un-natural "Natural" Claim Dismissed

We have posted before about the disturbing trend of plaintiffs parsing food labels to find something to complain about -- not that the product is unhealthy or harmful or doesn't taste good -- but a "gotcha" game raised to the level of a consumer fraud act violation or a breach of warranty class action.  So we like to note when common sense prevails in this arena.  A federal court recently held that a food manufacturer cannot be in breach of an express warranty for using the term "natural" on its label when that same label discloses the identity and presence of any ingredients the plaintiffs claim were not "natural."   See Chin v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-02150 (D.Minn. 6/3/13).


General Mills produces, markets, and sells a line of Nature Valley products, including “Protein Chewy Bars,” “Chewy Trail Mix Granola Bars,” “Yogurt Chewy Granola Bars,” “Sweet & Salty Nut Granola Bars,” and “Granola Thins.” By all accounts these are excellent products that taste great and offer nutritious ingredients. Plaintiffs were consumers who allegedly purchased one or more of the Nature Valley products. The plaintiffs alleged the products were deceptively labeled as “100 percent Natural” because they contained fructose corn syrup and high maltose corn syrup.  Plaintiffs alleged they relied on the representations, and would not have purchased the products or paid as much if they had known of the actual ingredients. Plaintiffs sought a national class, and sub-classes for New York and New Jersey.

The first problem was that plaintiffs sought relief for alleged representations made on bars that they never purchased; plaintiffs lacked Article III standing for these products and plaintiffs could not represent a class of consumers who purchased products that the named plaintiffs did not purchase. The named plaintiffs in a class action may not rely on injuries that the putative class may have suffered, but instead, said the court, must allege that they personally have been injured. Lewis v. Casey, 518 U.S. 343, 357 (1996); Thunander v. Uponor, Inc., 887 F. Supp. 2d 850, 863 (D. Minn. 2012).

The express warranty claim failed because the term “100% Natural” on a label cannot be viewed in isolation and must be read in the context of the entire package, including the ingredient panel. The specific terms included in the ingredient list must inform the more general term “Natural.” The specific terms determine the scope of the express warranty that was allegedly made to the plaintiffs. And here, a defendant cannot be in breach of an express warranty by including in the product an ingredient that it expressly informed consumers was included.  It is typical of plaintiffs in these cases to elevate one word or phrase in a label, while ignoring all the other information provided the consumer.

Finally, the fraud based claims were dismissed for failure to satisfy the heightened pleading requirements of Rule 9(b). Plaintiffs failed to plead how they were deceived by the “100% Natural” statement. Plaintiffs did not allege with any specificity what they believed “100% Natural” to mean.

Motion to dismiss granted.

 

 

Consumer Fraud Claims Denied; Class Decertified

A federal court ruled recently for defendant in a proposed class action about the labeling of an iced tea product. See Ries v. Arizona Beverages USA LLC, No. 10-01139 (N.D. Cal., 3/28/13).

We have posted before about plaintiffs' efforts to manufacture consumer fraud class actions out of any aspect of a product label or marketing. Here, plaintiffs brought a class action challenge defendants’ advertising, marketing, selling, and distribution of AriZona Iced Tea beverages labeled “All Natural,” “100% Natural,” and “Natural” because they allegedly contained high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and citric acid. Problem turns out, plaintiffs could muster no proof the marketing was false.

The Complaint set forth six California state law claims for relief: under the False Advertising Law (FAL) for (1) misleading and deceptive advertising, and (2) untrue advertising; under the Unfair Competition Law (UCL), for (3) unlawful, (4) unfair, and (5) fraudulent business practices; and (6) under the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), for injunctive and declarative relief.

The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment and plaintiffs filed a motion for class certification. The court initially certified the class under Rule 23(b)(2) for purposes of injunctive and declaratory relief only. At the close of discovery, defendants made a renewed motion for summary judgment, reviving their argument that the named plaintiffs could not support their claims, and had failed to meet their evidentiary burden of showing that defendants’ beverage labeling practices were unfair or misleading. Defendants further moved for decertification of the class.

The court noted that factual predicate for each of plaintiffs’ claims was that the beverages were falsely labeled as “all natural” despite allegedly containing HFCS and citric acid. So plaintiffs had to show that HFCS and citric acid are indeed not natural; and also that accordingly they were entitled to restitution. In their opposition to the motion for summary judgment, plaintiffs did not offer any credible evidence that HFCS is artificial and thus rendered the beverage not natural.  But plaintiffs had no credible evidence, relying primarily on the fact the ingredients were allegedly patented.  But they cited no legal authority supporting their contention that if the process to produce an ingredient is patented, that fact, in and of itself, automatically renders it artificial and no natural. This was, the court observed, merely an extension of their rhetoric that HFCS is artificial because it “cannot be grown in a garden or field, it cannot be plucked from a tree, and it cannot be found in the oceans or seas of this planet.”  The deposition testimony they cited, even when read in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, did not satisfy their evidentiary burden. It certainly did not demonstrate that it is probable that a significant portion of the consuming public could be confused by the “all natural” labeling of defendants’ products. Rather than showing that defendants were attempting to engage in unfair competition by capitalizing on any such confusion, the testimony indicated that everything in the beverages is natural, and that defendants even included labels specifying that they contain all natural tea without preservatives, artificial color, and artificial flavor to clarify that to theoretically confused customers.

On the restitution issue, the court noted there must be evidence that supports the amount of restitution necessary to restore to the plaintiff, meaning the difference between what the plaintiff paid and the value of what the plaintiff received.  Plaintiffs had no such evidence to support their prayer for restitution and disgorgement. Plaintiffs offered not a scintilla of evidence from which a finder of fact could determine the amount of restitution or disgorgement to which plaintiffs might be entitled if this case were to proceed to trial. This failure alone provided an independent and sufficient basis to grant defendants summary judgment.  

The court also found that plaintiffs' failures undermined the finding of adequacy of representation under Rule 23(a)(4). The class was therefore decertified. One wonders why it was certified in the first place.


The class was decertified, the motion for summary judgment was granted, and a motion to exclude expert opinion testimony was denied as moot.

No Purchase, No Standing

Earlier this month a federal court reaffirmed that a named class representative in a proposed consumer class action against Ghirardelli Chocolate Co. lacked standing to assert claims about products he never bought. See Miller v. Ghirardelli Chocolate Co., No. 12-04936 (N.D. Cal. 4/5/13). We have posted before about plaintiffs overreaching in consumer fraud class actions. If a tree falls and no one is there, does it make a sound? If you never bought and used a product, how can you bring a “consumer” claim?

Plaintiff Scott Miller allegedly bought a package of “Ghirardelli® Chocolate Premium Baking Chips –Classic White” and then, on behalf of himself and other consumers, sued the Ghirardelli
Chocolate Company, complaining that defendant somehow deceived customers into thinking that this and four other products contained “artificial” or “imitation” ingredients, in violation of United States Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and state regulations.

Readers may know that Ghirardelli is one of America’s longest continuously operating chocolate manufacturers (more than 150 years) and that it is one of very few American manufacturers that make chocolate starting from the cocoa bean through to finished products. Ghirardelli accepts
only the highest-quality beans, rejecting as many as 30% of the beans that are offered it. Ghirardelli roasts the cocoa beans in-house to ensure the company’s signature flavor profile is consistently maintained in all chocolate products.

Miller filed suit in San Francisco County Superior Court, and Ghirardelli removed to federal
court and moved to dismiss the complaint. The court initially agreed that Miller lacked standing for products he had not purchased. At oral argument, however, plaintiff argued that the branding on the label meant that – under the FDA regulations and standards – the alleged harm was identical across product lines, and that established standing as to products he never used. Miller filed an amended complaint and Ghirardelli again moved to dismiss.

Hard as it may be to believe, there are a few cases that suggest that a plaintiff who does not purchase a product nonetheless may have standing if the products and alleged misrepresentations were substantially similar. E.g., Astiana v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., No. C-11-2910 EMC, 2012 WL 2990766, at *11 (N.D. Cal. July 20, 2012). But certainly where the alleged misrepresentations or accused products are dissimilar, courts tend to dismiss claims to the extent they are based on products not purchased. E.g., Larsen v. Trader Joe’s Co., No. 11-cv-5188-SI (Docket No. 41) (N.D. Cal. June 14, 2012), the court found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring claims based on products they did not purchase (wide range of Trader Joe’s products (cookies, apple juice, cinnamon rolls,biscuits, ricotta cheese, and crescent rolls). See also Stephenson v. Neutrogena, No. C-12-0426 PJH, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1005099, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Jul. 27, 2012) (plaintiff brought suit over six Neutrogena Naturals products but had only purchased the purifying facial cleanser).

Even under the Astiana approach, here the products were too different: they look different; they have different uses (baking chips, drink powders, and wafers); they have different labels and different representations on packaging, and they are marketed and sold differently in that, for example, some are sold alongside each other, and some are sold in commercial markets and others in consumer markets. The logo, which plaintiff put so much emphasis on, was relatively unimportant considering the varying products, packaging and representations, and markets. Logos cannot be dispositive of what a product is and that a consumer determines what a product or characterizing flavor is by reviewing the label. Finally, the identity of the commodity here under FDA regulations was “white chocolate,” not “chocolate” as in the logo. That in turn means that a determination of standing required an examination of the entire label, and again, the five products and the alleged misrepresentations were not sufficiently similar.

Class Denied in Credit Card Claim

A federal court in California last week denied certification of  a proposed class of Nike store customers. Gormley v. Nike Inc., No. C-11-893-SI, (N.D. Cal., 1/28/13).  The issue, interestingly, was typicality.

Plaintiffs in these consolidated cases brought putative class actions on behalf of themselves
and a class of consumers, alleging that defendants violated the Song-Beverly Credit Card Act of 1971, by requesting and recording the ZIP codes of credit card customers through Nike’s “Information Capture Policy.”  Plaintiffs alleged that Nike implemented and maintained a policy whereby its cashiers were trained to follow the “EPOC manual” under which cashiers were prompted with a pop-up box on their screen to enter the customer’s ZIP code. The screen on the sales register that allowed the cashier to input a customer’s ZIP code did not appear until after the credit card was authorized and the receipt was printing. If a customer declined to provide a ZIP
code, Nike’s cashiers entered any alphanumeric combination.  In support of class certification, plaintiffs submitted evidence that, during the class period, Nike’s ZIP code request policy was allegedly implemented at every Nike retail store in California, and ZIP codes were requested and recorded during approximately 561,179 transactions.

The plaintiffs sought to represent a class of all those consumers who Nike requested a ZIP code from in conjunction with a credit card transaction in a retail store in California from February 24, 2010, to February 24, 2011.  Defendants raised a number of arguments against class certification, including noting that the proposed class definition appeared to be "fail-safe."  But the issue that the court focused on was typicality. Rule 23(a)(3) requires the named plaintiffs to show that their claims are typical of those of the class. To satisfy this requirement, the named plaintiffs must be members of the class and must possess the same interest and suffer the same injury as the class members. Gen. Tel. Co. of Sw. v. Falcon, 457 U.S. 147, 156 (1982). The typicality requirement may be satisfied when each class member’s claim arises from the same course of events, and each class member makes similar legal arguments to prove the defendant’s liability. Rodriguez v. Hayes, 591 F.3d 1105, 1124 (9th Cir. 2010).

Although in the past many courts have found the typicality requirement is not stringent, the court here followed the recent trend, and held that plaintiffs had not demonstrated that they were typical of the class they seek to represent. The consolidated complaint challenged Nike’s “Information Capture Policy,” and yet all of the named plaintiffs testified that their experiences were not fully consistent with that policy. For example, some testified that cashiers asked them for their ZIP codes before providing them with their receipts and merchandise. However, under the Nike policy that is the subject of this lawsuit, cashiers were prompted to request ZIP codes after giving customers their receipts and merchandise.   The court read the governing statute as prohibiting merchants from requesting personal identification information as a condition precedent to accepting payment by a credit card,  Thus, as the legality of Nike’s policy depends on whether a consumer would perceive the store’s request for a ZIP code as a condition of the use of a credit card, the timing of that request is clearly relevant.

Accordingly, the Court found that the named plaintiffs were not typical of the class they seek to
represent, and denied class certification on this ground.

Class Claim Against Crock-Pot Seems a Crock

There was an era in television that featured lots of made-for-TV "sporting events," like Battle of the Network Stars, that were popular with some viewers, but not really sports.  That is the world of consumer fraud class actions today, popular with some lawyers but very little deception of consumers going on.

A federal court last month dismissed proposed consumer class action claims against the  manufacturer of the Crock-Pot.  See Rice v. Sunbeam Products Inc., No. CV 12-7923-CAS (C.D. Cal., 1/07/13).

Plaintiff alleged that the Crock-Pot, a slow-cooking kitchen device sold on-line by the manufacturer direct to consumers and through various retailers of household goods, posed an unreasonable risk of burns, fires, and other related injuries to consumers when used as intended, asserting claims under the state Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”);  the California Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq. (“UCL”); the California False Advertising Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq. (“FAL”); and various common law claims.

The device's accompanying Owner’s Manual recommended cooking times between one hour and nine hours using one of the device’s three temperature settings. After purchase, with the device slow cooking plaintiff’s meal, she allegedly reached across her counter to grab an item next to the Crock-Pot. As she was doing so, she allegedly suffered a burn on her wrist due to the high temperature of the stainless steel exterior of the Crock-Pot. Plaintiff alleged that the placement of the heating components in the device created high temperatures on the exposed stainless steel part of the Crock-Pot, which in turn created an unreasonable risk of harm to consumers. Plaintiff brought this putative class action suit on behalf of herself and all other persons who purchased a Crock-Pot during the last four years from defendant’s website or an authorized retail store located in the State of California. Defendant moved to dismiss. 

Although only part of the Court's analysis, let me point out what is wrong with these kinds of all too common claims: the Owner’s Manual mentioned six times that the device becomes hot during cooking and the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use because it gets hot.  But the class was surprised that it might burn them?

The CLRA prohibits a variety of “unfair or deceptive acts” in the sale of goods or services to a consumer. Cal. Civ. Code § 1770(a). This includes the use of “deceptive representations” in connection with the sale of goods or “representing that goods. . . have characteristics, ingredients, uses, [or] benefits. . . which they do not have. . . .” Id. § 1770(a)(4), (5). California courts have interpreted the CLRA to also proscribe fraudulent omissions in limited circumstances: “the omission must be contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or an omission of a fact the defendant was obliged to disclose.” Daugherty v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824, 835 (2006). Relevant here, a duty to disclose arises where the defendant “had exclusive knowledge of material facts not known to the plaintiff” or “actively conceals a material fact from the plaintiff.” In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Mktg., Sales Practices, & Products Liab. Litig., 754 F. Supp. 2d 1145, 1172–73 (C.D. Cal. 2010); see also Ehrlich v. BMW of N. Am., LLC, 801 F. Supp. 2d 908, 916 (C.D. Cal. 2010) .

Here, defendant allegedly failed to disclose that the exposed stainless steel base of the Crock-Pot allegedly reaches dangerously hot temperatures, higher than comparable home kitchen appliances.  Plaintiff alleged that despite the fact that defendant advertised the Crock-Pot for “household use only,” the external surface of the device reaches temperatures that are appropriate only for commercial kitchens.  Defendant argued that the representation that it is for “household use only” would not deceive a reasonable consumer into believing that the base of the device would not reach temperatures that could cause burns during normal use. The Crock-Pot becomes hot regardless of whether or not a consumer supervises it. Defendant further argued that because
it made no representations about the surface temperature of the Crock-Pot, such that plaintiff cannot state a claim on the basis of an omission “contrary” to a claim actually made by defendant. In support of this contention, defendant noted the six times in the Owner’s Manual where it  disclosed that the device becomes hot during cooking.

The Court concluded that plaintiff failed to state an actionable claim under the CLRA under either a representation or omission-based theory. Most problematically, plaintiff failed to allege with the requisite particularity several of the representations she and other consumers reasonably relied on in making their purchasing decisions. Moreover, even putting to one side the pleading deficiencies, the Court was unconvinced that plaintiff was pleading actionable representations—a plaintiff must allege a plausible interpretation of a representation that defendant actually made to state a claim under the CLRA, based on the perspective of a reasonable consumer in the marketplace. Here, plaintiff did not plausibly allege that a reasonable consumer would be deceived by any of the alleged representations. The Court was unable to discern how a reasonable consumer would understand a statement regarding “all day cooking” to be a representation regarding the temperature of the exterior of the Crock-Pot. Second, plaintiff’s argument with respect to the alleged “safe for household use” representation was also unconvincing. Plaintiff failed to explain how an instruction regarding the use of a cooking device in the home is deceptive to a reasonable consumer with respect to the temperature that this cooking device allegedly reaches while cooking. In fact, the Owner’s Guide instructs the user to place the Crock-Pot at least six inches from other items and surfaces while in use, among other cautionary statements. For these reasons, the Court concluded that plaintiff failed to adequately plead a misrepresentation under the CLRA.

Plaintiff alleged that defendant violated the UCL by (1) failing to disclose the unreasonably hot surface temperatures the Crock-Pot attains during cooking; (2) failing to provide warnings on the device itself; (3) misrepresenting the Crock-Pot’s safety for household use; and (4) continuing
to market the device after receiving notice of the purported defect. However, plaintiff failed to adequately allege that defendant had knowledge of a defect that needed to be remedied.  In addition, plaintiff offered no factual support for her allegation that defendant’s conduct causes harm to consumers that “greatly outweighs any benefits” associated with the sale of its Crock-Pot in the marketplace. Plaintiff’s conclusory allegation failed to state a claim based upon alleged unfair conduct.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s UCL claim.

To plead a claim under the FAL, a plaintiff must allege that a defendant publicly disseminated advertising that false or misleading, and which the defendant knew or reasonably should have known was untrue or misleading. Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500. As with the CLRA, the perspective of a reasonable consumer is the standard by which an advertisement is measured. See Paduano v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 169 Cal. App. 4th 1453, 1497–98 (2009). The Court found that the alleged representations that plaintiff purported to rely on in support of its FAL  claim were not actionable nor pleaded with sufficient particularity. As noted, plaintiff failed to adequately allege defendant’s knowledge of the purported defect. Courts that have considered the
issue have required that a plaintiff allege in far greater factual detail the basis for a claim that defendant had knowledge of a defect or the falsity of its statements. Vaguely alleging awareness of customer complaints, without any factual detail, does not suffice to demonstrate that defendant should have known about the falsity of its alleged representations.  Accordingly, the Court granted defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claim under the FAL.
 

Finally, the warranty claims were dismissed because the plaintiff failed to avail herself of the remedy provided for in the warranty, the return of the allegedly defective Crock-Pot.   Moreover, her warranty allegations rested on the alleged representations that the Crock-Pot was “safe and fit for household use,“ which were insufficient to create an express warranty under California law. 


 

Consumer Fraud Class Claim Over Dietary Supplements Dismissed

A federal court in Illinois recently ruled that a plaintiff in a putative class action failed to state a claim in his suit challenging the marketing of two dietary supplements. See Padilla v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 11-C-7686 (N.D. Ill.,  1/16/13).

Plaintiff  alleged a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (“ICFA”), 815 ILCS 505/2. He alleged that defendant distributed and marketed the Kirkland Signature™ line of dietary supplements in stores and on-line. These products included  Glucosamine with MSM products, and the Glucosamine/Chondroitin line of products.  Plaintiff asserted he purchased a bottle of Glucosamine with MSM.  And he alleged that that there was no competent and reliable scientific evidence that taking glucosamine either with chondroitin sulfate, or with MSM, results in the body metabolizing it into something that builds or nourishes cartilage or provides joint mobility or joint cushioning.  He asserted that clinical studies have found that glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and MSM are not effective.  Thus, he was allegedly deceived by defendant's representations regarding the products, and he would not have purchased Glucosamine with MSM had he known the truth.

Defendant moved to dismiss the (latest) complaint..  The court noted that a complaint must allege enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face to survive a motion to dismiss. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007).  For a claim to have facial plausibility, a plaintiff must plead factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009). Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice. Typically, the amount of factual allegations required to state a plausible claim for relief depends on the complexity of the legal theory alleged. See Limestone Dev. Corp. v. Vill. of Lemont, 520 F.3d 797, 803 (7th Cir. 2008).

The court concluded the Padilla failed to state an ICFA claim as to Glucosamine Chondroitin because Padilla did not actually purchase Glucosamine Chondroitin. Plaintiff proposed to pursue claims on behalf of himself and putative class members who purchased either Glucosamine with MSM and/or Glucosamine with Chondroitin.  To bring an ICFA claim, a plaintiff must either allege it was a consumer of the defendant or allege a close nexus with Illinois consumers. Padilla purchased a bottle of Glucosamine with MSM, according to the complaint, but never alleged he purchased of the Glucosamine/Chondroitin. Because Padilla did not purchase Glucosamine Chondroitin, Padilla had not sustained any actual damage from alleged representations about it.

As to Padilla’s ICFA claim based on Glucosamine with MSM, the clinical studies cited by plaintiff were insufficient to state a claim that the product representations were false or misleading. Although Padilla cited to clinical studies supposedly showing the dietary supplements were ineffective for the treatment of osteoarthritis, he failed to make a connection between the studies and the actual representations on the label.  The Glucosamine with MSM product label did not claim to be effective for the treatment of osteoarthritis. Thus, clinical studies regarding the ineffectiveness of glucosamine or chondroitin in the treatment of osteoarthritis did not have any bearing on the truthfulness of the actual representations made.  

The court thus dismissed with prejudice the claims over the Glucosamine/Chondroitin supplement, and the MSM claim were dismissed with leave to amend. 



 

Another "Natural" Food Claim Falls to Common Sense

A  federal district court recently dismissed a putative class action alleging the defendant food company mislabeled its Florida's Natural products as 100% orange juice despite the alleged addition of compounds to mask the taste caused by pasteurization. See Veal v. Citrus World Inc., No. 2:12-cv-00801 (N.D. Ala. 1/8/13).

The plaintiff asserted that because the label did not mention that flavoring and aroma are added, consumers desirous of 100% pure and fresh squeezed orange juice had been deceived into purchasing Florida’s Natural.  The plaintiff did not aver that he personally ever consumed Florida’s Natural orange juice or that he suffered any ill health effects from consumption of the same, but rather alleged only that he purchased it, repeatedly, over the six years preceding the first complaint.  The essence of his claim concerned the question of how much processing is permissible in a product labeled as “fresh” “100%” or “pure.”

Despite plaintiff’s numerous allegations as to the general conduct of the orange juice industry, the court found the plaintiff had failed to state an actual, concrete injury. He stated he did not know store-bought orange juice was not fresh squeezed, but nowhere alleged any harm from its purchase or consumption. He did not even claim that upon learning packaged orange juice was not truly “fresh”, he had to resort to squeezing his own oranges. In other words, despite plaintiff’s protestations that he did not receive the product he believed he was purchasing, he made no allegation that he had stopped purchasing what he considered to be an inferior product in favor of
purchasing what he actually sought, which is apparently unpasteurized fresh squeezed orange juice.

In an attempt to save his claim and demonstrate an injury worthy of finding standing, the plaintiff argued that he did not receive the “benefit of the bargain” of what he believed he was actually purchasing. He professed to compare the cost of defendant’s orange juice to an orange juice concentrate, and alleged the difference between them is proof of his loss. This theory did not rise to the level of a “concrete and particularized” injury as opposed to a “conjectural or hypothetical” one. Plaintiff did not allege what the “higher value charged” was or what the orange juice supposedly “would have been worth” if it was “as warranted.” He did not show what products he actually bought, when he bought them, or where he bought them, much less what he paid.

From a legal standpoint, many courts have held that “benefit of the bargain” theories of injury like plaintiff’s, where a plaintiff claims to have paid more for a product than the plaintiff would have paid had the plaintiff been fully informed (or that the plaintiff would not have purchased the product at all), do not confer standing. See In re Fruit Juice Products Marketing and Sales Practices
Litigation, 831 F.Supp.2d 507 (D. Mass. 2011); see also Birdsong v. Apple, Inc., 590 F.3d 955, 961-62 (9th Cir. 2009) (noting potential for hearing loss from improper iPod use was not sufficient to state an injury for standing); cf. Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283 F.3d 315, 319-21 (5th Cir. 2002); McKinnis v. Kellogg USA, 2007 WL 4766060, *4 (C.D.Cal.2007); Sugawara v. Pepsico, Inc., 2009 WL 1439115 (E.D.Cal.2009). Young v. Johnson & Johnson, 2012 WL 1372286 (D.N.J.2012).

The plaintiff also complained that even though the FDA does require that defendant label its product as “pasteurized orange juice,” all of defendant’s other alleged representations were voluntary, and thus not within the protection of the FDA. Because the court found the plaintiff lacked standing to pursue his claims, the court did not have to rely on the impact of the extensive FDA regulations governing orange juice,  Nevertheless, the court noted, defendant labeled its orange juice in accordance with FDA regulations. The plaintiff could not dispute that the defendant’s product is “squeezed from our Florida oranges” or “100% orange juice.” Rather, his focus was that the squeezing and pasteurization is performed on a massive scale, and that the pasteurization process destroyed the flavor, causing ingredients already present in orange juice to be replaced in the marketed juice.

However, said the court, the fact that the plaintiff may have believed defendant hired individuals to hand squeeze fresh oranges one by one into juice cartons, then boxed up and delivered the same all over the country does not translate into a concrete injury to plaintiff upon his learning that beliefs about commercially grown and produced orange juice were incorrect.  By its very definition under FDA guidelines, pasteurized orange juice is orange juice (1) that has been processed and treated with heat, (2) in which the “pulp and orange oil may [have] been adjusted in accordance with good manufacturing practice,” and (3) which may have been “adjusted” by the addition of concentrated orange juice ingredients or sweeteners. Clearly, the defendant was selling pasteurized orange juice while labeling it “pasteurized orange juice.” Although the plaintiff objected to such labeling, in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, he purchased a product labeled as pasteurized orange juice and then complained that it was pasteurized.

 No standing, complaint dismissed with no leave to amend yet again.

Drug Maker Defeats AG Motion to Dismiss Action Challenging Private Contingency Counsel

We have warned readers before about the dangerous and growing practice of governmental agencies delegating state police powers to private (plaintiff) attorneys on a contingency fee basis.  The latest round in this nationwide battle comes from Kentucky, where the court recently ruled that Merck can continue its suit alleging violation of its due process rights after the state hired such outside counsel.  See Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v. Conway, No. 3:11-cv-51 (E.D. Ky., 12/19/12).

The matter underlying this action arose from Merck’s marketing and distribution of the prescription medication Vioxx. The AG filed suit against Merck in the Franklin County Circuit Court in 2009, alleging a violation of the Kentucky Consumer Protection Act (“KCPA”). Merck removed the case to federal court, and the action was then transferred to the Eastern District of Louisiana on April 15, 2010, as part of the multidistrict litigation, In re Vioxx Product Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1657.  But on January 3, 2012, the District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana granted the AG’s motion to remand, concluding that the case was improperly removed from state court. In re Vioxx Prods. Liab. Litig., MDL No. 1657, 2012 WL 10552, at *14 (E.D. La. Jan. 3, 2012).

Now, approximately one year into the proceeding, the AG had retained outside counsel to take over the Vioxx KCPA litigation.  Under the contract executed, private counsel agreed to be compensated by a contingency fee “to be withheld from any settlement award resulting from the litigation.” Merck filed suit against the AG in federal court in August, 2011, seeking a declaratory judgment and injunctive relief. In its complaint,  Merck alleged that the AG had “delegated his coercive powers to private lawyers having a clear, direct and substantial financial stake in the outcome...."  The case was "a punitive enforcement action that must be prosecuted in the public interest or not at all.”  As a result, Merck asserted, its “right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been infringed.” 

The AG moved to dismiss, and the issue in this decision focused on the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971); it provides that when a state proceeding is pending, principles of federalism dictate that any federal constitutional claims should be raised and decided in state court without interference by the federal courts. See Pennzoil Co. v. Texaco, Inc., 481 U.S. 1, 17 (1987).  If a federal district court concludes that its resolution of the case before it would directly interfere with ongoing state proceedings, then it must determine whether to abstain from hearing the case altogether, under the following: (1) there must be an ongoing state
judicial proceeding; (2) the proceeding must implicate important state interests; and (3) there
must be an adequate opportunity in the state proceeding to raise constitutional challenges.

Merck argued that the AG’s active litigation in federal court — through the filing of answers, motions to dismiss, and motions for summary judgment — was sufficient to establish that proceedings of substance had taken place before the remand, i.e., before an action had been pending in state court.  The court agreed that the abstention doctrine did not require a strict view of the federal action timeline nor a formalistic approach to the abstention analysis. Using a "common sense approach," several factors weighed in favor of a conclusion that proceedings of substance had taken place: (1) the federal action had been pending for over seven months when the state court proceeding was remanded on March 20, 2012; (2) on the date of the remand, there were two important motions that were fully briefed and ripe for adjudication; and (3) the court had held a scheduling conference during which the parties advised the court about their positions on those two motions. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the federal action was well beyond an “embryonic stage.” Because the state proceeding was not “ongoing” in a meaningful sense, abstention was not appropriate under the principles of Younger.

Your humble blogger notes that the legal policy of many states strongly favors open, competitive bidding for contracts involving state funds. Such requirements, included in some state Constitutions and various statutes, are designed to prevent fraud, eliminate bias and favoritism, and thus protect vital public interests. Those same goals of open and good government reside in the requirement that state officials give their undivided loyalty to the people of a state. Many of the contingent fee contracts used by state officials to bring mass tort actions violate the core principle that attorneys pursuing actions on behalf of the state represent a sovereign whose obligation to govern impartially is essential to its right to govern. Government attorneys must exercise independent judgment as a ministers of justice and not act simply as advocates. The impartiality required of government lawyers cannot be met where the private pecuniary interest inherent in the contingent fee is the primary motive force behind the bringing of the action. By turning over sovereign prosecutorial-like power to contingency counsel, a state effectively creates a new branch of government – motivated by the prospect of private gain rather than the pursuit of justice or the public welfare. This subversion of neutrality does more than implicate the due process rights of those confronting such tainted prosecutions. Direction of state prosecutions by financially interested surrogates also damages the very public interest that such litigation is supposed to advance. 
 

Toy Class Rejected on Commonality Grounds

Christmas ought to be the toy season, after all Suzy wants a dolly and Johnny wants a truck. But the plaintiff bar wants it to be season of toy litigation.  Fortunately, a California court recently refused to certify a proposed class of consumers who sued alleging that venerable Tinkertoys were falsely advertised.  See O'Brien v. Hasbro Inc., No. BC438958 (Superior Court, County of Los Angeles, CA).

Plaintiffs' claim was that the packaging implied that the items pictured could be built with the parts contained in the package.  The court's reasoning in rejecting the the claim under California's Unfair Competition Law was interesting.  The court focused on the commonality issue, and whether the  plaintiffs could show through common proof that the entire class had been confused by the "Classic Tinkertoy Construction Set" packaging.

The evidence was that less than 100 consumers had ever complained to Hasbro about the issue. The court noted recent appellate decisions in which classes had been decertified when only a tiny percentage of the class actually had reported the alleged problem.

Even if traditional reliance is not an element of a claim, there is still going to be a requirement of injury.  If a class member is not deceived, then he or she has been injured.  And the fact that a tiny percentage of consumers claim to have been confused does not mean that plaintiffs can show on a common basis that all class members were deceived.

An interesting one to watch if it goes on appeal.

"Go" Power Defeats Proposed Class Action

We have posted several times on the disturbing trend of plaintiffs seeking to turn virtually every advertising claim, label statement, or good old fashioned "puffing" about a product into an expensive consumer fraud class action. It is with great interest that we note for the loyal readers of MassTortDefense those putative class actions in which the courts require plaintiffs to fully meet all the underlying elements of the claim, and apply some common sense to those elements.

Recently, a New Jersey federal court dismissed a putative class action that alleged that the manufacturer overstated a cereal's ability to help lower cholesterol. Myers et al. v. General Mills Inc., No. 3:09-cv-02413 (D.N.J.).

Plaintiffs were consumers of Cheerios who resided in California, New Jersey, and New York, seeking to sue on behalf of all similarly situated individuals in the United States. Plaintiffs alleged General Mills deceived customers by marketing, advertising and promoting Cheerios as having the ability to prevent, mitigate, or treat high cholesterol. According to plaintiffs, defendant advertised that Cheerios could help lower a person’s cholesterol by 4% in six weeks when part of a healthy breakfast.  (We fondly remember the simple days of  "Big G, Little O. Get "Go" power with Cheerios!")

Defendant moved for summary judgment, alleging that plaintiffs did not suffer any concrete or particularized injury and thus did not have standing to sue. See Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 374 Fed. Appx. 257 (2010). To prove constitutional standing, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) an injury-in-fact that is actual or imminent and concrete and particularized, not conjectural or hypothetical, (2) that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged conduct, and (3) is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Summers v. Earth Island Inst., 129 S.Ct. 1142, 1149 (2009). 

Plaintiffs sought a full refund for all boxes of Cheerios that plaintiffs purchased during the relevant time-frame, on the typical theory that plaintiffs “would not have purchased Cheerios” but for defendant’s alleged deceptive practices. That assertion, however, did not comport with the testimony of the plaintiffs themselves.  Generally, the out-of-pocket theory applies only when the seller's misrepresentations render the product essentially worthless. Plaintiffs admitted they purchased their Cheerios for crunchiness, taste, convenience, as well as to help lower their cholesterol. Moreover, Ms. Theodore, like many mothers, selected Cheerios due to its healthy, simple ingredients for her children. The contention that these plaintiffs would not have purchased Cheerios but for defendant’s alleged misrepresentation was also contradicted by the testimony that Mr. Myers, Ms. Acevedo and Ms. Theodore still eat or purchase Cheerios today, and for various reasons including the ingredients (Theodore), and the taste (Myers and Acevedo) and convenience.  As such, plaintiffs failed to adequately show that they were entitled to full purchase price refunds, especially when they ate the Cheerios after learning of the alleged issues, and are still eating them today for other reasons.
 

Plaintiffs alternatively sought the difference between what plaintiffs paid for Cheerios and the price that plaintiffs supposedly would have paid for Cheerios, if defendant had not engaged in the alleged misrepresentation; readers will recognize this as the other typical injury theory, the so-called benefit of the bargain approach. This theory of relief was equally flawed, said the court. Plaintiffs purchased a food product, and got the exact product with the exact ingredients listed on the label.  At most, plaintiffs simply claimed that their expectations of the cereal were disappointed. Dissatisfaction with a product, however, is not a quantifiable loss that can be remedied under the CFActs. Even a technical alleged violation of FDA food labeling regulations would not show that plaintiffs purchased boxes of Cheerios that did not contain the ingredients listed on the Cheerios boxes. And, again, several plaintiffs consumed all of the Cheerios purchased for various other reasons such as convenience and crunchiness. Plaintiffs therefore failed to adequately allege that they suffered “benefit of the bargain” damages.
 

The court granted summary judgment, including on the class allegations, which clearly failed on typicality and commonality. 

Supreme Court to Review Issue of Daubert at Class Certification Stage

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed last week to hear argument in a case in which the lower courts wrestled with the issue whether, at the class certification stage, a district court must resolve Daubert issues. See Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, U.S., No. 11-864 (cert. granted 6/25/12). The Court indicated it was interested in the question "whether a district court may certify a class action without resolving whether the plaintiff class has introduced admissible evidence, including expert testimony, to show that the case is susceptible to awarding damages on a classwide basis."

Readers will recall that in Wal-Mart Stores Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011)  the Supreme Court in dicta referenced the question. Justice Scalia observed that the district court had "concluded that Daubert did not apply to expert testimony at the certification stage of class-action proceedings," but the majority replied that "we doubt that is so." 131 S. Ct. at 2554. Thus, Dukes strongly suggested that it was appropriate for defendants to make the expert challenge at the class certification stage, and important for the court to resolve the issue then; the Comcast litigation may see the Court turn that persuasive dicta into binding precedent. 

Most district courts have been following the dicta. Historically, the Circuits have split.  The 8th and 9th Circuits call for an expert inquiry at this stage, and in American Honda, which we commented on here, the Seventh Circuit previously held that where an expert’s report or testimony is critical to class certification, a district court must conclusively rule on any challenge to the expert’s qualifications or submissions prior to ruling on the class certification motion. 600 F.3d at 815–16. Later, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its holding from American Honda, ruling that it was error for a district court to decline to rule on a Daubert motion at the class certification stage. Messner v. Northshore Univ. Healthsystem, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 731, *17 (7th Cir. Jan. 13, 2012).

The 3rd Circuit went in another direction. The district court in Comcast originally certified a class; following the court of appeals' decision in Hydrogen Peroxide, 552 F.3d 305, the district court granted in part Comcast‘s motion to reconsider its certification decision.  After further briefing, plaintiffs got the case re-certified after convincing the district court that they could show that they had an expert methodology to prove damages on a classwide basis. On the current appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the lower court had applied the "rigorous analysis,"  adding that at the class certification stage, "we are precluded from addressing any merits inquiry unnecessary to making a Rule 23 determination.”  The Petitioners argued that the Third Circuit affirmed the certification order after expressly declining to consider several “merits” issues necessary to determine whether, as required by Rule 23(b)(3), common questions predominate over individual ones.

So the Comcast case may give the Supreme Court a chance to further explain what exactly a rigorous analysis should entail, especially with respect to alleged class-wide damages. The focus on damages, which some have viewed as narrowing the issue presented, still is a question that arises not just in antitrust cases, but also in mass torts, which are front and center for our readers. 

 

Amici Weigh in On Consumer Class Certification in 6th Circuit

Earlier this month, a number of prominent business groups, including the National Association of Manufacturers, weighed in supporting a petition for rehearing of a Sixth Circuit panel decision declining to vacate a class certification decision. See Gina Glazer et al. v. Whirlpool Corp., No. 10-4188 (6th Cir 2012). 
 

The case arises from the claims of a proposed class of consumers who alleged that their Whirlpool washing machines were defective. The Chamber of Commerce, NAM, the Business Roundtable, PLAC, DRI, and others submitted amicus briefs in support of rehearing, pointing out several issues with the class certification decision below, and as affirmed by the appellate panel. See 2012 US LEXIS 9002 (6th Cir., May 3, 2012).

For example, the amici pointed out that the class was certified despite the presence of individuals (perhaps 2/3 of the class) who have no Article III standing because they have not been injured.

The panel also failed to conduct or require the rigorous analysis required by the Supreme Court in Dukes, especially with regard to the predominance requirement. A specific issue related to the number of customers who had allegedly complained about the washers. In Dukes, the Supreme Court made clear that a district court may not simply rely on the plaintiffs’ allegations in ruling on class certification; rather, the court must consider, weigh and resolve disputed questions of fact.

The briefs also pointed out that the court ignored the important impact of potential affirmative defenses, such as misuse, on the predominance inquiry.

This is one worth keeping an eye on.

Find the amicus briefs here and here and here.

 

House Hearing on CAFA- Seven Years Later

A topic near and dear to the hearts of readers of MassTortDefense was the subject of a recent hearing by a subcommittee of the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Entitled "Class Actions Seven Years After the Class Action Fairness Act,” the hearing was designed to address what has worked with the law, what has not, and what Congress overlooked when it passed CAFA.

Witnesses included a plaintiff-side attorney, who typically complained about CAFA's impact on consumer fraud class actions, and Professor Redish from Northwestern, who talked about the need for legislative revision of the use of so-called “cy pres” awards in class action proceedings in particular.

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) is the chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, and has expressed concern over the ability of plaintiffs to engage in a new form of forum shopping under CAFA, filing cases in particular federal circuits they think are more hospitable to class actions.

John Beisner, who typically represents defendants in class actions, testified on behalf of the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform; he noted that a small number of judicial rulings have ignored Congress’s intent behind this landmark legislation, meriting further legislative attention. From imposing a heightened “legal certainty” standard on defendants with respect to CAFA’s amount-in-controversy requirement to broadly construing CAFA’s narrow exceptions to federal jurisdiction, these rulings run afoul of CAFA’s presumption in favor of federal jurisdiction. Second, he argued that Congress should also assess certain troubling aspects of federal class action jurisprudence that were not affected by CAFA. These issues include: (1) efforts by a small number of federal courts to loosen the requirements of Rule 23; (2) the increasing use of cy pres settlements to support large fee payouts to class counsel; and, he noted, (3) judicial approval of class actions that encompass substantial numbers of uninjured individuals (that is, persons who lack Article III standing).

Consumer Fraud Claim on "All Natural" Beverage Rejected

One trend we are keeping an eye on here at MassTortDefense is plaintiffs' aggressive and excessive use of consumer fraud act claims, micro-analyzing every ad, turning traditional puffing into some kind of nefarious marketing scheme.  Class certification in such cases can trigger the need to think about "blackmail settlements."

So all victories are worth noting, and last week South Beach Beverage Co. Inc., maker of SoBe drinks, garnered dismissal of a California putative class action alleging false claims about their "0 Calories Lifewater" drinks. See Charles Hairston v. South Beach Beverage Co. Inc,. et al., No. 2:12-cv-01429 (C.D. Cal. 5/18/12).

SoBe manufactures a diverse range of beverages, including teas and enhanced waters, that are characterized by exotic flavor combinations and added vitamins. In his First Amended Complaint, plaintiff alleged that during the last three to four years, he regularly purchased SoBe 0 Calorie Lifewater beverages (“Lifewater”), which are no-calorie, vitamin-enhanced, flavored water drinks. Plaintiff raised three challenges to Lifewater’s labeling, which he claimed he “read and relied on.” First, plaintiff alleged that the “all natural” label was potentially deceptive because Lifewater contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are “synthetic or created via chemical processing.” Second, plaintiff alleged that Lifewater’s labels are potentially misleading because the names of various fruits are used to describe the different flavors of Lifewater even though Lifewater allegedly does not contain any actual fruit or fruit juice. Third, plaintiff alleged that the use of the common vitamin name (e.g., B12) on the product labels is misleading because the vitamins added to Lifewater are "synthetic" or created via chemical processing.

As is typical, plaintiffs alleged causes of action including for: (1) California Consumers Legal Remedies Act – California Civil Code §§ 1750, et seq. (“CLRA”); (2) California False Advertising Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. (“FAL”); (3) California Unfair Competition Law – California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. (“UCL”).

Defendants argued first that the claims alleged related to the use of fruit names to describe the various flavors of Lifewater and their use of common vitamin names were preempted by the express preemption provisions in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) and by the specific labeling regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”). The court concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the names of various fruits to describe the different flavors of Lifewater were indeed preempted. See, e.g., Dvora v.
General Mills, Inc., 2011 WL 1897349 (C.D. Cal. May 6, 2011) (holding that CLRA and UCL claims
were preempted where the plaintiff was challenging the use of the words “Blueberry Pomegranate”
in labeling a cereal not containing any blueberries or pomegranates because FDA regulations
explicitly permit manufacturers “to use the name and images of a fruit on a product’s packaging to
describe the characterizing flavor of the product even where the product does not contain any of
that fruit, or contains no fruit at all”); McKinnis v. General Mills, Inc., 2007 WL 4762172 (C.D. Cal.
Sept. 18, 2007) (holding that use of “Strawberry Kiwi” to designate the flavor of yogurt containing
no fruit ingredients was “permissible to demonstrate the ‘characterizing flavor’ of the product”).

The court also concluded that plaintiff’s claims related to defendants’ use of the common names
of vitamins were preempted. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(c)(8)(v) (recognizing that “Vitamin C” and
“Ascorbic acid” are “synonym[s]” that may be used in the alternative in a product’s nutritional
information labeling); 21 C.F.R. § 101.9(k)(4) (stating that the FDA will consider a food
“misbranded” if its “label or labeling represents, suggests, or implies” that “a natural vitamin in food is superior to an added or synthetic vitamin”).

Significantly, the court concluded that plaintiff could not avoid preemption of these claims by arguing that his claim related solely to defendants’ “all natural” representations and that he included his fruit name and vitamin name claims only as support for his “all natural” claim. Such an argument would effectively allow a plaintiff to always avoid preemption of those claims, and would undermine the purpose of the federal labeling standards which includes avoiding
a patchwork of different state standards.  These claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiff also alleged that the “all natural” labeling on defendants’ products was potentially deceptive because the product contains “deceptively labeled ingredients” that are
“synthetic or created via chemical processing.” However, plaintiff could not state a claim under the
CLRA, FAL, or UCL regarding defendants’ allegedly deceptive “all natural” labeling because once
the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamin labeling were removed, plaintiff’s claim is based on a single out-of-context phrase found in one component of Lifewater’s label.

The court concluded that plaintiff’s selective interpretation of individual words or phrases from a product’s labeling could not support a CLRA, FAL, or UCL claim. See, e.g., Carrea v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, 2012 WL 1131526 (9th Cir. Apr. 5, 2012).  Lifewater’s label did not simply state that it is “all natural” without elaboration or explanation. Instead, the “all natural” language was immediately followed by additional statements, like “with vitamins” or “with B vitamins.”  Lifewater did not use the “all natural” language in a vacuum. Thus, it was impossible for plaintiff to allege how the “all natural” language would be deceptive without relying on the preempted statements regarding fruit names and vitamins.

In addition, the court concluded that no reasonable consumer would read the “all natural”
language as modifying the “with vitamins” language and somehow believe that the added vitamins are suppose to be “all natural vitamins.”  Moreover, to the extent there was any ambiguity, it was  clarified by the detailed information contained in the ingredient list, which explained the exact contents of Lifewater. In this case, the ingredient list was consistent with the front label statement of “all natural with vitamins.”

The court concluded that the challenge to the “all natural” language on Lifewater was not deceptive as a matter of law.

 

Court of Appeals Rejects RICO Claim in Drug Case

One of the things we like to do here at MassTortDefense is keep an eye on the non-traditional claims plaintiffs concoct -- to evade the requirements of traditional torts, or to expand the group of "injured" plaintiffs.  Earlier this month the Third Circuit knocked down just such an attempt. See In Re: Schering Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, Nos. 10-3046 and 10-3047 (3d Cir. May 16, 2012).

The issue here was an attempt by two groups of plaintiffs to hold a drug manufacturer liable for violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by allegedly marketing drugs for off-label uses. The court of appeals affirmed that neither had standing to maintain this cause of action, primarily for failure to allege a plausible nexus between the assailed marketing campaign and the physicians‘ decisions to prescribe certain drugs for off-label use.

While off-label marketing is prohibited, prescription drugs frequently have therapeutic uses other than their FDA-approved indications. The FDCAct does not regulate the practice of medicine, and so physicians may lawfully prescribe drugs for off-label uses. See Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Comm., 531 U.S. 341, 350 (2001) (recognizing off-label usage as an accepted and necessary corollary of the FDA‘s mission to regulate in this area without directly interfering with the practice of medicine); Wash. Legal Found. v. Henney, 202 F.3d 331, 333 (D.C. Cir. 2000) (physician may prescribe a legal drug to serve any purpose that he or she deems appropriate, regardless of whether the drug has been approved for that use by the FDA).

Plaintiffs' claims, as is so common, attempted to piggy-back off of prior government investigations. They alleged that Schering‘s marketing practices caused physicians to prescribe the drugs for off-label uses instead of equally effective alternative treatments that were approved for the prescribed uses or no medication at all. They assert that these marketing techniques led to a significant increase in prescriptions of the drugs for off-label uses, and contend that this caused the plaintiffs an "ascertainable loss" (key concept) because they supposedly paid millions of dollars for the drugs that they otherwise would not have paid.

The district court granted a motion to dismiss, and the plaintiffs appealed.

A motion to dismiss for lack of standing implicates Rule 12(b)(1) because standing is a jurisdictional matter, and 12(b)(6) with the Twombly/Iqbal guidance.  While the plausibility standard of those cases does not impose a probability requirement, it does demand more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully. The plausibility determination is a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense; and some claims require more factual explication than others to state a plausible claim for relief.

The Constitution imposes a requirement that there be an actual case or controversy. Federal courts have developed several justiceability doctrines to enforce the case-or-controversy requirement, and perhaps the most important of these doctrines is the requirement that a litigant have standing to invoke the power of a federal court. The standing question is whether the plaintiff has alleged such a personal stake in the outcome of the controversy as to warrant his invocation of federal-court jurisdiction and to justify exercise of the court's remedial powers on his behalf. The plaintiff bears the burden of meeting the irreducible constitutional minimum of Article III standing by establishing three elements: First, the plaintiff must have suffered an injury in fact—an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical. Second, there must be a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of—the injury has to be fairly traceable to the challenged action of the defendant, and not the result of the independent action of some third party not before the court. Third, it must be likely, as opposed to merely speculative, that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision.

In addition to meeting the constitutional standing requirements, plaintiffs seeking recovery under RICO must satisfy additional standing criterion set forth in section 1964(c) of the statute: that the plaintiff suffered an injury to business or property; and that the plaintiff‘s injury was proximately caused by the defendant‘s violation.

The Union plaintiff on behalf of a proposed class of third-party payors alleged economic loss based on paying for ineffective drugs. Accordingly, to establish standing, it must allege facts showing a causal relationship between the alleged injury—payments for a specific drug that was ineffective or unsafe for the use for which it was prescribed—and Schering‘s alleged wrongful conduct. However, there were no averments that came close to satisfying this standard. It was pure conjecture to conclude that because Schering‘s misconduct supposedly caused other doctors to write prescriptions for ineffective off-label uses for other products, the Union ended up paying for prescriptions for a different drug due to the same kind of alleged misconduct. (Again, attempted piggy-backing on government allegations.)

The court of appeals spent considerable effort reviewing claims of a proposed class of plaintiff consumers, who tried to prove standing by incorporating materials from the government investigation and concocting a series of purported links between drug trials, marketing activities and prescribing doctors' behavior.  The district court rejected this, and plaintiffs' focus on appeal on the pleading standards for each of these claims was secondary to the threshold issue that the consumers did not adequately allege an injury fairly traceable to Schering‘s alleged misconduct. Although the complaint was replete with factual allegations and indeed asserted them with somewhat greater specificity than the third-party payor complaint, they do not present a plausible allegation actually linking the injuries to any type of miscommunication or false claim about the drugs that were actually prescribed.

No standing. Dismissal affirmed. 

Federal Court Denies Certification of MP3 Class Action - Again

A New Jersey federal court last week declined to certify a proposed class in a suit over alleged defects in the Zune MP3 player's display screen. See Maloney, et al. v. Microsoft Corp., No. 3:09-cv-02047 (D.N.J. 2012).

Readers may recall we blogged about this case when the court denied certification of a nationwide class, in part because of choice of law issues. The court at that point reserved decision as to whether or not a New Jersey-wide class might be certified, subject to further briefing by the parties.  We said at that time: "clearly additional individual issues will predominate in that context as well."  Hope our college Madness pool predictions will be as accurate.

The new proposed class was NJ residents who purchased or owned a Microsoft Zune 30gb model and whose Zune liquid crystal display screen cracked without cracking or chipping of the outer screen that covers the LCD screen within their applicable warranty period (one-year, unless under an extended warranty) and who notified Microsoft orally or in writing about the cracked LCD but did not receive repair or replacement of their Zune from Microsoft.  That's a mouthful.

Defendant argued that plaintiffs had no unifying theory of causation capable of class-wide proof and that individual questions of fact would therefore predominate at trial.  Plaintiff, on the other hand, argued that causation could be established on a class-wide basis because class members‘ LCD screens fractured without external damage to the outer lens;  fractured in locations that were disproportionately clustered around four identified alleged internal design defects; and were 20 times more likely to crack without external damage than were LCD screens on the later-model Zune.

Our readers know that the burden is on the plaintiff to prove that the requirements of Rule 23 have been satisfied. Class certification is proper only if the trial court is satisfied, after a rigorous analysis, that the prerequisites‘ of Rule 23 are met. Predominance was the key element here, as issues common to the class must predominate over individual issues. If any key elements of a claim can be proven only by resort to individual treatment, class certification is inappropriate. Plaintiffs seeking class certification must demonstrate that each element of [the cause of action is capable of proof at trial through evidence that is common to the class rather than individual to its members.

Here, the court determined that plaintiffs' purported proofs failed to establish that any of the alleged design defects commonly caused class members‘ injuries because this evidence suffered from what the United States Supreme Court has termed a failure of inference. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541, 2555 (2011).  Procedurally, any factual dispute concerning whether causation is capable of proof at trial through common evidence must be determined by the court. This often requires the weighing of conflicting expert testimony, and the court must then resolve expert disputes in order to determine whether the predominance requirement has been met. A court must engage in this analysis even if it overlaps with the merits.

The practical considerations underlying the presentation of a case at trial should be considered by the court in determining whether individual questions of fact would predominate.  In the context of proving the element of causation, numerous courts have held that individualized questions of fact prevent class certification where resort to case-by-case testimony would be necessary. In the context of consumer fraud, for example, class certification is inappropriate where oral representations are made to each class member and where plaintiffs must rely on this evidence to prove causation.

Here, the court noted that a jury must be able to independently weigh whether each alleged design defect actually existed and whether that specific defect was the cause of each class member‘s injury.  Plaintiff‘s proffered evidence was largely the plaintiff‘s lawyers‘ comparison effort.  Plaintiff‘s expert conducted no statistical analysis. It was thus impossible to tell from plaintiff‘s proffered evidence whether any of the numbers put forward were statistically significant.  Also, plaintiff had not put forth any evidence that a jury could rely upon in determining which alleged design defect led to which Zune failure or which grouping of Zune failures. As framed by the plaintiffs, the alleged LCD cracks resulted from a muddled mix of causes and effects. There was no indication that each purported cause led to a uniform result (e.g., an origination point in the same location), which would permit the jury to draw an inference of a specific design defect. Thus, there was no way to determine which of the purported causes or which grouping of these causes led to which individual LCD crack or group of LCD cracks.

Indeed, according to plaintiff‘s own expert, one of the most basic concepts of failure analysis is that the origin (position) of failure can be determined from the failure pattern on the fracture surface of an object. Plaintiffs also admitted that a number of the 30gb Zunes sampled by their expert fell outside the high-frequency areas identified in the expert report.  Just as statistical evidence of gender disparity at the regional or national level in Dukes could not establish gender disparity at the local level, plaintiffs' proof could not establish the design defects on a common basis.

Moreover, and this is an important point that some courts ignore, even if prima facie evidence of causation could be established on the basis of statistically significant recurrence of crack-origination points—something the plaintiffs had not established — the defendant must be given the opportunity to rebut such an inference; to defend against each of these alleged defects; to respond to that proof.  The only way in which the defendant could rebut plaintiff‘s proposed class-wide evidence would be through the presentation of individual evidence regarding the circumstances surrounding each cracked LCD screen. A lack of damage to the outer lens did not necessarily preclude evidence that other portions of the outer shell of the 30gb Zune were damaged by misuse.  Defendant would have to be given the opportunity to cross-examine each Zune owner to assure that there was no damage to the outer casing (as opposed to the outer lens covering the LCD screen) that resulted from misuse or abuse. This would result in hundreds of mini-trials.

Lastly, internal defendant communications did not establish causation as to each individual class member‘s injury. Generalized statements about an alleged design defect are merely that—general statements; they fail to show that all LCD cracks must have been the result of this alleged defect. Just as in Dukes, anecdotal evidence generally cannot serve as a basis for class certification.

Consumer Fraud Class Action Decertified in Drug Case

A state appeals court last week de-certified a class action by consumers over alleged misrepresentations in marketing a drug.  See Merck & Co. v. Ratliff, No. 2011-000234 (Ky. Ct. App.,  2/10/12).

The case involved the drug Vioxx, which was a highly effective medication formerly in widespread use for patients with arthritis and other conditions causing chronic or acute pain.  Plaintiff was a former user of Vioxx for his chronic osteoarthritis.  Although Ratliff’s insurance paid for most of the cost of the drug, which was at the time approximately $66 per month, Ratliff contributed about $5 each month out of pocket.  Ratliff discontinued using Vioxx in early 2004.

Plaintiff brought a putative class action on behalf of product users who had not suffered cardio-vascular side effects, alleging that the defendant deceived the members of the proposed class in violation of the state Consumer Protection Act by promoting and/or allowing the sale of Vioxx with the use of unfair, false, misleading or deceptive acts or practices.  As a result, the class purchased the drug when it wouldn't have otherwise.

The case followed a twisting path, to federal court, to the MDL, back to state court, up to the state supreme court on mandamus, and back.  Long story short, the class was certified by the trial court, and that decision eventually became ripe for review by the court of appeals.

The Kentucky rules are similar to the federal class action rules. The trial court certified the class under the prong (like b3) requiring that the questions of law or fact common to members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action
is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy. The trial court found that common questions of law and fact did predominate, stating that there was a common nucleus of facts from which the potential plaintiffs’ claims arose. All of the potential
plaintiffs were prescribed Vioxx by doctors who supposedly relied on Merck’s assertions that it was safe and effective.

On appeal, Merck contended that plaintiff’s claims would require individualized proof such that common questions would not predominate. Merck argued that individual proof would be necessary to show that Merck made fraudulent or negligent misrepresentations toward each putative class member or his or her physician through the marketing and sale of Vioxx, that the alleged
misrepresentations were received by each putative member’s physician, that each putative member’s physician relied on such representations in his or her decision to prescribe Vioxx over another drug, and the amount of any damages suffered by each putative member.

The court of appeals noted that the common law misrepresentation claims would require proof of causation in the nature of reliance, and while "there are fewer obstacles to a class claim proceeding under the" state consumer protection act, that law still requires loss as a result of the wrongful act. Plaintiffs alleged that there was supposedly a consistent pattern of deception lasting essentially the entire time that Vioxx was on the market, and thus that generalized proof could be used to show the elements of fraud and misrepresentation in this case. This theory concerning generalized proof regarding Merck’s alleged conduct was similar to the rebuttable presumption of reliance and causation known in securities litigation as "fraud-on-the-market." The court of appeals noted that the “fraud-on-the-market” approach had never been recognized in the state for a fraud or misrepresentation case. Indeed, pretty much every other jurisdiction which has been confronted with the theory has rejected it outside of the securities litigation context. See, e.g., Kaufman v. i-Stat Corp, 754 A.2d 1188, 1191 (N.J. 2000); International Union of Operating Engineers Local No. 68 Welfare Fund v. Merck & Co., Inc, 929 A.2d 1076, 1088 (N.J. 2007); Mirkin v. Wasserman, 858 P.2d 568, 584-95 (CA. 1993); Southeast Laborers Health and Welfare Fund v. Bayer Corp., 2011 WL 5061645 (11th Cir. 2011); Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341 (2001).

Accordingly, causation, reliance, and damages must be shown on an individual basis. Thus, if the action were tried as a class, even after the alleged common questions of Merck’s representations were decided, the case would essentially fragment into a series of amalgamated “mini-trials” on each of these individualized questions. Because these individualized questions would substantially overtake the litigation, and would override any common questions of law or fact concerning defendant’s alleged conduct, the court found that a class action was not the superior mechanism by which to try these cases. See, e.g., Zinser v. Accufix Research Institute, Inc., 253 F.3d 1180, 1192 (9th Cir. 2001).

 

 

Ninth Circuit Decertifies Consumer Fraud Class

The Ninth Circuit last week reversed the certification of a nationwide class raising consumer fraud claims against an auto maker. See Mazza, et al. v. American Honda Motor Co., No. 09-55376 (9th Circuit). 

Honda appealed the district court’s decision to certify a nationwide class of all consumers who purchased or leased Acura RL's equipped with a Collision Mitigation Braking System (“CMBS”). The plaintiffs alleged that certain advertisements misrepresented the characteristics of the CMBS and supposedly omitted material information on its limitations. The complaint stated four claims under California Law, specifically the California Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq., False Advertising Law (FAL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17500 et seq., the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civil Code § 1750 et seq., and a claim for unjust enrichment.  Readers know those are the typical claims in a consumer fraud case in the popular forum of California.

The Ninth Circuit held that the district court erred because it erroneously concluded that California law could be applied to the entire nationwide class, and because it erroneously concluded that all consumers who purchased or leased the relevant Acura RL can be presumed to have relied on defendant’s advertisements, which allegedly were misleading and omitted material information.

In 2007, plaintiffs bought Acura RL's from authorized Acura dealerships, and the vehicles were equipped with the CMB System. In December 2007, they filed a class action complaint alleging
that Honda misrepresented and concealed material information in connection with the marketing and sale of Acura RL vehicles equipped with the CMBS. According to Plaintiffs, Honda did not warn consumers (1) that its CMB collision avoidance system’s three separate stages may "overlap,"  (2) that the system may not warn drivers in time to avoid an accident, and (3) that it allegedly shuts off in bad weather.

The district court certified a nationwide class of people in the United States who, between August 17, 2005 and the date of class certification, purchased or leased new or used Acura RL vehicles
equipped with the CMBS. The district court concluded that California law could be applied to all class members because Honda did not show how the differences in the laws of the various states were material, how other states might have an interest in applying their laws in this case, and how these interests were implicated in this litigation. It also held that class members were entitled to an
inference of reliance under California law.

Before certifying a class, the trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis to determine whether the party seeking certification has met the prerequisites of Rule 23.  The party seeking class certification has the burden of affirmatively demonstrating that the class meets the requirements
of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. And, under Rule 23(b)(3), a plaintiff must demonstrate the
superiority of maintaining a class action and show that the questions of law or fact common to class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members.  Here, Honda contended that common issues of law did not predominate because California’s consumer protection statutes may not be applied to a nationwide class with members in 44 jurisdictions.
It further contended that common issues of fact did not predominate because the court  impermissibly relied on presumptions that all class members were exposed to the allegedly
misleading advertising, that they relied on misleading information in making their purchasing decision, and that they were damaged as a result.

First, choice of law. Under California’s choice of law rules, the class action proponent bears the initial burden to show that California has significant contact to the claims of each class member. Also, California law may only be used on a class-wide basis if the interests of other states are not found to outweigh California’s interest in having its law applied.  Honda argued that the district court misapplied the three-step governmental interest test.  The Ninth Circuit agreed. The district court abused its discretion in certifying a class under California law that contained class members
who purchased or leased their car in different jurisdictions with materially different consumer protection laws.  For example, some state consumer fraud laws have no scienter requirement, whereas many other states’ consumer protection statutes do require scienter. See, e.g., Colo.
Rev. Stat. 6-1-105(1)(e), (g), (u) (knowingly); N.J. Stat. Ann. § 56:8-2 (knowledge and intent for omissions); Debbs v. Chrysler Corp., 810 A.2d 137, 155 (Pa. Super. 2002) (knowledge
or reckless disregard).  Some states require named class plaintiffs to demonstrate reliance, while some other states’ consumer protection statutes do not.  These differences are "not trivial or wholly immaterial."  

The court of appeals reminds us that consumer protection laws are a creature of the state in which they are fashioned. They may impose or not impose liability depending on policy choices made by state legislatures. Each state has an interest in setting the appropriate level of liability for companies conducting business within its territory.  Maximizing consumer and business welfare, and achieving the correct balance for society, does not inexorably favor greater consumer protection; instead, setting a baseline of corporate liability for consumer harm requires balancing these competing interests.  Getting the optimal balance between protecting consumers and attracting foreign businesses, with resulting increase in commerce and jobs, is not so much a policy decision committed to a federal appellate court, or to particular district courts where a plaintiff may sue, as it is a decision properly to be made by the legislatures and courts of each state. More expansive consumer protection measures may mean more or greater commercial liability, which in turn may result in higher prices for consumers or a decrease in product availability.  Here, the district court did not adequately recognize that each foreign state has an interest in applying its law to transactions within its borders and that, if California law were applied to the entire class, foreign states would be impaired in their ability to calibrate liability to foster commerce.

The court of appeals also found that the district court abused its discretion in finding that common issues of fact predominated, because the scale of the advertising campaign here did not support a presumption of reliance, even if one were legally available.  It was likely that many class members were never exposed to the allegedly misleading advertisements, insofar as advertising of the challenged system was very limited. And it was not dispositive that Honda’s advertisements were allegedly misleading because of the information they omitted, rather than the information they claimed.  For everyone in the class to have been exposed to the omissions, it was necessary for everyone in the class to have viewed the allegedly misleading advertising. Here the limited scope of that advertising makes it unreasonable to assume that all class members viewed it.
Honda’s product brochures and TV commercials fell short of the extensive and long-term fraudulent advertising campaign that might support a presumption in the eyes of some courts.  Even if Honda allegedly might have been more elaborate and diligent in disclosing the limitations of the CMB system, its advertising materials did not deny that limitations exist. A presumption of reliance does not arise when class members were exposed to quite disparate information from various representatives of the defendant.  California courts have not allowed a consumer who was never exposed to an alleged false or misleading advertising campaign to recover damages under California’s UCL.  

Laptop Claims Were Mere Puffery

The Ninth Circuit late last month issued an interesting little opinion on the venerable and useful notion of puffing. Vitt v. Apple Computer Inc., No. 10-55941 (9th Cir., 12/21/11).

The crux of plaintiff's contention, building on his dissatisfaction that his iBook G4 allegedly failed shortly after his one year warranty had expired, was that the iBook G4 does not last “at least
a couple of years,” which he alleged was the minimum useful life a reasonable consumer expects from a laptop.  Vitt alleged that this was because one of the solder joints on the logic board of the iBook G4 degraded slightly each time the computer was turned on and off, eventually causing the joint to break and the computer allegedly to stop working -- shortly after Apple’s one year express warranty has expired. Vitt further alleged that Apple affirmatively misrepresented the durability, portability, and quality of the iBook G4, and did not disclose the alleged defect.

The district court held that Apple’s affirmative statements were non-actionable puffery, and that Apple had no duty to disclose the alleged defect , citing Daugherty v. American Honda Motor Co., 144 Cal. App. 4th 824 (2006).

The court of appeals affirmed, for substantially the reasons given by the district court. To be actionable as an affirmative misrepresentation, a statement must make a “specific and  measurable claim, capable of being proved false or of being reasonably interpreted as a statement of objective fact. Coastal Abstract Serv. v. First Am. Title Ins. Co., 173 F.3d 725, 731 (9th Cir. 1999). California courts have also held that "mere puffing" cannot support liability under
California consumer protection laws. Vitt challenged Apple’s advertising because it allegedly stated that the iBook G4 was “mobile,” “durable,” “portable,” “rugged,”  “reliable,” “high performance,” “high value,” an “affordable choice,” and an “ideal student laptop.” These statements are generalized, non-actionable puffery because they contain “inherently vague and generalized terms” and were “not factual representations that a given standard has been met.”   

Even when viewed in the advertising context, as Vitt urged, these statements did not claim or imply that the iBook G4’s useful life will extend for at least two years.  For example, to the extent that “durable” is a statement of fact, it may imply in context that the iBook G4 is resistant to problems occurring because of its being bumped or dropped, but not that it will last for a duration beyond its express warranty.

Vitt also contended that Apple had an affirmative duty to disclose the alleged defect. But a  consumer’s only reasonable expectation was that the computer would function properly for the duration of the limited warranty. There is no duty to disclose that a product may fail beyond its warranty period absent an affirmative misrepresentation or a safety risk.  Adopting Vitt’s theory would effectively extend Apple’s term warranty based on subjective consumer expectations. The court of appeals agreed with the district court that Apple was under no duty to disclose the alleged "defect" in its iBook G4s.  Claims dismissed.

  

Class Certification Denied in BPA Litigation

A Missouri federal court last week denied the class certification motion of consumers suing defendants in the multi-district litigation over the use of bisphenol-A in baby bottles and sippy cups. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 4:08-md-01967 (W.D. Mo.).

As we have posted before, the federal judge in the MDL involving BPA in baby bottles refused last Summer to certify three proposed multistate classes in this multidistrict litigation. In re: Bisphenol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, No. 08-1967 (W. D. Mo. July 7, 2011).   That decision offered an interesting discussion of choice of law, and of the notion of commonality after Dukes v. Walmart, and included an important reminder that while individual issues relating to damages do not automatically bar certification, they also are not to be ignored. E.g., In re St. Jude Medical, Inc., 522 F.3d 836, 840-41 (8th Cir. 2008) (individual issues related to appropriate remedy considered in evaluating predominance); Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Ass’n, Inc. v. New Prime, Inc., 339 F.3d 1001, 1012 (8th Cir. 2003), cert. denied, 541 U.S. 973 (2004) (individual issues related to damages predominated over common issues); see also In re Wilborn, 609 F.3d 748, 755 (5th Cir. 2010).

The court gave plaintiffs an opportunity to show that a class of Missouri-only consumers should be certified, and plaintiffs then moved for certification of three classes of Missouri consumers. Plaintiffs alleged three causes of action: violation of the Missouri Merchandising Practices Act (MMPA), breach of the implied warranty of merchantability, and unjust enrichment.

The court focused first on standing. A court may not certify a class if it contains members who lack
standing. In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, 644 F.3d 604, 616 (8th Cir. 2011). Plaintiffs’ proposed classes here could not be certified because they included individuals who had not suffered an injury-in-fact.  Individuals who knew about BPA’s existence and the surrounding controversy before purchasing defendants’ products had no injury. There was a potential for the proposed classes to include a large number of such uninjured consumers. Plaintiffs admitted that parents often carefully research baby care product purchases, and defendants submitted proof that information regarding BPA was in the media (including popular press such as "20/20") as early as 1999.

The opinion also offers an instructive discussion of reliance. Plaintiffs argued the issue of knowledge goes only to consumers’ reliance on defendants’ alleged nondisclosure, and plaintiffs always contend reliance is not an element of their consumer fraud claims. The court explained that the hypothetical posed by the question of reliance – whether the plaintiff would have purchased the product if she/he had known – presupposes the consumer did not know the relevant information. Thus, the question of knowledge logically precedes the question of reliance.

Even consumers who were unaware of BPA when they purchased defendants’ products may not have suffered an injury. Consumers who fully used defendants’ baby bottles and other products without physical harm before learning about BPA suffered no injury, and could not assert a claim under consumer protection statutes or for breach of warranty. Plaintiffs asserted that none of the proposed class members received what they intended to obtain, because plaintiffs were not provided material information before making their purchases. But plaintiffs were bargaining for baby products at the time of transaction, not for a certain type of information. Those who fully used the products before learning about BPA would have received 100% use (and benefit) from the products.

In the Rule 23 analysis proper, the court also noted that plaintiffs’ proof of what defendants failed to disclose would not be common for all class members, at least with respect to the scientific debate concerning BPA. Class-wide evidence cannot be used to show what defendants knew or should have known because their knowledge and the available information about BPA changed during the
class period. Plaintiffs' proposed trial plan stated they intended to show defendants' alleged awareness and nondisclosure of various scientific studies from 1997 to at least 2006.

The court's observation on materiality is also worth noting. A material fact for state consumer fraud liability includes a fact which a reasonable consumer would likely consider to be important in making a purchasing decision.  Even if this is an objective inquiry, that does not mean it can always be proven with class-wide evidence. A 2006 study allegedly showing BPA's effect on the endocrine systems of snails, even if material, would not be probative of defendants' liability in 2002. Similarly, a reasonable consumer may be less likely to consider a scientific study from 1997 significant if that consumer learned that federal agencies over the years – the FDA in particular – considered that study, and nevertheless still concluded BPA could be safely used to make baby products.

Finally, the court considered superiority and manageability, with a key issue of concern how to determine who was in the class (some courts do this analysis under the ascertainability rubric). Identifying himself or herself as a purchaser would not prove a person is in the class. A plaintiff in a typical case is not allowed to establish an element of a defendant’s liability merely by completing an affidavit swearing the element is satisfied, and this should be no different for a class action.  Defendants would be entitled to cross-examine each and every alleged class member regarding his or her memory and story.

For all these reasons, class certification denied.

Fruit Juice MDL Court Dismisses Claims

The Massachusetts federal court overseeing multidistrict litigation against 11 beverage companies, including Coca-Cola Co. and Del Monte Corp., alleging that their fruit juices contained trace amounts of lead, dismissed the claims last week.  In re Fruit Juice Products Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, No. 11-2231 (D. Mass., 12/21/11).

Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants misled them into believing that certain of their products were safe, whereas the products in fact contained lead and posed a health risk, especially to children.  The issue had caught the attention of the FDA, which concluded that while several of the products contained trace amounts of lead, in each case the level found would not pose an unacceptable risk to health.  (The FDA’s conclusion was based in part on a guidance report it issued in 2004. The agency concluded that many food products contain small amounts of lead because the substance is in the environment naturally and also released through many human activities.)

The majority of plaintiffs’ claims were for violations of the consumer protection laws of states in which defendants maintained their principal places of business. Plaintiffs also brought claims under the consumer protection laws of all states in which potential class members purchased the  products. Finally, the plaintiffs alleged breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose and for unjust enrichment.

Defendants moved to dismiss on several grounds, but the foundational argument that plaintiffs lacked standing was fatal to all of plaintiffs’ claims, and was in the eyes of the court so compelling that it was unnecessary for the court to reach the numerous satellite theories that defendants offered.

To establish Article III standing, a plaintiff must first demonstrate that he has suffered an injury in fact.  Whitmore v. Arkansas, 459 U.S. 149, 155 (1990). The injury must be concrete and the alleged harm actual or imminent, and not conjectural or hypothetical. Los Angeles v. Lyons, 461 U.S. 95, 101-02 (1983). If a plaintiff fails to allege sufficient facts to satisfy this requirement, the case must be dismissed.

In this case, plaintiffs did not allege a sufficient injury in fact. Plaintiffs offered two potential theories of injury in fact. First, they alleged that the lead in defendants’ products posed a health risk and that, by consuming these products, they placed themselves and their children at risk of future harm from lead poisoning. Second, plaintiffs alleged that they suffered economic injury when they purchased products that defendants advertised as safe, but that in fact contained allegedly dangerous amounts of lead. Both theories, according to the court, ran into the same problem -- plaintiffs
failed to allege any actual injury caused by their purchase and consumption of the products.

The claim of exposure to “potential adverse health effects” or “potential harm” was insufficient for Article III standing. A threatened future injury must be “certainly impending” to grant Article III
standing.  In product liability cases, courts have held that to establish standing based on a threat of future harm, plaintiffs must plead a credible, substantial threat to their health.  E.g., Herrington v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos., Inc., 2010 WL 3448531, at *3 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 1, 2010); see also Public Citizen, Inc. v. Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., 489 F.3d 1279, 1293-96 (D.C. Cir. 2007); Sutton v. St. Jude Medical S.C., Inc.,419 F.3d 568, 570-75 (6th Cir. 2005).  But the complaint here contained no allegations that either plaintiffs or anyone else ever suffered any type of injury from consuming the products. The products were not recalled, and in fact, the FDA found that at least some of the specific products did NOT pose an unacceptable risk to human health.

Plaintiffs made no allegations as to the amount of lead actually in these products, did not claim that any particular amount in the products is dangerous, and did not allege that any specific amount had caused actual injuries to any plaintiff. The court also stressed that plaintiff did not allege that the levels of lead in the products violated any FDA standards. Under these circumstances, the allegations of risk of future harm to class members were insufficient to meet the “credible or substantial threat” standard. The claim of potential future injury was simply too hypothetical or conjectural to establish Article III  standing.

The court cited a series of cases involving lead in lipstick, which we have posted on, making clear that the type of speculative future injury here cannot form the basis of a lawsuit. See Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 374 F. App’x 257(3d Cir. 2010), aff’g 2008 WL 2938045 (D.N.J. July 29, 2008); Frye v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 583 F. Supp. 2d 954 (N.D. Ill. 2008).

Plaintiffs’ second theory of injury in fact was equally flawed. Plaintiffs alleged that defendants promised to provide products that were safe for consumption, but that plaintiffs received products that posed a health risk to them and their children. Consequently, the products were unsuitable for their intended purpose -- consumption -- and supposedly valueless. Because plaintiffs supposedly would not have purchased these products if they had known the products contained any lead, they suffered an economic injury -- the price of the product -- when they purchased the products.

But because plaintiffs were unable to show that any actual harm resulted from consumption of the fruit juice products, their allegation of “economic” injury lacked substance. The fact is that plaintiffs paid for fruit juice, and they received fruit juice, which they consumed without suffering harm. Again, the products were not recalled, did not cause any reported injuries, and did not violate any federal standards. The products thus had no diminished objective value due to the presence of the lead. These plaintiffs received the benefit of the bargain, as a matter of law, when they purchased these products and were able to consume them.

Other courts that have addressed similar “benefit of the bargain” standing arguments agree that plaintiffs who have not been injured by an allegedly defective product generally do not have standing to sue the product’s manufacturer. See, e.g., Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283
F.3d 315 (5th Cir. 2002).  Plaintiffs’ allegations only support the contention that the levels of lead in the products were unsatisfactory to them. This allegation was simply insufficient to support a claim for injury in fact. 

 

 

Proposed TV Class Action Dismissed Again

A California federal  court has again dismissed a proposed class action brought against Sony Corp. of America regarding allegedly defective televisions. Marchante, et al. v. Sony Corp. of America Inc., et al., No. 3:10-cv-00795 (S.D. Calif.).

Plaintiffs alleged that overheating caused the chassis and internal parts of nine different Sony rear-projection televisions to melt or burn during normal use. Plaintiffs, on behalf of  a proposed class of purchasers, claimed that Sony violated several consumer protection statutes (such as, typically the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act) and breached express and implied warranties by selling them the defective televisions. Earlier this year, the court dismissed without prejudice all of the claims, and plaintiffs filed an amended pleading.  Defendants again moved to dismiss.

The court reviewed the Twombly/Iqbal standards, and ruled that the plaintiffs had not fixed the pleading problems. Plaintiffs again alleged that Sony engaged in unfair business acts or practices by selling, promoting, and recalling the television models at issue. The court had previously dismissed plaintiffs’ unfair business act claim because plaintiffs failed to allege a substantial consumer injury; in the new complaint plaintiffs again failed to allege that the televisions exhibited any problems during the one-year limited warranty period. Every alleged problem surfaced several years after purchase. Any alleged failure to disclose thus related to a defect that arose years after the express warranty expired. And any failure to disclose therefore could not constitute substantial injury.  Although plaintiffs did amend their complaint to include allegations that the televisions failed to operate properly from the outset, plaintiffs’ amendments did not cure the deficiencies of the prior complaint.  The fact remained that the defects did not become apparent to the plaintiff-consumers until after the warranty expired. Thus, the complaint still fell short of alleging that the defects caused the televisions to malfunction within the warranty period, as is required to allege a substantial consumer injury under California's consumer statutes. 

As a general rule, manufacturers cannot be liable under the CLRA for failures to disclose a
defect that manifests itself after the warranty period has expired.  A possible exception exists, however, if the manufacturer fails to disclose information and the omission is contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or the omission pertains to a fact the defendant was otherwise obligated to disclose. Here, all of plaintiffs alleged CLRA violations pertained to Sony’s alleged failures to disclose; the question therefore was whether Sony carried any obligation to disclose the alleged defect. The court noted that under the CLRA, a manufacturer’s duty to disclose information related to a defect that manifests itself after the expiration of an express warranty is limited to issues related to product safety.  Moreover, in order to have a duty to disclose, the manufacturer must be aware of the defect at the time that plaintiffs purchased, since a manufacturer has no duty to disclose facts of which it was unaware. In dismissing the prior complaint, the court held that plaintiffs failed to invoke the safety exception because the complaint was devoid of allegations that anyone or any property —other than the television itself— was damaged by the allegedly defective televisions.  

Even assuming plaintiffs’ allegations that the televisions pose a safety risk were sufficient to invoke the safety exception (fire hazard?), plaintiffs failed to allege that Sony was aware of this safety hazard at the time plaintiffs purchased the televisions.  First, plaintiffs alleged that Sony had known about it since 2008 and "possibly even earlier.”   Plaintiffs bought their televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006. So under plaintiffs’ own allegations, Sony may not have been aware of the alleged defect at the time plaintiffs made their purchases, or even within the respective one-year post-purchase warranty periods.  Second, all of plaintiffs' allegations regarding Sony’s knowledge of the alleged defect pertained to Sony’s knowledge that the defect caused excess heat that resulted in the deterioration of the television display, not that the defect posed any safety hazard. 

 The court thus dismissed the CLRA claims without prejudice. 

The court previously dismissed plaintiffs’ claim for breach of the express (limited warranty) because the alleged defects did not manifest until after the one-year warranty period expired. The general rule is that an express warranty does not cover repairs made after the applicable warranty period—here, one year after purchase—has elapsed.  None of the plaintiffs here sought repair or replacement of their televisions within the warranty period. None of the four named plaintiffs alleged that Sony either refused to repair any covered defects or refused to replace any televisions suffering from covered defects.

Plaintiffs’ implied warranty claims again failed because they were untimely. Subject to a sixty-day minimum and one-year maximum, implied warranties are equal in duration to corresponding express warranties under California law, said the court.  The implied warranty here was deemed to have a one-year duration to match that of the express warranty. And because Plaintiffs purchased the televisions in 2004, 2005, and 2006, the implied warranties would have expired by 2007, at the latest. But the amended complaint did not contain allegations that the televisions failed to function as warranted or that plaintiffs sought warranty coverage during the one-year period following their respective purchases. Thus, these claims were dismissed with prejudice.

Plaintiffs continue to try to shoe horn claims into the consumer fraud matrix, thinking they will have an easier road to class certification.  That makes the court's scrutiny of the pleadings even more crucial.

 

Class Action Complaint on 100% Natural Oil Dismissed

A federal court recently dismissed a proposed class action accusing a food company of misleadingly labeling cooking oils as 100% natural when they allegedly were made from genetically modified plants. Robert Briseno, et al. v. ConAgra Foods Inc., No. 2:11-cv-05379 (C.D. Calif.).

Quick research reveals that 88-94% of the nation’s crops of corn, soy and canola are grown from seeds that are the product of bioengineering.  There is no credible science that there are serious health issues with these products, and multiple peer reviewed studies on "GM" crops worldwide show farmers in underdeveloped countries have seen an increase in yield of about 29% from using them, along with decreased use of insecticide applications.

Plaintiff alleged that he regularly purchased Wesson Canola Oil, bearing labels that state the product is “100% Natural.” Plaintiff contended that contrary to these representations, ConAgra used plants grown from genetically modified organism seeds that have been engineered to allow for greater yield, and to be pest-resistant, to make Wesson-branded oils. He asserted that the genetically modified organisms are somehow not “100% natural,” and thus the labels and advertising are deceptive. Plaintiff filed a complaint seeking to represent a class of all persons in the United States who have purchased Wesson Oils from 2007 on. As is typical, he alleged
violation of California’s false advertising law (“FAL”), California’s unfair competition law (“UCL”), and California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”).

Defendant moved to dismiss. The first issue was preemption of the state law causes of action, based on FDA guidance regarding food labels. Federal preemption occurs, generally, when: (1) Congress enacts a statute that explicitly pre-empts state law; (2) state law actually conflicts with federal law; or (3) federal law occupies a legislative field to such an extent that it is reasonable to conclude that Congress left no room for state regulation in that field. Specifically, ConAgra argued that Briseno’s claims were preempted because the FDA has repeatedly concluded that bioengineered foods are not meaningfully different from foods developed by traditional plant breeding, and thus that the fact that a food product is derived from bioengineered plants need not be reflected on a product’s label. Plaintiff responded that he was not arguing that ConAgra was required to state whether its products were made from genetically modified plants. Rather, he contended that the decision to label its products “100% Natural” was misleading.

Courts have split on food preemption issues. Compare Dvora v. General Mills, Inc., 2011 WL 1897349 (C.D. Cal. May 16, 2011)(cereal-yes); Turek v. General Mills, Inc., 754 F.Supp.2d 956 (N.D. Ill. 2010)(snack bars-yes); Yumul v. Smart Balance, Inc., 2011 WL 1045555 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 14, 2011)(yes), with Lockwood v. Conagra Foods, Inc., 597 F.Supp.2d 1028 (N.D. Cal. Feb. 3, 2009)(pasta-no); Wright v. General Mills, Inc., 2009 WL 3247148 (S.D. Cal. Sept. 30, 2009)(granola bars-no).

Here, the court found no preemption on most of the complaint. The bulk of the complaint, said the court, alleged that use of the phrase “100% Natural” is misleading, and did not contend that additional information must be added to Wesson Oil labels. Regulations requiring that each product list its ingredients by their “common or usual name,” together with the regulations requiring that vegetable oils be denominated “ oil,” were inapplicable since plaintiff’s central argument was not that ConAgra cannot use the common or usual names of canola oil, vegetable oil or corn oil.

The FDA has expressed that it has no basis for concluding that bioengineered foods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding. So, plaintiff, in essence, sought to create a distinction – between “natural” oils and those made from bioengineered plants when the FDA has determined that no such distinction exists. The court rejected this argument, refusing to read the FDA guidance as formal enough or clear enough on the issue.

Plaintiff did also seek an order requiring defendant to adopt and enforce a policy that requires appropriate disclosure of GM ingredients. Entering an order of this type would impose a
requirement that is not identical to federal law, and thus this particular prayer for such relief was preempted.

Rule 9(b) requires that in all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity. The pleading must identify the circumstances constituting fraud so that a defendant can prepare an adequate answer to the allegations. While statements of the time, place and nature of the alleged fraudulent activities are often sufficient, mere conclusory allegations of fraud are insufficient. Even if fraud is not a necessary element of a claim under the CLRA and UCL, when a plaintiff alleges fraudulent conduct then the claim can be said to be grounded in fraud or to sound in fraud.

Plaintiff alleged that he regularly purchased Wesson Canola Oil for his own and his family’s consumption. But his complaint contained no allegations as to whether he became aware of the
representation through advertising, or labeling, or otherwise. He provided no information about how often he was exposed to the allegedly misleading statement. He did not allege how
frequently he purchased the product and over what period of time, whether he relied on
statements on canola oil labels, on a website, in advertisements, or all of the above,
whether the statements remained the same throughout the class period, or, if they did not, on
which label(s), advertisement(s) or statement(s) he relied.

Thus, this complaint did not afford ConAgra adequate opportunity to respond. Consequently, defendant's motion to dismiss was granted (without prejudice).


 

Choice of Law Defeats Another Proposed Nationwide Consumer Fraud Class

A federal court recently ruled that a suit over alleged defects in an MP3 player's display screen could not proceed as a nationwide class action. See Maloney et al. v. Microsoft Corp., No. 3:09-cv-02047 (D.N.J.).

This dispute arose out of the sale of portable MP3 players, the 30 gb model Zune. Plaintiffs alleged that the 30gb-model Zune was defective because of alleged cracks on the liquid crystal display (LCD) screen. (News flash: if you drop an electronic device, it may crack.)

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3), of a national class of purchasers. The court concluded that each state‘s common law and consumer protection laws would apply, and therefore a nation-wide class could not properly be certified.

Attempts to structure and certify nation-wide classes involving plaintiffs in all fifty states often turn on whether the law of a single state or multiple states should be applied.  If all 50 states‘ laws apply to a class-action claim, the moving party must provide an extensive analysis of state law variances showing that class certification does not present insuperable obstacles. Plaintiffs bear this burden at the class certification stage, and rarely (we'd say never) can meet it.  Many courts have recognized that state implied warranty laws differ in significant and material ways. For example, states differ on: (1) application of the parole evidence rule; (2) burdens of proof; (3) statute of limitations; (4) whether plaintiffs must demonstrate reliance; (5) whether plaintiffs must provide notice of breach; (6) whether there must be privity of contract; (7) whether plaintiffs can recover for unmanifested defects; (8) whether merchantability may be presumed; and (9) whether warranty protections extend to used goods.

New Jersey courts have adopted the most significant relationship test of the Restatement (Second) of Conflicts of Law. Before applying the Restatement test, plaintiffs here contended that a choice-of-law clause contained in the limited warranty accompanying the product should apply to all of the claims. However, the court determined that the choice-of-law provision did not apply to any of plaintiffs‘ claims. First, the implied warranty claims asserted by the plaintiffs were not governed by the choice-of-law provision in the express warranty. As a plain reading of the text of the express warranty made clear, the choice-of-law provision applies only to the limited warranty, i.e., the express warranty.

To evade this plain reading of the express warranty, plaintiffs then attempted to shoehorn their implied warranty claims into the choice-of-law clause by conflating their implied warranty and Magnoson-Moss (MMWA) claims. Plaintiffs‘ argument was untenable because ultimately plaintiffs‘ MMWA claims rely on their implied-warranty claims, not violations of federal law. State warranty law lies at the base of all warranty claims under Magnuson-Moss. Plaintiffs wrongfully confused substantive MMWA violations and the right to recover under the MMWA.

Although federal substantive law—and not state law—prevents a seller from disclaiming implied warranties, plaintiffs‘ ultimate right to recover on their MMWA claims still depended on state law. When a defendant improperly disclaims an implied warranty, the MMWA provides a statutory remedy: such disclaimer would be void and plaintiffs would be able to proceed against defendant on breach of implied warranties claims, under state law.  Similarly, the choice-of-law provision contained in the limited warranty did not apply to plaintiffs‘ consumer-fraud claims.

Having determined that the choice-of-law provision in the limited warranty did not apply to any of the plaintiffs‘ claims, the court then applied  the choice-of-law rules of the State of New Jersey.  Considering all of the Restatement factors, the court concluded that the state with the most significant relationship to the implied warranty claims was each class member‘s home state.
First, the place of contracting occurred wherever each class member purchased their 30gb Zune, which was presumably in their home state. Second, there was no negotiation of the implied warranties. Third, the place of performance also occurred wherever each class member purchased their 30gb Zune. Fourth, the location of the subject matter of the implied warranties is wherever the Zune was physically located, also presumably in each class member‘s home state. Finally, the domicile of the plaintiffs varies between each class member. Weighing these considerations, the state with the most significant relationship to the implied warranty claims—and consequently, the MMWA claims— was each class members‘ home state.

Plaintiffs‘ consumer-fraud claims would also be governed by the laws of each class member‘s home state.  In this case, the place, or places, where the plaintiff acted in reliance upon the defendant‘s supposed representations; the place where the plaintiff received the alleged representations; the place where a tangible thing which is the subject of the transaction between the parties was situated at the time; and the place where the plaintiff is to render performance under a contract which he has been induced to enter by the alleged false representations of the defendant—all weighed in favor of applying the consumer fraud laws of each class member‘s home state.

In light of the court‘s determination that the laws of all 50 states apply to the claims, and because plaintiffs suggested no workable means by which to conduct a manageable trial—let alone the extensive analysis required of them—class certification was denied on a nation-wide basis. (The court reserved decision as to whether or not a New Jersey-wide class might be certified, subject to further briefing by the parties; clearly additional individual issues will predominate in that context as well, we predict at MassTortDefense.)


 

Food Spread Class Action Certified: What Happened to Wal-mart?

A California federal judge recently denied certification of a nationwide class, but certified a statewide class of plaintiffs in a suit over allegedly misleading promotion of the hazelnut spread Nutella as part of a healthy breakfast for kids. Hohenberg et al. v. Ferrero USA Inc., No. 3:11-cv-00205 (S.D. Calif.).

This type of case falls squarely in the zone we have warned readers about: the aggressive and excessive use of consumer fraud act claims by plaintiff attorneys, and certification triggering the need to think about "blackmail settlements."

Plaintiffs brought a putative consumer class action lawsuit on behalf of people who purchased Ferrero’s Nutella spread after relying on allegedly deceptive and misleading labeling and advertisements. Specifically, Plaintiffs alleged that Ferrero misleadingly promoted its spread as healthy and beneficial to children when in fact it contains levels of fat and sugar inconsistent with that claim.  We have posted on this product before.

Typically, plaintiffs brought causes of action alleging (1) violations of California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq.; (2) violations of California’s False Advertising Law, (“FAL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq.; (3) violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1770 et seq.; (4) breach of express warranty; and (5) breach of implied warranty of merchantability.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification. Defendant Ferrero argued that plaintiffs did not satisfy the commonality requirement as clarified by the United States Supreme Court in Wal-Mart, because they did not offer evidence of a common injury. Indeed, plaintiffs did not support their motion with expert declarations that, for example, all class members were misled by a common advertising campaign that had little to no variation.  But the court, relying in part on pre-Wal-Mart decisions, e.g., Hanlon v. Chrysler Corp., 150 F.3d 1011, 1019-20 (9th Cir. 1998), stressed that commonality under Rule 23(a)(2) only requires there be some common issues of fact. To the extent that defendant interpreted the decision in Wal–Mart as requiring plaintiffs to prove common class-wide injury at the class certification stage, the court disagreed. Rather, all plaintiffs must show, said the court, is that the claims of the class depend upon a common contention of such a nature that it is capable of class-wide resolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke. While that clearly was part of Wal–Mart, the decision is best read as finding that commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members have suffered the same injury, which means more than merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law.  Nevertheless, in this case, the court found sufficient the claims made on behalf of the proposed class based on a common advertising campaign,

But then there was the predominance issue of Rule 23(b).  Defendant disputed that common issues predominate, arguing that proposed class members’ injuries would require individualized assessment. Notably, one named plaintiff did not regret buying Nutella despite the alleged marketing, and continued using the spread after she learned about its sugar content. Another named plaintiff testified that her family loved Nutella and was upset when she took it away. Clearly, this case involved class members’ individual expectations, dietary preferences, nutritional knowledge, and the availability or non-availability of substitutes in the market. The court conceded that plaintiffs’ dietary choices may prove relevant to the merits of their case, but felt that it need not "decide the merits" of the case at this stage. However, as we have posted before, the Ninth Circuit has noted that it is not correct to say a district court may consider the merits to the extent that they overlap with class certification issues; rather, a district court must consider the merits if they overlap with the Rule 23(a) requirements. 


The court did reject the proposed national class, because plaintiffs made no showing that non-California class members saw the advertising at issue in California, purchased Nutella in California, or that their claims arise out of conduct that occurred in California. The choice of law issue thus overwhelmed the alleged common issues. So the certified class included “all persons who, on or after Aug. 1, 2009, bought one or more Nutella products in the state of California” for personal use.  Wal-Mart needs to have more impact than this.

"Infected" Tissue Claim Not A Consumer Fraud Claim

Readers have seen my warnings about plaintiff attorneys trying to turn every marketing statement of opinion or puffing into a consumer fraud claim. Now comes a decision about a non-consumer product consumer fraud claim. A federal court recently decided that a plaintiff failed to plead a proper consumer fraud claim against a human tissue product supplier for allegedly providing infected material that was implanted into his body. See Wamsley v. Lifenet Transplant Services Inc., No. 10-00990 (S.D.W. Va., 11/10/11).

Plaintiff sued non-profit corporations who were suppliers and distributors of human tissue products, such as human tendons. Plaintiff alleged that he underwent surgery to repair a rupture to the Achilles tendon in his left ankle, a procedure that involved the implantation of a human tendon obtained from defendants. Plaintiff alleged the product was defective because it was “infected.”  Consequently, plaintiff alleged he had to undergo additional surgeries “to correct the damage caused by the defective tendon.

Plaintiff claimed that supplying an infected tendon constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice as defined by the West Virginia Consumer Credit Protection Act.  Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that plaintiff had failed to allege any action or inaction on the part of the defendants which would constitute unfair competition, unfair acts or practices, deceptive acts or practices, or fraudulent acts or practices. Plaintiff only formulaically recited the elements of a cause of action under the WVCCPA.   the court agreed and had plaintiff file an amended complaint which alleged defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected.  He claimed the alleged concealment
that a tendon provided for human implantation is infected constitutes an unfair method of competition and unfair or deceptive act or practice.
 

Defendants then filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint arguing that plaintiff’s
amended complaint fails to meet the pleading standards articulated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), and Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Defendants further contended that plaintiff did not have a private cause of action under the WVCCPA because no causal connection exists between the alleged unlawful conduct and the alleged ascertainable loss: because a physician (a “learned intermediary”) made the decision as to what product to use to repair the ruptured Achilles tendon, plaintiff could not establish the necessary causal connection between the alleged unlawful practice by defendants and the alleged injury.

The court began by outlining the relevant legal standard, familiar to our readers. The
plausibility standard requires a plaintiff to demonstrate more than a sheer possibility that a
defendant has acted unlawfully;  it requires the plaintiff to articulate facts, when accepted as
true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. While a court must accept the material facts alleged in the complaint as true, bare legal conclusions are not entitled to the assumption of truth and are insufficient to state a claim.  Facts pled that are merely consistent with liability are not sufficient.

Moreover, the court noted in an elegant way, "fraud is a generous tort, encompassing affirmative misrepresentations and omissions alike, its boundaries limited only by the imaginations of crafty and unprincipled minds."  A claim that “sounds in fraud” must satisfy Rule 9(b)’s more rigorous pleading standards. Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards advance several interests, including protecting defendants’ reputations from baseless accusations, eliminating unmeritorious suits that are brought only for their nuisance value, discouraging fishing expeditions brought in the dim hope of discovering a fraud, and providing defendants with detailed information in order to enable them to effectively defend against a claim.

Plaintiff’s sole relevant factual allegation concerning defendants’ alleged unlawful conduct was that the defendants concealed from plaintiff, his doctors, and his hospital, that the tendon was infected. But he offered not a single fact in support of his theory that defendants concealed from surgeons the fact that the human tissue they provided was “infected” or knew that the surgeons would implant the diseased tendon into a human body.  (Indeed, the serious nature of this allegation made it more at home in a criminal court than a consumer fraud action.) Such an unadorned, conclusory averment leashed to not a single supporting fact failed to meet the pleading standard. Moreover, Plaintiff’s allegation that defendants concealed a material fact sounds in fraud
and, thus, triggered rigorous pleading requirements under Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).  However, the court called this a  "shoot-and-ask-questions-later lawsuit"  because it offered no facts to support a good faith belief that defendants knowingly distributed diseased or “infected” human body parts to plaintiff’s health care providers. No names, places, dates, or times, and no concrete facts to support the alleged conduct. No narrative on what was medically deficient about the tendon implant except to state that it was “infected.” In sum, plaintiff’s theory of liability failed to cross the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief. 

Even if the amended complaint had been "the model of perfect pleading," it would still fail because it does not state a cognizable claim under the WVCCPA. Plaintiff cannot shoulder his burden of stating a claim upon which relief can be granted because, within the meaning of the WVCCPA, the provisioning of blood and human tissue by the non-profit defendants to the health care providers was not “trade or commerce”; the service provided by the defendants was not performed “in connection with the sale or advertisement of any goods or services”; plaintiff was not a “consumer”; and the parities had not entered into a “consumer transaction.”

The West Virginia Legislature, in accord with many other jurisdictions, expressed its intent
that suppliers of human blood and tissue products be held to different legal standards than those
businesses that manufacture, distribute, and sell conventional goods and services. Blood and tissue distributors are rendering a service— and not making a sale—when they provide human blood and tissue products according to the West Virginia Legislature, which intended to limit the liability of such distributors in contract warranty and strict liability tort claims, plainly distinguishing human body products from ordinary goods. The court thus applied the West Virginia high court's decision in White v. Wyeth, 705 S.E.2d 828, 837 (W. Va. 2010), which held prescription drugs aren't proper subjects of consumer protection claims; the court refused to allow a plaintiff to morph what is most naturally a product liability or breach of warranty action into a purported statutory consumer protection claim would permit an end-run around the state's blood shield statute.

Finally, the court noted that plaintiff was correct in observing that if his WVCCPA complaint was dismissed, plaintiff would be left with no adequate legal remedy. Defendants had explained that the WVCCPA claim was a products liability claim in disguise, brought only because the statute of limitations had run on plaintiff’s traditional tort remedies. Thus, any difficulty plaintiff might having pursuing more traditional causes of action was likely his own fault.  The legislature did not intend that WVCCPA serve as "a Plan B litigation backstop" for claims when a plaintiff had—but did not pursue—appropriate traditional causes of action.


 

Chew on This: Consumer Fraud Claim on Snack Bars Preempted

The Seventh Circuit ruled earlier this month that federal food labeling law expressly preempts state law claims seeking certain additional health-related disclosures on chewy bars. Turek v. General Mills Inc., No. 10-3267 (7th Cir. 10/17/11).

The bars have been around since at least the early 1980's, but have grown into a nearly $2 billion segment of the food industry.  Consumers love their portability, and relatively low calorie count.

Plaintiffs brought a diversity class action suit under the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, and the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, alleging that the label of certain "chewy bars" was misleading regarding fiber content.  Specifically, the complaint alleged that the principal fiber, by weight, in the bars was inulin extracted from chicory root. The complaint describes inulin so extracted as a processed, "non-natural” fiber which was not as beneficial to consumer health as other fiber.

Those state law claims ran smack into a provision of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a)(5), added by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, which forbids states to impose “any requirement respecting any claim of the type described in section 343(r)(1)
[of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act] . . . made in the label or labeling of food that is not identical to the requirement of section 343(r).”  A state thus can impose the identical requirement or requirements, and by doing so be enabled, because of the narrow scope of the preemption provision in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, to enforce a violation of the Act as a violation of state law. See also In re Pepsico, Inc. Bottled Water Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, 588 F. Supp. 2d 527, 532 (S.D.N.Y. 2008); “Beverages: Bottled Water,” 60 Fed. Reg. 57076, 57120 (Final Rule, Nov. 13, 1995). This is important because the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act does not create a private right of action. Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470, 487 (1996).

The question thus became what requirements the federal law imposes on the labeling of dietary fiber. Section 343(q)(1) of the Act contains a requirement that the “label or labeling” of food products intended for human consumption state “the amount of . . . dietary fiber . . . contained in each serving size or other unit of measure.” Other requirements for labeling claims relating to dietary fiber are set forth in implementing regulations.  

The labeling of the products challenged by the plaintiff was compliant with these regulations relating to health claims for dietary fiber. See, e.g., 21 C.F.R. § 101.76. All the FDA’s requirements relating to labeling dietary fiber are requirements to which any labeling disclosures required by a state must be identical.  But the disclaimers that the plaintiff wants added to the labeling of the defendants’ inulin-containing chewy bars were not identical to the labeling requirements imposed on such products by federal law, and so they were barred, held the court of appeals. The information required by federal law does not include disclosing that the fiber in the product includes inulin or that a product containing inulin allegedly produces fewer health benefits than a product that contains only product that contains only “natural” fiber, for example. 

Even if the disclaimers that the plaintiff wants added would be "consistent" with the requirements imposed, importantly, consistency is not the test. Identity is, said the court.

The Seventh Circuit thus affirmed dismissal of the case. But clarified, procedurally, that when a state law claim is expressly preempted under section 403A of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act,” a dismissal on the merits is the proper outcome, with prejudice like other merits judgments, not dismissal for want of federal jurisdiction, as the district court had ordered.

This is a victory for consumers when one considers why Congress did not want to allow states to impose disclosure requirements of their own on packaged food products, most of which are sold nationwide. Manufacturers might have to print 50 different labels, driving consumers who buy the food products crazy. A granola bar you buy in California ought to look just like the one you buy in Maine.

 

Don't Forget the Cocktail Sauce: Second Circuit Tosses Shrimp Tray Class Action

We have warned readers of MassTortDefense of the alarming trend of plaintiff lawyers seeking to attack every aspect of a product's packaging and labeling as somehow a case of consumer fraud -- often ignoring common sense in the process.

The latest example comes from a case rightly rejected by the Second Circuit last week. See Verzani v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 10-04868, 2011 WL 4359936  (2d Cir., Sept. 20, 2011).

Plaintiffs brought a putative class action against Costco Wholesale Corp. over the size of its "shrimp trays." (We love em, especially for football parties.) Plaintiffs claimed that the wholesaler misled customers by labeling its shrimp trays as 16 ounce trays when the shrimp part of the tray itself only weighed about 13 1/2 ounces. The other few ounces were allegedly made up of  the cocktail sauce and lemon wedges. (We pause and ask, how can you eat shrimp without those two accompaniments?)

The case had a somewhat lengthy procedural history, with issues of preliminary injunctions, choice of law, motions to dismiss, and jurisdiction, in play; the class issue was never reached. In relevant part, the trial court dismissed the claims in 2009, concluding that the plaintiffs' contention that a “reasonable consumer” would not assume that the net weight of the product included the cocktail sauce and other (useful and edible) elements was not well founded. The district court later denied the plaintiffs' motion to amend, 2010 WL 3911499 (S.D.N.Y.), noting that a reasonable consumer would not believe that the net weight disclosed on the label for the shrimp tray refers to only the shrimp. The label lists the ingredients in descending order based on their relative weight --shrimp, lemon wedges, leaf lettuce -- followed by a number of ingredients that comprise the cocktail sauce, such as, tomato paste, distilled vinegar, and horseradish; it clearly states “Net WT 160z (1.00 lb).”

Verzani's interpretation of “net weight” as including 16 ounces of shrimp alone was objectively unreasonable; a simple visual inspection of the tray, with its clear plastic top,  would reveal that shrimp is not the only edible item inside. In fact, the product's name alone, “Shrimp Tray with Cocktail Sauce,” suggested that a consumer (at a minimum) is purchasing shrimp and cocktail sauce. A reasonable consumer reading the tray's label would not pick out “shrimp” to the exclusion of all the information on the label (including the product's name and the listed ingredients) when assessing the net weight of the product.

Plaintiffs appealed, but in a summary order, the panel found that court had been right to throw out the case and deny the motion to file an amended complaint.

Class Certification Denied in Printer Litigation

A federal court recently denied class certification in a case brought on behalf of consumers accusing Epson America Inc. of misrepresenting how its NX series of printers functioned with ink cartridges. Christopher O’Shea et al. v. Epson America Inc. et al., No. 09-cv-08063 C.D. Cal.). Readers may recall our post that the court earlier dismissed many of the plaintiffs' claims on the basis that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

In May 2009, plaintiff Rogers purchased a “Stylus NX 200” inkjet printer manufactured by defendants. Her decision to purchase this printer was allegedly based, in part, on a statement on the printer box that read: “Replace only the color you need with individual ink cartridges.”  Plaintiff allegedly understood this statement to mean that the printer would only require a black cartridge to print black text. In actuality, plaintiff alleged, the Epson NX 200 printer requires all cartridges to function. She subsequently filed suit against Epson claiming that Epson failed to disclose and affirmatively misrepresented the features of the printer.

Plaintiff  moved for class certification.  The interesting part of the court's analysis relates to the predominance issue under Rule 23(b)(3). Even though individualized questions of reliance and materiality were diminished under some of the plaintiff's theories because the consumer fraud claims are governed by the “reasonable consumer” test, which requires plaintiff to show that members of the public are likely to be deceived, Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 523 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir. 2008), the notions of reliance and injury still impacted class certification. Specifically, the court was not convinced that members of the putative class had standing to pursue their claims in federal court. To have standing under Article III, a plaintiff must present an injury that is concrete, particularized, and actual or imminent; fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged action; and redressable by a favorable ruling.

In the context of Rule 23(b)(3), questions of Article III standing amount to an inquiry as to whether individual issues of injury-in-fact and causation predominate over common issues. While case law suggested that absent class members need not establish standing under the requirements of California’s consumer laws, there is a distinct requirement of Article III standing in federal court.  Statutory interpretations cannot permit a federal class action to proceed where class members lack Article III standing.  The requirement that all members of the class have Article III standing makes sense. If that were not the rule, a class could include members who could not themselves bring suit to recover, thus permitting a windfall to those class members and allowing Rule 23 to enlarge substantive rights.  The court therefore held that absent class members must satisfy the requirements of Article III.

Satisfaction of Article III’s requirements in turn raised individualized issues that defeated certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in this case. Article III requires some showing of injury and causation for a plaintiff to recover. Even if the alleged failure to disseminate truthful information about the product  would be subject to common proof, whether each class member was entitled to recover was not susceptible to proof on a class-wide basis because, to establish standing under Article III, each class member was required to show that they suffered some injury as a result of using or buying the product. Plaintiff therefore must show that all persons in the United States who purchased an Epson NX series printer during the class period suffered an injury which was caused by Epson’s alleged misrepresentation, and which was likely to be redressed by a decision in plaintiff’s favor. The record contained evidence indicating that the injury purportedly suffered by some members of the putative class could not fairly be traced to Epson’s allegedly deceptive representation.  Those individuals who purchased printers from certain third-party on-line sources, such as Amazon.com, were not exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation before they purchased their printers. Not all consumers who purchased an NX200 printer bought it at a retail store. Nor could standing be established by plaintiff’s (unsupported) assertion that the misrepresentation was on every box of the subclass, since some individuals purchased class printers without ever having been exposed to the allegedly deceptive representation. The fact that these individuals may have subsequently seen the misrepresentation when the package arrived in the mail was beside the point. There cannot be a causal connection between the consumer’s injury (the money spent on the printer) and Epson’s alleged misconduct (the purportedly deceptive advertising) because these consumers purchased the printers without ever seeing the purported misrepresentation.

Based on the foregoing, the court found that individualized issues of injury and causation permeated the class claims.The proposed class failed to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common issues predominate.

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Reconsideration Denied in Rejected "All Natural" Class Action

Here is an update on an interesting case we posted on before. A federal court last week denied a motion for reconsideration of its ruling that denied class certification to a consumer alleging that Arizona Beverages deceptively marketed its drinks as “all natural.”  See Coyle v. Hornell Brewing Co. et al., No.1:08-cv-02797 (D.N.J. 8/30/11). 

Plaintiff alleged that she was misled by labels on bottles of Arizona brand beverages touting “All Natural” ingredients, and thereby induced into buying bottles of Arizona beverages that contained High Fructose Corn Syrup (“HFCS”), which she claimed is not “natural”. Plaintiff sought to certify, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2), a class of consumers who purchased similarly labeled Arizona beverages that contained HFCS, seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief.

During the course of discovery in this case, plaintiff produced a retainer agreement she signed in anticipation of this lawsuit. But, the agreement was signed on August 9, 2007, more than seven months before plaintiff alleged that she was first misled by defendants’ “all natural” labeling in her product purchase on March 30, 2008. Indeed, plaintiff repeated the 3/08 purchase date in her deposition. She later changed her story.

The court originally observed that it need not find plaintiff to have intentionally lied to hold that she did not meet the adequacy element of Rule 23(a)(4). The issue was not simply whether plaintiff in fact lied, but whether her inconsistent testimony made her vulnerable to a unique factual or legal defense not faced by other class members, thereby rendering her interests potentially too antagonistic to the interests of the other class members. And that is exactly the case; the court found that plaintiff’s factual inconsistencies raised sufficiently grave credibility problems as to prevent her from serving as an adequate class representative.

Plaintiff filed a reconsideration motion. The court did reconsider its finding as to the adequacy of plaintiff’s counsel as a result of plaintiff’s repeated pleadings and certified discovery responses including the March 30, 2008 allegation. This "serious error" did not necessarily disqualify counsel.

But the court re-affirmed its decision as to the adequacy of plaintiff as class representative. Plaintiff argued that any defenses that she would face as a result of the credibility problems identified by the court could not become the focus of the entire litigation.  But the controlling rule does not hold that the only defenses that will disqualify a proposed named plaintiff on adequacy grounds are those which could become the focus of the entire litigation.  Indeed, to deny certification, a court need not conclude that credibility problems would ultimately defeat the class representative’s claim; rather, the court may deny class treatment if that unique defense is even arguably present. 

In any event, the court disagreed with plaintiff’s contention that the unique credibility-related defenses could not become the focus of the litigation in this matter. The court noted that plaintiff would have real trouble surviving summary judgment on the issue of "ascertainable loss" with a record  showing no dispute of fact that plaintiff’s only qualifying purchase of defendants’ product took place after plaintiff herself had concluded that the product was not “all natural.”  Plaintiff’s entire action would be vulnerable to a motion for summary judgment on the issue of ascertainable loss, which would prevent plaintiff (and the class she would seek to represent) from pursuing even injunctive relief.

Determining whether this plaintiff made her purchase of defendants’ product on the date she repeatedly claimed, after she had retained a lawyer to file the suit, would become a major focus and quite probably a show-stopper for this class. Reconsideration denied.

Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Claims Against iPad

A California federal court last week dismissed a putative class action accusing Apple Inc. of misleading consumers about the ability of its iPad to function outdoors without interruption. Jacob Baltazar et al. v. Apple Inc., No. 3:10-cv-03231 (N.D. Cal. 8/26/11).

We have posted before about the spate of consumer fraud class actions that look for any aspect of a functioning product that can be attacked as less than perfect, and turn it into a nationwide class action.  Here is a good case reminding readers that manufacturers do not warrant perfection, merely that the product will be reasonably fit for ordinary uses and reasonable expectations.

Plaintiffs alleged that Apple had represented that its iPad tablet computers function outdoors without interruption, when in fact the devices allegedly overheat and shut down when used in sunny conditions. Plaintiffs in this consumer class action asserted claims including breach of warranty and fraud.  Apple moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ second amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court agreed that the complaint failed to allege facts tending to show that Apple ever represented or claimed that the iPad would operate under such conditions, or that members of the putative class justifiably relied on such representations.

Each of the named plaintiffs alleged that he or she chose to purchase an iPad based at least in part on what they characterize as representations by Apple that the iPad could function outdoors as an e-reader and mobile Internet device. They relied, first, on a claim that Apple produced a television commercial showing depictions of the iPad being used outdoors, at least some of the time on sunny days, and posted on its website a video showing scenes of the iPad being used outdoors and in the sun. They also based their claims on a statement made on Apple’s website that reading the iPad is "just like reading a book.” Finally, they asserted that Apple represented expressly, both on the iPad’s packaging and on its website, that the iPad would function normally within a specified ambient temperature range.

While a complaint attacked by Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need overly detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955 (2007).

Regarding the ads, while plaintiffs observed correctly that a warranty can be created by statements in advertisements, see e.g., Thomas v. Olin Mathieson Chem. Corp., 255 Cal. App. 2d 806, 811 (1967), they did not point to any cases in which a court found that advertising images alone are sufficient to created an express warranty. On the other hand, courts have rejected warranty claims based on advertising images alone. Moreover, even if the advertisement could be construed as an express warranty, the warranty would be that the iPad would work in the exact situations depicted, not in other situations. Plaintiffs described seven brief scenes in a thirty-
second commercial depicting the iPad in use in “outdoor locations,” some of which uses
allegedly occurred on a “sunny day.” But several of the images were on the screen for less
than a second, and none show the iPad being used in direct sunlight or for an extended period in
any environment. Even under the most liberal pleading standard, these brief clips of iPad use in some outdoor locations cannot be construed as an express warranty that the device will operate without interruption in direct sunlight or in outdoor conditions generally.

On the implied warranty claim,plaintiffs failed to identify with sufficient specificity which of the  functions are the ordinary purpose of the iPad and how the device was unfit for that purpose. The complaint alleged that the iPad was marketed as a mobile tablet computer that can be used “anywhere, whether it be while sitting in a park, at an outdoor café, or on one’s own front stoop.” However, the complaint alleged that the product was unfit for use, generally, presumably everywhere and under all conditions. It failed to allege the device did not meet “a minimum level of quality” for a tablet computer.

On the fraud-based claims, the court noted that to state a claim for fraud or intentional misrepresentation under California law, a plaintiff must allege: (1) misrepresentation (false representation, concealment, or nondisclosure); 2) knowledge of falsity (or scienter); (3) intent to defraud, i.e., to induce reliance; (4) justifiable reliance; and (5) resulting damage. Lazar v. Superior Ct., 12 Cal.4th 631, 638 (1996); Anderson v. Deloitte & Touche, 56 Cal.App.4th 1486, 1474 (1997).  Plaintiffs failed to allege adequately that Apple misrepresented the conditions under which the iPad would operate or that they justifiably could rely on those representations in believing that the iPad would operate as they expected. For example, none of the named plaintiffs claimed to have relied on Apple’s statement that the iPad can be used “just like a book,” which, the court noted, was mere puffery. 

However, the court gave the plaintiffs 30 days to submit a third amended complaint.

 

Court Hits Cancel On Bulk of Printer Class Action

A California federal court earlier this month rejected many of the claims in a putative class action against Epson America Inc.  Christopher O'Shea, et al. v. Epson America Inc., et al., 2011 WL 3299936 (C.D. Cal.). What may be of most interest to our readers is the important reminder that a manufacturer is not required under consumer protection laws to denigrate its own product and broadcast that its product may not perform as well as its competition.

Plaintiffs claimed that Epson affirmatively misrepresented and failed to disclose material information regarding the performance and/or value of Epson inkjet printers and ink cartridges. Named plaintiffs claimed to be frustrated with the amount of ink the Epson printer consumed.

In fact, Epson discloses that its printers are tested in accordance with ISO standards, and makes available to consumers detailed information about how ink yields are calculated, including the fact that testing is conducted based on continuous printing; potential consumers, further, are expressly cautioned that since no single yield standard can duplicate a customer's actual printer usage, Epson recommends that customers also consider print yield comparisons from reputable independent sources. In the same vein, Epson discloses on the packaging of its printers that actual cartridge yields may vary considerably for reasons including images printed, print settings, temperature and humidity.  But plaintiffs never let a wealth of information deter them from finding one factoid they allegedly didn't get.

So, in essence, plaintiffs sought to impose a duty on the seller to compare this feature of its printers to competitors' products, as the Complaint referred to yields which were allegedly well below the yields of other manufacturers' printers. 

The California courts have held that for an omission to be actionable for purposes of  the state consumer fraud laws, it must be either (1) contrary to a representation actually made by the defendant, or (2) a fact the defendant was obligated to disclose.  E.g., Daugherty v. Am. Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 824, 835–36, 51 Cal.Rptr.3d 118, 128 (2006). Here, because there was no allegation that the “omitted” information was contrary to an actual representation, to defeat summary judgment and prevail on an omission-based theory of liability, plaintiffs had to establish that Epson was affirmatively obligated to disclose the information.

Yet, plaintiffs failed to identify—and the Court was unable to find—any case in any jurisdiction in which a court imposed an affirmative legal obligation upon a manufacturer to disclose on its packaging that its products performed less efficiently than similar products from competing manufacturers. To the contrary, as Epson pointed out, courts have unequivocally rejected this proposition. As the federal court explained, in the absence of some special circumstance, any duty to disclose information about a competitor's products would be anathema to a competitive free-market economy.  Imagine a car manufacturer having to tell you in every ad about every other car that got better gas mileage or did better in a crash test. Imagine every food maker having to tell you in its ads of every competitive food or beverage that was lower in calories.

Plaintiffs did not allege that Epson's printers were defective, let alone dangerously defective. Their claim, rather, was that they were unhappy upon discovering that Epson's printers “wasted” more ink than other printers.  California's consumer protection laws, though broad and sometimes scary, do not extend so far as to require a company to denigrate its own products or promote those of its competitors just because consumers might be interested in the comparison. The duty that plaintiffs sought to impose upon Epson was properly served by independent consumer reports.

The court held that Epson was not legally obligated to disclose that actual print yields generated by its printers and ink cartridges are “grossly inefficient” vis à vis “reason-able consumer expectations and the yields of other manufacturers' printers.”  Because Epson was not obligated to disclose the purportedly “omitted” information, plaintiffs' omission-based claims consequently failed as a matter of law.

However, the court denied the motion as to express representations allegedly made concerning the claims on one proposed sub-class which alleged that the defendant deceived customers when it told them that its NX series of printers, which uses individual cartridges for different colors of ink, would allow customers to “replace only the color you need.”  There was an issue of fact regarding whether the consumer is familiar enough with printer technology and operations to know that small amounts of colored ink are used when printing black-and-white documents to keep the print head clear. The plaintiffs have moved for class certification, with the hearing set for later in August.
 

Federal Court Dismisses Proposed Television Consumer Fraud Class Action

Here's a case of a venerable rule (puffery) and an important new doctrine (Twiqbal) being applied in the context of a troubling trend -- the spate of consumer fraud class actions challenging everything a defendant says about its products.  A New Jersey federal court recently rejected a putative class action alleging that Panasonic Corp. falsely advertised its Viera plasma televisions made in 2008 and 2009. Shane Robert Hughes et al. v. Panasonic Consumer Electronics Co., No. 2:10-cv-00846 (D.N.J. July 21, 2011). A useful and detailed analysis of commonly found flaws in consumer fraud class action complaints.

Plaintiffs putatively represented a class defined as individuals and entities who own or purchased any 2008/2009 model Panasonic Viera Plasma Television. Plaintiffs alleged that the televisions suffered from increased “voltage adjustments” causing a rapid deterioration in picture quality. The  class members allegedly relied on Panasonic’s representations concerning the "industry leading" black levels and contrast ratios, and/or personally observed the televisions’ excellent picture quality on models displayed in retail stores. Plaintiffs sought damages and/or refunds from Panasonic for violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J. STAT. ANN. § 56:8-1 et seq.; other states’ consumer protection acts; and under various express and implied warranty claims.

Defendant moved to dismiss. The adequacy of pleadings is governed by Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2), which requires that a complaint allege “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,” but also requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).

Although class members were from around the country, the court determined it need not decide whether it was appropriate to engage in a choice of law analysis at the pleadings stage because, as detailed below, each of the plaintiffs’ claims failed as a matter of law under any of the possibly applicable laws.

Claims under the NJCFA and most state consumer fraud acts require a plaintiff to allege (1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.  Panasonic argued, among other things, that even if the allegations are true, plaintiffs’ CFA claim failed because plaintiffs had not pointed to any actionable unlawful conduct by Panasonic. According to Panasonic, plaintiffs did not set forth any specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties, or product guides that plaintiffs viewed; where and from whom at Panasonic did plaintiffs received any such information; or how precisely, plaintiffs were injured by any such representations.

The Court found that Panasonic’s alleged misrepresentations about the Televisions’
“industry  leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were not “statements of fact,” but rather subjective expressions of opinion. Indeed, such statements of
product superiority are routinely made by companies in advertising to gain a competitive advantage
in the industry. The NJCFA distinguishes between actionable misrepresentations of fact and
"puffery.” Rodio v. Smith, 123 N.J. 345, 352 (1991) (the slogan “You’re in good hands with Allstate” was “nothing more than puffery” and as such was not “a deception, false promise, misrepresentation, or any other unlawful practice within the ambit of the Consumer Fraud Act”); see New Jersey Citizen Action v. Schering-Plough Corp., 367 N.J. Super. 8, 13-14 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 2003) (finding that defendant’s advertisements which employed phrases as “you . . . can lead a normal nearly symptom-free life again” were “not statements of fact, but are merely expressions in the nature of puffery and thus were not actionable” under the NJCFA).  The same is true in many states.

The remaining misrepresentations may have been statements of fact rather than mere puffery. However, plaintiffs did not assert sufficient allegations of fact to satisfy the requisite level of adequate pleading under Rule 9(b) or by Twombly/Iqbal.  For example, regarding the alleged misrepresentation about half-brightness, the Amended Complaint did not allege the date, place or time of this misrepresentation or otherwise inject some precision and some measure of substantiation into plaintiffs’ allegations of fraud. While plaintiffs could not be expected to plead facts solely within Panasonic’s knowledge or control, plaintiffs should be able to allege the specific advertisements, marketing materials, warranties or product guides that they each reviewed, which included this misrepresentation and when it was so advertised.

Plaintiffs also alleged various omissions, but fraudulent omissions require a showing of intent. Here, even accepting the allegations of omissions in the Amended Complaint as true, the court found that plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts to raise any plausible inference that Panasonic knowingly concealed the alleged defect with the intent that consumers and industry experts would rely upon the concealment. Indeed, throughout the Amended Complaint, it was alleged that Panasonic knew “or should have known” of the defect, but provides no additional facts explaining how or why Panasonic had knowledge of the defect to satisfy Twombly/Iqbal. Such allegations of intentionally failing to disclose the alleged defect were merely conclusory assertions.

Even assuming plaintiffs sufficiently alleged the “unlawful conduct” element under the consumer fraud acts, the court also concluded that the Amended Complaint did not satisfy the pleading requirements of Twombly/Iqbal or Rule 9(b) as to the “ascertainable loss” element.  A plaintiff must suffer a definite, certain and measurable loss, rather than one that is merely theoretical. The certainty implicit in the concept of an ascertainable loss is that it is quantifiable or measurable. The allegations did not sufficiently plead either an out-of pocket loss by plaintiffs or a showing of loss in value. For example. plaintiffs failed to allege how much they paid for their Televisions and how much other comparable Televisions manufactured by Panasonic’s competitors cost at the time.  Plaintiffs failed to allege how much of a premium they claim to have paid for their Panasonic Televisions.  Furthermore, in the Amended Complaint, plaintiffs affirmatively stated that most continue to use the Televisions, thus obscuring any possible measurable loss.  Typically, plaintiffs try not to allege details in this area for fear of undermining their class certification arguments.

Plaintiffs' warranty claim suffered from several defects. While the claim at times was presented as an alleged manufacturing problem, a review of the Amended Complaint revealed that plaintiffs alleged only that the Televisions suffered from an inherent design defect and/or improper programming. Plaintiffs one vague, conclusory allegation that the defect was caused, in part, due to “manufacturing errors” was insufficient to satisfy the requisite pleading standards under Twombly/Iqbal.  Moreover, the express warranty claims were impacted by what the court already concluded in connection with plaintiffs’ consumer fraud claims, that Panasonic’s statements about the Televisions’ “industry leading” technology and features, which create superior image and color quality, were mere expressions of puffery. As such, these marketing statements were not sufficient enough to create an express warranty. 

On the implied warranty claim, while plaintiffs alleged that the Televisions were defective, plaintiffs did not allege that the Televisions were inoperable or otherwise not in working condition. Indeed, the Amended Complaint did not contain any explicit allegation that plaintiffs could no longer use their Televisions - in other words, that they were no longer generally fit for their ordinary purpose.  Although the Televisions may not have fulfilled plaintiffs’ subjective expectations, plaintiffs did not adequately allege that the Televisions failed to provide a minimum level of quality, which is all that the law of implied warranty requires. See also In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Prods. Liab. Litig., 2001 WL 1266317, at *22 (D.N.J. Sept. 30, 1997) (merchantability “does not entail a promise by the merchant that the goods are exactly as the buyer expected, but rather that the goods satisfy a minimum level of quality”).

Thus, the court concluded, each of plaintiffs’ claims failed to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), to satisfy Rule 9(b) heightened pleading requirements, and/or pleading standards under
Twombly/Iqbal. The court granted Panasonic’s motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint without prejudice.

Federal Court Denies Class Certification in Vitamin Consumer Case

A federal court late last month declined to certify a proposed class action in which plaintiffs challenged alleged claims about the weight-loss properties of One-A-Day WeightSmart vitamins. Gray v. Bayer Corp., No. 08-4716 (D.N.J. 7/21/11).  Our readers will be interested in the discussion of the predominance and superiority requirements for class actions.

Plaintiff alleged that the packaging of One-A-Day WeightSmart falsely claimed that the vitamin enhances a user’s metabolism. Plaintiff filed a complaint against Bayer alleging claims based on intentional and negligent misrepresentation, and the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (NJCFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1, et seq.;  plaintiff later moved  to certify a class of purchasers of One-A-Day WeightSmart pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3), which requires that a plaintiff establish that the questions of law or fact common to the class members predominate over any questions affecting only individual members and that a class action is superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the controversy.

As plaintiff’s proposed nationwide class called for the application of state substantive law, the court first looked to determine which state’s law governed the claims. Plaintiff argued that New Jersey had the most significant relationship to the claims because all of the decisions with respect to marketing allegedly took place in New Jersey, and all of the alleged operative misrepresentations originated in New Jersey, at Bayer’s headquarters. Defendant noted that because consumers purchased One-A-Day WeightSmart throughout the United States and thereby received the alleged misrepresentations in various jurisdictions other than New Jersey, the consumer fraud laws of the states where the product was purchased should apply. The court agreed that .the place where the
putative class members received Bayer’s alleged representations and the place where the consumers acted in reliance upon those representations, were key factors pointing to the law of the individual states where the product was purchased. (Consumers purchased One-A-Day WeightSmart at retail locations nationwide, not from Bayer itself.)

Moreover, to apply the NJCFA to all the out-of-state consumers in this case would be to ignore the interests of potentially fifty other jurisdictions. Simply because New Jersey has struck a particular balance between consumer protection and the promotion of business within its borders does not suggest that its interest in deterrence should displace the differing policy goals of its fellow states. Those states have instead struck their own legislative balances, awarding compensation based on differing standards of, inter alia, intent, causation, reliance, and damages. The interests of interstate comity and the competing interests of the states counseled against the blanket application of one state’s law over the laws of other interested states.

Thus, the court had to next consider whether variations in state laws presented the types of insuperable obstacles which render class action litigation unmanageable. See In re Warfarin Sodium Antitrust Litig., 391 F.3d 516, 529 (3d Cir. 2004). Where the applicable law derives from the law of the 50 states, as opposed to a unitary federal cause of action, differences in state law will compound any disparities among class members from the different states. It is plaintiff’s burden to
credibly demonstrate, through an extensive analysis of state law variances, that class certification does not present insuperable obstacles. 

Here, plaintiff failed to carry this burden.The court acknowledged a “brewing issue” in the Third Circuit over whether the NJCFA could be applied in a national class action. But the better view was that the court would be required to apply distinct standards of, inter alia, intent, causation, reliance, and damages in order to adjudicate plaintiff’s claims under each state’s consumer fraud law. Litigating plaintiff’s claims based on law from potentially fifty-one different jurisdictions would likely require a multitude of mini-trials to determine Bayer’s liability to each statewide group of consumers. Such a procedure would be an inefficient use of  judicial resources and would defeat the purported economies of class treatment.

The court therefore concluded that plaintiff’s proposed nationwide class failed both the predominance and superiority requirements under Rule 23(b)(3). 

Bayer argued that the alternative proposed Florida class was not ascertainable because claims under the Florida consumer fraud act are subject to a four-year statute of limitations and thus the claims of some Florida class members would be barred -- an issue requiring an individual analysis. Plaintiff was, however, granted leave to file a revised motion for class certification with respect to a more ascertainable Florida class only.

 

Supreme Court Declines To End Multiple Class Action Mischief

The second of our Supreme Court trilogy for the week.  The Court ruled last week in Smith v. Bayer Corp., No. 09-1205, that a federal district court was prevented by the the Anti-Injunction Act from enjoining a state court from entertaining plaintiff's motion to certify a class action even when that federal court had earlier denied a similar motion to certify an overlapping class in a closely related case.

Generally, the Anti-Injunction Act bars a federal court from granting injunctions to stay proceedings in state courts except where specifically authorized by Congress, or "where necessary in aid of its jurisdiction, or to protect or effectuate its judgments."  Most of our readers hoped that the Court would agree with the lower courts' ruling that this was just such an exception.

The Smith case involved the issue whether a federal court can enjoin class members from bringing a product liability class suit in a state court after the federal court declined to certify a similar class. Specifically, the Baycol MDL court in Minnesota had denied class certification, and the court of appeals upheld the injunction barring plaintiffs from bringing virtually the same suit in West Virginia state court. The federal court of appeals in fact unanimously affirmed, holding that the injunction was authorized by the All Writs Act and the re-litigation exception to the Anti-Injunction Act, and that petitioners did not have a due process right to re-litigate class certification.

The Supreme Court, unfortunately, reversed, in a decision that may encourage forum shopping.

-The decision encourages "creative" case structuring strategies by the plaintiffs' bar to give themselves a second bite at the apple (or more) in class claims, even after the federal court properly denies certification, and even when the state class law mirrors Federal Rule 23; here, the Court found that an application of West Virginia's Rule 23 did not present the same exact issue as the application of the federal rule version, even though the language of the rules is nearly identical.

-The decision highlights the double-edged sword that is federalism; now, the preclusive effect of a certification denial, if any, will be decided by state courts applying the notions of res judicata rather than by the enjoining court.  This comports with the general notion that the second court looking back decides the impact, not the first court looking forward.  But readers are well aware of the hard-to-fathom preclusion decisions some state courts have fashioned in the class action context.  E.g., the Engle class in Florida. And, as plaintiffs told Justice Ginsburg in oral argument of the case, a state has the right to apply and interpret a rule of civil procedure "as it sees fit to manage its own docket and administrate its own docket as it sees fit."

-As a practical matter, it invites "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again," with plaintiffs seeking to bring similar cases again and again, shopping for a forum or judge that will finally agree to certify something. Plaintiffs will recruit a new named plaintiff, and recreate the risks associated with class certification, even after the defendant has seemingly won that important battle. Justice Alito asked petitioners at oral argument whether after a class certification denial is entered in one federal court, a plaintiff's attorney could simply substitute the name of a new named plaintiff and file the same complaint in another federal court. Plaintiffs answered that an attorney could do that.

-Note that petitioners had not been foreclosed from seeking relief on their individual claims, but only from seeking to represent other people through a class action. Whether a class should be certified had been fully and fairly litigated in proceedings that ought to be binding on petitioners and in which petitioners’ interests were adequately represented by an identically situated named plaintiff -- one whom plaintiff's counsel promised was an adequate representative, was typical, with common claims and no adverse interests. The Court apparently did not consider the possible argument that an absent class member who is adequately represented might be in sufficient privity with the named plaintiff such that he can be precluded from litigating the certification decision a second time.

-Even though in dicta, the Court discouraged the application of preclusion to absent class members.   It may be of little comfort to defendants faced with the costs and risks of serial class claims that, as the Court put it, the "legal system generally relies on principles of stare decisis and comity among courts to mitigate the sometimes substantial costs of similar litigation brought by different plaintiffs."

-The Court agreed that the policy concerns were the defendant's "strongest argument, " and seemingly recognized the mischief it was permitting, because the opinion noted that nothing in this holding forecloses legislation to modify established principles of preclusion should Congress decide that CAFA does not sufficiently prevent re-litigation of class certification motions. Nor does the opinion at all address the permissibility of a change in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure pertaining to this question.  The Court said the trial court could not call on the "heavy artillery" of an injunction, but perhaps an even mightier weapon is needed.

 


 

Plaintiffs' Class Allegations Flattened in Tire Case

A federal court in New York last week denied plaintiffs' motion for class certification in a case alleging that the run-flat tires on defendant BMW's MINI Cooper S were defective. See Oscar v. BMW of North America LLC, No. 1:09-cv-00011-RJH (S.D.N.Y. 6/7/11).

Oscar purchased a new 2006 MINI Cooper S from BMW-MINI of Manhattan, an authorized MINI dealership, but prior to purchasing the MINI did not do any sort of research. Nor did he take the car for a test drive. The car came with run-flat tires (RFTs), an innovation that allows drivers to drive to the nearest service station even after the tire was flat. As of December 2, 2009, a period of about three years, Oscar had had five flat tires.  Plaintiff alleges that  his troubles stemmed from the fact that his car was equipped with RFTs rather than with standard radial tires. He considered the number of flat tires he experienced to be evidence of a widespread defect.

Plaintiff proposed a nationwide class (or a New York class) of all consumers who purchased or leased new 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009 MINI vehicles equipped with Run-Flat Extended Mobility Technology tires manufactured by Goodyear and sold or leased in the United States whose Tires have gone flat and been replaced.

On the first prerequisite of Rule 23(a), the court offered an interesting discussion arising from the fact that most of plaintiff's evidence of numerosity did not correlate directly to his class definition: data that may have included other vehicles, or non-RFT tires, or makers other than Goodyear. But the opinion noted that courts have relied upon "back-of-the-envelope calculations in finding numerosity satisfied."  Conservative assumptions leading to a likelihood of numerosity have at times sufficed. This case fell "right on the border between appropriate inference and inappropriate speculation."  Accordingly, numerosity was satisfied for the proposed national class but not the New York class.

Turning to the Rule 23(b)(3) requirements, the court confronted the choice of law issues inherent in a national class. Although plaintiff conceded that the law of the fifty states plus the District of Columbia would apply to the members of the nationwide class, he argued that the differences between the states’ laws on implied warranty claims were negligible because the implied warranty is a Uniform Commercial Code claim. But numerous courts have recognized that there are significant variances among the interpretation of the elements of an implied warranty of merchantability claim among the states. See Walsh v. Ford Motor Co., 807 F.2d 1000, 1016 (D.C. Cir. 1986); In re Ford Motor Co. Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. 484, 489 (D.N.J. 2000).  In particular, several states still require privity; so, plaintiff advanced a theory of privity-by-agency. But this theory has not been accepted in all states. Readers know that choice of law issues impact, among other things, the manageability of the class and the superiority of the use of the class device.

The court also found that plaintiff failed to demonstrate that common questions of fact predominate. Plaintiff was unable to articulate and allegedly common defect, merely hypothesizing that the failure rate could stem from the RFTs’ "stiffness" and stating that further discovery would be necessary to ascertain the precise nature of the defect. Plaintiff did not provide the court with any evidence that Goodyear RFTs are likely to fail because of a particular common defect. The failure to specify an alleged common defect provided a further basis for concluding that plaintiff had not demonstrated predominance. See Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 630 F.3d 813, 819 (7th Cir. 2010) (holding predominance was not satisfied where forty-one plaintiffs owners alleged that their motorcycles wobbled, but failed to provide competent evidence that a common defect underlay their claims).

Even if Oscar had put forth evidence of a common defect, breach of warranty suits like this one often involve complicated issues of individual causation that predominate over common questions regarding the existence of a defect. See, e.g., In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1018-19 (7th Cir. 2002) (noting that class treatment of tire defect litigation was unmanageable in part because individual factors could affect the alleged tire failure); Sanneman v. Chrysler Corp., 191 F.R.D. 441, 451-52 (E.D. Pa. 2000) (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose paint had delaminated allegedly because of faulty painting process in part because the paint could delaminate for reasons other than the alleged defect); In re Ignition Switch Litig., 194 F.R.D. at 490-91 (declining to certify a class of vehicle owners whose passenger compartments caught on fire allegedly because of a faulty ignition switch because issues of individual causation would predominate); Feinstein v. Firestone Tire and Rubber Co., 535 F. Supp. 2d 595, 603 (S.D.N.Y. 1982) (declining to certify a class of tire purchasers because of “myriad [individual] questions,” including “other possible causes of the problem encountered”); see also Wolin v. Jaguar Land Rover N. Am., LLC, 617 F.3d 1168, 1172-74 (9th Cir. 2010).

Here, individualized issues of causation would swamp the common inquiry into an as yet to be identified tire design defect.  Even if the plaintiffs were to show that the Goodyear RFTs suffered from a common defect, they would still need to demonstrate that this defect caused each class member’s RFT to puncture. But tires can puncture for any number of reasons, and not all of these reasons will relate to the alleged defect. RFTs can go flat for reasons that would also cause a standard radial tire to go flat -- for example, if the driver ran over a nail, tire shredding device, or large pothole, or if a vandal slashed the tire. In order to demonstrate liability, plaintiff would have to demonstrate in each individual class member's case that the tire punctured for reasons related to the defect, rather than for a reason that would cause any tire to fail.

Similarly, under the state consumer fraud law claim, where the link between the defendant’s alleged deception (about the tires) and the injury suffered by plaintiffs is too attenuated and requires too much individualized analysis, courts will not certify a class. See, e.g., Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 272 F.R.D. 82 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (declining to certify a class allegedly misled by McDonald’s claims that its food was healthy).  Again, determining whether each tire failed as a result of the allegedly concealed defect or as a result of unrelated issues, e.g., potholes or reckless driving habits, would devolve into numerous mini-trials.

Certification denied.

 

 

Proposed Class Rep Not Adequate: Got Your Dates Straight?

A federal court in New Jersey last week joined the small but growing trend (call it a simmer not a boil) of courts putting some real meaning into the prerequisites to class certification found in Rule 23(a).  The court in Coyle v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 1:08-cv-02797-JBS-JS (D.N.J. 2011) found that the factual inaccuracies and/or inconsistencies in the proposed class representative's testimony constituted fatal flaws under Rule 23(a)(4) requiring an adequate class representative.

Plaintiff alleged that she was misled by labels on bottles of Arizona brand beverages touting “All Natural” ingredients, and thereby induced into buying bottles of Arizona beverages that contained High Fructose Corn Syrup (“HFCS”), which she claimed is not “natural”. Plaintiff sought to certify, under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(2), a class of consumers who purchased similarly labeled Arizona beverages that contained HFCS, seeking only declaratory and injunctive relief.  The underlying claims were based on the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”). [Full disclosure, we are partial to their Arizona Sports thirst-quenchers.]

The court denied plaintiff’s motion for class certification because she could not satisfy the adequacy requirement of Rule 23(a)(4).  The reasoning is instructive. During the course of discovery in this case, plaintiff produced a retainer agreement she signed in anticipation of this lawsuit. But, the agreement was signed on August 9, 2007, more than seven months before plaintiff alleged that she was first misled by defendants’ “all natural” labeling in her product purchase on March 30, 2008.  Indeed, plaintiff repeated the 3/08 purchase date in her deposition.

Problem. Solution? Nearly two months after her deposition, plaintiff produced a signed declaration that contradicted her deposition testimony (and prior answers to interrogatories and the allegations in both her original Complaint and subsequent Amended Complaints).  She now said she meant to claim the alleged purchase occurred in March, 2007 rather than on March 30, 2008. But she offers no explanation for why she had previously alleged the March 30, 2008 date in her Complaints and in certified answers to interrogatories.

The court noted that in the procedural posture, the substantive allegations of the complaint must be taken as true.  But class certification questions are sometimes enmeshed in the factual and legal issues comprising the plaintiff's cause of action, and courts may delve beyond the pleadings to determine whether the requirements for class certification are satisfied.  The Third Circuit calls for a “rigorous analysis”  of a motion to certify a class. In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 309 (3d Cir. 2008). Specifically, the district court must make findings that each Rule 23 requirement is met.  Id. at 310. Plaintiff has the burden of proof by a preponderance of the evidence that she has met each and every element of Rule 23.

Rule 23(a)(4) seeks to ensure “that the representatives and their attorneys will competently, responsibly, and vigorously prosecute the suit and that the relationship of the representative parties’ interests to those of the class are such that there is not likely to be divergence in viewpoint or goals in the conduct of the suit.”  Bogosian v. Gulf Oil Corp., 561F.2d 434, 449 (3d Cir. 1977). On the subsidiary question whether the named plaintiff has interests antagonistic to those of the class, courts often have to evaluate attacks on the named plaintiff’s credibility.

Here, defendants argued that plaintiff’s inconsistent allegations and testimony regarding the date of her qualifying purchase of an Arizona product render her an inadequate class representative. See Friedman-Katz v. Lindt & Sprungli (USA), Inc., 270 F.R.D. 150, 159 (S.D.N.Y. 2010). Plaintiff  responded that, to the extent that defendant raised a problem of plaintiff’s credibility, such a credibility question is one for the jury to decide; it would be improper for the court to make a credibility determination, on the factual dispute of when plaintiff last purchased an Arizona product, at this certification stage of the litigation.  However, the court properly recognized it had an independent obligation at the class certification stage to make findings on whether the named plaintiff satisfied each of the Rule 23 elements. The court thus had an obligation to look at whether the credibility problems raised by plaintiff’s contradictory testimony and subsequent declaration rendered her an inadequate class representative.

The court observed that it need not find plaintiff to have intentionally lied to hold that she does not meet the adequacy element of Rule 23(a)(4). The issue was not simply whether plaintiff in fact lied, but whether her inconsistent testimony makes her vulnerable to a unique factual or legal defense not faced by other class members, thereby rendering her interests potentially too antagonistic to the interests of the other class members.  And that is exactly the case; the court found that plaintiff’s factual inconsistencies raised sufficiently grave credibility problems as to prevent her from serving as an adequate class representative.

First, she filed three separate Complaints alleging with specificity that she was misled by  defendants’ labeling when she first purchased an Arizona beverage in March, 2008, but she had retained an attorney on this issue seven months previously.  She repeated these claims in at least two answers to interrogatories, assisted by counsel, and again repeated the claim in her  deposition, even after being confronted with the apparent inconsistency of such a claim. Her subsequent declaration, in which she attempted to “clarify” the time-line in her deposition, did not explain how she had repeatedly asserted the incorrect date in her Complaints and discovery answers.  This level of inconsistency logically demonstrated either (1) an effort to disguise the fact that she did purchase the Arizona beverage in 2008 as alleged, but for the sole purpose of bringing the lawsuit she had already hired a lawyer for, or (2) a significant carelessness about the specific highly material facts she has alleged in the case, said the court.

Under either scenario, the court would find that plaintiff was not an adequate class representative.  Were she to be a class representative, she would be required to address defendants’ argument that she made her only documented purchase of Arizona iced tea in March of 2008 solely for the purpose of bringing the instant lawsuit and therefore suffered no ascertainable loss. This argument would divert attention from the substance of the claims advanced on behalf of the class.  That would risk that the class could fail in its claim because its representative was unable to prove she made a qualifying purchase, noted the court.

Finally, the court found, as an alternative basis to deny class certification, that plaintiff’s counsel’s adequacy was also brought into question through the existence of these material discrepancies. Under the "most charitable interpretation" of these facts, counsel submitted three separate Complaints to the court alleging an incorrect date of purchase, at least two answers to interrogatories repeating the same purportedly incorrect purchase date. The court thought that was insufficient attention to detail to show the ability to effectively represent the interests of a class.

 

Plaintiffs Attacking Fiji's Green Water Sing the Blues

A California appeals court last week affirmed the dismissal of a putative class action in which plaintiffs accused Fiji Water Co. LLC of improperly promoting its bottled water. Ayana Hill v. Roll International Corp. et al., No. A128698 (Cal. Ct. Appeal, 1st Appellate District).

Plaintiff  Hill alleged she bought bottles of Fiji water, on the label of which was a green drop; she claimed that the drop somehow represented Fiji bottled water was environmentally superior to other waters and endorsed by an environmental organization. Hill filed a proposed class action on behalf of herself and other consumers of Fiji bottled water, asserting violations of California‟s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.), False Advertising Law (FAL) (§ 17500 et seq.), and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) (Civ. Code, § 1750 et seq.), plus common law fraud and unjust enrichment.

Readers know that the term “green” is commonly used to describe the environmentally friendly aspects of products, and that concerned about over-use of such terms, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has issued standards known as “Green Guides” to describe the appropriate use of such labeling. The Federal Trade Commission last Fall proposed revisions to the guidance that it gives marketers to help them avoid making misleading environmental claims. The proposed changes were designed to update the Guides and make them easier for companies to understand and use.  The changes to the Green Guides included new guidance on marketers’ use of product certifications and seals of approval, “renewable energy” claims, “renewable materials” claims, and “carbon offset” claims.

Because the guides are not legislative rules under Section 18 of the FTC Act, they are not themselves enforceable regulations, nor do they have the force and effect of law. They consist of general principles, followed by nonexclusive specific examples, and are intended to provide a safe harbor for marketers who want certainty about how to make environmental claims. However, a few states, such as California, have incorporated the FTC guides into their consumer fraud (here CLRA) definition of environmental marketing claims.  

Hill's personal allegations were that, starting in 2008, she bought Fiji water about twice a week from Walgreens stores in San Francisco, relying on  these alleged representations that the product was “environmentally friendly and superior.” She would not have bought Fiji water had she supposedly known the truth that the Green Drop was the creation of defendants, not a neutral party or environmental group. Defendants accomplish this supposed elaborate "deception” through conspicuous placement of the Green Drop on the front of the product to allegedly look similar to environmental seals of approval.  Further, plaintiff complained  that in their packaging and marketing, defendants have “called their product FijiGreen” and, in stores and other public places, stated that "Every Drop is Green.” 

The trial court dismissed the claims, and plaintiff appealed.  In that posture, the court assumed that Hill actually was, as she claims, misled in the context to believe that the green drop symbol on Fiji water was a seal implicitly indicating approval by a third party organization, and thus believed that the Fiji product was environmentally superior to competitors' bottled water.

The problem was that Hill's beliefs, asserted and even assumed, do not satisfy the reasonable consumer standard, as expressed in the FTC guides (16 C.F.R. § 260.7(a) (2011) [material implied claims conveyed “to reasonable consumers”]) and as used in California's consumer laws. The court of appeals emphasized that the standard is not a least sophisticated consumer, nor the unwary consumer , but the ordinary consumer within the larger population.  Importantly, the court noted that "it follows, in these days of inevitable and readily available Internet criticism and suspicion of virtually any corporate enterprise, that a reasonable consumer also does not include one who is overly suspicious."  How true that is.

So, does the green drop on Fiji water bottles convey to a reasonable consumer in the circumstances that the product is endorsed for environmental superiority by a third party organization? No, said the court. The drop itself bears no name or recognized logo of any group, much less a third party organization, no trademark symbol, and no other indication that it is anything but a symbol of Fiji water.  The water has just a green drop, the drop being the most logical icon for this particular product—water.  And for context, a green drop on the back of every bottle appears right next to the website name, “fijigreen.com,” further confirming to a reasonable consumer that the green drop symbol is by Fiji water, not an independent third party organization—and, of course, inviting consumers to visit the website, where Fiji Water's explains its  environmental efforts.

Plaintiff asked the court of appeals to reverse the the trial court's denial of leave to amend, claiming that any defects in the complaint could be cured by amendment. But Hill's saying so "does not make it so," and it was her burden to show how she might amend to cure the deficiencies. She did not. Dismissal without leave affirmed.


 

Injunction Issued in Protracted Dryer Litigation

We have posted before about the ongoing Thorogood v. Sears Roebuck & Co. litigation, when the 7th Circuit rejected the proposed class action; when the court held that a "copycat" class action suit could not go forward in federal court in California;  and when the court reaffirmed its decision in an unusual opinion on the petition for rehearing.

The district court had certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.

The same plaintiffs' lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California. Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court's denial of Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner for the panel, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own. The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

In the most recent iteration, the district court -- nothing the "tortured path" the case has taken through the judicial system -- has followed the direction of the 7th Circuit. Needless to say,  the parties disagreed as to the terms of the injunction that should be issued.  The primary areas of dispute were whether the injunction should be broad enough to encompass class action claims against co-defendant Electrolux and whether former members of the class should be allowed to pursue class-wide discovery against Sears as a non-party.   Sears argued that its advertising would still be at issue, and that Electrolux was obligated to indemnify Sears for any damages related to the marketing of the dryers.  That is, the only basis for Murray’s claims against Electrolux was the same advertising and marketing by Sears at issue in this case. As such, allowing Murray and his lawyers to continue to burden Sears with class-wide discovery concerning that issue would defeat the purpose of the injunction and circumvent the ruling in Thorogood.

The court concluded that any injunction should not allow class-wide discovery from Sears related to its advertising or representations regarding the composition of the dryer drums. Based on the representations of Murray’s counsel to the California court, it was clear that if his class action suit against Electrolux were allowed to continue, his attorneys plan to seek the same discovery from Sears as they would have if Sears itself were the defendant. No matter what it is called — third–party discovery, non–party discovery — by any name the Seventh Circuit has held that this amounts to irreparable harm.

Regarding whether the focus of the injunction should be on the issues that were litigated and decided in the previous Thorogood rulings, or on the identity of the parties, the court decided that the injunction precedents were couched in terms of the issues decided in the prior case, not the specific parties involved. There was no indication in any of the Seventh Circuit’s rulings that this conclusion depends on the party sued over these representations. Moreover, an injunction is not invalid merely because it may benefit non-parties. See Easyriders Freedom F.I.G.H.T. v. Hannigan, 92 F.3d 1486, 1501–02 (9th Cir. 1996).

Thus, the Court found that Sears would invariably be drawn into the defense of any class-action lawsuit regarding its marketing of the dryers as containing stainless steel drums, regardless of what party is named as a defendant. This would defeat the purpose of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood and prevent Sears from receiving the full measure of relief ordered by the Seventh Circuit. Murray and the other members of the class were free to pursue on a class basis claims against Electrolux not related to Sears’ marketing of the dryers, but they may not use a suit against Electrolux as a back-door method of evading the Seventh Circuit’s ruling in Thorogood.

 


 

Federal Court Dismisses Soda Misrepresentation Claim

A New Jersey federal recently dismissed a putative class action accusing The Coca-Cola Co. of misleading consumers about the health value of the carbonated beverage Diet Coke Plus.  Mason et al. v. The Coca-Cola Co., No. 09-cv-00220 (D.N.J. 3/31/11).

This is another in the series of cases we have warned readers about: plaintiffs are not injured, are not at risk of injury, have gotten the benefit of their bargain, but claim they were somehow duped by marketing. Here, plaintiffs alleged that they “were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained nutritional value,” when it allegedly did not.

Defendants moved to dismiss under the Twombly/Iqbal doctrine.  Of course, claims alleging fraud or mistake must also meet the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b), which requires such claims to be pled with “particularity.”

To state a claim under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act., a plaintiff must allege: “(1) unlawful conduct by the defendants; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the plaintiff; and (3) a causal relationship between the defendants’ unlawful conduct and the plaintiff’s ascertainable loss.” Frederico v. Home Depot, 507 F.3d 188, 202 (3d Cir. 2007). Plaintiffs claimed that defendant committed affirmative acts of fraud and deception, and that they were persuaded to purchase the product because the term ‘Plus’ and the language ‘Diet Coke with Vitamins and Minerals’ somehow suggested to consumers that the product was healthy and contained extra nutritional value.

However, the FDA's warning letter about the product attached by plaintiffs to their own complaint shows that it is not false that Diet Coke Plus contains vitamins and minerals.  Plaintiffs failed to allege with particularity what further expectations beyond these ingredients they had for the product or how it fell short of those expectations. Plaintiffs simply made a broad assumption that defendant somehow intended for Diet Coke Plus’s vitamin and mineral content to deceive plaintiffs into thinking that the beverage was really “healthy.”  Without more specificity as to how defendant made false or deceptive statements to plaintiffs regarding the healthiness or nutritional value of the soda, the court found that plaintiffs failed to plead the “affirmative act” element with sufficient particularity to state a viable NJCFA claim.

Plaintiffs also failed to plead an ascertainable loss. When plaintiffs purchased Diet Coke Plus, they received a beverage that contained the exact ingredients listed on its label. Plaintiffs could not explain how they experienced any out-of-pocket loss because of their purchases, or that the soda they bought was worth an amount of money less than the soda they consumed. Mere subjective  dissatisfaction with a product is not a quantifiable loss that can be remedied under the NJCFA.  The same defects doomed the common law misrepresentation claims.

Although the FDA had issued the warning letter (on a somewhat arcane and technical issue), the court noted that not every regulatory violation amounts to an act of consumer fraud. The court also noted that it is simply not plausible that consumers would be aware of FDA regulations regarding “nutrient content” and restrictions on the enhancement of snack foods. The complaint actually did not allege that consumers bought the product because they knew of and attributed something meaningful to the regulatory term “Plus” and therefore relied on it. Rather, plaintiffs alleged merely that they subjectively thought they were buying a “healthy” product that happened to also apparently run afoul of a technical FDA regulation.

Panel Creates Vitaminwater MDL

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation last week ordered the coordination of the litigation against Coca-Cola Co. alleging it misled the public about the nutritional benefits of its Vitaminwater.  In re: Glaceau Vitaminwater Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, MDL No. 2215 E.D.N.Y.).

Common defendants The Coca-Cola Company and Energy Brands Inc. moved, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407, for coordinated pretrial proceedings of this litigation filed in three federal districts. (Two tag along districts emerged as well.) Some plaintiffs supported the motion; some opposed.  The parties opposing centralization variously argued, that (1) some of the actions named local retailers as defendants, and the claims against them presented unique
issues of fact; (2) questions of law were unique to the various jurisdictions in which actions have been filed; (3) only three actions were pending, alleging discrete multi-state or statewide classes of consumers.

The Panel found that these arguments had "some merit," but on balance, were outweighed by the benefits of centralization. Though only three actions were before the Panel, and they do not allege overlapping putative classes, the Panel was persuaded that centralization was appropriate. The relatively small number of cases was sufficient: the Eastern District of New York action consisted of five prior actions that were voluntarily consolidated, and it involves proposed classes of consumers from three states. Two additional related actions were pending.

These actions shared factual questions arising out of allegations that defendants misrepresented their VitaminWater product as a healthy alternative to soft drinks though it contains almost as much sugar, said the order. Section 1407 does not require a complete identity or even a majority of common factual or legal issues as a prerequisite to transfer. See, e.g., In re Gadolinium Contrast Dyes Prods. Liab. Litig., 536 F. Supp. 2d 1380, 1382 (J.P.M.L. 2008). Nor does it require an identity of common parties.

Centralization would eliminate duplicative discovery; prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel, and the judiciary. Creation of an MDL will serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation, the Panel concluded.

The Eastern District of New York was deemed to be the most appropriate transferee district. The action in that district had been pending for two years, and is more advanced than any other action in this litigation. The court has ruled on a motion to dismiss, and discovery is underway. Both some plaintiffs and some defendants supported centralization in this district.

State Supreme Court Ignores Amendment to Find Standing in Consumer Fraud Claim

California's Supreme Court ruled late last month that consumers who purchase a product allegedly as a result of misleading advertising can sue the manufacturer even in the absence of traditional injury, despite enactment of a recent ballot proposition that was designed to stiffen injury requirements and limit standing under the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws. Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court, No. S171845, 2011 WL 240278 (Cal. Jan. 27, 2011).

Readers have seen our posts about the danger of plaintiffs' misuse of state consumer fraud acts and unfair and deceptive practices acts.  Partially in response to such abuse, a few years back the voters of California passed Proposition 64, which substantially revised the state's unfair competition and false advertising laws by beefing up standing and injury requirements for suits by private individuals.  The initiative declared: “It is the intent of the California voters in enacting this act to prohibit private attorneys from filing lawsuits for unfair competition where they have no client who has been injured in fact under the standing requirements of the United States Constitution.”  Specifically, Proposition 64 also restricted standing to consumers who can allege they have suffered “injury in fact” and have “lost money or property” as a result of the defendant's improper business practice.  The plain import of this is that a plaintiff now must demonstrate some form of economic injury -- the issue is what form. 
 
Plaintiff James Benson brought suit against Kwikset Corp. challenging the company's “Made in U.S.A.” labeling of lock sets that allegedly contain foreign-made parts or involved foreign manufacture.  Specifically, plaintiff alleged that Kwikset falsely marketed as “Made in USA” locksets that contained screws or pins made in Taiwan or that were assembled in Mexico. Plaintiff prevailed in the trial court, on injunctive relief, but lost on the restitution claim. While cross-appeals were pending, Proposition 64 took effect. The lower courts gave plaintiff an opportunity to plead standing based on injury under the new Prop standing requirements of injury in fact and loss of money or property. The amended complaint then alleged that plaintiff relied on Kwikset’s representations in deciding to purchase the locks, and that he supposedly would not have purchased the locksets if they were not labeled “Made in the USA.”  On appeal, the court of appeals vacated the decision in light of the standing issues in the wake of the new law. The court found that the plaintiffs (new plaintiffs had been added) had alleged “injury in fact,” but they had not alleged “loss of money or property” because they got perfectly functioning locksets in return for their money, and they were not overpriced or defective. Plaintiffs therefore received the benefit of the bargain. 

The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal, specifically to address the new standing requirements and what constitutes “loss of money or property” under California’s unfair competition law (Business and Professions Code section 17200 et seq. (the UCL)) and the false advertising law (Business and Professions Code section 17500 et seq.).

The state high court held that plaintiffs who allege they are deceived by a product’s label and thus purchase a product that they would not have purchased otherwise have “lost money or property” as required by Proposition 64 and have standing.  The court somehow concluded that such an individual does not receive the “benefit of the bargain” even if the product is not overpriced or defective, and works just fine. The Supreme Court concluded that “labels matter.” For each consumer who relies on the truth and accuracy of a label and is deceived by misrepresentations into making a purchase, the economic harm is the same: the consumer has purchased a product that he or she paid more for than he or she otherwise might have been willing to pay if the product had been labeled accurately, said the court. This economic harm -the "loss of real dollars from a consumer's pocket" -is the same whether or not a court might objectively view the products as functionally equivalent.  If a party has alleged or proven a personal, individualized loss of money or property in any non-trivial amount, he or she has also alleged or proven injury in fact.

The majority worried that to deny such consumers standing would bring an end to private consumer enforcement regarding label misrepresentations.  Instead, this unfortunate decision may well encourage frivolous and contrived class action litigation by plaintiffs who have not suffered any type of quantifiable economic loss -- exactly what the voters voted to curtail.

The dissent correctly noted that the majority's ruling directly contravened the both the intent of Prop 64 and the express language of the amendment.  Indeed Proposition 64 was an effort to curb suits just like this one (which was mentions in the campaign), in which plaintiff got the benefit of their bargain. In direct contravention of the electorate's intent, the majority disregarded the express language of the amendment and arguably made it easier for a plaintiff to achieve standing under the UCL.  Lost money cannot refer to every time a consumer pays for something, because then every consumer would always have standing to challenge every transaction, and how could Proposition 64 be seen as a new restriction on standing?  Loss of money is not the same as any economic injury. Lost money or property is a subset, one form of, economic injury.  Not all economic injuries include lost money as the statute uses the term;  the majority effectively rendered one of the two statutory requirements redundant and a nullity. 

By delving into the subjective motivation of the plaintiff ("labels matter"), the court ignored the focus of the statute not on subjective intent of the buyer, but objective proof of actual loss of property versus no such loss.

In focusing on the fact that the plaintiffs paid for the items, the majority ignored the fact that plaintiffs received the locksets in return, which were not alleged to be overpriced or otherwise defective. Aside from paying the purchase price of the locksets, plaintiffs have not alleged they actually “lost” any money or property.  The majority simply concluded there was a loss of real dollars, but there was no such allegation of such a loss here, where plaintiffs simply paid the purchase price for the mislabeled but otherwise fully functional locksets. Plaintiffs did not allege that the locksets were worth less or were of lesser quality or were defective, and the majority's holding apparently does not require that plaintiffs allege any price differential.

 

Snapple Prevails in All Natural Suit

A federal court granted summary judgment to defendant Snapple in a lawsuit accusing
Snapple Beverage Corp. of misleading consumers by labeling drinks as "all natural" even though they are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. Weiner et al. v. Snapple Beverage Corp., No. 1:07-cv-08742 (S.D.N.Y.).

We have commented on the growing and alarming trend of plaintiffs' lawyers concocting consumer fraud class action claims against products, even when consumers were not injured and got basically what they paid for, because of some alleged ambiguity in the label or old-fashioned puffing.

Snapple Beverage Corporation was founded in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1972. Snapple began selling and marketing its teas and juice drinks in the late 1980s. In marketing its beverages, Snapple focused on, among other things, flavor, innovation, and humor. Snapple became known for its quirky personality and funny advertising, as well as its colorful product labels and beverage names. For instance, Snapple’s television advertisements featured, among other things, Snapple bottles dressed in wigs and hats, singing in a Backstreet-esque “boy-band,” running with the bulls (hamsters with cardboard horns) in Spain, and performing synchronized swimming.

When Snapple entered the beverages market in the late 1980s, it avoided putting preservatives, which were then commonly found in some similar beverages, in its teas and juice drinks. Snapple was able to do so by using a “hot-fill” process, which uses high-temperature heat pasteurization to preserve products immediately before bottling. Snapple also used 16-ounce glass bottles instead of aluminum cans or plastic. Hence the term on their label "All Natural."

From their inception, Snapple’s beverages were sweetened with high fructose corn syrup. HFCS is made from corn ( a natural product last time we checked), and its primary constituents are glucose and fructose, the sugars that comprise table sugar and honey (which also sound pretty natural). It is undisputed that Snapple disclosed the inclusion of HFCS in the ingredient list that appears on the label of every bottle of Snapple that was labeled “All Natural.”

Readers may recall from our previous post, that here plaintiffs sued seeking to represent a nationwide class of consumers who made purchases between 2001 and 2009 in New York of Snapple beverages labeled “all natural” and which contained high fructose corn syrup.  The plaintiffs alleged they paid a premium for the company's drinks as a result of the all natural claim.

Judge Cote denied the plaintiffs' motion for class certification last year, finding that plaintiffs had not proposed a suitable methodology for establishing the critical elements of causation and injury on a class-wide basis. Without a reliable methodology, plaintiffs had not shown that they could prove at trial, using common evidence, that putative class members in fact paid a premium for the beverage. Because individualized inquiries as to causation, injury, and damages for each of the millions of putative class members would predominate over any issues of law or fact common to the class, plaintiffs’ claim could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3).

Snapple then moved for summary judgment on the two named plaintiffs' individual claims
under New York's consumer protection laws, as well as claims of unjust enrichment and breach of express warranty.

Jurisdiction was predicated on CAFA, so a preliminary issue was whether the court retained jurisdiction after the denial of class certification. The statute does not speak directly to
the issue of whether class certification is a prerequisite to federal jurisdiction, and the Second Circuit has not addressed the issue. The circuits that have considered the issue, however, have uniformly concluded that federal jurisdiction under CAFA does not depend on class certification. See Cunningham Charter Corp. v. Learjet, Inc., 592 F.3d 805, 806 (7th Cir. 2010); United Steel, Paper & Forestry, Rubber, Mfg., Energy, Allied Indus. & Serv. Workers Int’l Union, AFL-CIO, CLC
v. Shell Oil Co., 602 F.3d 1087, 1092 (9th Cir. 2010); Vega v. T-Mobile USA, Inc., 564 F.3d 1256, 1268 n.12 (11th Cir. 2009).

The court granted the motion, finding that the named plaintiffs had failed to show that they were injured as a result of Snapple's labeling.  According to Snapple, because the plaintiffs had not offered evidence showing either the price they paid for Snapple or the prices charged by competitors for comparable beverages, they could not demonstrate that they paid a premium for the “All Natural” Snapple product and thus could not show harm stemming from the allegedly misleading label.  Neither of the plaintiffs had any record of his purchases of Snapple. Their most recent purchases were made in 2005 and 2007, or 3 to 5 years before their deposition testimony was taken. Not surprisingly, they had only vague recollections of the locations, dates, and prices of their purchases of Snapple. Besides being unable to establish the actual price they paid for the Snapple products at issue here, the plaintiffs have offered no other evidence from which to
calculate the premium they paid for Snapple. The court agreed that plaintiffs failed to prove that they paid more for Snapple's products than they would have for comparable beverages.

As for the breach of expressed warranty claim, an injured party is entitled to the benefit of its bargain, measured as the difference between the value of the product as warranted by the manufacturer and its true value at the time of the transaction. Because the plaintiffs
had not demonstrated that they purchased Snapple's drinks in reliance on the “all natural”
label, they could not show any such difference in value. 

State Court Affirms Dismissal of Consumer Fraud Claim Over Sodium Content

A New Jersey court last week affirmed a lower court's ruling dismissing a putative class action alleging the Denny's restaurant chain failed to disclose the sodium content of its foods.  See DeBenedetto v. Denny's Inc., No. A-4135-09T1 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div.,  1/11/11).

Plaintiff's second amended complaint alleged that meals he purchased from defendant, Denny's, consisting of ham, bacon, sausage and hash browns, contained excessive levels of sodium that Denny's failed to disclose. Plaintiff alleged that if consumers had been aware of the high sodium content, they would not have purchased those meals, and the failure to disclose the sodium content therefore violated the Consumer Fraud Act (CFA), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 to -181.  Neither plaintiff nor the putative class he claimed to represent asserted any physical injury or harm as the result of
defendant's alleged failure to disclose the sodium content.

We have posted before about the risks of CFA claims, and plaintiffs' attempts to expand traditional product liability claims using this device.  And the food industry has been a recent prime target.

The appeals court concluded that the trial court correctly found that although framed as a CFA violation, the gravamen of plaintiff's second amended complaint was a products liability claim for which the New Jersey Products Liability Act (NJPLA), N.J.S.A. 2A:58C-1 to -11, established a sole and exclusive remedy. The judge found that although plaintiff argued otherwise, the complaint itself included allegations that excessive levels of sodium are dangerous, that such levels cause an increased risk of bodily harm, and that Denny's failed to warn of those risks.  This was, i n essence, a products liability claim, absent the physical injury the PLA requires.  Thus, plaintiff had failed to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.

On appeal, plaintiffs pointed to Lee v. Carter-Reed Co., L.L.C., 203 N.J. 496, 531 (2010), which discussed the potential viability of CFA claims concerning the dietary supplement Relacore.  But the court of appeals noted  that the claims made by the plaintiff class in Lee concerned affirmative acts of misrepresentation; here, in contrast, plaintiffs pointed to no such affirmative misrepresentation. Instead, the claim was limited to a failure to disclose the sodium content.

The court also rejected plaintiffs' claim that any defective product claim escapes the exclusive remedy provisions, and the physical injury requirements, of the PLA merely because the
plaintiff fashions the claim as one seeking recovery only for "economic loss."  While the PLA was not intended to be "a catchall remedy" when ordinary contract remedies were lost or unavailable, but claims for "'harm caused by a product' are governed by the PLA irrespective of the theory underlying the claim; and the PLA's long-understood requirement is that a plaintiff alleging a product is defective or dangerous must also allege personal injury or property damage.


 

CPSC to Hold Webinars on New Product Safety Database

The Consumer Product Safety Commission is holding two Web conferences to demonstrate to interested stakeholders various aspects of its new (and still controversial) consumer product safety information database.  The conferences will focus on the incident reporting form, industry registration and comment features, and the search function of the publicly available part of the database.

The first Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. today, January 11, 2011, and the second Web conference will be held from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 20th. The first Web conference will focus on the incident form that the public will use to file a report of harm and the search function of the database. The Web conference is intended to inform all interested stakeholders of the information required on the form to be used to report an incident, in addition to an explanation of the public search function of the Database.  The second Web conference will focus on the industry registration and comment features, the process for reporting incidents, and the public search component of the database.  It will address how to access and use the new business portal, and how to register an account on the business portal, which is designed to facilitate more efficient electronic notice, review, and comment on reports of harm before they are published in the database.  The database is set to go live March 11 through the CPSC's website.

As we have noted, the database raises a number of significant issues for our readers, as the CPSC will not be able to guarantee the accuracy of reports before it publishes them on the database, important confidentiality concerns may be compromised, and the data appears vulnerable to trolling and misuse by plaintiff lawyers.  Reports of harm will be published in the database 10 business days after the company has been provided notice of the report of harm. The CPSC has acknowledged that it will not be able to independently verify the accuracy of the information in the reports in that time, so  manufacturers will need to attempt to ask the CPSC to remove “materially inaccurate information” and “confidential information” in the report before it is published, or file comments about the report of harm to be published along with the report in the database.  As a practical matter, it may be difficult for a company to fully investigate the allegations in the report in that time frame. Moreover, any such investigation will likely not include an interview of the person who filed the report, because the person filing the report can choose to not release his or her name.

Reports may be filed not only by consumers but by health care workers, attorneys, and many others. Plaintiffs' lawyers have an unhealthy incentive to seed the database with self serving reports, and, at the least, may search the database looking for products to go after.

Again, companies should register with the CPSC so that they can receive the most timely notice of a report filed about their products.  It may make sense to consider developing an SOP for reviewing and following up on reports in the database, including designation of a lead reviewer or team to follow through. This SOP may include a plan for quickly preparing the appropriate documentation that the company's products are in fact reasonably safe, and for dealing with any adverse PR.  


 

Seventh Circuit Sticks to Its Criticism of CopyCat Class Action

Last month we posted about a class action decision from the Seventh Circuit, in which the court of appeals approved an injunction against copycat litigation once class certification was denied.  Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 10-2407 (7th Cir., 11/02/10).

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own. The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures
and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the
central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in this home dryer
litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

The plaintiff appellee filed a petition for panel rehearing, and rehearing en banc. All the judges  voted to deny the petitions, and typically that is the end of the appeal.  But the court wrote an opinion about the denial, "in view of the accusations leveled in the petition by the plaintiff’s lawyer."

On the merits, said the court, the petition ignored the principal reasons for enjoining the copycat class actions, and said virtually nothing about the All Writs Act, which was the very grounds for the prior decision.  The petition also ignored the point that class certification was improper given the nature of the plaintiff's claim, which did not present common issues that would support a class action.  It ignored the panel's criticism of the district court reasoning, and mischaracterized the scope of the injunction, as individual claims were not enjoined.

The petition's main concern was with the language used in the opinion describing plaintiff counsel as pugnacious, pertinacious to a fault, and a "nuisance." To which the panel responded that the petition ignored the facts and analysis that supported those characterizations, and the right of a court to  and the duty of a court to note unacceptable tactics.

The petition claims the panel did not treat the counsel with respect, to which the court noted that the lawyer had compared Judge Posner to Simon Cowell.

What the panel had said is that the structure of class actions gives plaintiff lawyers an incentive to negotiate settlements that enrich themselves but give scant rewards to class members. With numerous citations, the panel noted that the criticisms in the prior opinion of the tactics employed by some class action lawyers are not criticisms made by judges alone, let alone judges of the panel or judges of the Seventh Circuit.

So far from retracting any criticisms or modifying any language, the court reaffirmed its key criticisms.

City Passes Ban on Happy Meals

We haven't weighed in yet on the latest crazy development in the food world, that attack by some of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on "Happy Meals."  And no, this is not sour grapes for the Giants having beaten the Phillies. The Board of Supervisors recently voted to ban meals packaged with toys unless the meal contains fruits and vegetables, is less than 600 calories and is very low in fat and sodium, and, presumably, doesn't taste good and won't make your kid happy. 

So much is wrong with that, it's hard to know where to start. 

It undercuts the rights of consumers to choose. If more people wanted these kinds of meals, more fast food restaurants would sell them. (You can get carrots and milk with a Happy Meal by the way.) That's the way a free economy is supposed to work. San Francisco (or at least a majority of the Board) is simply taking choice away from consumers, the right to eat or drink what he or she chooses.  Apparently, these Board members are part of that new government mindset in which individuals are incapable of making decisions for themselves.  Only the government can make those choices.
 

But, it's about obesity in children, argues the Board.  We say parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat. So the impact on kids is actually another reason this bill is a bad idea, an unwise and unprecedented governmental intrusion into parental responsibilities and family choices.  It is a parents' right and responsibility — not the government's — to make their own decisions and to choose what’s right for their children.

On this basis, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom wisely vetoed the ban on Happy Meals, but the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 just this week to override Newsom’s veto.

Put aside the policy debate, one of the most troubling aspects is the quote from a sponsor that this bill was part of "an agenda of food justice.”  Seen in this light, the bill is part of a broader legal campaign that will include litigation against food companies.  Indeed, as we have posted on before, the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest has threatened to  file a lawsuit against McDonald’s, attacking the company's marketing of Happy Meals. In our view, the CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.

 

Court of Appeals Enjoins Copycat Class Actions

The Seventh Circuit has held that a "copycat" class action suit cannot go forward in federal court in California after a similar class action had already been denied certification in federal court in Illinois.  Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 10-2407 (7th Cir., 11/02/10).

The first class action in the package of related cases was filed in state court in Illinois but removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act.  Thorogood, a Tennessean, bought a Kenmore-brand clothes dryer from Sears (Kenmore is a Sears brand name). The words “stainless steel” were imprinted on the dryer, and point-of-sale advertising explained that this meant that the drum in which the clothes are dried was made of stainless steel. Thorogood claimed to have thought that this meant that the drum was made entirely of stainless steel, whereas part of the front of the drum—a part the user would see only if he craned his head inside the drum—is made of a ceramic-coated steel. 

The district court certified a multi-state class of Kenmore-brand clothes dryer purchasers. On appeal, the Seventh Circuit called the case “a notably weak candidate for class treatment.” Not only did common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchaser of a stainless steel Kenmore dryer, as Rule 23(b)(3) requires, there were, the court said, “no common issues of law or fact.” 547 F.3d at 746-47.  It was well-nigh inconceivable, said the court,  that the other members of the class had the same understanding of Sears’s advertising as Thorogood claimed to have. Sears hadn’t advertised the dryers as preventing rust stains on clothes; and it’s not as if such stains are a common concern of owners of dryers—there was no suggestion of that either.

Stainless steel appliances are popular even among consumers, undoubtedly the vast majority, who do not expect a dryer to cause rust stains. Stainless steel does not rust, and that is certainly a plus, clothing stains to one side. But ceramic doesn’t rust either.  Advertisements for clothes dryers mention a host of features that might matter to consumers, such as price, size, electrical usage, appearance, speed, and controls, but not the prevention of clothing stains attributable to rust. The litigation of the class members’ claims would thus have devolved into a series of individual hearings in which each class member who wanted to pursue relief against Sears would testify to what he understood to be the meaning of a label or an  advertisement that identified a clothes dryer as containing a stainless steel drum. Few if any of them would have shared Thorogood’s alleged concerns, which, were a confabulation, said the court.

After the court of appeals thus ordered the first class decertified, thus shrinking the suit to Thorogood’s individual claim, Sears made Thorogood an offer of judgment under Rule 68 of $20,000 inclusive of attorneys’ fees. The district judge, believing that Thorogood should receive no attorneys’ fees, dismissed the suit. The Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of attorneys’ fees and dismissal of the suit. 595 F.3d 759 (7th Cir. 2010).

The same plaintiffs' lawyer then brought Murray v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., No. 4:09-cv-
5744-CW (N.D. Cal.). Murray was a member of Thorogood’s class, and he brought essentially the identical claim in California.  Sears Roebuck sought an injunction halting the new class action in front of Judge Leinenweber, who had presided over and eventually dismissed Thorogood’s original class suit, but he ruled that Sears could obtain adequate relief against being harassed by repetitive litigation by pleading collateral estoppel in Murray’s suit in California. Sears appealed, asking the court to to reverse the district court's denial of  Sears’s motion to enjoin the virtually identical class action suit.

The Seventh Circuit (Judge Posner writing) noted that the class in Murray’s case was smaller than
Thorogood’s because it was limited to California purchasers, but it was still very large. The claims in Murray’s original complaint, when Sears pleaded the defense of collateral estoppel, were identical to Thorogood’s; they challenged the same advertising for the same models of clothes dryer. Murray acknowledged that he was alleging “a similar general set of operative facts as alleged in the Thorogood case.”  That caused the California court to find for Sears on collateral estoppel grounds.  So re judicata saves the day, just like the Illinois district court predicted in denying the requested injunction.

But (wouldn't be a blog-worthy case without the but) Murray then amended his complaint to allege additional facts in an effort to show that he had a different case, perhaps one more amenable to class action treatment. On the basis of the amendment, the district judge in California reversed his earlier ruling, and having thus rejected the defense of collateral estoppel allowed discovery to begin.

Ordinarily the ability to plead res judicata or collateral estoppel gives a litigant adequate protection against being harassed by repetitive litigation by the loser in a previous suit against him. But this case was unusual, said Judge Posner, both because it involved class action litigation and because of the specific tactics employed by class counsel. Class members are interested in relief for the class but the lawyers are primarily interested in their fees, and the class members’ stakes in the litigation are ordinarily too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to align the lawyers’ incentives with their own.  The defendant wants to minimize outflow of expenditures
and the class counsel wants to increase inflow of attorneys’ fees. "Both can achieve their goals if they collude to sacrifice the interests of the class.” Leslie, “The Significance of Silence: Collective Action Problems and Class Action Settlements,” 59 Fla. L. Rev. 71, 79-81 (2007). And when the
central issue in a case is given class treatment and so will be resolved once and for all, a trial becomes a roll of the dice. Depending on the size of the class, a single throw may determine the outcome of an immense number of separate claims (hundreds of thousands, in the dryer
litigation)—there is no averaging of decisions over a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases. The risk of error becomes asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy; in such a case the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits
of the case are slight.

Moreover, in most class action suits, there is far more evidence that plaintiffs may be able to discover in defendants’ records (including emails, the vast and ever-expanding volume of
which has made the cost of discovery soar) than vice versa. Usually the defendants’ conduct is the focus of the litigation and it is in their records, generally much more extensive than the plaintiffs’ (especially when as in a consumer class action the plaintiffs are individuals
rather than corporations or other institutions), that the plaintiffs will want to go in search of a smoking gun.

There is no way in which Sears could recoup the expense of responding to Murray’s discovery requests and of filing preclusion defenses against even more soon-to-be-filed duplicative class actions in other states. The harm it faces from the denial of the injunction was irreparable and its remedy at law against settlement extortion nonexistent, found the Seventh Circuit.  Sears’s action under the All Writs Act was its only means, other than submitting to plaintiffs' lawyer’s  demands, of avoiding being drowned in the discovery bog.

Here, despite the artful pleading in the amneded complaint in California, there was nothing materially new in Murray’s complaint that should have allowed allow an escape from the bar of collateral estoppel. The critical issue was and is what consumers would understand by representations that the Kenmore dryer has a stainless steel drum. The finding in the first court was that common issues did not predominate in Thorogood’s suit; neither did they in Murray’s; the differences between the suits did not bear on that particulat finding.  Yet, the California court did not agree.

Sears’s motion had been filed under the “All Writs Act,” which authorizes a federal court to issue “all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of [its] jurisdiction and agreeable to the usages and
principles of law,” 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), and which has been interpreted to empower a federal court “to issue such commands . . . as may be necessary or appropriate to effectuate and prevent the frustration of orders it has previously issued in its exercise of jurisdiction otherwise obtained.” United States v. N.Y. Tel. Co., 434 U.S. 159, 172 (1977). Abuse of litigation is a conventional ground for the issuance of an injunction under the All Writs Act, because without an injunction a defendant might have to plead the defense of res judicata or collateral estoppel in a myriad of jurisdictions in order to ward off a judgment, not without risks, and would be helpless against settlement extortion pressures.

The court of appeals left the details of the injunction to be worked out by the district judge, but noted that it had ordered the class decertified inthe first case because of the absence of issues common to all the class members. That ruling—as the injunction must make clear—does not preclude any of the class members from filing individual suits, should they choose. For it was not a ruling on the merits of any class member’s claim (including Thorogood’s). All that would be precluded is the filing (by members of Thorogood’s class, which includes the members of Murray’s class, or by the lawyers for those classes) of class action suits that are indistinguishable, so far as lack of commonality among class members’ claims is concerned, from Thorogood’s.  The plaintiff lawyers should be included in the injunction, as has been done in other cases. See In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., Tires Products Liability Litigation, 333 F.3d at 769; Newby v. Enron Corp., 302 F.3d 295, 300-03 (5th Cir. 2002).


 

Class Action Claims Against Labeling of Snack Food Preempted

Last week, a federal district court held that federal food labeling law does preempt state law claims attacking the use of phrases such as “0 Grams of Trans Fat” on snack food packaging. See Peviani v. Hostess Brands Inc., No. 2:10-cv-02303 (C.D. Cal., 11/3/10).

 In this putative class action, plaintiffs alleged that the defendant used misleading and deceptive statements to market the "Hostess 100 Calorie Packs" baked goods. In particular, plaintiffs alleged that the label noting "0 Grams of Trans Fat" was inconsistent with the products containing partially hydrogenated oils (PVHO).  Plaintiffs alleged that PVHO is linked to various health problems, and therefore is supposedly a "dangerous trans fat."

Plaintiffs alleged they purchased the 100 Calorie Pack foods relying on the no trans fat claim.  They asserted false advertising under the Lanham Act, violations of the California Unfair Competition Law, the California False Advertising Law, and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The two classes proposed were a restitution and damages nationwide class of those that purchased the foods, and an injunctive relief class of those who commonly purchase such foods.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the claims were preempted by federal law.  The  court noted that the FDCA sets forth a comprehensive federal scheme for the regulation of food. In 1990, Congress passed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, 21 U.S.C. 341, which clarified FDA's authority to require and regulate nutrition labeling on food.  Two provisions directly apply to use of phrases like "0 Grams of Trans Fat."  One provision requires the labeling in the Nutrition Facts Panel to include the amount of saturated fat and total fat in each serving; and this regulation requires that if a serving contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat, the amount "shall be expressed as zero."  Second, a regulation permits certain nutrient claims outside the Facts Panel about the level or range of a nutrient in the food, such as sodium, or calories or fat.  The NLEA permits such a statement as long as it is not false or misleading. 21 U.S.C. §§ 343(q) and (r).

The court noted that laws regulating the proper marketing of food are within the states' historic police powers, and thus subject to a presumption against preemption.  Nevertheless, consumer protection laws, such as those invoked here, are nonetheless preempted if they seek to impose requirements (through their use in litigation) that contravene the provisions of the federal law.  The NLEA contains an express preemption clause relating to any requirement  in state law that is not identical to the federal provisions.  But the court noted that implied preemption can accompany express preemption, as the essential inquiry always remains the substance and scope of Congress' intent to displace state law.

Plaintiffs alleged that the trans fat label outside of the Nutrition Facts Panel was an express nutrient content claim, and was false and misleading.  But the court noted that the FDA has declined to promulgate any regulation as to whether actual values must be used in labeling or rounded values may be used. In fact, the FDA has said that the difference between actual and rounded values are nutritionally insignificant, and thus either value relays the same basic information.  Here, since the phrase "0 grams of Trans Fat" is not false or misleading when used in the Nutrition Facts Panel, defendant's use of the exact same phrase elsewhere on the product label cannot be found false or misleading. If 0 and less than 0.5 grams mean, nutritionally, the same thing in the important Panel section, use of the exact same claim could not be misleading elsewhere on the label.

In essence, plaintiffs were trying, under state law, to enjoin on the label the use of the very phrase that federal law permits on another part of the label.  Plaintiffs' claims failed because they would impose a state law obligation for trans-fat disclosure that is not required by federal law.  (The plaintiffs' federal claim, for false advertising under the Lanham Act, failed for lack of standing,.)

The decision echoed Chacanaca v. Quaker Oats Co.,  No. 5:10-cv-00502 (N.D. Cal., Oct. 14, 2010), which dismissed similar claims over the phrase “0 Grams Trans Fat” on preemption grounds.

These types of claims illustrate the lengths to which plaintiffs are going to attack the food and beverage industries.  No one was sick from the snacks, which were labeled in exact accordance with explicit federal requirements.  Yet, a multi-count claim is brought in state court, with the legal theory that, in essence, federally approved language in one part of a food label is false and misleading under state law when it appears in another part of the same label. This is not about helping consumers.  How could it benefit consumers and clarify the information they have to make their own free and individual purchase decisions (with all the factors that go into what we decide to buy and eat) if the FDA-approved language in the Nutrient Facts Panel is allowed to be called false and misleading by a state court jury in California?


 

Class Action Alleging False Food Ads Rejected

Plaintiffs have failed in a proposed class action against McDonald's in which they alleged that the food company's advertising somehow misleads customers into believing that they can eat fast food daily without any potential health consequences.  Pelman v. McDonald's Corp., No. 02-civ-07821 (S.D.N.Y. 10/27/10).  Yes, loyal readers, you read that correctly: the claim is that the people of New York only know about fast food what they read in (or into) ads.

Plaintiffs in this action were New York State consumers claiming, pursuant to Section 349 of New York’s General Business Law, injury from defendant McDonald’s Corporation’s allegedly deceptive marketing scheme.  Plaintiffs claimed that the effect of defendant’s marketing – from 1985 until the filing of this case in 2002 – was to mislead consumers into falsely believing that defendant’s food products can be consumed on a daily basis without incurring any adverse health effects.  They alleged that, as a result of this marketing scheme, class members suffered injury. Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that defendant attempted to mislead plaintiffs and putative class members with misleading nutritional claims, in widespread advertising campaigns, that its foods were healthy, nutritious, of a beneficial nutritional nature, and/or were easily part of anyone’s healthy daily diet, each and/or all claims supposedly being in contradiction to medically and nutritionally established acceptable guidelines. Plaintiffs claimed that  they suffered injury in the form of the financial costs of defendant’s  products; “false beliefs and understandings" as to the nutritional content and effects of defendant’s food products, and physical injuries in the nature of obesity, elevated levels of  cholesterol, pediatric diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3).  The court "begins and ends" its analysis of class certification with consideration of the predominance requirement of Rule 23(b)(3). The court concluded that establishment of the causation and injury elements of plaintiffs’ claims would necessitate extensive individualized inquiries; the questions of law and fact which would be common to putative class members would not predominate over questions affecting only individual members. Accordingly, certification of this action for class litigation under Rule 23(b)(3) was not appropriate. 

The court found that the focus was on whether the elements of plaintiffs’ cause of action under GBL § 349 may be established by common, class-wide proof.  The court had earlier in the case ruled that in accordance with GBL § 349’s requirement that plaintiffs’ injuries be "by reason of" defendant’s conduct, the plaintiffs had be aware of the nutritional scheme they alleged to have been deceptive, and that the injuries that were suffered by each plaintiff  were by reason of defendant’s alleged deceptive marketing.  However, allegations of “false beliefs and understandings” did not state a claim for actual injury under GBL § 349.  Neither did allegations of pecuniary loss for the purchase of defendant’s products. (In some states that kind of "the product worked and didn't harm me but I wouldn't have purchased it" argument does fly.)

Accordingly, the only alleged injuries for which putative class members could claim damages under GBL § 349 were those related to the development of certain medical conditions; and the causal connection, if any, for those kinds of injuries depended heavily on a range of factors
unique to each individual. Defendant’s nutritional expert concluded there are many factors that contribute to obesity and to obesity-related illnesses, and thus it is improper to generalize and make assumptions as to causation in any individual.  Many foods, not just defendant's, are high in fat, salt, and cholesterol, low in fiber and certain vitamins, and contain beef and cheese, and there is no evidence to suggest that all who consume such foods develop the kinds of medical conditions which were at issue in this case. 

Moreover, whether or not plaintiffs’ claims (that they ate McDonald’s food because they believed it to be healthier than it was in fact) are true for any particular person was an inquiry which also required individualized proof. A person’s choice to eat at McDonald’s and what foods (and how much) he eats may depend on taste, past experience, habit, convenience, location, peer
choices, other non-nutritional advertising, and cost, etc.

Plaintiffs also argued for issue classes, asserting that the 1) existence; 2) consumer-orientation; and 3) materially misleading nature of the marketing scheme alleged by plaintiffs were each
questions which could be settled upon a showing of objective evidence and legal  argument. Even if true, the court noted that all elements of the class action rule have to be met even for issue classes. Named plaintiffs did not present any specific evidence about the number of other persons within the relevant age group who were exposed to the nutritional marketing at issue, then regularly ate at McDonald’s, and subsequently developed the same medical injuries as those allegedly suffered by named plaintiffs.  So they hadn't even shown numerosity.


 

Game Over for Plaintiffs in Wii Class Action

A federal court last week granted defendant's summary judgment motion in a putative class action alleging Nintendo of America Inc. sold defective wrist straps with its Wii controllers.  Elvig, et al. v. Nintendo of America Inc., No. 08-cv-02616 (D. Colo.)

Readers are familiar with the Wii game system. The Wii employs a motion sensing controller that allows the player to manipulate the on-screen action by performing imitative physical actions, such as swinging the controller like a tennis racquet to control the onscreen action in a tennis game. (Readers may recall the classic product liability issues over various lawn dart games; with Wii you can play them in your family room.) To ensure that controllers do not leave a player’s hand during vigorous physical activity, Nintendo includes a “safety strap” to be worn around the player’s wrist. The strap, in turn, connects to the controller by means of a “string sling.” 

Plaintiff sued, alleging the strap was defective, broke, and caused damage to her television. She alleged violation of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act (“CCPA”), of the Colorado Product Liability Act, and a breach of implied warranty or merchantability and of fitness for a particular purpose. To establish a claim under the CCPA, a plaintiff must show: (i) that the defendant engaged in one of several categories of unfair or deceptive trade practices; (ii) the practice occurred in the course of the defendants business or trade; (iii) the practice significantly impacts the public as actual or potential consumers of the defendant’s goods or services; (iv) the plaintiff suffered an injury; and (v) the challenged practice caused the injury. Nintendo argued that Ms. Elvig could not establish the first and last elements – i.e. a deceptive practice and causation of injury.  The court found that plaintiff's vague reference to “false advertising” that “touts the Wii’s athletic usages while making no mention of the straps’ propensity to break” was inadequate in detail and content to make out such a claim.  Plaintiff lacked specifics about what the advertising actually said.

On the product liability claim, Nintendo contended that it gave players adequate warnings of the need to retain possession of the controller and advised them of the possibility that release of the controller during vigorous motion could result in breakage of the strap and damage to persons or property. The court noted the evidence that Nintendo did advise players, via a safety card included with the Wii system, that “If you use excessive motion and let go of the Wii Remote, the wrist strap may break and you could lose control of the Wii Remote. This could injure people nearby or cause damage to other objects.” This, coupled with repeated instructions on the safety card that advise players “DO NOT LET GO OF THE REMOTE DURING GAME PLAY,” ensure that, if the player follows Nintendo’s instructions and heeds its warnings, the Wii system does not pose an unreasonable danger. Ms. Elvig did not dispute that such instructions were included with the Wii she received. Nintendo thus having given an adequate warning to users, it may “reasonably assume that it will be read and heeded,” and thus, has ensured that the product was not “unreasonably dangerous” under the Second Restatement, § 402A, comment j. An interesting take on the relationship of warning and design issues.

On the implied warranty of merchantability, the court cited the lack of evidence that would indicate what the intended purpose of the strap was. One might plausibly assume, as plaintiff did, that the strap was intended to prevent a controller, inadvertently released by the player during vigorous activity, from hurling towards the player’s television (or towards another player) and causing damage.  But equally, one might assume that the strap was simply intended to keep an
inadvertently released controller in the vicinity of the player so that it could be easily retrieved and was was never intended to withstand the forces of high-speed controller release. To withstand summary judgment, plaintiff needed more than one of alternate plausible assumptions; she needed evidence of the ordinary purpose of the strap and proof that it failed the ordinary purpose.

Finally, the court noted that a “particular purpose” differs from the ordinary purpose for which the goods are to be used; in other words, a buyer obtaining goods for a “particular purpose” is one who, for reasons peculiar to the buyer, is obtaining the goods for use other than that which is customarily made of the goods.  Here, there was no evidence that Ms. Elvig obtained the Wii for a “particular purpose” other than that for which it would customarily be used.  The damages occurred when the plaintiff was allegedly playing the Wii bowling game  (no bowling shoes required)-- in the manner and fashion represented by Nintendo in its marketing and promotion materials. In short, using the Wii for its “ordinary purpose” at the time of the accident, not for some “particular” – e.g. unusual – purpose.

Hence, summary judgment for defendant on all claims.

 

California's Proposed "Green Chemistry" Regulations Move Forward

California's proposed "green chemistry" regulation took another step closer to completion last week, as the state Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) submitted the draft regulations to begin the final official rulemaking process.  The public has until Nov. 1, 2010 to make comments.  Under state law passed in 2008, the regulations must be finalized before 2011.

As readers know from previous posts, "green chemistry" is the state's effort to require that chemical products be designed in such a way as to reduce the use or generation of hazardous substances and reduce health and environmental risks, with a clear emphasis on finding alternatives to "chemicals of concern."  Two bills passed in 2008 by the legislature mandated that DTSC develop regulations for identifying and prioritizing chemicals of concern, to create methods for analyzing alternatives to existing chemicals, and to create a mechanism for regulatory response, including possible restrictions or bans on certain chemicals.  The laws also created a Green Ribbon Science Panel to advise DTSC, and provided for a Chemical Information Clearinghouse that will make chemical risk information more accessible to the public.

Earlier in 2010, the agency released a draft Safer Consumer Product Alternatives regulation, then held public meetings and workshops and took written comments.  Last week, the final, slightly revised draft, was issued. DTSC’s regulations call for identifying and prioritizing chemicals in consumer products, for conducting an alternatives assessment, and then an appropriate  regulatory response.

The proposed regulations call for creation of a proposed initial list of Chemicals under Consideration by June 1, 2012, and, from that an eventual list of Priority Chemicals by July 1, 2012. Similarly, the agency is to create a proposed initial list of Products under Consideration (because they contain the relevant chemicals) by March 1, 2013, and eventually a final list of Priority Products by December 1, 2013. In making this determination, the regulations offer a long list of relevant factors, including usage, distribution, disposal and life cycle issues, use by sensitive sub-populations, and a host of toxicity parameters.  One thing for manufacturers to watch: it is unclear how the DTSC will weigh and balance these and other factors. Especially important will be the relative emphasis on realistic, feasible exposure scenarios and dose, as opposed to theoretical risks in the lab.  A second area of potential concern here is that while the proposed regulations include a fairly detailed (and likely lengthy) petition process to challenge regulatory response decisions, they apparently do not include a similar ready process to seek removal of a chemical or product from the priority lists.  Thus, manufacturers and relevant trade associations will have to closely monitor the draft/proposed lists and jump into the comment period before the lists are finalized. Food, drugs, and a few other products are exempt, but the potential list of "consumer products" is quite large.

In the second phase involving Alternative Assessments, product makers will have to provide what may become a quite complex and expensive assessment of potential alternatives to the chemical/product, including a look at hazards, potential exposures, and life cycle.  For example, if the lead of the assessment team works for the manufacturer, the Assessment must be reviewed and verified by an independent third-party consultant.  It is unclear what data DTSC will want to see here, including whether the agency will require additional, new toxicity testing of a product or an alternative.  This may be especially onerous for smaller companies, and for newer technologies (think nano?) in which the existing body of data may not be as robust. One area for companies to watch here is the protection, or lack thereof, of trade secret information.  Ingredients in a product, and possible alternatives that make the product safer, are often a key part of intellectual property, a competitive advantage.  The regulations purport to offer some trade secret protection, but it s not crystal clear how the DTSC will apply this principle.

After receiving the Alternative Assessment, the DTSC is to decide on the best method, if any, to mitigate paternal risks with the product, ranging from no further action to recalls and bans.

The regulations offer a good reminder to double-check company knowledge and comfort with the supply chain, components and agreements, risk sharing provisions, insurance coverage, etc.

Summary Judgment in Ignition Lock Class Action

A federal judge has dismissed a class action against Ford Motor Co. over allegedly defective ignition locks. Richard Smith, et al. v. Ford Motor Co., No. 06-00497 (N.D. Calif. 9/13/10).  The case offers an interesting take on the interplay of express warranties and fraud/failure to disclose claims.

Plaintiffs alleged that Ford unlawfully concealed information concerning the failure rate of the ignition locks in its Focus vehicles. An ignition lock is the vehicle part in which the key is inserted and turned to activate the ignition; its purpose is to start the car. When an ignition lock fails, the driver is prevented from turning the key. Following the launch of the Focus, there was a spike in warranty claims related to the ignition locks. In order to counter the relatively high warranty repair rates, Ford and its ignition lock manufacturer made manufacturing and design changes to the subject ignition locks, which resulted in a substantial decrease in the warranty repair rates. Specifically, from a warranty repair rate of 24.3 % for its 2000 model year Focus vehicles, Ford saw the rate drop to 6.9% for its 2001model year vehicles, then drop again to 3.1% for its 2002 model year vehicles.

In their complaint, plaintiffs asserted state law claims against Ford for, inter alia, Unfair and
Deceptive Acts and Practices in Violation of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et. seq.; and Unfair, Fraudulent, and Unlawful Practices under the Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code sections 17200-17209.

Ford moved for summary judgment, arguing that it had no legal duty to disclose the risk that the subject ignition locks would fail, and could stand on its standard three-year, 36,000 mile warranty.

The district court agreed, granting summary judgment.  The court noted first that  under California law, a manufacturer cannot be found liable under the CLRA for failure to disclose a defect that manifests itself after expiration of the warranty period unless such omission (1) is contrary to an express representation actually made by the defendant, or (2) pertains to a fact the defendant was obligated to disclose.  Plaintiffs argued there was an obligation to disclose "material" risks.  But where, as here, a plaintiff’s claim is predicated on a manufacturer’s failure to inform its customers of a product’s likelihood of failing outside the warranty period, the risk posed by such asserted defect cannot be “merely” the cost of the item's repair.  Rather, for the omission to be material, the failure must pose “safety concerns.”  In other words, under California law, a manufacturer’s duty to consumers is limited to its warranty obligations absent either an affirmative misrepresentation or a safety issue. 

Accordingly, because plaintiffs’ CLRA claim here was not based on any misrepresentation made by Ford, but rather was based on an allegation that Ford had a duty to disclose the risk its ignition locks would fail, plaintiffs’ claim, absent evidence of a safety concern, could not succeed. Plaintiffs argued that the ignition lock issue was a substantial "safety concern" because such locks can (1) prevent drivers from starting their vehicles, and (2) prevent drivers from shutting off their vehicles’ engines -- despite the fact that there were no reports that anyone has ever been injured by the failure of an ignition lock.  Plaintiffs hypothesized drivers getting stranded in unsafe locales. Ford argued that the dangers described by plaintiffs were too speculative to amount to a safety issue giving rise to a duty of disclosure.

The court agreed with Ford, noting “security” concerns are distinguishable from “safety” concerns. The dangers envisioned by plaintiffs were speculative in nature, deriving in each instance from the particular location at which the driver initially had parked the vehicle and/or the driver’s individual circumstances. Plaintiffs offered no evidence that the ignition-lock defect causes engines to shut off unexpectedly or causes individuals to stop their vehicles under dangerous conditions.

Similarly, to the extent plaintiffs’ fraudulent concealment claim was based on Ford’s alleged duty to disclose the risk of failure of the subject ignition locks, Ford was entitled to summary judgment on that claim also as there was no duty to disclose a failure rate, post-warranty, for a non-safety issue.  Again, as plaintiffs have failed to show an affirmative duty to disclose the risk of post-warranty failure of the ignition locks, plaintiffs also had not shown that a reasonable customer could have been deceived; as a matter of law, the only reasonable expectation customers could have had about the subject ignition locks was that they would function for the length of Ford’s express warranty. 

Federal Appeals Court Vacates Third Party Payor Class Certification

A federal appeals court last week reversed an order by a district court certifying a class action of insurers, labor unions, and pension funds who alleged that they overpaid for a drug when the manufacturer allegedly didn't reveal all of the drug's adverse side effects. UFCW Local 1776, et al. v. Eli Lilly & Co., No. 09-0222 (2d Cir. 9/10/10).

Plaintiffs acted as third-party payors (TPP) who underwrite the purchase of prescription drugs by their members or insureds; they brought a putative class action against Eli Lilly, manufacturer of the drug Zyprexa, alleging that Lilly had misrepresented Zyprexa’s efficacy and side effects to physicians. The putative class alleged they paid for the many Zyprexa prescriptions. Plaintiffs argued that they were injured in two ways: first, by paying for Zyprexa prescriptions that would not have been issued but for the alleged misrepresentations; and second, by paying a higher price for Zyprexa than would have been charged, absent the alleged misrepresentations.

In a nearly 300-page opinion issued in  2008, Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York granted class certification to the third-party payors. Specifically, the district court certified a class of TPPs on RICO claims predicated on the overpricing theory of damages, but refused to certify a class related to state consumer protection law claims. The lower court concluded that the proposed TPP class presented common questions of law and fact because the “only difference among class third-party payors is how much of the total overcharge each shall receive in damages.” The lower court  had  addressed whether the losses suffered by the class could be established with sufficient precision, a huge issue in these kinds of cases, concluding that damages could be estimated based on the difference between what was paid for Zyprexa and the actual value of the product. The computation would supposedly require: (i) estimating the total out-of-pocket expenditures for the class members and (ii) using "well-accepted  techniques" in applied economics to determine the actual value or appropriate launch price of Zyprexa.

The district court also found that reliance could be proven for the class simply because the alleged fraud was “directed through mailings and otherwise at doctors who relied, causing damages in overpayments by plaintiffs.” This reliance, the district court concluded, could appropriately be shown by generalized proof, but without resort to the “fraud on the market” theory rejected in cases like McLaughlin v. Am. Tobacco Co., 522 F.3d 215 (2d Cir. 2008).

Defendant appealed.  The Second Circuit noted that to determine whether the proposed TPP class was properly certified, it had to consider whether substantial elements of the claim against Lilly may be established by generalized, rather than individualized, proof.  (Predominance of common or individual issues under Rule 23(b) was the focus.)  Even if the issue whether an act of marketing of the drug was in violation of RICO is considered common, Lilly disputed that the other elements required to recover damages – proof of an injury and proof that such injury was by reason of the RICO violation – were common to the proposed class.  To show injury by reason of a RICO violation, a plaintiff must demonstrate that the violation caused his injury in two senses. First, he must show that the RICO violation was the proximate cause of his injury, meaning there was a direct relationship between the plaintiff’s injury and the defendant’s injurious conduct. Second, he must show that the RICO violation was the but-for (or transactional) cause of his injury, meaning that but for the RICO violation, he would not have been injured.

Traditionally, to show causation in a fraud context, reliance needed to be shown. But in Bridge v.
Phoenix Bond & Indemnity Co
., 128 S. Ct. 2131, 2134 (2008), the Court lessened the emphasis on traditional reliance as an element of the RICO fraud claim to show causation in some cases.  But how a plaintiff can or must prove causation is bound up in what the factual claim is. The Bridge Court also said that in “most cases, the plaintiff will not be able to establish even but-for causation if no one relied on the misrepresentation.” 128 S.Ct. at 2144.  Here, while reliance may not be an element of the cause of action, there was no question that the plaintiffs alleged, and thus had to prove, third-party reliance as part of their factual chain of causation.  Plaintiffs alleged an injury that was caused by physicians relying on Lilly’s supposed misrepresentations and prescribing Zyprexa accordingly. Because reliance was a necessary part of the factual causation theory advanced by the plaintiffs, they had to show it to prevail, and show it by generalized proof if they wished to proceed in a class action.

The court of appeals concluded that plaintiffs’ excess price theory was not susceptible to generalized proof with respect to either but-for or proximate causation, and therefore class certification based on this theory was an abuse of discretion.

The evidence in the record made clear that prescribing doctors do not generally consider the price of a medication when deciding what to prescribe for an individual patient. Any reliance by doctors on alleged misrepresentations as to the efficacy and side effects of a drug, therefore, was not a but-for cause of the price that TPPs ultimately paid for each prescription.  Moreover, the TPP plaintiffs, who unlike the doctors were in a position to negotiate the prices of drugs in their formularies, were unable to show proximate causation.  The TPP plaintiffs drew an alleged chain of causation in which Lilly distributed misinformation about Zyprexa, physicians relied upon that misinformation and prescribed Zyprexa for their patients, and then the TPPs overpaid.  But this narrative skipped several crucial steps: after the doctors prescribe the drug, TPPs relying on the advice of Pharmacy Benefit Managers and their Pharmacy and Therapeutics Committees, placed Zyprexa on their formularies as approved drugs, and then TPPs failed to negotiate the price of Zyprexa below the level set by Lilly.  Thus, in this case, the conduct directly causing the harm was distinct from the conduct giving rise to the fraud. The plaintiff TPPs could not and did not allege that they themselves relied on Lilly’s alleged misrepresentations. But because only the TPPs were in a position to negotiate the price paid for Zyprexa, the only factual reliance that might show proximate causation with respect to price was reliance by the TPPs, not reliance by the doctors.

Since plaintiffs could not show the entire factual causal chain by generalized proof, individual issues would abound, and class certification was improper. The court of appeals also remanded for reconsideration of defendant's summary judgment motion in light of its ruling.

 

Proposed CFA Class Action on Bath Products Is Dismissed

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action accusing Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., L'Oreal USA Inc., Kimberly-Clark Corp., and other defendants, of selling children's bath products that contain toxic and carcinogenic substances. See Herrington v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Co. Inc., et al., No. 09-cv-01597 (N.D. Calif. 9/1/10).

Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to disclose that their products contain probable carcinogens, other unsafe contaminants, and/or ingredients that have not been shown to be safe. Plaintiffs further contended that defendants deceived consumers by affirmatively misrepresenting the safety of their products.  Plaintiffs averred that they purchased the products for use on their young children, and contended that, had defendants disclosed the contaminants in their children’s products and the fact that all ingredients were not "proven safe," they would not
have purchased the products at all.

To evidence the alleged hazards, plaintiffs cited a press release and a report entitled “No More Toxic Tub,” both of which were published by an extremist anti-business group, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In the report, the Campaign points to trace amounts of chemicals such as formaldehyde allegedly in defendants’ products.

They sued for alleged violations of California’s false advertising statute, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500, et seq.; California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200, et seq.; and California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.; and
various other state unfair and deceptive trade practices acts, as well as making common law claims for misrepresentation; fraud; and breach of warranties.  Plaintiffs noted they intended to move for certification of a nationwide class and various subclasses.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss.  They first argued that plaintiffs did not have standing to sue
because they cannot show that they have suffered a concrete, actual injury-in-fact. Plaintiffs responded that they pleaded two injuries sufficient to confer standing: “(1) risk of harm to their children resulting from their exposure to carcinogenic baby bath products; and (2) economic harm resulting from the purchase of these contaminated, defective bath products.”

The court rejected this plaintiff argument, noting that plaintiffs did not cite controlling authority that the “risk of harm” injury employed to establish standing in traditional environmental cases in some states applies equally to what is, at base, a product liability action. To the extent that an increased risk of harm could constitute an injury-in-fact in a product liability case such as this one, in any event, plaintiffs would have to at lease plead a credible or substantial threat to their health or that of their children to establish their standing to bring suit.  But plaintiffs did not allege such a threat. They made general statements about the alleged toxicity of various chemicals, but did not allege that the amounts of the substances allegedly in defendants’ products have caused harm or create a credible or substantial risk of harm.  {Fundamental principle of toxicology - dose matters.}  Plaintiffs did not plead facts sufficient to show that a palpable risk exists. In fact, plaintiffs' own pleading noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has stated that, although the presence of certain chemicals “is cause for concern,” the CPSC is merely continuing “to monitor its use in consumer products.”  Seemed a far cry from substantial risk.

The court found this case analogous to Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., 2008 WL 2938045 (D.N.J.), aff’d, 2010 WL 1169958 (3d Cir. 2010), which we posted on before, and which was dismissed on standing grounds. There, the plaintiff was a regular user of the defendants’ lipstick, which, according to another report by the same Campaign group, contained lead.  The plaintiff alleged that she had been injured “by mere exposure to lead-containing lipstick and by her increased risk of being poisoned by lead.”  However, she did not complain of any current injuries. The district court concluded, and the Third Circuit affirmed, that the plaintiff’s allegations of future injury
were “too remote and abstract to qualify as a concrete and particularized injury.” Id. at *5.

The court here also held that the various counts failed to state a claim. For example the fraud-related claims failed to plead, as required by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(b), “the who, what, when, where, and how of the alleged fraud.” See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1106 (9th Cir. 2003).  While plaintiffs tried to argue that their consumer fraud act claims are different from common law fraud, the Ninth Circuit has held that Rule 9(b) applied to a plaintiff’s claims under the CLRA and UCL when they were grounded in fraud.  Also, plaintiffs did not not plead the circumstances in which they were exposed to the alleged false statements. Nor did they plead which of these alleged misrepresentations they relied on in making their purchase of products.  Again, plaintiffs cited In re Tobacco II Cases, 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009), to argue that they were not required to allege which representations they specifically saw. That case was factually distinguishable on many grounds.  And, in any event, to the extent In re Tobacco II provides that to establish UCL standing, reliance need not be proved through exposure to particular advertisements under some unique factual circumstance, the case does not stand for, nor could it stand for, a general relaxation of the pleading requirements under Federal Rule 9(b).

Similarly, plaintiffs made the general allegation that defendants engaged in unfair business acts or practices but did not allege facts suggesting that consumers have suffered an injury based on the defendants’ alleged conduct. Thus, for the same reasons they lacked Article III standing, they failed to state a claim for those types of claims as well. 

The court gave plaintiffs leave to try to file an amended complaint.

 

Class Certification Denied in Microwave Popcorn Litigation

A federal court has denied class certification in a proposed consumer fraud class action arising from the sale of microwave popcorn with artificial butter flavoring. See Courtney Fine v. Conagra Foods, Inc., No. CV 10-01848 SJO (C.D. Calif., Aug. 27, 2010).

The facts: Diacetyl is a naturally occurring chemical in butter, and was also used in artificial butter flavors for decades. In 2007 defendant Conagra, maker of microwave popcorn, issued a press release to the public stating it was no longer adding the compound diacetyl, which has been associated with lung injury in factory workers exposed to high doses, to its butter-flavored microwave popcorn products. Since the announcement, defendant "reformulated" all butter-flavored varieties of Orville Redenbacher's and Act II microwave popcorn in response, it said, to consumer uncertainty regarding the ingredients of the microwave popcorn. Conagra also redesigned the packaging for these products to display the words "No Added Diacetyl."

Plaintiff alleged that she understood the advertising claim to be there was no diacetyl in the new popcorn, as opposed to no added diacetyl, and alleged she relied on defendant's claims that there was "no diacetyl" in the popcorn products when making the purchases. Plaintiff asserted, however, that diacetyl is still present in the products (as part of natural butter). Plaintiff further asserted that had she known the representation regarding the diacetyl was false, she would not have made the purchases.

Plaintiff alleged causes of action for: (1) false and misleading representation of material facts, constituting unfair competition within the meaning of California Business & Professions Code §§ 17200, et seq. ("UCL"); and (2) false advertising in violation of Business & Professions Code §§ 17500, et seq. ("FAL"). She further alleged that she suffered a monetary loss as a result of defendant's alleged actions, which were in violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act ("CLRA"), Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1750, et seq.

Last March, Conagra removed the case from state court to federal (Judge Otero). Then they filed a Motion to Dismiss based on various grounds, including that: (1) Plaintiff does not allege a cognizable injury resulting from defendant's products and therefore lacks standing; (2) Plaintiff fails to state a claim under the UCL, FAL, and CLRA as a matter of law under Rule 12(b)(6). The gist of the final argument was that plaintiff "received exactly what she paid for."  But, the court was persuaded that plaintiff adequately asserted that she did not get what she paid for, as she was under the impression that defendant's popcorn products were free of diacetyl. That is, she asserted that Conagra’s placement of "No Diacetyl Added" on the packaging is a material misrepresentation, and that reasonable consumers could (somehow) have taken the label to mean that diacetyl did not exist in the product at all.

Plaintiffs then moved for certification of a class consisting of all persons residing in the state of California who purchased Orville Redenbacher's brand Light Butter, Movie Theater Butter Light microwave popcorn, and/or ACT II brand 94% Fat Free Butter, Light Butter, and Butter Lover's microwave popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007. Plaintiff sought certification under Rule 23(b)(3) and 23(b)(2), but argued her "primary goal is to obtain injunctive relief by way of an order enjoining Defendant from its continued practice of making misleading advertising and label claims about its butter flavored microwave popcorn products."

The court denied the motion for class certification on three related grounds. The first problem was that in the court's prior Order Denying Defendant's Motion to Dismiss (6/29/10), the court had ruled that plaintiff established standing for herself because she alleged that she incurred injury as a result of defendant's allegedly improper conduct. That is, plaintiff's spending money on defendant's popcorn in reliance of defendant's placing "No Added Diacetyl" on the packaging.

In the class Motion, plaintiff sought to certify a class that includes "all persons residing in the State of California who purchased [Defendant's] popcorn for personal use and not for resale since September 1, 2007."  Named plaintiff made no mention of the proposed class being comprised only of members who made the purchase as a result of defendant's allegedly false statements, which would be necessary in order to establish standing for the rest of the class.  The court noted that other courts have held that class definitions should be tailored to exclude putative class members who lack standing; each class member need not submit evidence of personal standing but, nonetheless, a class must be defined in such a way that anyone within it would have standing. Burdick v. Union Sec. Ins. Co., 2009 WL 4798873, at *4 (C.D. Cal. 2009).

Accordingly, class certification was improper here, given that plaintiff's proposed class included many people who may not have relied on defendant's alleged misrepresentations when making their purchasing decisions.

Second, a related problem was the Rule 23(a) requirement that plaintiff’s claims be typical of the class claims. The court agreed with Conagra that plaintiff failed to adduce facts suggesting that other class members have been injured by the same course of conduct that she asserts injured her. There could be no serious question, said the court, that the vast majority of putative class members here never read (let alone considered) the defendant's statement at issue, do not know what diacetyl is, and did not base their popcorn purchases on diacetyl-related issues. Plaintiff purchased popcorn, she said, because of defendant's allegedly misleading statements regarding diacetyl. Plaintiff's injury was established due to her alleged reliance on defendant's statements. But plaintiff sought to certify a class that would likely include people with varying rationales behind their purchases – many who purchased popcorn based on factors like flavor or brand. Plaintiff thus failed to establish that she could be a typical representative of the class, whose members were buying for all sorts of reasons unrelated to diacetyl.

Third, because the court found that plaintiff was not a typical representative, the court also held that plaintiff was not an adequate representative under Rule 23(a)(4).

What is refreshing about this short opinion is the recognition that Rule 23(a) matters too.  Often we see courts giver very cursory analysis of the (a) elements and/or emphasize that regardless of the initial prerequisites the issues of predominance, manageability and superiority dictate the certification result.  While the fact that class members undoubtedly bought microwave popcorn for many reasons would impact predominance of individual issues, it also does in fact suggest that the class representative's claims were not typical of the the class, as defined.

(NB. Your humble blogger is involved in the diacetyl litigation, but not this case.)

 

Snapple The Best Stuff in Court - Consumer Class Action Denied

Earlier this month a trial court in New York denied class certification purchaser of Snapple beverages who complained that drinks labeled “All Natural” are somehow misleading because they contain high fructose corn syrup.  See Weiner v. Snapple Beverage Corp., (S.D.N.Y. 8/3/10).

Off and on, we have commented on the growing and alarming trend for plaintiffs lawyers to concoct consumer fraud class action claims against products, even when consumers were not injured and got basically what they paid for, because of some alleged ambiguity in the label or old-fashioned puffing.

Snapple Beverage Corporation was founded in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1972. Snapple began selling and marketing its teas and juice drinks in the late 1980s. In marketing its beverages, Snapple focused on, among other things, flavor, innovation, and humor. Snapple became known for its quirky personality and funny advertising, as well as its colorful product labels and beverage names. For instance, Snapple’s television advertisements featured, among other things, Snapple bottles dressed in wigs and hats, singing in a Backstreet-esque “boy-band,” running with the bulls (hamsters with cardboard horns) in Spain, and performing synchronized swimming.

When Snapple entered the beverages market in the late 1980s, it avoided putting preservatives, which were then commonly found in some similar beverages, in its teas and juice drinks. Snapple was able to do so by using a “hot-fill” process, which uses high-temperature heat pasteurization to preserve products immediately before bottling. Snapple also used 16-ounce glass bottles instead of aluminum cans or plastic. Hence the term on their label "All Natural."

From their inception, Snapple’s beverages were sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.  HFCS is made from corn ( a natural product last time we checked), and its primary constituents are glucose and fructose, the sugars that comprise table sugar and honey (which also sound pretty natural). It is undisputed that Snapple disclosed the inclusion of HFCS in the ingredient list that appears on the label of every bottle of Snapple that was labeled “All Natural.”

But plaintiffs alleged that they paid a price premium for Snapple beverages as a result of the “All Natural” labeling, and that Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling was misleading because Snapple had HFCS.  They brought a class action on behalf of all people who purchased Snapple in New York.  The FDA is reportedly looking at whether high fructose corn syrup may be considered a natural ingredient, but the court didn't need that guidance to dispose of this bogus class claim.

The court focused on the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance inquiry which tests whether proposed classes are sufficiently cohesive to warrant adjudication by representation. The predominance requirement is met only if the plaintiff can establish that the issues in the class action that are subject to generalized proof, and thus applicable to the class as a whole, predominate over those issues that are subject only to individualized proof.  The issues in turn are determined by the causes of action and defenses to them.  Plaintiffs' main claim was for alleged deceptive acts or practices in the conduct of any business, trade or commerce under N.Y. Gen. Bus. L. § 349. Generally, claims under § 349 are available to an individual consumer who falls victim to misrepresentations made by a seller of consumer goods through false or misleading advertising.

New York's § 349 does not require proof of actual reliance. But the plaintiff must show that the defendant’s material deceptive act caused the injury. In addition, a plaintiff must prove actual injury to recover under the statute.  The court noted that proof of actual injury in this case is bound up in proof of damages, or by how much plaintiffs have been harmed. Only by showing that plaintiffs in fact paid more for Snapple beverages as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling could plaintiffs establish the requisite elements of causation and actual injury under § 349.

The court concluded that plaintiffs had not proposed a suitable methodology for establishing the critical elements of causation and injury on a class-wide basis. Without a reliable methodology, plaintiffs had not shown that they could prove at trial using common evidence that putative class members in fact paid a premium for the beverage. Because individualized inquiries as to causation, injury, and damages for each of the millions of putative class members would  predominate over any issues of law or fact common to the class, plaintiffs’ § 349 claim could not be certified under Rule 23(b)(3).

In support of their contention that causation and injury were susceptible to generalized proof on a class-wide basis, plaintiffs relied on the expert report of Dr. Alan Goedde, an economist.  In his report, Goedde proposed two “approaches” for determining the purported price premium attributable to Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling: (1) a “yardstick” approach, which would use “class-wide economic data and standard economic methodologies” to “compare the price of products labeled ‘All Natural’ to similar products which do not have ‘All Natural’ labeling;” and (2) an “inherent value”  approach, which would analyze unspecified “studies and market research” to gather “data that can be used to determine the increased value, standing alone, that a product realizes due to the perception of that product being natural.”

The court found Goedde’s testimony unreliable. The witness did not demonstrate in adequate detail how his proposed “approaches” would be used to develop an empirical algorithm to determine, on a class-wide basis, whether there was a price premium as a result of Snapple’s “All Natural” labeling and, if so, how such a premium could be quantified. For example, he did not identify the products to which Snapple should be compared. He did not explain how his approach would isolate the impact of the “All Natural” labeling from the other factors that purportedly affect the price of Snapple and its competitors. He failed to take into account that there was no uniform price for Snapple beverages during the class period, and thus did not explain how his approach would account for the various prices that putative class members actually paid in determining injury
on a class-wide basis.

Goedde relied on two internal Snapple marketing strategy documents to support his alternate hypothesis that Snapple’s “All Natural” label allowed it to command a premium in the marketplace. Yet he did not review the deposition transcripts of Snapple’s witnesses or any of the other  documents produced by Snapple, which would have provided critical context for these documents.

The court accurately spotlighted the common plaintiff tactic in these kinds of cases: the failure to
invest sufficient time and effort to develop a reliable methodology to support an expert opinion at the class certification stage.  Although the court thought plaintiffs correct in arguing that Goedde need not “implement” or fully “test” his methodology at the class certification stage, an expert must still provide sufficient detail about the proposed methodology to permit a court to determine whether the methodology is suitable to the task at hand.

Without Goedde’s testimony, plaintiffs offered no evidence that a suitable methodology is available to prove the elements of causation and actual injury on a class-wide basis. Individualized inquiries would therefore be required in order to determine whether class members in fact paid a premium for Snapple beverages, and whether any such premium was attributable to the “All Natural” labeling. This would require, among other things, an examination of each of the millions of class members’ Snapple purchases, which the evidence showed were made in different locations, at different times, and for different prices, over the nearly eight-year class period.

One further issue of note is class definition.  The court found that plaintiffs failed to show how the potentially millions of putative class members could be ascertained using objective criteria that were administratively feasible. Plaintiffs - typically  - suggested that after certification, the court could require simply that class members produce a receipt, offer a product label, or even sign a declaration to confirm that the individual had purchased a Snapple beverage within the class period. The court labeled this suggestion "unrealistic." Plaintiffs offered no basis to assume that putative class members retained a receipt, bottle label, or any other concrete documentation of their purchases of Snapple beverages bearing the “All Natural” description.  Indeed, putative class members were unlikely to remember accurately every Snapple purchase during the class period, much less whether it was an “All Natural” or diet beverage, whether it was purchased as a single bottle or part of a six-pack or case, whether they used a coupon, or what price they paid. Soliciting declarations from putative class members regarding their history of Snapple purchases would invite them "to speculate, or worse."

However beloved Snapple may be, said the court,  there is no evidence to suggest that its consumers treat it like a fine wine and remove and save its labels.

 

State Court Misses Opportunity to End Unconstitutional Arrangements With Contingency Fee Counsel

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court this week missed an opportunity to protect the due process rights of companies facing litigation from the improper alliance of government officials and private contingency fee counsel.  See Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Office of General Counsel v. Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc., No. 24 EAP 2009 (Aug. 17, 2010).

Back in 2008, OGC filed a complaint against Janssen, raising various statutory and common law tort claims related to Risperdal, a prescription antipsychotic medication marketed by Janssen.
Instead of prosecuting the action itself, OGC had retained Bailey Perrin, a private law firm based in Houston, Texas, to prosecute the action on a contingent fee basis.  The Commonwealth’s retention of contingent fee private counsel in this matter raised significant issues including whether and when state law authorizes the Office of General Counsel to enter into a contingent fee contract with outside counsel; whether the Commonwealth’s hiring of outside litigation counsel on a contingent fee basis violates the state constitution, including the separation-of-powers mandate of the Pennsylvania Constitution; and whether the Commonwealth’s hiring of outside litigation counsel on a contingent fee basis violates the due process rights of the defendant company.

This case was an appeal of the trial court’s order denying the motion of appellant Janssen to disqualify contingent fee counsel retained by appellee, the Commonwealth’s Office of General Counsel (“OGC”). The Court took the case on a grant of extraordinary relief pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.§ 726.

(Note: Just last month the California supreme court took a major step backward by modifying a 1985 decision that had properly limited the power of government agencies to retain private plaintiffs attorneys on a contingency fee basis to prosecute nuisance litigation.)

The majority never reached the merits, finding no standing and narrowly construing some of Janssen's arguments to get to that result. The Court focused on the threshold question of whether Janssen had standing to challenge Bailey Perrin’s representation of the OGC. The Court acknowledged that the OGC did not even argue statutory standing to the trial court, but then concluded that Janssen didn't argue that the standing issue was thereby waived.

Thus free to inquire, the Court found no standing, and then made "clear that the standing question we are asked to decide is one of statutory interpretation" only, under the Commonwealth's Attorneys Act, which allegedly gave the OGC authority to retain outside counsel. But Janssen argued that it also had standing to move to disqualify Bailey Perrin because nothing in the Attorneys Act prevents a litigant from challenging OGC’s unconstitutional usurpation of the General Assembly’s spending powers, or from litigating due process claims deriving from the Commonwealth’s retention of private contingent fee counsel.

Indeed, Justice Saylor stated in his Dissenting Opinion that he would apply traditional standing principles; that the Constitution is obviously the supreme law of the land that cannot be trumped by a statute; and that, therefore, Janssen’s constitutional claims may not be barred by the standing limitations of the statute.

The majority dismissed that by asserting that, under the theory Justice Saylor proposed, application of the standing restriction in the Commonwealth Attorneys Act to limit standing here would be unconstitutional. But Janssen never argued that traditional standing analysis should apply, says the majority. So, while Justice Saylor has formed "a cogent argument concerning traditional standing and the constitutionality" of the act, it is not the argument the majority perceived to be advanced by Janssen. The majority refused to read Janssen’s challenge as involving a constitutional challenge to the statutory standing limitation, with a consequent resort to traditional standing principles.

That may leave the door open for defendants in a future case who are victims of the unchecked alliance of elected officials and private contingency fee plaintiff lawyers, who are not elected and have their own separate interests. 

The legal policy of many states strongly favors open, competitive bidding for contracts involving state funds. Such requirements, included in some state Constitutions and various statutes, are designed to prevent fraud, eliminate bias and favoritism, and thus protect vital public interests. Those same goals of open and good government reside in the requirement that state officials give their undivided loyalty to the people of a state.  Many of the contingent fee contracts used by state officials to bring mass tort actions violate the core principle that attorneys pursuing actions on behalf of the state represent a sovereign whose obligation to govern impartially is essential to its right to govern. Government attorneys must exercise independent judgment as a ministers of justice and not act simply as advocates. The impartiality required of government lawyers cannot be met where the private pecuniary interest inherent in the contingent fee is the primary motive force behind the bringing of the action. By turning over sovereign prosecutorial-like power to contingency counsel, a state effectively creates a new branch of government – motivated by the prospect of private gain rather than the pursuit of justice or the public welfare.

This subversion of neutrality does more than implicate the due process rights of those confronting such tainted prosecutions. Direction of state prosecutions by financially interested surrogates also damages the very public interest that such litigation is supposed to advance. Here, the allegations of the complaint were crafted more for the pecuniary goals of counsel than for the needs of the patients served by the allegedly affected state programs. 

[Your faithful blogger was able to contribute to the amicus brief of the Washington Legal Foundation, the public interest law and policy center, in this matter.]
 

Window Closing on Time to Comment on CPSC Draft Strategic Plan

In 2008, as readers know, the CPSC was granted extensive new regulatory authorities and mandates to on consumer product safety issues through the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).   So what's next? The Commission recently completed a strategic planning process intended to help align resources with agency priorities to meet what it sees as the key challenges moving into the next decade.

The CPSC is for only a short time longer accepting comments on a new draft of its 2011–2016 strategic plan.  As globalization and technological advances expand the range of products on the market, the risks and opportunities associated with these advancements make the challenge of overseeing and regulating the thousands of product types all the more complex, says CPSC. Some risks include the growth of global supply chains that assemble products across a vast web of interconnected geographies, the difficulty of identifying product hazards among hundreds of thousands of containers entering US ports, and the new ways in which the public receives product information through the Internet and other media sources.

The revised plan details CPSC efforts to set consumer product safety priorities, efficiently identify and respond to product hazards, improve public outreach efforts, and raise awareness of potential product risks. The plan grew out of interviews and focus groups with 76 internal and external stakeholders to obtain feedback on the CPSC’s performance and how the agency can improve in the future (these individuals and groups included a cross-section of diverse stakeholders: consumer organizations, industry associations, the CPSC headquarters staff, the CPSC field staff, other federal agencies, and states’ attorneys general).

One goal of the plan is to find ways the CPSC can reduce the number of unsafe imported products entering the U.S. marketplace, such as by strengthening its bilateral and multilateral relationships with foreign regulators and manufacturers. The draft also states that CPSC wants to improve its response time for removing hazardous products from the market. 

A third major aspect of the plan relies on the new public product safety database, which is scheduled for launch in March 2011.  The database will allow consumers and others to submit reports of alleged harm in a Web-based, publicly search-able format to the CPSC. The database is to be designed with the needs of multiple types of users in mind. Creation of the database is being guided by a series of public hearings, focus groups, and joint workshops with CPSC staff to determine how manufacturers, retailers, and consumer advocates expect to use the database and how they think it should work. The new system is supposed to make it simple for consumers, industry representatives, health officials, and any other member of the public to report safety incidents and view publicly reported incident information that the CPSC has amassed on a particular consumer product safety concern.

We reported earlier this year on the notice of proposed rulemaking that would establish a publicly available consumer product safety information database. As we have noted at MassTortDefense, CPSC still needs to develop a rigorous and timely process for addressing false and inaccurate reports-- those that will scare consumers, harm business, and generate no additional safety gains. The commission needs to employ means to prevent the submission of fraudulent reports of harm while not discouraging the submission of valid reports. CPSC also needs to think about specific disclaimers it should make with regard to the accuracy of the information contained in the public database, and not put any governmental imprimatur on voluntary data that has not been verified. A sufficient time period should also be allocated for manufacturers to evaluate and respond to any proposed report.
 

Federal Court Misses Opportunity To Support Common Sense

A federal court last week refused to dismiss most claims by a putative class challenging health claims in vitaminwater beverage labeling. Ackerman v. Coca-Cola Co., CV-09-0395 (E.D.N.Y., 7/21/10).

Here at MassTort Defense we have warned companies about the dangers of consumer fraud class actions and highlighted some of the many ridiculous, far-fetched, beyond belief claims that plaintiffs make about being misled about some product.  This one is near the top of the list. Plaintiffs allege that the name, "vitaminwater," along with a description of the vitamins in the water are somehow deceptive because they supposedly mislead people to believe that the beverages do not have sugar or calories in them. Plaintiffs are not alleging that vitaminwater doesn't have water or doesn't have vitamins or that the particular vitamins in vitaminwater fail to provide the benefit claimed. Rather, they claim that vitaminwater’s labeling and marketing are misleading because they "bombard" consumers with a message that supposedly draws consumer attention away from the significant amount of sugar in the product. About the sugar? The FDA-mandated label on each bottle bears the true facts about the amount of sugar per serving.

(The opinion also rejected defendant's argument that the claim was expressly and/or impliedly preempted by statutes and regulations preventing states from imposing labeling requirements that are different from those imposed by the FDA.)

The complaint alleged claims of unlawful business acts and practices in violation of California Business and Professions Code (“Cal. BPC”) § 17200 et seq. (“Unfair Competition Law” or “UCL”); Cal. BPC § 17500 et seq. (“False Advertising Law” or “FAL”); and California’s Consumers Legal Remedies Act, Cal. Civ. Code § 1750 et seq. (“CLRA”); (2) unfair business acts and practices in violation of California UCL; (3) fraudulent business acts and practices in violation of California UCL; (4) misleading and deceptive advertising in violation of California FAL; (5) untrue advertising in violation of California FAL; (6) unfair methods of competition or unfair or fraudulent acts or
practices in violation of § 1770(a)(7) of the CLRA; (7) deceptive acts or practices in violation of
New York General Business law (“GBL”) § 349; (8) false advertising in violation of New York
GBL § 350; (9) violation of New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), N.J.S.A. 56:8-1 et
seq.; (10) breach of an express warranty; (11) breach of an implied warranty of merchantability;
(12) deceit and/or misrepresentation; and (13) unjust enrichment.

The claims were brought on behalf of three purported classes of plaintiffs: all California Residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 15, 2005 to the present, (the “California Class”); all New York residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 30, 2003 to the present, (the “New York Class”); and all New Jersey residents who purchased vitaminwater at any time from January 22, 2003 to the present (the “New Jersey Class”).

So what's misleading? The court found that plaintiffs had sufficiently pleaded that the collective effect of the marketing statements was to mislead a reasonable consumer into believing that vitaminwater is either composed solely of vitamins and water, or that it is a beneficial source of nutrients.   Despite the fact that the sugar content was plain as day to anyone who would look at the label. The court found that the fact that the actual sugar content of vitaminwater was accurately stated in an FDA-mandated label on the product does not eliminate the possibility that "reasonable" consumers may be misled. The court relied on Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 552 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2008), for the notion that the mere fact that an FDA-mandated nutritional panel provided
accurate nutritional information on a product did not bar claims that reasonable consumers could
be misled. Reasonable consumers should not, said the court, be expected to look beyond representations on the front of the box to discover the truth from the ingredient list in smaller print on the side of the box. But unlike the Gerber case, there were no allegations here that the packaging for vitaminwater contained any false statements or pictures. As noted, plaintiffs concede that vitaminwater actually contains the vitamins the marketing says it does. And it hardly seems like an unfair burden on a "reasonable" consumer to turn from the word "vitaminwater" on one part of the bottle to the label in close proximity on the very same bottle.

As a matter of law, plaintiffs should not be permitted to move forward with a claim about the presence of an ingredient that is clearly disclosed on the Nutrition Facts label, exactly where FDA tells the manufacturer to put that information.  And, of course, the problem with allowing the claim to proceed past the motion to dismiss claim is that the case will proceed through expensive discovery to reach a stage where common sense prevails and summary judgment is granted -- if a defendant is not blackmailed into settling.  And a common thread in many of these consumer fraud class actions is the fundamental notion by plaintiffs' attorneys --implicit in their theory-- that the public must be stupid, cannot read labels, and cannot make legitimate product choices for itself. In fact, the public speaks just fine with its wallets and pocketbooks. Fortified beverages are not new and are one of the fastest-growing market segments. Consumers are indeed able to read nutrition labels and ingredient listings and make smart choices, for themselves, without the help of the plaintiffs' bar.  Contrast this case with recent comon sense decisions.

Cap'n Crunch Defeats Class Action Marauders

 A federal court has dismissed a proposed class action against PepsiCo Inc. alleging that consumers were somehow being misled to believe that the company's Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries breakfast cereal contain real fruit.  Roy Werbel v. PepsiCo Inc., No: C 09-04456 SBA (N.D. Cal. 7/1/2010).

Here at MassTortDefense we have railed against the trends in consumer fraud class actions, as plaintiff lawyers seek class status for alleged economic-only harm claims, when they find some word or image in advertising that they can quibble about or argue is somehow ambiguous to a client.  No one is really harmed; no one is misled; no one is defrauded.  The theories of the case make a mockery of common sense and personal responsibility. But, hey, fees may be available. This case is part of an appropriate response to such claims.

Cap'n Crunch debuted in 1963, and Crunch Berries came along in 1967. The Cap'n was drawn by the same guy that created Dudley Do-Right, George of the Jungle, and Moose and Squirrel (Rocky and Bullwinkle.)  Perhaps some of our readership will remember the original commercials featuring the canine Sea Dog, who sailed with the Cap’n on his ship, The Good Ship Guppy. The crew was tasked with keeping the cereal safe from the Cap’n’s nemesis, Jean LaFoote, the Barefoot Pirate.  Trivia question: what is the Cap'n's full name?  See below.

Plaintiff Roy Werbel brought the putative class action against defendant on behalf of consumers who allegedly were misled into believing that “Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries” cereal derives some of its nutritional value from real berries or fruit.  On the package, immediately below the product name is a product description, which states: “SWEETENED CORN & OAT CEREAL.”  The display panel also depicts a ship’s captain in cartoon form standing behind a bowl of cereal, and holding a spoonful of multi-colored Crunch Berries. Plaintiff alleged that the colorful Crunchberries [sic] on the box conveyed only one message: that Cap’n Crunch "has some nutritional value derived from fruit.”  Although the product contains strawberry juice concentrate, that ingredient allegedly is for flavoring only.  According to plaintiff, the only reason that the front display panel on the Cap’n Crunch cereal box refers to “berries” is “to lead consumers to believe that the Product contains nutritional content derived from fruit.”

Plaintiff alleged statutory violations under California’s Unfair Competition Law (“UCL”), Cal. Bus. & Prof.Code § 17200, et seq., False Advertising Law (“FAL”), id. § 17500, et seq., and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (“CLRA”), Cal. Civ.Code § 1750, et seq., along with common law causes of action for intentional misrepresentation and breach of express and implied warranty. Claims made under these statutes are governed by the “reasonable consumer” test which focuses on whether “members of the public are likely to be deceived.” Williams v. Gerber Prods. Co., 552 F.3d 934, 938 (9th Cir. 2008) (citing Freeman v. Time, Inc., 68 F.3d 285, 289 (9th Cir. 1995)).

In response to the theory that members of the public were likely to be deceived into believing that Cap’n Crunch derives nutrition from actual fruit by virtue of the reference to Crunch Berries, the court gave a one word conclusion: "Nonsense."   It was obvious from the product packaging that no
reasonable consumer would believe that Cap’n Crunch derived any nutritional value from
berries. As an initial matter, the term “Berries” was not used alone, but always was preceded by the
word “Crunch,” to form the term, “Crunch Berries.”  Even the image of the Crunch Berries showed four cereal balls with a rough, textured surface in hues of deep purple, teal, chartreuse green and bright red. These cereal balls do not even remotely resemble any naturally occurring fruit of any kind we have ever seen; there are no pictures or images of any berries or any other fruit depicted on the Cap’n Crunch cereal box.  

Moreover, there were no representations that the Crunch Berries are derived from real fruit or are nutritious because of fruit content. To the contrary, the packaging clearly stated that product is a “SWEETENED CORN & OAT CEREAL.” In short, no reasonable consumer would be deceived into believing that Cap’n Crunch has some nutritional value derived from fruit. 

The warranty claim, that defendant allegedly warranted that Cap’n Crunch “contains berries” and “was a substantially fruit-based product deriving nutritional value from fruit,” was deemed "frivolous." No such claim was made expressly or impliedly anywhere on the Cap’n Crunch packaging or marketing material cited by plaintiff.

Case dismissed, with NO leave to amend to try to salvage some treasurer from nothing.  The Cap'n lives on.

Trivia answer: In May 2007 Cap'n Crunch's full name was revealed as Captain Horatio Magellan Crunch.

Self-Annointed Watchdogs, Eat Your Own Unhappy Meals

We are generally hesitant to post about some of the ridiculous industry-bashing that many anti-science, anti-capitalism groups spout -- for fear of spreading their misguided word one inch farther.  But sometimes, when litigation is threatened, you just have to stop biting your tongue.

The self-proclaimed Center for Science in the Public Interest has apparently threatened to sue McDonald’s if the popular food company does not stop marketing toys with its Happy Meals.  The claim is that the toys included in the meals instill unhealthy eating habits in children.  CSPI sent a letter to McDonald's last week demanding that the company immediately pull toys from its Happy Meal children’s meals. By advertising that Happy Meals include toys, McDonald’s somehow supposedly unfairly and deceptively markets directly to children.   Advertising a small toy in a Happy Meal box is supposedly deceptive because children under the age of 8 are not advanced enough to understand the "intent" of the marketing.

Well, how wrong can one misguided group be?  Let's count the ways.  Last time we checked, in a democracy with a free market economy, product sellers were free to make their products attractive to consumers, free to advertise them, and free to market their wares with accurate and truthful statements.  A Happy Meal is advertised to contain a toy.  It does.  It has a meal, just like promised.  And as a dad, I can attest to the fact the box meal does make kids happy.  Where is the deception?  There is none. The group cites a variety of state consumer fraud acts in the letter, but not a single case supporting its preposterous legal theories -- because there aren't any. For example, the group cites the Massachusetts law (93A), but the recent case Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10), makes clear that there is no valid consumer claim when the customer does not suffer a traditional and real economic injury.

Next, last time we checked, very few small children were behind the wheel in the drive-through line.  Parents can decide what their kids eat.  And parents can still say "no" when little Johnny or Suzie wants burgers and fries too often. When did we cross the line from parents raising their kids to the best of their ability, to the government (regulators or the courts through a suit) determining how kids should be raised, down to what they can eat and whether they get a small toy to play with after dinner?  According to CSPI, many children will pester their parents to take them to McDonald’s.  So what?  Kids pester; that's what they do.  Parents say "no."  That's what they do.  Problem solved -- without a class action.

Next, the rabble rousers complain that the Happy Meals are slightly higher in calories than the group thinks is reasonable.  Thank goodness for the self-appointed calorie police who think that the best way to tackle the issue of weight in this country is to have the courts force all food companies to make food that looks and tastes like cardboard and is boring, anything but "happy."  How about we get kids to put down the remote control and exercise and play sports more?  Problem solved -- without the litigation.

But, cries the group, the toys build brand loyalty and send the customers back again in the future.  Since when was it an actionable wrong to actually provide your customers with a product they like so much they come back and buy it again in the future?  What kind of economy does this group want?

CSPI needs to worry more about junk science than junk food.  In fact, in my area, McDonald's heavily advertises the four-piece Chicken McNuggets Happy Meal, which includes Apple Dippers, low-fat caramel dip and 1 percent low-fat white milk.  Maybe the issue is that the parents of the CSPI members never told them "no."  Not to worry, they will soon hear it from the courts if they pursue this threatened litigation.
 

Court of Appeals Rejects Consumer Fraud Class Action for Pet Medication

The First Circuit affirmed last week the lower court's dismissal of a putative consumer fraud class action involving a re-called heartworm medication for dogs. Rule v. Ford Dodge Animal Health Inc., 2010 WL 2179794 (1st Cir. 6/2/10).

Plaintiff, Rule, purchased two doses of ProHeart 6, a medicine for preventing heartworm in dogs, and had them administered to her dog Luke. She later filed a putative class action against Wyeth, alleging that defendant had sold ProHeart 6 without disclosing safety concerns revealed in initial testing and in subsequent use.  She alleged these concerns ultimately led Wyeth to recall the product at the FDA's request. According to plaintiff, adverse reactions were suffered by dogs after receiving ProHeart 6 during trials and in general use after the product was released. Importantly, the class representative conceded that Luke had not suffered any harm from the drug, and that Luke had not developed heartworm while using the drug.

Plaintiff's first cause of action was based on breach of the implied warranty of merchantability and the other based on the state consumer fraud statute, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 93A. For damages on these two counts, Rule asserted that she and others similarly situated were entitled to the difference between the price they actually paid for ProHeart 6 and what it would have been worth had safety risks been adequately disclosed; for the chapter 93A count, she sought statutory damages if greater than actual damages and also trebling of damages. 

On the warranty count, the alleged unmerchantability (unfitness for ordinary use) of ProHeart 6 lay in its potential for causing harm to a dog. Rule conceded, however, that neither of the two doses injured Luke. So, while the sale to Rule may have been of an "unfit" drug, its unfitness did not give rise to any injury to Rule against which the warranty was designed to guard. Nor did she suggest that Luke became more susceptible to injury, as might be the case where one bought and installed a defective car tire that has not yet run its life. Recovery generally is not available under the warranty of merchantability where the defect that made the product unfit caused no injury to the claimant, the threat is gone, and nothing now possessed by the claimant has been lessened in value.

On the consumer fraud count, the act provides a cause of action for a plaintiff who has been injured by unfair or deceptive acts or practices. In Rule's view, she purchased Proheart 6 because of a deception (failure to disclose the risk), the product was “in reality” worth less than she paid for it (because of that undisclosed risk), and so she suffered damage measured by the difference between what she paid and what she would have paid if the risk had been disclosed. One problem with plaintiff's scenario was that she also alleged that had the risks been known, ProHeart 6 could not be sold at all, given FDA requirements.

But even assuming otherwise, Rule's suit was brought after her purchases and use of the drug, and she admitted that she got both the protection and convenience she sought and that the risk did not manifest itself in injury to her or her dog. Nor was she still holding a product that was worth less than she paid for it; she used the product up entirely and in fact suffered no economic injury at all. Indeed, her theory would not be adopted by deceived buyers whose dogs were actually injured or killed; they could seek not some modest reduction in price but the full cost of added veterinary bills and, if the dog died, its value.

So to the extent chapter 93A injury requires that a plaintiff who seeks to recover show “real” economic damages, Rule did not qualify. If, instead, a different notion of injury had sufficed - such as injury as a violation of some abstract “right” like the right not to be subject to a deceptive act that happened to cause no economic harm - then she would arguably have had a claim under chapter 93A and perhaps could obtain statutory damages.  The First Circuit observed some "tension" in the language used as between the earlier and the later state SJC decisions on the statute and especially where deception and risk are involved. However, said the court of appeals, the most recent SJC cases on point appear to have reaffirmed the notion that injury under chapter 93A means economic injury in the traditional sense.

Finally, the First Circuit addressed plaintiffs' typical policy-based argument that deceptive conduct needs to be deterred through a class action. While the alleged conduct such as that attributed to defendant needs to be deterred, that need not necessarily come from those who bought the product but were not injured.  It could be deterred by those with actual injury.
 

Facebook Groups and Class Actions

Plaintiffs have sued the Procter & Gamble Co. in a proposed national class action, alleging that  new Pampers diapers containing “Dry Max” technology is causing rashes and "chemical burns" in some infants. See Clark, et al. v. Procter & Gamble Co., No. 10-301 (S.D. Ohio, 5/11/10). Plaintiffs seek reimbursement for the cost of diapers, as well as for alleged medical expenses and treatment.  The plaintiffs allege that P&G knew or should have known that the diapers with Dry Max technology could harm kids' bottoms. They assert causes of action for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, breach of  implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, violation of consumer fraud acts, negligence, unjust enrichment, and strict liability.  Then came word that the Consumer Product Safety Commission would review consumer complaints regarding Pampers with the new Dry Max technology.

P&G notes that the Dry Max technology is a significant innovation in diapers. The Dry Max technology allows the diapers to be thinner and lighter, but still absorbent.  The Proctor & Gamble website notes the safety of the diapers  for babies, and the heavy testing -- the product is one of the most tested diapers in the company's history. To date, there have been in excess of two billion diaper changes using the new product, with only a handful of rash complaints, none of which were shown to be caused by the type of materials in the product. In fact, the company has received fewer than two complaints about diaper rash for every one million diapers sold, which apparently is average for the diaper business and does not deviate from the number of calls received prior to Dry Max.

It is hard to imagine that common issues will predominate over the individual issues arising from causation and injury, in the putative class action. Diaper rash is very common, and sometimes severe, regardless of the diaper used. At any given moment, more than 250,000 babies will experience a serious rash. Disposable diapers in fact have helped reduce the incidence of rash by more than 50 percent since they were first introduced in the 1960s because they pull wetness away from a baby's skin. It is very common for long-time consumers of child care or personal care products to correlate a change in product style or design with an adverse effect.

What is most interesting for our readers, perhaps, is the fact that this litigation was apparently spurred by the social networking site, Facebook, where some parents have been blaming the new diapers for rashes.  This has spread not only word of the incidence of a possible problem, but also the non-scientific, non-expert attribution of causation.  Here, for example, there have actually been very few complaints to the CPSC, but the CPSC said the on-line activism was part of what has prompted them to examine the alleged diaper issues.

Sites like Facebook give consumers a bigger platform to voice their opinions and find other similarly situated individuals, and product sellers need to realize how that can spur litigation. Social media alone do not produce litigation, of course.  But from a potential liability standpoint, the social networking sites are becoming a new resource for plaintiff product liability  attorneys.   Facebook provided plaintiff attorneys potential access to thousands of product users documenting their experiences with the product.  Some even have posted relevant photographs. The diaper Facebook group apparently grew to more than 10,000 members. Such Internet activity can include product users talking about the possibility of litigation and searching for attorneys. Some members of the plaintiff bar have used on-line media to communicate with potential clients, and identify ideal class representatives.  

Defense lawyers need to recognize they can research and learn from plaintiffs' on-line activities, as well, particularly before the involvement of plaintiff attorneys. Discovery requests for
Facebook profiles, forensic examinations of computers, or, at proper times, third-party requests directly to the social networking site, may be part of their arsenal.  There may be information about named class representatives, or the class in general. After litigation is filed, some class members continue to participate in Facebook groups.  People will say things in that informal environment that they might not say in a deposition.

Of course, several advisory ethics opinions remind litigators that rules of professional responsibility apply when accessing social networks for case purposes. Contacting parties or witnesses through a “friend request” must be done in accordance with the applicable Rule of Professional Conduct.

 

Decision to Not Conduct Daubert Inquiry Leads to Class Certification

A federal court recently certified a class of Minnesota building owners in litigation over issues with plumbing systems. See In re: Zurn Pex Plumbing Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 08-1958, 2010 WL 1839278 (D.Minn. 5/6/10).

The issue for our readers is not so much what happened, but what should have happened but did not.  I recently posted about the7th Circuit decision in American Honda Motor Co., Inc. v. Allen, 2010 WL 1332781 (7th Cir., April 7, 2010), mandating that trial courts rule on the admissibility of expert testimony at the certification stage of litigation when the testimony is critical to certification.  That is the only approach that makes any sense. Otherwise, the court risks certifying a class -- and engaging the parties in  the massive discovery and notice process that accompanies it  -- based on testimony that fails the Daubert test, is unreliable, and eventually inadmissible under the Federal Rules.  Here, the court refused to exclude the testimony of two plaintiff experts at the certification stage.  The court noted that the 8th Circuit had not yet adopted the approach of the 7th Circuit. 

Historically, potable water plumbing systems used copper pipes. In the 1990's, some companies designed plumbing systems using polybutylene plastic. After a wave of litigation involving allegedly failed polybutylene plumbing systems, defendant Zurn designed a cross-linked polyethylene plumbing system, commonly referred to as “pex,” as an alternative to polybutylene systems and copper plumbing systems. Plaintiffs were individuals who owned a home with a Zurn pex plumbing system. in several lawsuits, plaintiffs alleged that defective fittings used in the pex system caused their plumbing systems to leak resulting in damage to their properties. Plaintiffs also alleged that Zurn failed to adequately test the brass crimp fittings in their anticipated environments before marketing its product. In 2008, the Judicial Panel on Multi-District Litigation determined that the pex plumbing cases met the MDL test, and that centralization of the cases in Minnesota was appropriate.

Plaintiffs moved for certification of a class of all persons and entities that own a structure located within the State of Minnesota that contains a Zurn Pex plumbing system with brass crimp fittings.  Defendants, in turn, moved to exclude portions of the testimony of plaintiffs' experts, Dr. Wallace Blischke and Dr. Roger Staehle.  

Dr. Blischke, a statistician, performed an analysis of Zurn's warranty claims data and estimated that millions of Zurn's brass fittings will fail within the twenty-five year warranty period; he concluded that the fittings have a mean time to failure of 40 years.  Defendants offered evidence that the 40 years was based on unsupported assumption, not data.  The court admitted that as merits discovery unfolded and more information becomes available, Dr. Blischke's 40 year estimate for the mean time to failure "may or may not be admissible," but it would consider the expert testimony in support of class certification anyway and "has given such testimony proper weight."

Dr. Staehle then conducted a round of testing known as the U-bend test of brass specimens from Zurn's fittings. Defendants offered evidence that the reliability of Dr. Staehle's U-bend testing was undermined by his use of an artificially inflated level of strain, and they challenged the correctness of Dr. Staehle's calculation of the strain. The court concluded that "at this point" it would not exclude the testimony, which could be the subject of cross examination.

The certification battleground was 23(b)(3) predominance.  Defendants stressed that there were lots of possible causes of the failure of any particular plumbing system, and thus individual issues predominated.  Plaintiffs -- and here we see where the denial of a Daubert inquiry has its pernicious effect -- responded that the brass crimp fittings used in the pex plumbing system suffer from an inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the parts were substantially certain to fail within the 25 year express warranty provided by Zurn and/or the useful life of the fittings.  And this was a set of predominating common issues, they said.  But they only get there through the testimony of the experts, not only on the merits, but on the presentation that the defects and useful life were demonstrable on a common basis through expert testimony about testing and time-to-failure.  So, for example, in certifying a warranty class for those plaintiffs whose systems had not yet failed, the court readily acknowledged being influenced by the fact that plaintiffs "allege, and intend to prove by expert testimony, that Zurn's brass crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect...."

Similarly, with regard to a class relying on a negligence cause of action, the court concluded that if plaintiffs can prove that the crimp fittings suffer from a uniform, inherent design and manufacturing defect, and that the defect is the only cause of failure in the majority of the cases, then proximate cause will not involve predominately individual determinations, and resolution of that issue would be common the class. For class certification purposes, the court was "convinced that Plaintiffs have adduced sufficient evidence to support their theory of the case."  But, of course, that evidence was arguably inadmissible expert testimony.

Since proof of reliance will likely vary among class members, and since defendants are entitled to present individualized defenses to reliance under Minnesota law, plaintiffs failed to show that the reliance component of their consumer protection claims could be proven by common evidence. Accordingly, class certification as to plaintiffs' consumer protection claims was denied.

But imagine how easy it can be to show "predominance" of common issues when your proof is unreliable, inadmissible, unscientific, expert testimony that just doesn't get screened.  Why should the gatekeeper role not impact entrance to the expensive, protracted world of a class action as much as to trial?

 

 

Parties File Joint Report in Toyota MDL

The three attorneys serving as interim plaintiffs' counsel in the Toyota multidistrict litigation have filed a joint Preliminary Report, pursuant to the Court’s April 14, 2010 CMO No. 1. See  In re Toyota Motor Corp. Unintended Acceleration Marketing, Sales Practices, and Products Liability Litigation, No. 8:10-ml-02151-JVS-FMO (C.D. Cal.,  4/30/10).

Among the topics covered were many of the basic MDL structural issues, including the proposed structure and roles of designated counsel.  The parties recommended 18 attorneys to serve in leadership positions. More than 80 law firms and attorneys had filed applications by the May 3rd deadline to serve as lead counsel or in some other leadership role in this MDL.

The plaintiffs' attorneys also recommended establishment of a core discovery committee led by the co-lead counsel for the two types of cases, personal injury and economic loss.  Plaintiffs’ outlined their Core Discovery (types of information and documents, and types of discovery). Proposed core discovery  included: (i) Floor Mat,  (ii) Pedal, and (iii) Electronic Throttle systems issues. Plaintiffs' core discovery includes probing allegations of the existence of a defect in Toyota vehicles responsible for alleged sudden unintended acceleration; and the design and manufacture process for the engine throttle control system (including pedals, floor mats, electronic control systems, accelerator pedals, throttle bodies, etc.).  They also outlined proposed document discovery, as far back as the 1990s, claiming that design of that system began in the 1990s and that it was put in place in some vehicles as early as model year 1998.

Similarly, defendants outlined their proposed discovery in personal injury cases and economic loss cases. A key issue for them is the preservation of the vehicles in testable condition.

The parties offered a brief statement of the facts and legal issues, including class certification issues, standing issues, the application of the economic loss rule, choice of law, and the statute of limitations. Defendants’ specifically requested coordination with state court proceedings. There are now reportedly about 100 cases in 22 states.

Toyota has previously announced that it had retained an outside engineering and scientific consulting firm to conduct a comprehensive, independent analysis of Toyota and Lexus vehicles using the ETCS-i system (Electronic Throttle Control System with intelligence) for concerns related to unintended acceleration.

Toyota has provided members of Congress with an interim, first phase report from this expert on its evaluation of the ETCS-i system, consistent with the company’s commitment to transparency regarding the quality and safety of its vehicles

Claim Against Classic Coke Down the Drain

The Coca-Cola Co. has successfully obtained summary judgment in a case alleging that the company unfairly marketed its Coca-Cola Classic soft drink as “original formula” despite allegedly having substituted high-fructose corn syrup for the ordinary table sugar it used when the drink was introduced. Judge Patrick Murphy issued an order last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois.

Plaintiffs Amanda Kremers and Jason McCann, sued on behalf of themselves and a proposed class of Illinois citizens, alleging that Coca-Cola’s conduct in labeling cans and bottles of “Classic” Coke with the terms “Original Formula” constitutes a deceptive and unfair trade practice. This is because, plaintiffs contended, the “Original Formula” of Coke, which was invented in 1886, called for Coke to be sweetened using sucrose (ordinary table sugar, in essence), whereas “Classic” Coke currently is sweetened using high fructose corn syrup (“HFCS”). They alleged violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act (“ICFA”), and unjust enrichment.

Proposed class rep Kremers conceded at her deposition that she has known since the 1990's that “Classic” Coke contained HFCS and that “Classic” Coke is marketed as the “Original Formula” of Coke.  Kremers admitted also that she read the words “Original Formula” on a container of “Classic” Coke in the 1990s.  That was sufficient to put her on notice to inquire about her alleged claims, and that she knew or reasonably should have known of her so-called injury. Thus, her claim was barred by the statute of limitations, even with the discovery rule.

Turning to the merits of the case, the state statutory cause of action requires: (1) a deceptive act or practice by the defendant, (2) the defendant’s intent that the plaintiff rely on the deception, (3) the occurrence of the deception in the course of conduct involving trade or commerce, and (4) actual damage to the plaintiff (5) proximately caused by the deception.  To prove that element of proximate causation in a private cause of action brought under the ICFA, a plaintiff must allege that he was, in some manner, actually deceived. 

McCann’s testimony at his deposition was that he wasn't actually deceived.  He never read the key language until after he was approached by counsel for plaintiffs in this case about serving as the representative of the proposed class. Hence, he could not prove proximate causation for purposes of a claim for deceptive trade practices under the ICFA.

To establish a prima facie case of unfair trade practices under the ICFA, a plaintiff must prove that a defendant intentionally engaged in an unfair practice in the course of conduct involving trade or commerce, and that this practice proximately caused harm to the plaintiff. The court found that as a matter of law, the sales here were not unfair trade practices. The trade practices in dispute in this case were not deceptive acts (as above). No public policy of Illinois proscribed the use of HFCS as a sweetening agent in beverages and foodstuffs. The facts concerning plaintiffs' use hardly suggested they had been oppressed by Coca-Cola’s trade practices, or had been afforded the lack of meaningful choice necessary to establish unfairness.

Perhaps most importantly, McCann could not show the necessary substantial harm for an unfair trade practice, given the small amount of the product he purchased, the fact that he continued to purchase "Classic” Coke after the commencement of this suit and despite knowledge that the product contains HFCS, and because the alleged injury was one any consumer of “Classic” Coke quite easily could have avoided, by, for example, simply drinking a different soft drink or other beverage.

Although fraud is not an element of a claim for unjust enrichment under Illinois law, the Seventh Circuit nevertheless has made clear that where the plaintiff’s claim of unjust enrichment is predicated on the same allegations of fraudulent conduct that support an independent claim of fraud, resolution of the fraud claim against the plaintiff is dispositive of the unjust enrichment claim as well.

Class motion dismissed as moot.

 

Latest Round in Lipstick Wars Goes to Defendants

We previously posted about a case in which a federal judge threw out  a purported class action against L’Oreal USA Inc. and Procter & Gamble Distributing LLC that accused the companies of selling Cover Girl and Maybelline lipsticks containing lead. Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., et al., No. 07-5588 (D.N.J. July 29, 2008).

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has affirmed the decision. Koronthaly v. L'Oreal USA,  No. 08-4625 (3d Cir. 3/26/10).

Koronthaly purchased lipstick products manufactured, marketed, and distributed by appellees L’Oreal. and P&G. She alleged these lipstick products contained lead. The FDA does not regulate the presence of lead in lipstick, but Koronthaly asserted that the lipstick contained lead in greater amounts than permitted in candy by the FDA. Koronthaly alleged that she did not know when she purchased the products that they contained any lead, and when she learned of the lead content she immediately stopped using them. Moreover, had she known of the lead she claims she would not have purchased the products.

To prove constitutional standing, said the court of appeals, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) an injury-in fact that is actual or imminent and concrete and particularized, not conjectural or hypothetical, (2) that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s challenged conduct, and (3) is likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. Summers v. Earth Island Inst., 129 S. Ct. 1142, 1149 (2009). In this case, standing foundered on the first requirement, injury-in-fact, said the court.

Koronthaly’s argument that she was misled into purchasing unsafe lipstick products was belied by an FDA report finding that the lead levels in the defendants’ lipsticks were not dangerous and therefore did not require warnings. Moreover, Koronthaly conceded that she has suffered no adverse health effects from using the lipsticks. Koronthaly therefore had to fall back on only a subjective allegation -- that the trace amounts of lead in the lipsticks were unacceptable to her, not an injury-in-fact sufficient to confer Article III standing. See Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 564 (1992)(injury-in-fact must be accompanied by “continuing, present adverse effects”); Georgine v. Amchem Prods., Inc., 83 F.3d 610, 636 (3d Cir. 1996) (Wellford, J., concurring) (“Fear and apprehension about a possible future physical or medical consequence . . . is not enough to establish an injury in fact.”).

Furthermore, to the extent that Koronthaly contended that the injury-in-fact was the loss of her “benefit of the bargain,” she mistakenly relied on contract law, said the court. See Rivera v. Wyeth-Ayerst Labs., 283 F.3d 315, 319-21 (5th Cir. 2002) (plaintiff, whose only claim was that she “would like her money back” for having purchased a product that failed to make certain disclosures and allegedly was defective, did not have an injury-in-fact sufficient to create standing). Her lipstick purchases were not made pursuant to a contract involving lead levels, and therefore she could not have been denied the benefit of any bargain. Absent any allegation that she received a product that failed to work for its intended purpose or was worth objectively less than what one could reasonably expect, Koronthaly had not demonstrated a concrete injury-in-fact.

The dismissal was affirmed. In the lipstick wars, attention now will focus on Stella v. LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics USA Inc., N.D. Ill., No. 1:07-cv-06509, dismissed 4/3/09; which is currently on appeal before the Seventh Circuit.
 

 

Federal Court Dismisses Device "Consumer" Claims

A federal court last month dimissed claims by plaintiffs concerning hip implants, with an analysis important for other consumer protection-type class action claims. Watkins v. Omni Life Science, Inc., 2010 WL 809820 (D.Mass. 2010).

Plaintiffs were recipients of the Apex Model Replacement Hip. Although neither plaintiff alleged an Apex Hip malfunction, they claimed that the allegedly relatively high rate of failure of the Apex Hip placed them and members of the proposed class at serious risk of future harm.  The failure rate was also alleged to have diminished the market value of their hip implants and those of the putative class members. Plaintiffs claimed that they would not have selected the model Hip over other alternative devices but for the representations made by the defendant manufacturer. Plaintiffs asserted claims for breach of implied warranty, breach of contract, unjust enrichment and constructive trust, violations of the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, and violations of the consumer protection laws of all other states (for the class).

Omni filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), arguing that no legally cognizable injury was pled in any of plaintiffs' claims. Plaintiffs' reply argument, as is typical, was a benefit of the bargain theory. Plaintiffs claimed that an accident-related injury or a manifested defect need not be shown as a predicate of recovery on their consumer claims. They claimed that their sufficient injuries consisted of: (1) the apprehension caused by the prospect of an increased risk of hip failure and (2) the extra money that they paid for an overvalued Apex Hip.

First, the court said, although plaintiffs' claims were styled as contract and breach of warranty claims, they actually were tort allegations. A plaintiff cannot disguise a tort claim with mere contract langauge. In Massachusetts, the economic loss doctrine applies, and purely economic losses cannot be recovered in tort or product liability actions in the absence of personal injury or property damage. The court added that the economic loss rule applied to the plaintiffs' consumer protection act claims as well.

As tort claims, plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient injury. Apprehension of a heightened risk stemming from an allegedly defective product that has not failed or caused harm to this plaintiff is insufficient as a matter of law to support a claim. See Anderson v. W.R. Grace & Co., 628 F.Supp. 1219, 1231 n. 6 (D.Mass.1986) (“The weight of authority would deny plaintiffs a cause of action solely for increased risk because no ‘injury’ has occurred.”). Plaintiffs' overpayment argument was also based on a theory of economic loss that has no place in a tort context. See Iannacchino v. Ford Motor Co., 451 Mass. 623, 633, 888 N.E.2d 879 (2008).

To the extent an allegation sounding in fraud was underlying some of the claims, read in the aggregate, the court found that Omni's alleged misrepresentations, as pled, lacked the capacity to mislead consumers, acting reasonably under the circumstances, to act differently from the way they otherwise would have acted. Under Rule 9b, in alleging fraud or mistake, a party must state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake.  This was not done.

 

Seventh Circuit Decides FDCPA Class Claims And Offers Survey Guidance

The Seventh Circuit recently issued an interesting decision in two consolidated consumer cases. Dekoven v. Plaza Associates, Nos. 09-2016, 09-2249 (7th Cir. 3/17/10).  In the two closely related class action suits under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 U.S.C. §§ 1692-1692p, which the appeals court had consolidated for decision, the plaintiffs complained about dunning letters sent to them by the a debt collection agency.

What is most interesting to our readers is not the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act issues, perhaps, but the court's guidance on survey evidence. In both cases the district court had entered summary judgment in favor of defendant after rejecting the survey evidence prepared by the plaintiffs’ expert witness, Howard L. Gordon.   Indeed, while the court could see a potential for deception of the unsophisticated debtor in letters sent offering some kind of compromise of their debts, it had no way of determining whether a sufficiently large segment of the unsophisticated were likely to be deceived to enable the court to conclude that the statute had been violated.

For that conclusion, evidence is required, the most useful sort, observed the court, being the kind of consumer survey described in Johnson v. Revenue Management Corp., 169 F.3d 1057, 1060-61 (7th Cir. 1999); see also Hahn v. Triumph  Partnerships LLC, 557 F.3d 755, 757 (7th Cir. 2009); Williams v. OSI Educational Services, Inc., 505 F.3d 675, 678 (7th Cir. 2007). (But see, for criticism of the use of survey evidence, Judge Jolly’s dissenting opinion in Gonzalez v. Kay, 577 F.3d 600, 609-11 (5th Cir. 2009).)

Here, the plaintiffs’ expert did conduct a survey. But both trial court  judges considered it  inadmissible under the standards governing the admission of survey evidence (a form of expert evidence) in federal court. See, e.g., Muha v. Encore Receivable Management, Inc., 558 F.3d 623, 625-26 (7th Cir. 2009); Peaceable Planet, Inc. v. Ty, Inc., 362 F.3d 986, 992 (7th Cir. 2004); United States v. Curtin, 588 F.3d 993, 997-98 (9th Cir. 2009); Vail Associates, Inc. v. Vend-Tel-Co., Ltd., 516 F.3d 853, 864 n. 8 (10th Cir. 2008).

Judge Posner agreed.  One of the issues was the high percentage of people in the control group in the survey who answered "don't know/not sure."   The control approach was thus not adequate and may have confused respondents, maybe even others besides those who answered “don’t know/not sure.”  Therefore the entire survey was no good, as the judges below found.

It was no good for another reason: if the don’t know/not sure respondents were eliminated, the control group would shrink to 27 persons. Determining the minimum sample size from which reliable extrapolations can be made to the sampled population is tricky, said the court. See Fowler, Survey Research Methods 45 (4th ed. 2008). But 27 is too small a sample, concluded the appeals court.  Especially since the sample drawn by the plaintiffs’ expert was what is called a “convenience” sample — convenient to the sampler — as distinct from a “representative” sample —  representative of the population sampled.

A properly designed control group is vital in such a survey, including one intended to reveal whether a debt collector is confusing debtors. Cf. Free v. Peters, 12 F.3d 700, 705-06 (7th Cir. 1993); Penney v. Praxair, Inc., 116 F.3d 330, 333-34 (8th Cir. 1997); United States v. Aguilar, 883 F.2d 662, 706-08 (9th Cir. 1989). The debt collector can’t be blamed if consumers don’t understand his dunning letter unless he should have added or subtracted something to make it clearer. The plaintiff  thus has to show that the additional language of the letters unacceptably increased the level of confusion; many unsophisticated consumers would be confused even if the letters they received contained nothing more than a statement of the debt and the statutory bare bones notice.

Interestingly, the court said that district judges may want to consider exercising the clearly authorized but rarely exercised option of appointing their own expert to conduct a survey in FDCPA cases. Fed. R.Evid. 706(a); General Electric Co. v. Joiner, 522 U.S. 136, 149-50 (1997) (Breyer, J., concurring); In re High Fructose Corn Syrup Antitrust Litigation, 295 F.3d 651, 665 (7th Cir. 2002); Indianapolis Colts, Inc. v. Metropolitan Baltimore Football Club Ltd. Partnership, 34 F.3d 410, 414-15 (7th Cir. 1994).  Judges can assure themselves of the expert’s neutrality by (as in arbitration) asking the parties’ own experts to nominate a third expert to be the court-appointed expert.  The decision to appoint an expert is within the discretion of the trial judge, of course.

Consumer Class Certification Denied -- Again

An up and down class action proceeding involving Listerine has taken a new turn. Pfizer Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No.B188106 (Cal. App. 3/2/10).

Plaintiffs brought a proposed class action on behalf of California consumers who allegedly purchased Listerine on the claim that the mouthwash prevented plaque and gingivitis as effectively as dental floss, relying on the state's Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.) and the False Advertising Law (FAL) (§ 17500 et seq.).  The trial court certified a California class consisting of all individuals who purchased Listerine between June, 2004 and January, 2005.  The appeals court initially ruled in 2006 that the trial court’s certification was overbroad, relying on Proposition 64 which amended standing requirements in such actions and requires proof that the proposed class suffered injury.  Following the decertification order, however, the California Supreme Court ordered the appeals court to revisit the issue in light of its intervening decision in In re: Tobacco II, 46 Cal.4th 298 (2009). 


Upon remand, the court of appeals vacated the prior opinion, received supplemental briefs from the
parties and amici curiae, and reconsidered. Upon reflection, the appeals court concluded that the circumstances of the case still did not warrant class certification.

The court noted that the causation requirement for purposes of establishing standing under the UCL, and in particular the meaning of the phrase "as a result of" in section 17204, holds that a class representative proceeding on a claim of misrepresentation as the basis of his or her UCL action must demonstrate actual reliance on the allegedly deceptive or misleading statements, in accordance with well-settled principles regarding the element of reliance in ordinary fraud actions. Those same principles, the state supreme court had said Tobacco II in an amazingly result-driven fashion, do not require the class representative to plead or prove with an "unrealistic degree of specificity" that the plaintiff relied on particular advertisements or statements when the unfair practice is a fraudulent advertising campaign. But Tobacco II does not stand for the proposition that a consumer who was never exposed to an alleged false or misleading advertising or promotional campaign is entitled to restitution.

The certified class, consisting of all purchasers of Listerine in California, was overbroad because it presumed there was a class-wide injury. However, the record reflected that of 34 different Listerine mouthwash bottles on sale, 19 never included any label that made any statement comparing Listerine mouthwash to floss. Further, even as to those flavors and sizes of Listerine mouthwash bottles to which defendant did affix the labels which were at issue, not every bottle shipped between in the class period bore such a label. Also, although Pfizer allegedly ran four different television commercials with the “as effective as floss” campaign, the commercials did not run continuously and there is no evidence that a majority of Listerine consumers viewed any of those commercials. Thus, many, perhaps the majority of, class members who purchased Listerine during the pertinent period did so not because of any exposure to any allegedly deceptive conduct, but rather, because they were brand-loyal customers or for other reasons. As to such consumers, there is absolutely no likelihood they were deceived by the alleged false or misleading advertising or promotional campaign. Such persons cannot meet the standard of having money restored to them because it “may have been acquired by means of” the unfair practice.

Finally, plaintiff testified he did not make his purchase based on any of the four television commercials or other ads, and that he bought Listerine due to the bottle’s red label (which differed from the other labels), which he recalled said “as effective as floss.”  Because the various commercials and labels contained different language, with some even expressly advising consumers to continue flossing, his testimony as to his reaction to the Listerine label is not probative of his, or absent class members’, reaction to different language contained in television commercials and other labels. Therefore, named plaintiff lacked standing to assert a UCL claim based on those television commercials or other labels.

 

 


 

Court Dismisses Vitamin Consumer Class Action

A federal court has dismissed a class action that accused Bayer Corp. of misrepresenting the cancer-preventing nature of its men's vitamin products. Johns v. Bayer Corp. et al., (S.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2010).

Readers of MassTortDefense know how a government investigation or advocacy group's criticism of a product can spawn products liability and other class action litigation.  But can plaintiffs walk too closely in the footsteps of the government?

Plaintiff David Johns filed a putative class action alleging that defendants misrepresented on product packaging, commercial advertisements, their website, and in other marketing materials, that one of the product line's key ingredients, selenium, has the ability to reduce the risk of prostate cancer in men. Plaintiff alleges that, despite emerging evidence, selenium does not in fact prevent or reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Plaintiff alleged he purchased one bottle of Men’s Health in July 2009 for approximately $8.  He alleges he read the information regarding selenium on the product packaging and relied on those statements in making his purchasing decision.

Plaintiff then brought a proposed class action on behalf of all persons in the United States or, alternatively, all California residents, who since 2005 purchased the men's health vitamin products. Plaintiff alleged claims for: (1) violation of California’s Unfair Competition Law, California Business & Professions Code § 17200 (“UCL”), (2) violation of the Consumers Legal Remedies Act, California Civil Code § 1750 (“CLRA”), and (3) unjust enrichment.

Defendants moved to strike key aspects of the complaint because the allegations seemingly were simply borrowed from the language of an FTC investigation of the vitamin product line. Defendants argued that these allegations violated plaintiff’s duty under Rule 11 to conduct a reasonable factual investigation into the allegations to be made in a complaint. Attorneys have a duty to make a reasonable inquiry into whether the factual contentions made in a complaint have evidentiary support. Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 11(b).

That FTC lawsuit resulted in a settlement and consent decree; there was no adjudication on the merits and no admission of wrongdoing or fault on the part of Bayer.  Thus, quotes from the government pleadings were, at best, a repetition of mere allegations, including of a special interest advocacy group that had complained to the government.  The federal court thus struck these allegations. See also In re Connectics, 542 F. Supp. 2d 996, 1005-06 (N.D. Cal. 2008).  Because the court granted defendants’ motion to strike the various paragraphs of the complaint, there were no factual allegations remaining to support the claim that defendants’ advertising was deceptive. Accordingly, the motion to dismiss was granted without prejudice.

The court went on to address several issues "as guidance if Plaintiff chooses to file an amended
complaint."  The court noted that in two recent opinions, the Supreme Court had clarified the  standard of review for Rule 12(b)(6) motions. See Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (2009); Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). To survive a motion to dismiss under this standard, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face.’” Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1949 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).  For example, the court pointed out a standing issue: plaintiff did not allege that he saw any advertisements for one of the products in the line, Men’s 50+, nor that he read the packaging on the product, nor that he even considered purchasing the product. Plaintiff cannot expand the scope of his claims to include a product he did not purchase or advertisements relating to a product that he did not rely upon. The statutory standing requirements of the UCL and CLRA are narrowly prescribed and do not permit such generalized allegations.

State Supreme Court Rejects Nationwide Consumer Fraud Class

A recurring theme at MassTortDefense has been the risks associated with the plaintiffs' bar growing creativity in the use of state consumer fraud acts to substitute for traditional product liability claims.  In particular, plaintiffs assert that class actions pursuant to state unfair or deceptive trade practices acts ought to be more easily certifiable than traditional personal injury class actions. A recent case in this area is notable not only for its actual holding rejecting a nationwide class, but also for the philosophy expressed by the court on these kinds of proposed class actions. Schnall v. AT&T Wireless Inc., 2010 WL 185943 (Wash. Jan. 21, 2009).

Customers of AT&T Wireless Services filed a nationwide class action alleging the company misled consumers when it billed them for a charge that was not included in advertised monthly rates and was allegedly not described clearly in billing statements. An immediate issue loomed concerning choice of law, which can have a dramatic impact on several aspects of the certification process, including the elements of commonality, predominance, and manageability.  The parties initially disputed whether the choice of law clauses in the customers' contracts were enforceable. The choice of law clauses in this case required customers to litigate asserted violations of their contract in the respective jurisdiction where they signed the contract. (Such jurisdiction is often based on the customer's area code.)  The court concluded that AT&T should not  be forced to face the "enormous cost and complexity presented by a nationwide class action" when they conscionably included choice of law provisions in their customers' contracts and the choice of forum is, in any event, dictated by the consumer.

The choice of law clauses, along with the interpretation of the contract terms, the differences in the materials and information each potential class member received, and the availability of differing affirmative defenses created a predominance of individual issues over common ones.  But even where courts find that a nationwide, state law governed class otherwise meets Rule 23(a) and 23(b)(3) criteria, the court opined that “the choice-of-law inquiry will ordinarily make or break certification.”  This is because if the laws of 50 jurisdictions apply to plaintiffs' claims, the variations in the laws of the states may swamp any common issues and defeat predominance. (citing Castano, Georgine, and In re American Medical System.)

Of particular interest, the court found that the state of Washington has no interest in seeing contracts executed by AT&T representatives in other states with citizens of those states examined and adjudicated in Washington courts. Certified as a nationwide class action, this case would have presented an unwarranted and unnecessary burden on the state judicial system, all at a large cost to state taxpayers. See R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. Engle, 672 So.2d 39, 41 (Fla.Dist.Ct.App.1996) (“No doubt a tremendous number of retired judges, special masters, and general masters would have to be appointed by the court in order to complete this herculean task within a reasonable period of time--all at a staggering cost to the taxpayers.”)(of course, even the state-wide Engle class was a disastrous mistake by the Florida courts). The court concluded that there is no sound reason to force Washington trial courts to entertain the contract claims of citizens from around the nation. Their state courts are equally as prepared, if not better situated to apply the contract laws of their own states.

That conclusion was bolstered by the observation that nothing in Washington law indicates that Consumer Protection Act claims by nonresidents for acts occurring outside of Washington can even be entertained under the statute. Because the laws of each state are designed to regulate and protect the interest of that state's own residents and citizens, each state has a measurable, and usually predominant, interest in having its own substantive laws apply.  While it is true that Washington has a strong interest in regulating any behavior by Washington businesses which contravenes the CPA, the CPA indicates the legislature's intent to limit its application to deceptive acts that affect the citizens and residents of Washington. To state a CPA claim, a person must show that the unfair or deceptive act affected the people of the state of Washington. This geographic and jurisdictional limitation originates in the CPA's history as a tool used by the State attorney general to protect the citizens of Washington. (as is the situation with many such state statutes.)

The court remanded the case for consideration of a state-wide class claim, but note the better view that where, as here, the plaintiffs allege that their damages were caused by deceptive, misleading, or fraudulent statements or conduct, as a practical matter it is not possible that the damages could be caused by a violation of the Act without proof of reliance on the statements or conduct alleged to violate the statutes. Cf. Group Health Plan, Inc. v. Philip Morris, Inc., 621 N.W.2d 2, 13 (Minn.2001); Hageman v. Twin City Chrysler-Plymouth Inc., 681 F.Supp. 303, 308 (M.D.N.C.1988) (“To prove actual causation, a plaintiff must prove that he or she detrimentally relied on the defendant's deceptive statement or misrepresentation.”); Feitler v. Animation Celection, Inc., 170 Or.App. 702, 13 P.3d 1044, 1047 (2000) (holding causal element of misrepresentation claim requires reliance by the consumer); cf. Siemer v. Assocs. First Capital Corp., 2001 WL 35948712, at *4 (D.Ariz. Mar.30, 2001) (“The injury element of the [state consumer protection statute] claim occurs when the consumer relies on the misrepresentations.”); see generally S. Scheuerman, The Consumer Fraud Class Action: Reining in Abuse by Requiring Plaintiffs to Allege Reliance as an Essential Element, 43 Harv. J. on Leg. 1 (2006).
 

Class Plaintiffs Lack Standing - Summary Judgment Granted

A federal judge has granted defendant's summary judgment motion in a putative consumer class action over contact lens solution. Degelmann, et al. v. Advanced Medical Optics Inc., No.07-0317 (N.D. Calif. 1/4/10).

Defendant, in 2007, issued a recall notice for their contact lens solution product, following an announcement by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that a small number of users of the contact lens solution might have developed a rare, but potentially serious, corneal infection, due to contamination.  The CDC report indicated that the epidemiological evidence showed that the product may be less effective than other solutions in disinfecting against the particular contamination. [Epidemiology, sometimes termed the "science of long division" or the "science of making the obvious obscure" is crucial to most toxic tort claims.]

Plaintiff brought a proposed nationwide class action under California Business & Professions Code § 17200 (Unfair Competition Law) and  § 17500 (False Advertising Law), and alleged that defendant AMO made false statements concerning its contact lens solution, and concealed certain known risks of using the solution. Plaintiffs did not allege that they suffered any physical injury from their use of the product.  Rather, the focus of the complaint was on AMO’s allegedly false representation that the product was a “disinfecting solution” or was a solution that “disinfects.”

AMO argued that the name plaintiffs had suffered no legally cognizable injury, and therefore lack both Article III standing and statutory standing under the UCL/FAL, among other summary judgment theories.  The court found that plaintiffs lack Article III standing, and granted the motion (without reaching the other issues).

The Constitution limits the federal judicial power to designated “cases” and “controversies.” U.S. Const., Art. III, § 2. Standing is an “essential and unchanging part of the case-or-controversy requirement of Article III.”  Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992). Article III standing requires a plaintiff to show an “injury in fact,” a causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of, and a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Id. at 560-61; see also Sprint Communications Co., L.P. v. APCC Services, Inc., 128 S.Ct. 2531, 2535 (2008). In order to establish standing, plaintiffs must show that they have suffered actual loss, damage, or injury, or are threatened with impairment of their own interests. The “injury in fact” requirement must involve an invasion of a legally protected interest which is (a) concrete and particularized and (b) actual or imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.  Lujan, 504 U.S. at 559-60

The court found that named plaintiffs could not show injury in fact because they  never contracted the infection at issue, and were never harmed by their use of the product. Because they stopped using the solution long before the recall, they could not allege that the recall caused them to discard unused solution, which is a typical "economic" harm argument plaintiffs try to make.  Moreover, they could not claim to have lost the money they spent purchasing the product in the first place, as they would have bought another, comparably priced, contact lens solution if they had not bought this one.  As plaintiffs sustained no damage and no injury, and made no showing of any sufficient  threatened injury that was likely to occur, they did not have standing under Article III.  Motion granted.

Defendants will want to not overlook the standing argument , especially when confronted with the concocted class claims of plaintiffs who were never really injured, and seek to recover for alleged bad conduct without showing any causal link between the conduct and an injury suffered.
 

BPA Litigation Update- Part I

In the BPA MDL, Judge Ortrie D. Smith granted in part and denied in part defendants’ motions to dismiss various claims. In re: Bispehnol-A Polycarbonate Plastic Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 1967 (W.D. Mo.).

Readers of MassTortDefense will recall that last year the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation centralized fourteen cases; since then, the Panel has continued to transfer cases from around the country, so now about thirty-eight cases have been transferred. In addition, approximately ten cases have been filed in the MDL District and have become part of the consolidation. Defendants roughly fall into two categories: the Bottle Defendants and the Formula Defendants. Generally, the Bottle Defendants make baby bottles, sippy cups and similar products for infants and toddlers, and/or sport bottles. The Formula Defendants sell infant formula packaged in metal cans.

Most of the complaints assert, on behalf of consumers, various causes of action including: (1) violation of state consumer protection laws, (2) breach of express warranty, (3) breach of the implied warranties of merchantability and fitness for a particular purpose, (4) intentional misrepresentation, (5) negligent misrepresentation, and (6) unjust enrichment.

In one Order the court began by addressing the motions to dismiss claims for fraud, misrepresentation and breach of express warranties. The MDL court had previously, mindful of Rule 9, required plaintiffs to identify defendants’ alleged statements that form the basis for their claims of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of express warranties. Plaintiffs’ continued failure to do so was, said the court, now fatal to these claims. Likely because they were unable to comply, and perhaps because they recognized what compliance would do to their already slim chances for class certification (because of the individual issues that a response would highlight), plaintiffs responded to the aforementioned requirement by saying that they had not identified any advertisements or other media because the allegations are not based on any particular representations. A misrepresentation claim not based on any misrepresentation. Rather, plaintiffs’ allegations are based on defendants’ supposed “overall course of conduct” in marketing and selling the products at issue. Taken as a whole, defendants’ alleged “overall course of conduct” somehow deceptively conveyed the impression or message that the products at issue are safe and healthy for use by infants and children.

By disclaiming reference to any particular fraudulent act, plaintiffs had disclaimed one of the essential elements of a fraud or misrepresentation claim. All states require proof of reliance and causation. For a statement to be relied upon and thus cause a purchaser’s injury, the statement must have been heard by the purchaser. Plaintiffs’ theory – that the placement of a product in a stream of commerce alone somehow conveys a sufficient representation about the product’s safety that can serve as grounds for fraud liability – is a rule that has not been demonstrated to exist in any of the fifty states.

Allowing the mere sale of products to convey an affirmative representation regarding safety would eviscerate the law of warranty and be contrary to the rationale supporting the limited circumstances in which actions constitute representations, noted the court.  Plaintiffs’ failure to identify any expressions made by defendants to them about their products precludes any claim that an express warranty was made, let alone violated. Given the absence of any “affirmation of fact or promise,” (see UCC Article 2-313), plaintiffs cannot allege an express warranty was made. The Supreme Court’s decision in Iqbal requires a plaintiff to identify the basis for, if not the content of, the alleged warranty. And, in a related issue, plaintiffs’ were thus unable to allege how the supposed, non-existent, warranties became “part of the basis of the bargain.”  A representation cannot be part of the “bargain” if the other party to the bargain did not know the representation was made! Merely alleging a representation became part of the bargain does not satisfy Iqbal. If one party (here, the buyer) is not aware of the statement, that party cannot claim the statement became a part of the parties’ bargain.

The court declined to dismiss the claims for fraudulent omissions, based on what it called a “common-sense” view of Rule 9 under which it was unnecessary to require plaintiffs to specifically identify who failed to disclose information and each occasion upon which they failed to disclose it. Rule 9 is satisfied, said the court, with respect to a claim of fraudulent omissions if the omitted information is identified and “how or when” the concealment occurred.

The claim for breach of implied warranty of fitness for a particular purpose was dismissed because while the ordinary purpose for baby bottles can be described as to allow babies and toddlers to drink liquids, a plaintiff cannot rely on this ordinary purpose to support a claim that there was a warranty of fitness for a particular purpose; they must point to some other purpose that is not “ordinary” in order to support their claim.

The court put off ruling on the claims for breach of the implied warranty of merchantability because defendants’ arguments (including lack of privity, untimeliness, and failure to provide notice), seemed premised on the unique characteristics of various states’ laws. Thus, they seemed more amenable to analysis at the time of any class certification decision, which will inevitably raise choice of law issues. A similar deferral was applied to dismissal of all unjust enrichment claims. Many of defendants’ arguments seemed to depend on unique aspects of various states’ laws, found the court.

Defendants also made a strong argument that the claims, at bottom, were improper “no injury” claims. The court agreed as to the category of plaintiffs who disposed of or used up the products before learning about BPA. They received all the benefits they desired and were unaffected by defendants’ alleged concealment. Importantly, the court recognized that while they may contend they would not have purchased the goods had they known more about BPA, these plaintiffs received 100% use (and benefit) from the products and have no quantifiable damages. In this instance, plaintiffs’ position “leads to absurd results.”  These buyers obtained the full anticipated benefit of the bargain. While they may not have paid the asking price, had they allegedly known, offset against this is the fact that they received the full benefits paid for – leaving them with no damages. Plaintiffs here may allege they would not have purchased those products had they supposedly known the true facts, but, again, they obtained full use of those products before learning the truth: the formula was consumed or the children grew to an age where they did not use bottles and sippy cups, so they were discarded. These consumers thus obtained full value from their purchase and have not suffered any damage. These plaintiffs are relegated to the unjust enrichment claim.

The court distinguished, however, those plaintiffs who learned about BPA’s presence and potential effects and either still have the goods or subsequently replaced or disposed of them. Defendants’ argument does not apply to this category, found the court.

That left before the court only plaintiffs’ claims that defendants made fraudulent omissions, violated various state consumer protection statutes, breached the implied warranty of merchantability, and that defendants were unjustly enriched. With these remaining claims pending, the court, in a second order, granted in part defendants’ motion to dismiss on the basis of preemption and denied their motion to dismiss on the ground of primary jurisdiction.

Defendants’ preemption and primary jurisdiction arguments were generally alike in that they both contend their use of BPA should only be subject to regulation by the FDA. Indeed, FDA has issued regulations prescribing the conditions for “safe” use of resinous and polymeric coatings, allowing the coatings to be formulated from “optional substances” that may include “[e]poxy resins” containing BPA. Thus, BPA’s presence in some resinous and polymeric coatings and in polycarbonate resins is subject to regulation by the FDA. It is also a fair reading of FDA’s regulations authorizing BPA’s use that the FDA thinks that food additives containing BPA could be used safely without labeling requirements.

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction applies when enforcement of a claim that is originally cognizable in the courts requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. The FDA clearly has specialized expertise and experience to determine whether BPA is “safe.” However, said the court, the ultimate issues in these cases, as alleged by plaintiffs, are whether defendants failed to disclose material facts to plaintiffs and thus, for example, whether defendants breached the implied warranty of merchantability through the sale of products containing BPA. FDA’s decision that BPA is “safe” is not determinative of any of those issues, said the court. This conclusion seemed to give insufficient attention, in our view, to the argument that plaintiffs have predicated their claims on proof that BPA is allegedly unsafe: the undisclosed facts are not material unless BPA is not safe. The products are not unmerchantable unless BPA is unsafe, Since plaintiffs base their claims on such evidence, the claims seemed to fall within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA.  The MDL court did not agree.

Turning to the preemption issue, the court first rejected the claim of implied preemption. While noting that FDA has approved BPA use in food additives and noting the agency’s decision not to require labeling, the court concluded that the FDA’s approval of BPA as safe without labeling requirements establishes only a regulatory minimum; nothing in these regulations either required or prohibited defendants from providing the disclosures sought. The court cited Wyeth v. Levine for the proposition that that there is no preemption when federal law did not prevent the drug manufacturer from strengthening its drug label as necessary to comply with the standard to be imposed by state law.

However, the Formula Defendants also raised express preemption; they asserted that the FDA regulations exempt Formula Defendants from having to disclose the presence of BPA in their products. Express preemption exists when a federal law explicitly prohibits state regulation in a particular field. With respect to food labeling, federal law generally prohibits states from establishing any differing requirements for the labeling of food. Thus, plaintiffs’ claims are expressly preempted because they would impose disclosure requirements concerning BPA, the exact opposite of the exemption. Now, here is the interesting twist: plaintiffs asserted that Congress also provided an exception to express preemption under the law for “any requirement respecting a statement in the labeling of food that provides for a warning concerning the safety of the food or component of the food.”  But, the court noted, plaintiffs cannot have it both ways.  If their claims are based on warnings about the safety of food, then their claims would have been subject to dismissal under the primary jurisdiction doctrine because the determination whether BPA is “safe” is solely the province of the FDA, and the FDA has concluded that the use of BPA in epoxy liners is “safe” so long as the manufacturer abides by the FDA’s prescribed conditions. See 21 C.F.R. § 175.300 (2009).  If the claims against the Formula Defendants are not subject to primary jurisdiction, as plaintiffs argued, then they are subject to express preemption analysis.

It may seem clear to readers of MassTortDefense that even with respect to those claims the court concluded should not be dismissed on the pleadings, the court's analysis highlights several issues that may make it difficult for the plaintiffs to proceed as a viable class action. 

 

Spyware Claim Does Not Survive Summary Judgment

A federal court has granted a software maker summary judgment in a case arising from the use of "spyware."  The plaintiff failed to convince the court that product liability claims were proper against the company who made the software the plaintiff's former wife allegedly targeted him with.  Hayes v. SpectorSoft Corp., 2009 WL 3713284 (E.D.Tenn. 11/3/09).

Plaintiff alleged that his former wife purchased software, including one called the “Spector Professional Edition for Windows," and installed it on his computer.  Plaintiff contends that following the installation of these software programs, the software recorded all his chat conversations, instant messages, e-mails sent and received, and the websites visited by plaintiff whenever he used his laptop computer, and re-transmitted such electronic communication to her (or a sister). SpectorSoft's software is apparently primarily used by parents and employers to monitor Internet use by children and employees.

The parties disputed whether SpectorSoft knew of the illegal use of the SpectorSoft software to gain access to plaintiff's private laptop communications. Plaintiff alleged that SpectorSoft knew or should have known about such usage. He thus asserted several causes of action (including negligence) against SpectorSoft for its alleged role in allowing his personal computer usage to be captured--  and that defendant  “aided and abetted” in the violation of his rights.

The court concluded first that plaintiff had not created a genuine issue of material fact regarding whether SpectorSoft aided and abetted the alleged invasion of his privacy. There was no evidence that SpectorSoft took an affirmative act that encouraged the women to violate plaintiff's rights. In fact, SpectorSoft attempted to protect the rights of persons like plaintiff by requiring purchasers to accept its licensing terms prior to being allowed to install its software (which prohibited this kind of use). There was similarly no evidence that SpectorSoft knew anything about how the women were using its software. While some retailers marketed SpectorSoft's products to spouses concerned about adultery, SpectorSoft itself did not market its product for such uses, and it provided its users with a licensing agreement that it had reason to believe was valid. Furthermore, said  the court, even a broad-based marketing campaign does not provide the requisite affirmative act of specific encouragement or assistance to the individuals at issue in this case.

Turning to the claim under the state Products Liability Act , a seller of a consumer product may be liable for “injury to a person or property caused by the product” if “the product is determined to be in a defective condition or unreasonably dangerous at the time it left the control of the manufacturer or seller.”  The court did not reach the issue whether software constitutes a “product” under the statute (nor the "misuse" issue which springs to mind), because the  Act defines a “product liability action” as one brought “for or on account of personal injury, death or property damage."  But plaintiff cited to no Tennessee authority suggesting that a products liability claim can be brought for emotional injuries alone, unaccompanied by some sort of physical injury or actual damage to property. Plaintiff did not allege in his Complaint that the alleged invasion of his privacy actually damaged his property, such as his computer or his business.

Similarly, plaintiff failed to provide appropriate legal support for his general negligence claim. Tennessee law does recognize a claim for general emotional distress caused by the negligent actions of another in the form of a negligent infliction of emotional distress claim. See Eskin v. Bartee, 262 S.W.3d 727, 733 (Tenn.Sup.Ct.2008). But the Tennessee Supreme Court has established that where a case is purely one for emotional injury unaccompanied by damages for physical injury or other damages, the plaintiff must present material evidence as to each of the five elements of general negligence --duty, breach of duty, injury or loss, causation in fact, and proximate or legal, cause -- and, in order to guard against trivial or fraudulent actions, the law ought to provide recovery only for “serious” or “severe” emotional injury. 

On the duty element, the general duty of care does not include an affirmative duty to act for the protection of another, unless the defendant stands in some special relationship to either the person who is the source of the danger, or to the person who is foreseeably at risk from the danger.  There is no precedent for the proposition that a manufacturer of spyware software owes a duty to avoid emotional injury to the victim of the misuse of that software in violation of the software's licensing agreement. Plaintiff fails to demonstrate legal support for the proposition that SpectorSoft had a special relationship or that SpectorSoft somehow assumed a duty of care towards plaintiff.

Finally, plaintiff failed to present evidence of his severe or serious emotional distress. Without such evidence of severe emotional distress, plaintiff's negligence claim that asserts only garden variety anxiety and mental distress as damages must be dismissed. 

 

Appeals Court Affirms Rejection of Class Action in HDTV Case

The  California appeals court has affirmed a trial court's decision to deny plaintiff's motion for class certification in a case involving high definition (HD) television services. See Cohen v. DIRECTV, Inc., No. B204986, 2009 WL 3069116 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist. 10/28/09).

A subscriber to services delivered by a satellite television company filed a proposed class action complaint alleging the company had disseminated false advertising to induce him and other subscribers to purchase more expensive HD services.  The complaint alleged that DIRECTV switched its HDTV channels to a lower resolution, reducing the quality of the television images it transmits to its subscribers.

Importantly, the complaint did not allege that DIRECTV breached its subscribers' contracts for satellite television services by allegedly transmitting a lower resolution television image than it was contract-bound to deliver. Instead, plaintiff alleged a species of fraud in the inducement, alleging that subscribers to DIRECTV's HD services purchased those services in reliance on the company's supposedly false advertising. In that vein, Cohen alleged that he and the other putative class members subscribed to the HD service package based upon DIRECTV's national advertising and marketing.  Thus, plaintiff  asserted two causes of action: (1) violation of the Consumer Legal Remedies Act or “CLRA” (see Civ. Code, § 1750 et seq.), and (2) violation of the Unfair Competition Law or “UCL” (see Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200).

Plaintiff requested the trial court to certify a class defined as follows:  “Residents of the United States of America who subscribed to DIRECTV's High Definition Programming Package.”  The motion to certify the class was supported in significant part with evidence seeking to show DIRECTV's print advertising and promotional materials for its HD Package; DIRECTV's opposition to the motion for class certification was supported in large part by a number of declarations from subscribers to the company's HD Package, each of whom explained that their individual decisions to buy the upgraded service had not been precipitated by any printed advertising or other promotional materials disseminated by DIRECTV.

California's Code of Civil Procedure section 382 authorizes a representative plaintiff to pursue a class action “when the question [in the action] is one of a common or general interest, of many persons, or when the parties are numerous, and it is impracticable to bring them all before the court . . . .” A plaintiff moving for class certification must establish the existence of (1) an “ascertainable” class and (2) a “commonality” of interests among the members of the class. E.g., Lockheed Martin Corp. v. Superior Court, 29 Cal.4th 1096, 1103-1104 (2003).

The appeals court, first, disagreed with trial court which had found the proffered defined class not ascertainable. The defined class of all HD Package subscribers was sufficiently precise, with objective characteristics and transactional parameters which could be determined by DIRECTV's own account records.

However, the class did fail on the issues surrounding commonality.  In this proposed national class, subscribers' legal rights would vary from one state to another state, and subscribers outside of California may well not be protected by the CLRA and UCL.

Beyond legal issues, the record supported the trial court's finding that common issues of fact do not predominate in the proposed class because the class would clearly include subscribers who never saw DIRECTV advertisements or representations of any kind before deciding to purchase the company's HD services.  The proposed class would include subscribers who only saw and/or relied upon advertisements that contained no mention of technical terms regarding bandwidth or pixels, and also subscribers who purchased DIRECTV HD primarily based on word of mouth or because they saw DIRECTV's HD in a store or at a friend's or family member's home.

Interestingly, the court of appeals distinguished the state's supreme court's recent decision in In re Tobacco II Cases,  46 Cal.4th 298 (2009).  The opinion suggests that Tobacco II held that, for purposes of standing in context of the class certification issue in a “false advertising” case involving the UCL, the absent class members need not be assessed for the element of reliance. Or, in other words, class certification may not automatically be defeated on the ground of lack of standing upon a showing that class members did not all rely on common false advertising. The court of appeals found that Tobacco II essentially ruled that, for purposes of standing, as long as a named plaintiff is able to establish that he or she relied on a defendant's false advertising, a absent class members may also be deemed to have standing, regardless of whether any of those class members have in any way relied upon the defendant's allegedly improper conduct.

MassTortDefense readers will likely find that notion ridiculous, particularly when the courts typically do not enforce the ostensible requirement that named plaintiffs should be typical and adequate class representatives.  In the contextual setting presented by the present case, however, Tobacco II was seen to be irrelevant because the issue of “standing” simply is not the same thing as the issue of “commonality.” Standing, generally speaking, is a matter addressed to the trial court's jurisdiction because a plaintiff who lacks standing cannot state a valid cause of action. Commonality, on the other hand, in the context of the class certification issue, is a matter addressed to the practicalities and utilities of litigating a class action in the trial court. The court saw nothing in the language in Tobacco II which suggests that the state supreme court intended California trial courts to dispatch with an examination of commonality when addressing a motion for class certification.

Developments in Proposed Class Actions in China Drywall MDL

In the Chinese Drywall  MDL, certain plaintiffs recently moved for leave to amend their Class Action Complaint to expand the class definition as to defendant Taishan Gypsum, from a Virginia state-wide class to a national class of all persons allegedly impacted by defective drywall made by that defendant. Plaintiffs assert that there will be no undue delay nor prejudice to defendants from the change; the amendment does not alter the proposed sub-classes as to other defendants who are the builders and installation contractors who allegedly installed the product. The amendment would also include new assertion of a violation of the consumer fraud acts of the various states. In re: Chinese-Manufactured Drywall Products Liability Litigation, No. 09-md-02047 (E.D. La.).

An Omnibus [Proposed] Class Action Complaint is to be filed in the MDL on or before December 9, 2009 by the plaintiffs against another defendant, Knauf Plasterboard (Tianjin) Co., Ltd (“KPT”) and other defendants who were involved in the manufacture, sale, importation, brokerage, distribution, construction and installation of homes containing KPT drywall, and any others who were involved in the stream of commerce for the KPT drywall. In order to assist in the consolidation and efficient handling of claims by affected homeowners, defendant KPT has apparently agreed to accept service of process for homeowner plaintiffs who are to be named in an Omnibus Amended Complaint, and waive its right to demand service of process through the Hague Convention. (We have posted about the issues related to suits against foreign defendants before.) However, to be eligible for inclusion in this Omnibus [Proposed] Class Action Complaint and the service waiver, homeowners must provide, by no later than December 2, 2009, sufficient indicia that the homes in question contain KPT drywall (e.g., photographs, samples, visual inspections or reports identifying KPT markings on drywall in the home), and must also submit by December 14, 2009, a fully completed and executed Plaintiff Profile Form, in accordance with PTO #11. The complaint will not be amended to include additional named plaintiffs after it is filed, the court has indicated.


 

Federal Court Dimisses Consumer Fraud Allegations in Washer Litigation

A federal court has dismissed (with prejudice) a variety of consumer fraud and unjust enrichment claims in litigation alleging issues with front-loading washers. Butler, et al. v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., No. 06 C 7023 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 4, 2009).

In their Consolidated Complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the washing machines they bought
from Sears suffered from electronic control board failure and an alleged design defect that prevented adequate water drainage and proper self-cleaning. The water drainage and
cleaning defect allegedly resulted in odors on clothes. Plaintiffs contended that the electronic control board failure is manifested by the washing machines prematurely and repeatedly failing mechanically. 

Defendant was alleged to have known about the defects because of allegedly similar problems with other washing machines, and customer complaints of mold problems. As a result, plaintiffs contended that Sears violated their respective home states’ consumer fraud statutes.

The case has a bit of a history, as prior versions of these allegations had been the subject of three motions to dismiss. Although the court did allow plaintiffs to file this consolidated amended complaint (these cases were consolidated for purposes of discovery and pretrial proceedings on January 6, 2009), plaintiffs did not request leave to re-allege the claims that were dismissed with prejudice in the prior rulings, including consumer fraud claims under the laws of California, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, and Washington. See 2008 WL 4450307, at *8. Plaintiffs. however, re-alleged these claims in substantially the same form in their Consolidated Complaint.  Without leave to do so, and new details, these claims could not survive.

In order to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must not only provide the defendant with fair notice of the claim’s basis, but must also establish that the requested relief is plausible on its
face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949, (2009); see also Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Allegations of fraud are subject to the heightened pleading standard of Rule 9(b), which requires a plaintiff to state with particularity the circumstances constituting fraud. Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). This means that the plaintiff must plead the “who, what, when, where, and how" of the alleged fraud.

The court found that the new allegations  were insufficient to meet Rule 9(b)’s pleading requirements. Plaintiffs adequately averred defendant's knowledge, but they did not adequately allege the other required elements. For example, plaintiffs had not indicated how the alleged reported failure rate compares with the failure rates of comparable machines produced by comparable manufacturers. Plaintiffs also failed to specify how often design or manufacturing defects related to self-cleaning features of washers occur. No meaningful engineering explanation had been alleged. The language reproduced in the Consolidated Complaint offered far from a meaningful engineering explanation for the defects; the allegations were vague and indeterminate.

The alleged violation of California’s Song-Beverly Consumer Warranty Act, Cal. Civil Code § 1790 et seq., survived the motion to dismiss.  But, overall, product manufacturers can appreciate the court's application of the Twombly doctrine, the fraud pleading requirements, and its reluctance to give plaintiffs many, many bites of the apple.  Federal court litigation should not be "if at first you do not succeed, try, try again," with the trial court offering plaintiff's counsel a road map how to construct a proper pleading.

MDL Created For Zicam Litigation

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation has decided to consolidate multiple federal cases arising from the Zicam product line.  IN RE: ZICAM COLD REMEDY MARKETING AND SALES PRACTICES LITIGATION, MDL No. 2096.  Plaintiffs moved, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1407, for coordinated or consolidated pretrial proceedings of multiple proposed class actions.  By the time the Panel issued its Order, there were 40 related actions pending in 26 federal districts.

Many of the pending cases were consumer fraud class actions against Matrixx Initiatives, Inc., and its subsidiaries Zicam, LLC, and Zicam Swab, LLC.  Plaintiffs opposed centralization of any actions alleging personal injury claims. But the Panel found that both kinds of actions involved sufficient common questions of fact, and that centralization of the actions under Section 1407 would serve the convenience of the parties and witnesses and promote the just and efficient conduct of this litigation. The actions share factual questions regarding, inter alia, the marketing and sale of three Zicam nasal cold remedy products, and alleged injuries sustained by the use and/or purchase of those products, particularly whether the products cause anosmia (the loss of sense of smell). Centralization under Section 1407, the court found, would eliminate duplicative discovery, prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings (particularly with respect to class certification), and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary.

The Panel declined to separate purported consumer class actions from other actions alleging personal injury. Centralization of all actions in this docket would, said the court, allow a single judge to structure pretrial proceedings to accommodate all parties’ discovery needs while ensuring that the common parties and witnesses are not subjected to discovery demands that duplicate activity that will or has occurred in other actions.

The court chose the District of Arizona as the appropriate transferee forum. The defendants are based within the District of Arizona, and relevant documents and witnesses are likely found there, observed the Panel. In addition, centralization in the District of Arizona will allow for coordination of the federal actions with related litigation pending in Arizona state court.

 

Federal Court Dismisses Consumer Fraud Class Action on Washers

A federal court has dismissed a putative class action alleging that Sears Roebuck & Co. and Whirlpool Corp. engaged in unfair business practices and misleadingly marketed thousands of supposedly defective washing machines. Tietsworth et al. v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. et al., No. 09-cv-288 (N.D. Calif.)(dismissal without prejudice).

Plaintiffs alleged that  Whirlpool manufactured top-loading Kenmore Elite Oasis automatic washing machines, and Sears marketed, advertised, distributed, warranted, and offered repair services for the machines. Plaintiffs alleged that thousands of the machines contained a defect that causes them to stop in mid-cycle and display a variety of error codes.  Plaintiffs claimed that these electrical control system problems began within the first year after they purchased their washers. Plaintiffs alleged that virtually everything the defendants said about the machines in marketing was false because all such statements related directly to the functioning and performance of the Machine’s Electronic Control Board and, in turn, the Electronic Control Board controls the laundry cycles, the water levels and spin speed.

Defendants moved to dismiss. A complaint may be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted if a plaintiff fails to proffer enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). Allegations of material fact must be taken as true and construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, but the court need not accept as true allegations that are conclusory, unwarranted deductions of fact, or unreasonable inferences. Here, although their claims arose under state law, plaintiffs' allegations were subject to the pleading requirements of the Federal Rules. Accordingly, the claims alleging fraud were subject to the heightened pleading requirements of Fed. R. Civ. P. 9(b). See Vess v. Ciba-Geigy Corp. USA, 317 F.3d 1097, 1103-04 (9th Cir. 2003) (if “the claim is said to be “grounded in fraud” or to “sound in fraud,” [then] the pleading of that claim as a whole must satisfy the particularity requirement of Rule 9(b).”)

The principal element of fraudulent concealment at issue here was whether plaintiffs pled with sufficient particularity that defendants had a duty of disclosure with respect to the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Plaintiffs argue that defendants had such a duty because they allegedly made "partial disclosures" about the Machines,and  were in a “superior
position" to know the truth.  These arguments were not persuasive to the court. There was no allegation at all, let alone an allegation with Rule 9 specificity, that defendants made any representations directly about the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards. Nor could plaintiffs establish a duty by pleading, in purely conclusory fashion, that defendants were in a “superior position to know the truth;"  plaintiffs’ general allegations of “exclusive knowledge as the
manufacturer” and active concealment of a defect, if accepted, would mean that any unsatisfied customer could make a similar claim every time any product malfunctioned.

The district court then confirmed that Rule 9(b)’s heightened pleading standards apply to claims for violations of this state consumer act (CLRA ) and unfair competition act (UCL),  where such claims are based on a fraudulent course of conduct.  It was clear that the claims were entirely dependent upon allegations that defendants made misrepresentations, failed to disclose material facts, and concealed known information regarding the allegedly defective Electronic Control Boards.  So such claims failed for the same reasons.

Next, plaintiffs claimed that defendants  violated California’s Business and Professions Code by making misleading representations in informational placards on the floor models of the machines and in owners’ manuals. However, the court held that statements that the machines are “designed and manufactured for years of dependable operation” and that the machines “save you time by allowing you to do fewer, larger loads” are not statements about specific or absolute characteristics of a product, and properly are considered non-actionable puffery. See Anunziato v. eMachines Inc., 402 F. Supp. 2d 1133, 1139 (C.D. Cal. 2005) (holding that the representations concerning the “outstanding quality, reliability, and performance” of a product were non-actionable puffery”).

Regarding the unfair business act claim, an act or practice is unfair if the consumer injury is substantial, is not outweighed by any countervailing benefit to consumers or to competition, and is not an injury the consumers themselves could reasonably have avoided. Plaintiffs failed to plead adequately the second and third elements of their claim.  Plaintiffs failed to allege that they could not reasonably have avoided their claimed injuries, for example by purchasing an extended warranty. To the extent that plaintiffs based their claim on defendants’ alleged failure to disclose a
known defect in the machines, a mere failure to disclose a latent defect does not constitute a
fraudulent business practice.

One other highlight.  Plaintiffs contended that defendants’ warranties were procedurally and substantively unconscionable because defendants limited the warranties and allegedly actively concealed a known defect. However, any such claim of oppression may be defeated if the
complaining party had reasonably available alternative sources of supply from which to obtain
the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.  Here, plaintiffs failed to allege facts demonstrating that there were no alternative manufacturers of washers, and thus failed to allege the absence of an “available alternative source of supply from which to obtain the desired goods or services free of the terms claimed to be unconscionable.”  Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. v. Superior Court, 211 Cal. App.3d 758, 768 (1989). Plaintiffs' emphasis that  any material alternative product or choice was curtailed or eliminated by the suggestions of Sears’ sales representatives that defendants’ machines were “the best” and superior to other washers, far from showing the absence of alternatives, merely highlighted the fact that alternatives apparently existed. 

Third-Party Payor Class Action Alleging Off-Label Marketing Dismissed by Federal Court

The federal court has dismissed a putative class action brought by a group of municipal benefit funds over a pharmaceutical company's alleged efforts to market drugs for uses that did not have regulatory approval. Central Regional Employees Benefit Fund, et al. v. Cephalon Inc., No. 09-cv-03418 (D.N.J. Oct. 15, 2009).

Plaintiffs commenced this putative class action against defendants alleging violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), and for fraudulent concealment, and “illegal fraud.”  The plaintiffs defined their putative class as including “all governmental entities in the United States of
America who have been caused to expend monies" for certain drugs as a "result of the off label promotion by the defendants.”  They alleged that defendant Cephalon promoted drugs for uses other than those approved by the FDA, and that as part of its “off label” marketing efforts, Cephalon allegedly made false representations regarding the use and application of several in particular, Provigil, Gabitril, Actiq and Fentora.

The case, thus, falls in the growing body of cases by governmental third-party payors searching for a windfall in revenue by challenging the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies over drugs that are effective, are safe, are prescribed by physicians, and are often affirmatively recommended by other branches of the entity bringing suit.  As many courts have held, off-label use is an accepted and necessary corollary of the FDA’s mission to regulate in this area without directly interfering with the practice of medicine. E.g., Southard v. Temple University Hospital, 566 Pa. 335, 340 781 A.2d 101, 104 (2001) (quoting Buckman Co. v. Plaintiffs’ Legal Committee, 531 U.S. 341, 350 (2001)). Such use, necessary because medical practice inevitably runs ahead of the slower pace of governmental regulation, is generally accepted, widespread in the medical community, and often is essential to giving patients optimal medical care. Buckman, 531 U.S. at 351 & n.5 (citation omitted).  Thus, a physician, using his or her best medical judgment for the benefit of his patient, generally is free to use an approved product in a manner different from that for which the FDA has approved. Cabiroy v. Scipione, 767 A.2d 1078, 1082 (Pa. Super. 2001).

The FDA has accepted off-label use for decades:

  • Accepted medical practice often includes drug use that is not reflected in approved drug labeling. . . . a physician may prescribe a drug for. . .patient populations that are not included in approved labeling. Such. . .‘unlabeled’ uses may be appropriate and rational in certain circumstances, and may, in fact, reflect approaches to drug therapy that have been extensively reported in medical literature. . . . Valid new uses for drugs already on the market are often first discovered through serendipitous observations and therapeutic innovations.

FDA, “Use of Approved Drugs for Unlabeled Indications,” 12 FDA Drug Bulletin 4, 5 (1982). 

It is clear that physicians may prescribe a drug off-label for an unapproved population without FDA knowledge or approval.  Blain v. Smithkline Beecham Corp., 240 F.R.D. 179, 182 (E.D. Pa. 2007). And courts are “not willing to accept that a plaintiff could somehow be injured by purchasing a drug that is as effective, or more effective, than alternative treatments simply because the drug is marketed off-label.”  In re Schering-Plough Corp. Intron/Temodar Consumer Class Action, 2009 WL 2043604, at *10 (D.N.J. July 10, 2009). Absent some “adverse effects,” a “theory under which [plaintiffs] would be entitled to reimbursement for some or all of the purchase price of [a drug] whose benefits they clearly enjoyed. . . is patently absurd.”  Heindel v. Pfizer, Inc., 381 F. Supp.2d 364, 380 (D.N.J. 2004).  

Cephalon moved to dismiss the NJCFA and common law fraud claims, contending that the plaintiffs failed to plead specific acts of fraud to support the legal conclusions contained in the Complaint. The plaintiff’s factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555-56 (2007). Also, the plaintiffs’ common law fraud claims were subject to the heightened pleading standards of Rule 9(b), which requires that in all averments of fraud or mistake, the circumstances constituting fraud or mistake shall be stated with particularity. Fed.R.Civ.P. 9(b).

Cephalon argued that the plaintiffs, as third-party payors of prescription medication benefits, are not “consumers” under the NJCFA. The court said that the nature of the transaction, not the identity of the purchaser, determines whether the NJCFA is applicable. J & R Ice Cream Corp. v. Cal. Smoothie Lic. Corp., 31 F.3d 1259, 1273 (3d Cir. 1994).  For a NJCFA plaintiff to be a consumer respecting the transaction in question, the business entity must be one who uses economic goods, and so diminishes or destroys their utilities. However, third-party payors essentially serve as middlemen or insurers, paying all or part of the cost of a beneficiary’s drugs in return for a stream of payments from the beneficiary.  Because third-party payors do not use or consume prescription medications themselves, they are not “consumers” within the meaning of the NJCFA, and that statute was therefore inapplicable to the circumstances alleged in the Complaint.

Next, the court found that the plaintiffs’ common law fraud claims failed to meet the pleading requirements of Twombly, Iqbal, and Rule 9(b). Count II of the Complaint, fraudulent concealment, referred merely to an unspecified “transaction and/or providing of the prescription drugs Provigil,
Gabitril, Actiq and Fentora.” The court was at a loss to discern to what transaction the plaintiffs were
referring, as the Complaint fails to identify or explain the who,what, where, why, and how of any “transaction.”  Mere allegations that Cephalon provided prescription drugs, without saying to whom or under what circumstances, wholly failed to state a claim for fraud. 

The plaintiffs attempted to rely on a reference in the Complaint to a proceeding in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 2003, brought pursuant to the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. § 3729 et seq., wherein Cephalon was alleged to have engaged in “misbranding” of its products. However, referring to a plea agreement and civil settlement in another action does not satisfy the plaintiffs’ burden; it is well-established that off-label marketing of an approved drug is itself not inherently fraudulent. Merely alleging that Cephalon marketed the drugs at issue for off-label purposes did not state a claim for fraud.

The court thus also dismissed the claims for fraudulent concealment and illegal fraud, but without prejudice.
 

Federal Court Dismisses Granola Class Action Under Twombly

A federal court has dismissed a proposed class action accusing General Mills Inc. of somehow misleading consumers by labeling granola bars that contained high fructose corn syrup as “100 percent natural.”  Wright v. General Mills Inc., No. 08-cv-01532, 2009 WL 3247148 (S.D. Calif. Sept. 30, 2009). The dismissal turned on the complaint’s sparse allegations of injury-in-fact, which did not meet the pleading standards mandated in Twombly/Iqbal.

General Mills markets, advertises, promotes, and sells “Nature Valley” crunchy granola bar products and “Nature Valley” chewy-trail-mix bar products. Plaintiff alleged that the Nature Valley products were sold as “100% Natural” even though the products allegedly contained one or more non-natural or artificial ingredients, such as high fructose corn syrup. Plaintiff asserted because HFCS does not occur in nature and is a man-made sweetener, the use of “100% Natural” on the package and in the advertising for the Nature Valley products is false, misleading and deceptive. The complaint alleged violations of California Business and Professions Code, Unfair Competition Law; and False Advertising Law. The suit was purportedly filed on behalf of a putative class of all California residents who bought Nature Valley granola bars.


Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint on two bases: preemption and the Rule 8 pleading standards. Regarding the former, defendant argued that plaintiff’s claims are impliedly preempted by regulations promulgated by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) pursuant to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 301, et seq. The FDCA gives the FDA the authority to regulate certain aspects of food and beverage safety and labeling. 21 U.S.C. § 371. General Mills first asserted that plaintiff’s claims are impliedly preempted because Congress intended the federal government to occupy the field of food and beverage labeling. Defendant based this argument on the FDA’s enactment of what it called a detailed, rigorous, and comprehensive system for labeling food products through the FDCA and related regulations. Readers of MassTortDefense know that field preemption may be implied from a scheme of federal regulation so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the states to
supplement it, or where an Act of Congress touches a field in which federal interest is so
dominant that the federal system will be assumed to preclude enforcement of state laws on the same subject. The court here ruled, however, that although the FDA has promulgated several food-labeling requirements, Congress has specifically indicated that it does not intend to occupy the field of food and beverage nutritional labeling, and states are permitted to regulate matters covered by the NLEA and its regulations, provided that such state laws do not fall within the FDCA’s express preemption provisions.

Next, conflict preemption analysis examines the federal statute as a whole to determine whether a party’s compliance with both federal and state requirements is impossible or whether, in light of the federal statute’s purpose and intended effects, state law poses an obstacle to the accomplishment of Congress’s objectives. The court found that the FDA has generally deferred taking regulatory action with respect to the term “natural,” and thus plaintiff’s state law claims do not stand as an obstacle to accomplishing Congress’s objectives of uniformity and consistency in regulating labeling.

Although the FDA has addressed the use of the term “natural” in depicting food and beverage products, its policy with respect to the use of the term “natural” is unrestrictive, said the court. The FDA follows a policy of not taking enforcement action charging that a product labeled as “natural” is misbranded, so long as the product has no “added color, synthetic substances, and flavors.” Thus, state law claims based upon the use of the term “natural” do not require technical expertise within the special competence of the FDA, and the primary jurisdiction doctrine does not apply either.

However, a motion to dismiss should be granted if plaintiffs have not pleaded enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007). Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level. A plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Here, the complaint was based on little more than conclusory and speculative factual content. For example, the causes of action which plaintiff asserts require an injury in fact, an injury based upon
defendant’s use of “100% Natural” on its product labeling and advertising. The plaintiff’s sparse allegation of injury-in-fact did not meet the Twombley and Iqbal pleading standard.

Similarly, plaintiff failed to adequately assert an untrue or misleading advertising claim or a fraudulent business practice because all she alleged was that members of the public were likely to have been deceived and likely made their purchases on the basis that “100% Natural” would not include a highly processed ingredient. A claim for unfair or fraudulent business practices is an averment of fraud which must be accompanied by the who, what, when, where, and how of the misconduct charged. And, on the issue of injunctive relief, it was undisputed that by the time plaintiff filed her complaint defendant’s products no longer contained HFCS. As a result, there was no basis for injunctive relief.

In sum, plaintiff’s complaint did not meet the pleading standard of Twombly or Iqbal, or
Rule 9(b) where the state law claims are based on fraudulent acts. The court dismissed the claims without prejudice, giving plaintiff an opportunity to cure.
 

Motion To Dismiss Filed in Combination Aspirin MDL

Bayer Healthcare LLC moved last week to dismiss the master complaint in the federal MDL involving combination aspirin products. In Re: Bayer Corp. Combination Aspirin Products Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation, No. 1:09-md-02023 (E.D. N.Y.). Aspirin has been sold in the United States for more than a hundred years; a daily regimen of low-dose aspirin is widely recognized as useful in preventing heart attacks and strokes.

Plaintiffs are consumers who claim to have purchased Bayer combination aspirin and dietary supplement products. They do not claim that they were injured by these products or that the products were ineffective. Instead, plaintiffs seek damages because they say they would not have purchased these products if they had known that Bayer, instead of submitting a New Drug Application (“NDA”) for each of these combination products, relied on the preexisting separate regulatory review of aspirin and the supplements. Plaintiffs allege that Bayer misled and deceived
consumers into believing that the products had been proven to be safe and effective for their marketed purposes.
 

The Motion argues that plaintiffs’ claims fail, first, because they are, in essence, private attempts to enforce the FDCA, 21 U.S.C. §301 et seq.  MassTortDefense notes that courts have repeatedly refused to construe such private attempts to enforce the FDCA as valid state law causes of action like the plaintiffs have brought in this litigation. Under the FDCA, the United States government has the exclusive power to enforce the FDA’s regulatory requirements (which include provisions relating to the approval of new prescription and over-the-counter drugs, as well as regulation of dietary supplements and food additives). The FDCA provides that “[a]ll such proceedings for the enforcement, or to restrain violations, of this Act, shall be by and in the name of the United States.” 21 U.S.C. § 337(a) (2009).

Even if a state were to recognize it, a cause of action based on a failure to obtain FDA approval would be preempted as interfering with the FDA’s approval processes. Courts have repeatedly held that private plaintiffs fail to state a claim where they, in essence, seek redress for a violation of the FDCA. Courts have applied this doctrine to dismiss a variety of causes of action, from RICO and the Lanham Act, to state law unfair competition and consumer fraud act claims. See, e.g., Mylan Labs. v. Matkari, 7 F.3d 1130, 1139 (4th Cir. 1993) (dismissing Lanham Act claim); In re Epogen & Aranesp Off-Label Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., 590 F. Supp. 2d 1282, 1290 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (dismissing state consumer fraud and false advertising and RICO claims); Ethex v. First
Horizon Pharm. Corp
., 228 F. Supp. 2d 1048, 1055 (E.D. Mo. 2002) (dismissing deceptive trade practices claims and Lanham Act claim).

Additionally, defendant argues that plaintiffs, who do not claim harm or that their products did not work, have not alleged a cognizable injury. Accordingly, plaintiffs have not stated a claim for any of the causes of action they have brought. Under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), a complaint must be dismissed if it fails to articulate grounds upon which relief can be granted. Under Rule 8(a), a plaintiff’s obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 US 544, 555 (2007).   The Supreme Court recently reaffirmed these principles in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009).

These standards apply to injury and loss requirements as well as to other elements of a claim. As the Second Circuit recently explained, to state a claim for relief, a plaintiff must do more than simply allege an injury or loss – that theory must be “plausible.” McLaughlin v. American Tobacco Co., 522 F.3d 215, 227 (2d Cir. 2008). Legally cognizable theories of injury must also not require a court to “engage in a series of speculative calculations to ascertain whether, or in what amount, plaintiffs suffered a loss.” Id. at 230.  Like many convoluted consumer fraud actions, plaintiffs' claims here fail to allege a plausible theory that is open to private plaintiffs.
 

 


 

 

Two Consumer Fraud Class Actions Offer Contrast

Two recent consumer fraud class actions offer contrasting lessons.  First, the federal court declined to certify a class of Ford Motor Co. truck owners who alleged the vehicles are prone to a shimmying problem. Lewis v. Ford Motor Co., 2009 WL 2750352 (W.D. Pa. 8/25/09).

According to Plaintiffs, their vehicles were subject to front-end suspension defects which caused severe oscillation under ordinary driving conditions and allegedly created a safety hazard for the drivers of the vehicles as well as other motorists. Pennsylvania residents Timothy Lewis and Timothy Trapuzzano sued Ford on behalf of a statewide class of owners of 2005–2007 model year F-250 and F-350 trucks.  Plaintiffs moved seeking class certification as to Count III of their Complaint, the alleged violation of the Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law.  The court noted that the 3rd Circuit has recently re-evaluated the standard of review to be applied by a district court in considering a motion for class certification. First, the district court must consider carefully all relevant evidence and make a definitive determination that the requirements of Rule 23 have been met before certifying a class;  that is, it is no longer sufficient for a party to assure the court that it intends or plans to meet the requirements. Second, the decision to certify a class requires rigorous consideration of all the evidence and argu-ments offered by the parties.  This may require the court to resolve all factual or legal disputes relevant to class certification, even if they overlap with the merits -- including disputes touching on elements of the cause of action.  Finally, weighing conflicting expert testimony at the certification stage is not only permissible; it may be integral to the rigorous analysis Rule 23 demands. In other words, to certify a class the district court must find that the evidence more likely than not establishes each fact necessary to meet the requirements of Rule 23. In re Hydrogen Peroxide Antitrust Litig., 552 F.3d 305, 310 (3d Cir.2008.)

Originally, plaintiffs alleged the defendant failed to comply with the terms of a written guarantee or warranty given to the buyer at, prior to or after a contract for the purchase of goods or services.  But at the motion stage, instead, plaintiffs relied on the so-called “catch-all” provision, which broadl includes “unfair methods of competition” or “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” to include “engaging in any other fraudulent or deceptive conduct."   This switch may have been done to avoid the argument that plaintiffs need to prove relaince -- an indivdualized inquiry that can impede certification.  The court consluded, based on the almost universal agreement of the district courts of the 3rd Circuit, that a plaintiff must allege and show justifiable reliance even for claims brought under the catch-all provision of the state's Consumer Protection Act.

The reliance element was individual, and interestingly, the court noted that this affected the 23(a) issue of commonality as well as the 23(b) issue of predominance. Next, plaintiffs argued that while there may be some individual differences in the amount of damages, such discrepancies were not sufficient to defeat class certification. However, the court noted, they failed to recognize that the threshold questions do not concern the amount of the individual damages but whether or not the individual injury occurred. Proof of injury or fact of injury (whether or not an injury occurred at all) must be distinguished from calculation of damages (which determines the actual value of the injury. 

If proof of the essential elements of the cause of action requires individual treatment, then class certification is unsuitable. Here, each class member would have to show not only justifiable reliance but also loss as a result of that reliance, aspects subject to individual, rather than common questions of law or fact. This lack of commonality rendered this case unsuitable for class treatment.  And it logically followed that if plaintiffs failed to satisfy the criteria for showing commonality, they cannot satisfy the more strenuous demands of the predominance analysis.

Shortly thereafter, the 9th Circuit handed down a decision announcing a standard of review for legal issues related to certification orders, and overruled a district court's denial of class certification in a consumer fraud class action.  Yokoyama v. Midland Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 2009 WL 2634770
(9th Cir.  8/28/09).

Three consumer senior citizens, all residents of Hawaii, alleged that they had purchased Midland's annuities from an independent broker. Plaintiffs alleged that the the annuities were marketed through deceptive practices, in violation of Hawaii's Deceptive Practices Act. The district court held that the plaintiffs could not satisfy Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23's requirements that common issues predominate over individual issues and that a class action is a superior method of adjudication.

The dispositive issue on appeal was whether the Hawaii Act requires a showing of individualized reliance.  But there was a debate over the standard of review.  WHile certification decisions generally were reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard, the 9th Circuit panel agreed with the Seventh Circuit's explanation of the appropriate standard of review. Andrews v. Chevy Chase Bank, 545 F.3d 570, 573 (7th Cir.2008).  That is, the underlying rulings on issues of law must be reviewed de novo even when they are made in the course of determining whether or not to certify a class. We generally review a grant of class certification for abuse of discretion, but purely legal determinations made in support of that decision are reviewed de novo. (Note that Judge Smith argued in his concurrence that Ninth Circuit precedent cannot be overturned by two judges, only en banc).

Hawaii courts have interpreted the word “deceptive” to include those acts that mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances, observed the panel.   And a deceptive act or practice is  a representation, omission, or practice that is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances.  The representation, omission, or practice is material if it is likely to affect a consumer's choice. Whether information is likely to affect a consumer's choice is an objective inquiry, turning on whether the act or omission is likely to mislead consumers as to information important to consumers in making a decision regarding the product or service.  Therefore, said the court, since Hawaii's consumer protection laws look to a reasonable consumer, not the particular consumer, inidivudal relaince is not an element. The fact-finder will focus on the standardized written materials given to all plaintiffs and determine whether those materials are likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances.

 

 


 

Consumer Fraud Class Action Rejected In Supplement Case

A putative class action of purchasers of the asserted mood enhancer and belly fat reducer Relacore was recently rejected by a New Jersey appeals court.  Lee v. Carter-Reed Co., 2009 WL 2475314 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 8/14/09).  The court affirmed a lower court's decision not to certify the class action, in which plaintiffs had alleged that the defendant falsely advertised the benefits of the product.

Plaintiff Melissa Lee alleged she purchased Relacore, manufactured and distributed by Carter-Reed Co., and asserted that she purchased the product based on the promise that it would reduce belly fat. But, she averred, she actually gained belly weight during the time she took the product.  She claims that defendant's advertising campaigns touted that Relacore helps reduce stress-induced belly fat. Lee claimed that the defendant devised and utilized a fraudulent, deceptive advertising campaign for Relacore. She sought relief under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, and related common law fraud theories.

Following discovery limited to class suitability, plaintiff moved for class certification. Defendants opposed the motion. Following oral argument, the trial court denied the application for class certification, citing absence of superiority,  manageability, and predominance. In an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Superior Court affirmed and held that individual issues predominated over issues allegedly common to the class.

The court noted first that the superiority requirement requires an analysis that includes: (1) an informed consideration of alternative available methods of adjudication of each issue, (2) a comparison of the fairness to all whose interests may be involved between such alternative methods and a class action, and (3) a comparison of the efficiency of adjudication of each method. Manageability of the class is a consideration, as well, but it is “disfavored” in NJ to deny class certification on this basis alone. In order to justify denial of class certification on this basis, the management issues must be of great magnitude. 

Here, the issues of superioirty and of manageability were subordinate to the issue of predominance.  A party asserting a CFA claim in New Jersey must establish wrongful conduct, an ascertainable loss, and a causal relationship or nexus between the wrongful conduct and the loss. A common law fraud claim requires proof of  a material representation of a presently existing or past fact, made with knowledge of its falsity and with the intention that the other party rely thereon, resulting in reliance by that party to his detriment. 

In this case, the central issue for the consumer fraud claim was the existence of a causal nexus between the wrongful conduct and any loss.  Plaintiff asserts that she relied on a false marketing campaign and she was induced by the false representations to purchase and use the product. Neither plaintiff nor the court knew, however, what caused others to purchase and use the product. Neither plaintiff nor the court knew whether putative class members even saw the alleged print or Internet advertisements or whether they purchased the product due to a recommendation from a friend or family member or for some other reasons.

Moreover, the Relacore market campaign was multi-faceted. In some ads, it was touted as a belly fat retardant; in others, a mood elevator; in others, a stress reducer.  There was no way to know on a common basis the reason any putative class members purchased the product, even assuming they heard or saw any advertising. This distinguished the case from Varacallo v. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co., 332 N.J. Super. 31 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2000), in which the court certified a class of those who purchased “vanishing premium” life insurance, and in which the advertising approach was uniform and common to all class members.

The lack of predominance was even more obvious in the context of plaintiff's common law fraud claim. For this claim, the putative class must prove reliance -- which they could not on a common basis.

The case is useful as it analyzes establishing a causal nexus between the challenged conduct and an ascertainable loss.  Properly viewed, that causal link ought to be a major impediment to class certification because it requires individualized factual determinations for absent class members. Plaintiff's argument to extend Varacallo to false advertising product cases brought forth numerous opposing amici, including PLAC.


 

Defendants Seek Dismissal Of Baby Product Class Action

Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint in a proposed class action by parents claiming that the makers of shampoos and and soaps for kids failed to list toxic chemicals on product ingredients lists. Vercellono, et al. v. Gerber Products Co., et al., No. 2:09-cv-02350 (D.N.J.).

The complaint names Gerber, Johnson & Johnson Consumer Cos. Inc., Procter & Gamble
Distributing LLC, MZB Personal Care, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Nestle Inc. as defendants.
The plaintiffs claim that several products, including Grins & Giggles, Head-to-Toe Baby Wash and others, contain formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.  Plaintiffs further allege that these chemicals have been linked to cancer, skin allergies and other health problems.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory, punitive and/or exemplary damages for the proposed class, which is defined as all consumers nationwide who purchased the products in question.  Plaintiffs allege that the companies violated consumer fraud statutes by making or distributing baby care products specifically marketed for sensitive skin despite containing the chemicals, and misrepresented that the products they marketed, distributed, promoted, sold, and/or made were safe for children.

Defendants' motions attack several aspects of the complaint, including the injury allegations in connection with the consumer fraud count.  The motion illustrates one of the key battlegrounds in a consumer fraud class action.  While plaintiffs typically assert that the predominating issues are common, defendants will point to the injury element under the statute as requiring individual proof.  But before even deciding the class issues, the question is raised whether plaintiffs have adequately alleged an  injury.  Often, they will seek to avoid suggestion of personal physical injury, because of the individual issues it raises.  But there is risk in going too far.

According to the Gerber motion, plaintiffs suffered only mere exposure to the chemicals and failed to cite any actual injury. The complaint fails to allege that plaintiffs, their children, or anyone else has ever suffered any actual harm as a result of using the products. Nor does the complaint allege that the products failed to perform as a bath product. Rather, the complaint merely alleges that plaintiffs have suffered “exposure” to formaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane.  While they assert that they were injured by paying the purchase prices for the defendants’ products, under the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, as under many such acts, plaintiffs are required to allege that they have suffered an ascertainable loss, and allegations of economic loss are insufficient, as are allegations of  the vague potential of a speculative future injury.




 

Third Circuit Vacates Class Certification In Consumer Fraud Tanning Case

MassTortDefense has posted about the dangers lurking in consumer fraud class actions before. About a year ago, we posted on a disturbing decision in Nafar v. Hollywood Tanning Systems, Inc., 2008 WL 3821776 (D.N.J., August 11, 2008), where the district court certified a nationwide class of tanning customers.  We concluded our post, by noting "Clearly, this certification decision ought to be reviewed by the Third Circuit."  Fortunately, that has happened. The Third Circuit granted Hollywood Tans’ petition for interlocutory review under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(f), and has vacated the class certification decision. Nafar v. Hollywood Tanning Systems, Inc., No. 08-3994 (3d Cir. Aug. 5, 2009).

Plaintiff had alleged she purchased monthly tanning memberships from defendant Hollywood Tanning Systems, in New Jersey. Plaintiff alleged that defendant fraudulently failed to disclose the fact that any exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV rays) increases the risk of cancer and allegedly deceptively failed to warn consumers about the dangers of indoor tanning. While plaintiff acknowledged that defendant's machines may block out most UVB rays, she contended that defendant failed to inform consumers that UVA rays, also emitted by its machines, are allegedly linked to skin cancer. Plaintiff instituted suit alleging: (1) violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), (2) fraud, (3) unjust enrichment, and (4) breach of warranty.

Plaintiff sought a nationwide class of consumers who had purchased tanning memberships. The district court’s analysis of the Rule 23(b) requirements for class certification was, unfortunately, devoid of substance. The 3d Circuit determined that the district court erred by not defining either the class or the class claims, as required by Rule 23(c);  erred by failing to conduct an adequate choice-of-law analysis when the potential class members for this consumer fraud action hail from numerous states; erred by failing to consider evidence suggesting that individual issues of fact and law regarding causation predominate over common issues, and finally, erred in failing to consider whether res judicata would apply to potential personal injury claims, and therefore whether Nafar was an “adequate representative” of the class.

In the context of class action certification, the Supreme Court has stated that a district court “may not take a transaction with little or no relationship to the forum and apply the law of the forum in order to satisfy the procedural requirement that there be a ‘common question of law.’" Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 821 (1985). A court must apply an individualized choice of law analysis to each plaintiff’s claims. Here, the district court had stated that common issues of law predominated: “Common questions of law predominate because New Jersey law is central to this litigation. The NJCFA [consumer fraud act] will apply to all class members because this particular law governs Defendant's behavior and uniform policies. New Jersey has a strong interest in this litigation because the case's outcome will likely affect Defendant's nationwide behavior…. Indeed, the NJCFA is one of this nation's strongest consumer protection laws and its application will not frustrate other states' consumer protection laws. ” That conclusion was not based on an analysis of the choice of law rules of the forum state; cited no state court cases suggesting that NJ law should apply to the claims of consumer from other states; failed to analyze the differences among the consumer protection laws of the various states; and failed to analyze the interests other states may have in applying their laws by simply assuming every state would rather apply NJ’s law.

The 3d Circuit noted that New Jersey now applies the Second Restatement’s “most significant relationship” test. On remand, the District Court was ordered to conduct a choice of law analysis under New Jersey’s most significant relationship test.

The trial court had stated that common fact issues predominated as well because the alleged misrepresentations and omissions concerning the negative consequences related to indoor tanning are alleged to be uniform. However, the court failed to conduct any analysis of the elements of the claims upon which the class was certified, and whether any of the elements might raise individual questions. In addition to the analysis that will be necessitated by a proper choice of law review, the 3d Circuit noted that evidence of plaintiffs’ conduct relevant to the causation issue cannot be ignored without comment in a predominance analysis. This is because the Supreme Court of New Jersey has held that individual issues regarding plaintiff’s behavior may, in certain cases, defeat predominance in a NJCFA class action, despite the alleged uniformity of a defendant’s misrepresentations or omissions.

As we noted last year about the certification decision, the defendant apparently submitted surveys showing that the risks of tanning are common knowledge, and many consumers understood the cancer risks involved. Even if plaintiffs were not required to present any direct proof of individual reliance – which they would be under some state laws – this would not prevent a defendant from presenting direct evidence that an individual plaintiff did not rely on any representations from the company. Defendants have a right to present evidence negating a plaintiff's direct or circumstantial showing of causation and/or reliance. The "predominance" inquiry here thus resembled a mere commonality test. On remand, the 3d Circuit held, the court should consider the evidence presented, resolve any disputes relevant to the predominance issue, and consider all the elements of the underlying claims to determine if individual issues predominate over common issues of fact and law.

Finally, named plaintiff had only economic injuries, but personal injury claims were ostensibly included in the class definition.  This raised the issue of claim splitting and res judicata, and the issue whether the named plaintiff could be an adequate class representative for a class alleging such disparate injuries.  The appeals court found that  the district court failed to consider this very important issue in assessing the adequacy of representation requirement. For that reason the court was told it should consider, on remand, New Jersey’s doctrines regarding preclusion, whether other states’ preclusion doctrines would apply, the specific claims and facts alleged here, and whether any potential future claims by class members with personal injury would be at risk of being barred by res judicata.

We will see what happens on remand, but for now, scary decision vacated.

Federal Court Rejects Waffle Consumer Fraud Class Action

A federal court has rejected a class certification motion from a group of consumers alleging that “all-natural” Van’s Waffles have more fat and/or calories than listed on the packaging. Hodes v.  Van's International Foods, et al., CV 09-01530 RGK (C.D. Calif. July 23, 2009).

Van’s manufactures, markets, and distributes frozen waffles.  Plaintiffs alleged that defendant marketed its waffles as healthy and “all natural,” and listed nutritional values on its packaging labels showing lower quantities of calories, fat, and sugar than its competitors. Plaintiffs further alleged that these nutritional values were false because the waffles contained significantly more calories, fat, and sugar than the labels represented. Plaintiffs further asserted that Van’s
knew of the error, but did not change the labels until late 2008.

Plaintiffs asserted claims for fraud, breach of express warranty, breach of implied
warranty of fitness for a particular purpose, false advertising, and unfair business practices in violation of the California Unfair Competition Law.

Plaintiffs sought certification of a nationwide class of consumers who have been purportedly
harmed by defendants’ misrepresentations. Judge Gary Klausner of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found that (1) common questions of law and fact did not predominate over individualized issues, and (2) a class action was not superior to other methods for
fairly and efficiently adjudicating this controversy.  The court’s decision was based on the factor of Rule 23(b)(3) dealing with the manageability of this class action. First, the sheer number of class members, which was at least in the “tens of thousands,” caused the court concern over managing the proposed class. Specifically, the court had concerns about how plaintiffs would identify each class member and prove which brand of frozen waffles each member purchased, in what quantity, and for what purpose. The likelihood that tens of thousands of class members saved their receipts as proof of their purchase of Van’s waffles is very low. 

Second, plaintiffs overstated the argument that the “individual nature of damages” in this case
did not overcome the alleged predominance of common issues relating to liability. This was not a case where the individual damages could be calculated almost as a “mechanical task.”  Here,
plaintiffs failed to present the court with any plan for how to determine the amount of damages
suffered by each class member, and thus no showing of why it would not require an investigation as to which of Van’s 19 frozen waffle varieties class members purchased, how much each class member spent, and whether those particular varieties contained nutritional inaccuracies.

Third, the court addressed the important issue of reliance.  Plaintiffs typically claim that the class can be certified because a particular consumer fraud act claim does not require a showing of reliance.  However, here, while plaintiffs alleged that they did not need to prove individual reliance by class members, they ignored the fact that other individualized purchasing inquiries that remain in this case.  The court was not convinced that the common questions of Van’s liability would predominate over the individual questions of who purchased Van’s frozen waffles during the relevant class period, which kind of frozen waffles they purchased, how many they
purchased, and whether the kinds they purchased contained false nutritional information.
 

A useful case reminding readers that the absence of a reliance requirement does not necessarily mean the class should be certified.

iPhone MDL Created

The U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation has issued an order consolidating 12 putative class actions alleging that Apple Inc.’s iPhone 3G did not perform as fast as promised on AT&T Mobility LLC’s 3G data network.  In re: Apple IPhone 3G Products Liability Litigation, MDL No. 2045.

Plaintiffs allege that iPhone owners paid extra for the supposedly superior functionality and high-speed data network used by the phone. They further allege that because the phone is typically used for e-mail and on-line activities, many purchasers subscribe to a data plan that uses AT&T’s 3G network. But, they assert, the phone does not function as fast as promised and often performs at slower speeds than other 2G and 3G phones. In the litigation thus far, plaintiffs' complaints conspicuously seem to omit one critical condition precedent to their causes of action: an allegation that they contacted Apple to seek a repair of the alleged defects or a replacement iPhone 3G under Apple's one-year limited warranty.

In the order issued last week, the JPML said that centralizing the lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California was appropriate. All actions involve common factual questions arising from the performance of Apple’s iPhone 3G on AT&T’s 3G network. Specifically, the actions share allegations that Apple and, where named, AT&T, misrepresented to the public the speed, strength and performance of the iPhone 3G on AT&T’s 3G network. Centralization under Section 1407 will eliminate duplicative discovery; prevent inconsistent pretrial rulings, particularly with respect to class certification; and conserve the resources of the parties, their counsel and the judiciary.

The Northern District of California stands out as an appropriate transferee forum, said the panel. The headquarters of the common defendant, Apple, are located within this district; accordingly, relevant witnesses and documents will likely be found there. Eight actions are already pending in the district. Other cases are in the Southern District of Florida, the District of New Jersey, the Eastern District of New York and the Eastern District of Texas.

Class Action Dismissed In Printer Litigation

The federal court has dismissed a proposed class action accusing Dell Inc. of fraudulently marketing an ink-jet printer feature to convince customers to replace ink cartridges that don't need to be replaced yet. Dajani v. Dell Inc., 2009 WL 1833983 (N.D.Cal. June 25, 2009).

Dajani alleged that Dell fraudulently marketed its Ink Management System, a technology feature on all Dell ink jet printers.  The feature will display ink levels on a status window during a print job. The complaint alleged that the Ink Management System was highly imprecise and inaccurate, and that it was designed to deceive customers into replacing what they believed to be nearly empty cartridges, when they actually still contained a substantial amount of usable ink. Dajani sought to represent a class of all Californians who own or have owned Dell ink jet printers.

Judge Susan Illston rejected the lawsuit, without leave to amend the complaint.  Previously, the court had dismissed California-law based claims, as the terms and conditions of his sales agreement provided for Texas law to be allied to all claims. The amended complaint alleged a claim under Texas law for breach of implied warranty of merchantability and a claim of unjust
enrichment.

The court ruled last week that the claim for the breach of implied warranty of merchantability could not survive, because the printer was not unmerchantable as the term is defined under Texas law. The product must be unfit for the ordinary purposes for which it is used because of a lack of something necessary for adequacy.  Dell argued that the ordinary use of the product was printing, not measuring ink, and that any alleged imprecision in the Ink Management System had no impact on that basic function. The court agreed, finding that at most, plaintiff had alleged that the use of the Ink Management System is cumbersome because of allegedly premature replacement prompts. The device still worked.  And plaintiff hurt his claim by alleging that upon receiving “low ink” warnings, he simply removed and discarded his ink cartridge and replaced it with a new one. Such was "plainly at odds" with the product’s instruction manual, which states that a low ink warning appears when ink cartridges are low, not yet empty, and that a separate "reserve tank"  window appears when they are empty.

The judge also dismissed the unjust enrichment claim because under Texas law, when a valid, express contract covers the subject matter of the parties' dispute, there can be no recovery under a theory of unjust enrichment. Fortune Prod. Co. v. Conoco, Inc., 52 S.W.3d 671, 684 (Tex.2000) (“Parties should be bound by their express agreements. When a valid agreement already addresses the matter, recovery under an equitable theory is generally inconsistent with the express agreement.”).

Because plaintiff cannot cure the defects mentioned above through the pleading of additional facts which do not contradict those already made, plaintiff's complaint was dismissed without leave to amend.

Class Action Complaint Dismissed In Alleged Moldy Bed Litigation

A federal court has dismissed the class action claim made against a number of manufacturers and sellers of the “Sleep Number” bed products. Molly Stearns, et al.,  v. Select Comfort Retail Corporation, No. 08-2746 JF, (N.D. Calif. June 5, 2009).

Plaintiff filed a complaint alleging that she had found mold on her Sleep Number® bed purchased in 2000. The complaint alleged various causes of action, including for strict product liability, intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, concealment, breach of express warranty, and breach of implied warranty. Stearns also sought to bring a class action on behalf of other  purchasers and users of Sleep Number® beds. An amended complaint added claims for alleged violation of the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, the California Unfair Competition Law, Cal. Bus. & Prof. Code § 17200 et seq.; the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), 18 U.S.C. § 1962c; the  Consumer Product Safety Act;  in total, plaintiffs presently assert seventeen claims for relief.

Plaintiffs defined the purported class as all original purchasers of a Select Comfort® bed between January 1, 1987 and the present date, whose beds contained mold. At oral argument, and in response to defendants’ valid contention that a nationwide class would be overly ambitious in light of the differences in applicable state laws and the individualized circumstances of each bed purchaser, plaintiffs' counsel represented that they would be willing to limit the class to California residents. This concession, however, would have eliminated several of the putative class representatives. The court found that this alone would require denial of class certification based on the present state of the pleadings.

More importantly, the elements of proof with respect to the property damage alleged in the complaint likely will vary significantly among class members, depending on when the bed was purchased; whether any anti-fungal measures were included in the product; and the
surrounding environmental conditions. The amount of damage incurred also will vary among class members. Some class members might only require a new bed or a refund, while others conceivably might have suffered additional property damage from the spread of mold in their homes. Plaintiffs failed to show how these potentially diverging interests would be addressed in the single broadly defined class.

In addition, the court noted that Article III requires that the representative or named plaintiff must share the same injury or threat of injury.  DuPree v. U.S., 559 F.2d 1151, 1153 (9th Cir. 1977). See also Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 403 (1975) (“A litigant must be a member of the class which he or she seeks to represent at the time the class action is certified”).  In the instant case, it was not yet clear whether any of the named plaintiffs had or could set forth a cognizable claim under any of their numerous legal theories. The court had done a claim by claim analysis leading to a dismissal with prejudice of several of the claims, including breach of implied warranty of fitness, breach of implied warranty of merchantability, fraud, intentional misrepresentation, racketeering, conspiracy, and violations of the Sherman Act and California's Cartwright Act. 

While the named plaintiffs, all of whom claim their Sleep Number beds are defective products, were given leave to amend their claims for negligence, strict product liability, breach of express warranty, and violations of the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, the current complaint failed to state a claim. For example, the generalized allegations of harm were insufficient for the court to know whether tort claims were barred by the economic loss doctrine. Accordingly the motion to strike was granted, without prejudice to plaintiffs filing an amended pleading consistent with the ruling.
 

Class Certification Rejected in French Fry MDL

A federal court has rejected class certification in the multidistrict litigation concerning McDonald's Corp.'s french fries. In Re McDonald’s French Fries Litigation, MDL No. 1784, Civ. No.06-C-4467 (N.D. Ill. May 6, 2009). Plaintiffs in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., brought claims against McDonald's for allegedly putting hydrolyzed wheat bran and hydrolyzed casein in a beef flavoring for oil used in production of french fries and hash browns. Plaintiffs included individuals with celiac disease; galactosemia; autism; and wheat or gluten allergies. Defendant was alleged to have falsely claimed the "Potato Products" were gluten, wheat, and dairy-free through its website and in literature available at the restaurants.

The plaintiffs did not claim that they were physically harmed by the presence of trace amounts of wheat gluten and casein — a milk protein — in the beef flavoring. Rather, they based their claims on theories of consumer fraud and alleged economic losses. Plaintiffs claim they purchased Potato Products based solely on defendant’s representations that those products were free of gluten, milk and/or wheat ingredients, that the Potato Products in fact contained these allergens, and that absent defendant’s misrepresentations, plaintiffs would not have purchased the Potato Products.

The court first addressed the class definition. Named plaintiffs had testified in their depositions that they were quite satisfied with the Potato Products they consumed. (This shows the importance of pre-certification discovery, and the common common disconnect between the theories of class counsel and the reality of the class). None of the named plaintiffs had any physical reaction to eating the Potato Products. It was clear, therefore, that many persons in the class as defined by plaintiffs had gone on eating defendant’s Potato Products even after defendant clarified its product disclosures. Expert testimony showed that many patients with food allergies conduct their own ‘trials’ to determine what foods with gluten they have previously enjoyed that they may eat in moderation without experiencing symptoms. People who continued to use the products suffered no injury, not even the economic one claimed in this lawsuit. So the class was both over-inclusive and too indefinite for certification.

Regarding a narrower possible class of persons who because of their diagnosis of celiac disease, galactosemia, autism or a wheat, gluten or dairy allergy would not have eaten McDonald’s french fries or  hash browns if they had known they contained, potentially, a small amount of hydrolyzed wheat bran and hydrolyzed casein in the beef flavor that makes up one percent of the oil in which the potato suppliers par-fry the potatoes before shipping them to McDonald’s, and who relied on a representation by defendant that its Potato Products were wheat or milk free in purchasing and eating the french fries or hash browns….the court found that individual issues and individualized proofs would destroy manageability of a class action. That class in essence asked the court or jury to, at a minimum, review and evaluate potentially millions of letters from doctors for each class member. In addition, each claimant would have to individually affirm that he or she had seen the representation, purchased Potato Products on the basis of the representation, and no longer did so following defendant’s expanded product disclosure in February, 2006. Such a necessary separate evidentiary inquiry into each class member’s claim precluded certification.

Finally, choice of law issues ensured that individual issues of law clearly predominated over
common issues, making a nationwide class unmanageable. In at least some jurisdictions, reliance is necessary to connect the representations with the economic harm claimed, and in others individual proof is necessary to show that any injury was proximately caused by the misrepresentation made by a defendant.
 

Canadian Court Certifies Another Class Action

The Ontario Court of Justice earlier this month certified a class action against Dell Canada Inc. for alleged damage caused to about 120,000 individuals, corporations, and government agencies by allegedly defective notebook computers. See Griffin v. Dell Canada Inc., Ontario Superior Court of Justice, No. 07-CV-325223D2 (2/3/09). Here at MassTortDefense, we have posted about just how difficult Canada is becoming as a jurisdiction for class actions defendants. Frequently, identical consumer products, drugs, and medical devices are marketed in Canada as well as the U.S.

The court concluded that a class action was the preferred option to address the issues, that it was “fanciful” to think that any claimant could pursue an individual claim in a complex products liability case, and rejected Dell's arguments that an arbitration clause in its terms and conditions of sale precluded direct litigation by its customers.


The court minimized the importance under the Class Proceedings Act of plaintiffs’ obligation to produce a workable litigation plan. Such a plan is necessary to help the court decide whether a class action is the preferable procedure, and whether the litigation is manageable. The more complex the litigation, the more detailed a plan is needed that indicates how to manage the litigation. The court ruled, however, that the plaintiff is not required to show that there is a fair, efficient, and manageable method of resolving the claim, but only that there is a fair, efficient, and manageable method for advancing the claim. Order at para. 95. Who cares about theoretical advancement if the claim cannot efficiently be resolved?  A class proceeding in this case achieved this lesser goal and met the objective of judicial economy, even though plaintiff’s plan provided no detail of the resources the class law firm has to administer a claims process of this dimension to ensure that the interests of class members are protected, and there was no analysis of the resources that will be required to litigate the class members' claims to conclusion. Nevertheless, the court went ahead and certified the action conditionally, subject to the plaintiffs producing an acceptable litigation plan. Order at para. 102.

The court rejected Dell Canada’s argument that the significant individual issues involved in each of the potential claims far outweigh the common issues, as merely a “familiar refrain.” Order at para. 90.  Perhaps it is familiar because it is frequently true? The court concluded that the trial judge will be able to fashion efficient and fair trial plan procedures using the extensive powers and discretion conferred on the court by Sec. 25 of Ontario's Class Proceedings Act. The prospect of individualized mini-trials on whether, and to what extent, other factors contributed to the computer failures did not deter the certification. Nor did potentially difficult issues of causation and damages. Order at para. 90.

Dell did not propose that consumers undertake individual lawsuits, but argued that adjudication through arbitration administered by the National Arbitration Forum, as specified in Dell's terms and conditions of sale, was preferable to a class action. The court found, however, that arbitration was not the kind of process that would be easy for class members to navigate without legal representation. The multitude of individual issues that Dell says precludes class treatment would also lead to more complex and therefore more costly arbitration hearings, said the court. Order at para. 92-93.

“On the other hand, aggregating similar individual actions in a class proceeding avoids unnecessary duplication of fact-finding and analysis, and distributes fixed litigation costs among class members, making it economical to prosecute this claim, thereby improving access to justice.” Order at para. 93.
.
 

District Court Permits Consumer Fraud Putative Class Action to Proceed on "All Natural" Claims

A federal district court recently denied defendant’s motion to dismiss in a putative class action under California's Unfair Competition Law alleging that defendant engaged in misleading conduct by advertising its “Healthy Choice” pasta sauce as “all natural” even though it includes some “high fructose corn syrup.” Lockwood v. Conagra Foods, Inc., 2009 WL 250459 (N.D.Cal. Feb. 3, 2009).

Defendant moved to dismiss on several grounds: arguing plaintiffs' claims were expressly preempted by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act; were impliedly preempted by comprehensive FDA regulations under the Federal Food and Drug Cosmetic Act; that the court should defer to the FDA under the “primary jurisdiction” doctrine. Finally, defendants asserted that the court should strike the class allegations because plaintiffs cannot prove reliance on a class-wide basis.

Regarding the field preemption argument, the court noted that the purpose of the NLEA was to clarify and to strengthen FDA's authority to require nutrition labeling on foods, and to establish the circumstances under which claims may be made about the nutrients in foods. Under the Act, states may impose labeling requirements for artificial favors, colors or preservatives only if such requirements are identical to those imposed by the FDCA; any differences are preempted. But, the court held, this provision does not apply to plaintiffs' complaint as currently pled. Plaintiffs did not allege that defendant's pasta sauce contains artificial flavoring, coloring or a chemical preservative; rather, they allege that the “high fructose corn syrup” is not produced by a natural process and therefore the pasta sauce is not “all natural.”  One wonders why the claims of not all "natural" due to the use of an "artificial" flavor isn't squarely in that ballpark.

Turing to implied field preemption, the court noted that NLEA's provisions suggest Congress did not intend to occupy the field of food and beverage labeling. The FDA's policy as to the word “natural” similarly suggested an intent not to occupy the field of food labeling. Under the policy, the agency has considered natural to mean merely that nothing artificial or synthetic (including colors regardless of source) is included in, or has been added to, the product that would not normally be there. Although the FDA acknowledges that some consumers may be misled by the use of the term “natural,” it has declined to adopt any regulations governing this term. This inaction is consistent with an intent not to occupy the field. This is especially so given that at the time the FDA declined to formally define “natural” it was aware of and had reviewed state regulation of the use of the term, yet it made no mention of the need for uniformity or a preemptive federal regulation.

On conflict preemption, the court found that the defendant had not proved as a matter of law that plaintiffs' claims, if successful, make compliance with federal law a physical impossibility. A manufacturer could comply, that is, not violate, the FDA's policy as to use of the term “natural” and still comply with state law as articulated by plaintiffs in this case, thought the court. Nor does California law stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the objectives of the FDCA. Again, it seems questionable that this type of claim wouldn't risk imposing labeling requirements for "artificial" favors, directly in contrast to federal regulations.

Regarding primary jurisdiction, the court found application of the doctrine was not appropriate here. At a minimum, various parties have repeatedly asked the FDA to adopt formal rulemaking to define the word natural and the FDA has declined to do so because it is not a priority and the FDA has limited resources. Moreover, the court did not feel this was a technical area in which the FDA has greater technical expertise than the courts. Finally, plaintiffs' claims were based on state law and, thus, federal law would not dispose of plaintiffs' state law claims.

Finally, the court declined to strike the class allegations at this juncture, finding that if a misrepresentation is material an inference of class-wide reliance may be inferred under the California law. MassTortDefense has posted about the growing trend of plaintiffs to use consumer fraud act claims in place of traditional product theories. Plaintiffs continue to believe that claims based on unfair and deceptive trade practices acts are somehow easier to certify as class actions because of differing notions of reliance and causation.
 

Supreme Court Denies Cert In Nationwide Class Despite Absence of Choice Of Law Analysis

The U.S. Supreme Court has denied General Motor's cert petition seeking review of the Arkansas Supreme Court's affirmation of a nationwide class of owners of pickup trucks and sports utility vehicles with allegedly defectively designed parking brakes. General. Motors Corp. v. Bryant, U.S., No. 08-349, certiorari denied 1/12/09.


GM filed the petition after the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled, in June, 2008, that an Arkansas circuit court was not required to conduct a choice-of-law analysis before certifying a multi-state class action.


Last June, we called this a “disturbing” opinion. General Motors had noted that the significant variations among the fifty-one pertinent product defect laws should defeat predominance. [Most courts have accepted this notion.] But the trial court provided four reasons for its finding that the potential application of multiple states’ law did not create predominance concerns. First, the court noted that, unlike the federal rule which requires a rigorous analysis of class certification factors including the impact state law variations may have on predominance, no such rigorous analysis is required in Arkansas. Second, the potential application of many states’ laws was not germane to class certification, but was instead a task for the trial court to undertake later in the course of exercising its autonomy and substantial powers to manage the class action. Third, the trial court found that assessing choice of law was a merits-intensive determination and thus inappropriate at the certification stage. “It would be premature for the Court, at this stage in the case, to make the call on choice of law.” Fourth, if application of multiple states’ laws was eventually required, and it proved too cumbersome or problematic, the circuit court could always consider decertifying the class. The state supreme court agreed.

MassTortDefense would suggest that most courts and commentators do not equate a choice of law analysis with an impermissible examination of the merits of the plaintiffs’ claims. Choice of law is a threshold question that ultimately permits a court to reach the merits of the dispute by establishing the governing legal rules. The selection of the proper law cannot fairly be termed a “merits-intensive determination.”  Moreover, the trial court need not make any determination about the merits of the causes of actions alleged in order to assess, based on relevant contacts, which state’s law ought to apply to those claims. Nor does the trial court even have to “make the final call” on what law will apply to each and every claim by every class member. It is sufficient for class certification for the trial court to discover that the law of many other states will likely have to be applied to many class members’ claims, and factor that into superiority and manageability of the proposed class.

The repeated references to the trial court’s ability to later decertify the class smacks of the improper, rejected, concept of conditional certification – a practice that has been soundly rejected in recent years by state and federal courts and is now prohibited under both the Arkansas Rules of Civil Procedure and the federal rules on which they are modeled. After considerable time and effort is expended, courts are reluctant to decertify. Here, for example, GM presented the court with a thorough analysis of conflicts of laws regarding the state-law fraud claims, breach of warranty, applicable statutes of limitations, and unjust enrichment. It seems unlikely that the trial court (after its certification was affirmed) will ever seriously revisit this issue in the context of a new predominance determination. If the Arkansas court’s approach were correct, class certification would be a meaningless exercise since courts would not address the most difficult and important class certification-related questions – i.e., whether a class trial is fair or feasible – until long after certification. 

Perhaps it is not surprising that the Supreme Court would decline to weigh in on a state procedural law issue, particularly one billed by respondents as a preliminary determination, but a shame that resources will be wasted on a clearly inappropriate class action.  And let's not forget the "blackmail settlement" pressure that these types of cases create.  Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 746 (5th Cir. 1996); In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1298-99 (7th Cir.1995); Bruce L. Hay & David Rosenberg, “ ‘Sweetheart’ and ‘Blackmail’ Settlements in Class Actions,” 75 Notre Dame L.Rev. 1377, 1389-92 (2000).
 

State Attorneys General and the CPSAct

One potential products liability development to watch in 2009 is the impact of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008. As MassTortDefense alerted readers before the legislation was even passed, one of the potentially most significant aspects of the legislation is the provision giving state Attorney Generals expanded jurisdiction to seek to enforce the Act against manufacturers and sellers of consumer products.

Under the Act, state AGs are authorized to bring federal court actions to enforce any regulation or standard of the CPSC which affects their state's residents. Previously, many such standards and rules were enforced only by the CPSCommission. (An AG must give the CPSC 30 days notice before filing, unless the product poses a "substantial product hazard," in which case no notice is required.)  The legislation has given a potentially sweeping and relatively undefined authority for state Attorneys General to act on perceived product safety concerns, largely independent of the CPSC.

While this move has potentially increased the resources available for enforcement actions, it has also created the likelihood of different interpretations and applications of product safety rules, as different state officials apply different approaches to enforcement. The Act does not require that an Attorney General pursue the CPSC's viewpoint or position in regard to a consumer product issue. The provision could thus undermine both the uniformity of product safety standards as applied across the country, and the CPSC's role in providing centralized regulation and guidance to industry and consumers alike.

The media reports that the National Association of Attorneys General has amassed a war chest of $140 million dollars, available to help individual state Attorneys General investigate alleged wrongdoing and to pay for expert consultants. State AGs have already been very active in product liability contexts, even before the Act, with tobacco, baby products, toys and mattresses being involved in recent memory.
 

Federal Court Denies Class Certification In Teflon Litigation

The MDL court in the Teflon products litigation has refused to certify 23 proposed statewide consumer fraud class actions. In re Teflon Products Liability Litigation, 2008 WL 5148713 (S.D. Iowa, 2008).

Plaintiffs alleged that in producing and marketing Teflon® and unbranded, non-stick cookware coatings (“NSCC”), defendant DuPont allegedly made misleading representations regarding safety. None of the proposed class representatives alleged that he or she had been injured by the use of DuPont NSCC. Rather, in each of the purported class actions, plaintiffs sought recovery solely for economic damage and injunctive relief. In particular, plaintiffs demanded creation of a fund for scientific researchers to further investigate the potential for adverse health effects from the use of products containing DuPont's non-stick coating; that DuPont discontinue selling cookware containing the non-stick coating; that DuPont stop making alleged misstatements regarding the safety of its product; that DuPont replace and/or exchange all existing cookware containing DuPont non-stick coating possessed by class members with non-hazardous cookware; rescission and restitution; and/or that DuPont provide a new warning label or other disclosure on cookware made with or containing DuPont non-stick coating.

DuPont has steadfastly denied that PFOA's or any other chemicals are released at harmful levels when cookware coated with Teflon is used as intended.


The Class
The court first identified key deficiencies in plaintiffs’ attempt to define an ascertainable class. As they typically do, plaintiffs argued that at this stage, they do not need to show that each class member ultimately will be able to prove his or her membership; rather, the court need only ensure that the appropriate criteria exists to evaluate membership when the time comes. The court felt this argument necessarily depended upon the availability of evidence to establish membership at a later stage of the proceeding. No such evidence existed to be produced in the case. Deposition testimony showed that it is virtually impossible to identify a brand of non-stick coating based on a visual examination of the item of cookware. Testimony from the class members was thus a key component of the product identification and thus class membership issue. But, even after a lengthy discovery period, during which each proposed representative was thoroughly deposed, many class reps were unable to ascertain whether they belonged in the class or a particular sub-class. An “abundance” of proposed representatives had no memory whatsoever of the circumstances surrounding their purchase of the cookware—let alone records to document their purchase. Bottom line, too many infirmities existed in the class definitions to ensure that the court could determine objectively who was in the class, without resort to speculation. For example, many class representatives mistakenly believed their product contained Teflon coating-even when they were informed the particular brand of cookware at issue never used Teflon.

Lastly, membership in this class necessarily required a plaintiff to pinpoint the date on which he or she purchased the item of cookware; the proposed class representatives were unable to recall this information one-fourth of the time.

Typicality, Coherence, Predominance
An analysis of the claims made clear that common issues did not predominate; class reps’ claims were not typical. Plaintiffs built the majority of their claims around statements made and/or marketing practices employed by DuPont regarding its NSCC products. According to plaintiffs, the fact that each cause of action derived from an alleged  “common practice or course of conduct” on the part of DuPont rendered the claims made by a representative plaintiff typical of the claims of all class members. However, the alleged misstatements cited by plaintiffs span a forty-plus-year period, across a wide variety of advertising and promotional media. Each plaintiff was exposed to different representations, at different time periods. Because reliance is a key element of plaintiffs' claim for negligent misrepresentation, and is necessary for recovery under the consumer fraud statutes in many jurisdictions, an individualized inquiry must be conducted not only to pinpoint the representations at issue, but also to determine the extent to which each plaintiff relied upon the particular representations. Due to the widespread nature of DuPont's advertising over the years, however, determining the precise statements each plaintiff heard could only be accomplished through individualized inquiry.

The court also pointed out the varying degrees to which each plaintiff became educated about NSCC prior to purchase.  Even if class members were exposed to the same representation, advertisement, or omission, the court could not presume that each member responded to the representation or omission in an identical fashion. Here, some proposed class representatives who were informed of potential health risks from NSCC stopped using the cookware, but others exposed to similar information continued to use their existing cookware, and others purchased new non-stick cookware.

Finally the court worried that plaintiffs were splitting their cause of action and thus harming absent class members. Under any one of their alternative bases for relief, plaintiffs necessarily must establish first that DuPont's non-stick cookware coating is dangerous to the health of its users. But the class disclaimed personal injury and had abandoned their original claims for medical monitoring. The representative plaintiffs risked a future waiver not only of their own personal injury and medical monitoring claims, but also those of the absent class members.

 

 

Federal Court Denies Certification Of Mouthwash Consumer Fraud Class

MassTortDefense has posted about the growing trend of plaintiffs to use consumer fraud act claims in place of traditional product theories. Plaintiffs continue to believe that claims based on unfair and deceptive trade practices acts are somehow easier to certify as class actions because of differing notions of reliance and causation. Score one for the defense in the effort to beat back this tide, with the lesson that if plaintiffs live by such statute they have to live by all the statute. Silverstein v. The Procter & Gamble Manufacturing Company,  2008 WL 4889677 (S.D.Ga. Nov. 12, 2008).

This action arose out of Procter & Gamble's manufacture and sale of Crest Pro-Health mouthwash, which allegedly stains its users'  teeth and impairs their sense of taste. Plaintiffs purchased Crest Pro-Health mouthwash as consumers. After using the mouthwash, each allegedly noticed that his teeth had acquired a brown stain and that his sense of taste allegedly was impaired. Since then, both plaintiffs stopped using Crest Pro-Health mouthwash. Plaintiffs alleged a violation of Georgia's Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act (“UDTPA”) and moved to certify a plaintiff class. Defendant opposed this motion and moved for summary judgment.

The court noted that an analysis of class certification must begin with the issue of standing. Specifically, the court must determine whether the named plaintiffs, as individuals, have standing to pursue the claims they intend to pursue on behalf of the class. There are multiple types of standing. Constitutional standing ensures that courts do not assume jurisdiction over disputes that are not cases or controversies within the meaning of Article III. Prudential standing encompasses a host of doctrines of judicial self-restraint, such as the rule that courts will not address political questions more appropriately resolved by the representative branches of government. Statutory standing asks whether a statute creating a cause of action permits the plaintiff before the court to prosecute that cause of action. Here, the court addressed constitutional and statutory standing.


Plaintiffs in this case sought injunctive relief, as injunctive relief is the only remedy permitted to consumers by Georgia's UDTPA. The function of an injunction is to afford preventative relief, not to redress alleged wrongs which have been committed already. Because injunctions can rectify ongoing or future harm but cannot redress past harm, a plaintiff who cannot show continuing, present adverse effects or a real and immediate threat of future harm lacks Article III standing to pursue an injunction. Plaintiffs alleged past harm --browned teeth and a loss of taste. An injunction could not right these wrongs. They stopped using the product, and they now obviously know of the alleged defects. In determining whether to certify the class that plaintiffs proposed, the court determined it must not focus on the standing of unnamed class members, some of whom might, in theory, have standing to seek an injunction because they do not yet know about Crest Pro-Health's alleged defects. Whether the unnamed class members have standing is irrelevant, found the court. The result of the rule, in most applications, acknowledged the court, is that once a plaintiff learns about a product's defect, he has lost his standing to enjoin the manufacturer from producing it. “Such is the state of the law.”

When a plaintiff asserts statutory authorization to sue, he must fall within the class of plaintiffs to whom the statute grants the authority to maintain suit. It has been said that statutory standing comprises the zone-of-interests test, which seeks to determine whether the plaintiff is within the class of persons sought to be benefited by the provision at issue. A plaintiff who demonstrates past harm, but does not allege ongoing or future harm, has not shown that he is “likely to be damaged” within the meaning of the statute. Instead, Plaintiffs' alleged harm is entirely past. Because plaintiffs cannot “raise a factual question about the likelihood of some future wrong,”  they lack statutory standing to maintain an action under the UDTPA.

While plaintiffs described this result as a “catch twenty-two of statutory construction,” the court found no Joseph Heller-like dilemma: this result is actually a vindication of the UDTPA drafters' intent. Although its text does not foreclose lawsuits by consumers, the UDTPA was drafted primarily to allow businesses to enjoin their competitors' unfair or deceptive trade practices.

Because it determined that plaintiffs lacked constitutional and statutory standing to maintain their UDTPA claim, the court granted defendant's motion for summary judgment as to plaintiffs' UDTPA claim.
 

FDA Issues Import Alert For China Dairy Products

The FDA continues to take action to attempt to limit the impact of the China milk scandal on U.S. consumers. As part of its ongoing strategy to address the present problem with melamine contamination of consumer products exported from the People’s Republic of China, FDA has expanded its import controls on Chinese dairy products, and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients. Candy, snacks, bakery products, pet food and other Chinese products that contain milk will now be detained at the border until tests prove that they are not contaminated. This action was taken to help ensure that only those Chinese dairy products (and food and feed products manufactured in China that contain dairy ingredients) which are not contaminated with melamine and melamine-related compounds reach U.S. consumers.

No adverse health effects have been reported in the United States from contamination with melamine of dairy products or dairy containing products. But melamine is not approved for direct addition to human or animal foods and no manufacturer is allowed to deliberately add it to any food for U.S. consumers.  Since melamine was discovered in infant formula in September it apparently has sickened more than 50,000 infants in China and killed at least four. Since that time, melamine has been found in a wide range of other products, including milk, eggs and fish feed. Testing by the FDA has detected melamine and cyanuric acid, a related contaminant, in a number of products that contain milk or milk-derived ingredients, including candy and beverages, according to the FDA alert. China is also one of the world’s biggest makers of supplements, and some protein powders and shakes are made largely with powdered milk.


The agency has at times blocked imports of individual food products, but it is rare for it to block an entire category of one country’s foods. The widely spread assessment is that food and feed dealers in China added melamine to their products because it increases nitrogen content to give the appearance in testing that protein levels meet specifications.

Concern has been expressed about delays spilling over to other food imports, but the FDA said the percentage of food subject to the import alert is small. Another possible issue is that private laboratories which perform product tests for FDA compliance already reportedly have long waiting lists. The agency said it won't release the imported food unless an independent laboratory verifies that representative samples contain no melamine or cyanuric acid, a melamine derivative.
At a broader level, one wonders what the alert may do to the recently negotiated opening of FDA offices in China. The timing of the FDA alert coincides with an upcoming  meeting between Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and top Chinese health officials in Beijing.
 

Seventh Circuit Rejects Consumer Fraud Act Class Action

The Seventh Circuit has rejected a national consumer fraud class action. Thorogood v. Sears, Roebuck and Co., 2008 WL 4709500 (7th Cir. October 28, 2008).

As explained in the opinion of Judge Posner, plaintiff bought a Kenmore-brand clothes dryer from Sears Roebuck (Kenmore is a Sears brand name). The words “stainless steel” were imprinted on the dryer, and point of sale advertising explained that this meant that the drum in which the clothes are dried inside the dryer was made of stainless steel. The plaintiff says he thought it meant that the drum was made entirely of stainless steel. The plaintiff alleged that part of the drum rusted and stained the clothes that he dried in his dryer.

He filed a class action suit on behalf of himself and the other purchasers, scattered across 28 states plus the District of Columbia, of the half million or so Kenmore dryers advertised as containing stainless steel drums. He claims that the sale of a dryer so advertised is deceptive unless the drum is made entirely of stainless steel, since if it is not it may rust and cause rust stains on the clothes in the dryer. His individual claim is that the representation violated the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act. Although some members of the huge class are citizens of the states of which Sears is a corporate citizen (New York and Illinois), so that diversity of citizenship is not complete, the suit properly invoked federal jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act, since the amount in controversy exceeds $5 million. The district court certified the class, but the 7th Circuit reversed.

After noting the potential benefits of a class action, especially where individual damages are small, the court noted that the class action device has its downsides. There is first of all a much greater conflict of interest between the members of the class and the class lawyers than there is between an individual client and his lawyer. The class members are interested in relief for the class, but the lawyers are interested in their fees, and the class members' stakes in the litigation may be too small to motivate them to supervise the lawyers in an effort to make sure that the lawyers will act in their best interests.

A further problem with the class action is the enhanced risk of costly error. When enormous consequences turn on the correct resolution of a complex factual question, the risk of error in having it decided once and for all by one trier of fact rather than letting a consensus emerge from several trials may be undue. Mejdrech v. Met-Coil Systems Corp., 319 F.3d 910, 912 (7th Cir.2003); see also Castano v. American Tobacco Co., 84 F.3d 734, 746 (5th Cir.1996); McMillian, “The Nuisance Settlement  Problem,“ 31 Am. J. Trial Advoc. 221, 252-53 (2007); Stempel, “Class Actions and Limited Vision,” 83 Wash. U. L.Q. 1127, 1213-14 (2005). If a company is sued in a number of different cases for selling a defective product, and then it ins some of the cases and loses some, the aggregate outcome may be a fair reflection of the uncertainty of the plaintiffs' claims. But when the central issue in a case is given class treatment and so resolved by a single trier of fact, a trial becomes a roll of the dice; a single throw will determine the outcome of a large number of separate claims-there is no averaging of divergent responses from a number of triers of fact having different abilities, priors, and biases.

The risk is asymmetric when the number of claims aggregated in the class action is so great that an adverse verdict would push the defendant into bankruptcy, for then the defendant will be under great pressure to settle even if the merits of the case are slight. In re Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc., 51 F.3d 1293, 1298-99 (7th Cir.1995).

There is still another downside to the class action, and it is the tendency, when the claims in a federal class action are based on state law, to undermine federalism. In re Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 288 F.3d 1012, 1020-21 (7th Cir.2002); Elizabeth M. v. Montenez, 458 F.3d 779, 788 (8th Cir.2006). Here, the instructions to the jury on the law it is to apply would have to be an amalgam of the consumer protection laws of the 29 jurisdictions, and procedural rules by which particular jurisdictions expand or contract relief will be ignored. The Tennessee Consumer Protection Act, for example, does not authorize class actions.

Judge Posner felt that this case turns out to be a notably weak candidate for class treatment. “Apart from the usual negatives, there are no positives.” Common issues of law or fact not predominate over the issues particular to each purchase and purchaser of a “stainless steel” Kenmore dryer. The plaintiff claims to believe that when a dryer is labeled or advertised as having a stainless steel drum, this implies, without more, that the drum is 100 percent stainless steel because otherwise it might rust and cause rust stains in the clothes dried in the dryer. Do the other 500,000 members of the class believe this, asked the court? Does anyone believe this besides Mr. Thorogood? It is not as if Sears advertised the dryers as eliminating a problem of rust stains by having a stainless steel drum. There is no suggestion of that. It is not as if rust stains were a common concern of owners of clothes dryers. There is no suggestion of that either, and it certainly is not common knowledge.

Accordingly, the evaluation of the class members' claims will require individual hearings. Each class member who wants to pursue relief against Sears will have to testify to what he understands to be the meaning of a label or advertisement that identifies a clothes dryer as containing a stainless steel drum. Does he think it means that the drum is 100 percent stainless steel because otherwise his clothes might have rust stains, or does he choose such a dryer because he likes stainless steel for reasons unrelated to rust stains and is indifferent to whether a part of the drum not easily seen is made of a different material? In granting class certification, the district judge said that because “Sears marketed its dryers on a class wide basis ... reliance can be presumed.” Reliance on what? On stainless steel preventing rust stains on clothes? Since rust stains on clothes do not appear to be one of the hazards of clothes dryers, and since Sears did not advertise its stainless steel dryers as preventing such stains, the proposition that the other half million buyers, apart from Thorogood, all shared this understanding of Sears's representations and paid a premium to avoid rust stains is, to put it mildly, implausible, and so would require individual hearings to verify.
 

California Court Upholds Class Certification of Potentially Invalid Consumer Fraud Act Claims

The California court of appeals has upheld class certification of claims that Hewlett Packard laptops were defective because an allegedly flawed component caused the screens to dim. Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Superior Court of Santa Clara County (Rutledge), 2008 WL 4368563 (Cal.App. 6 Dist. 9/26/08).

Plaintiffs alleged violations of the California Bus. & Prof. Code Section 17200, the unfair competition law; and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act, Civ. Code Section 1750; and also made claims for breach of express warranty. In August 2005, plaintiffs filed a motion for certification of a class consisting of all persons and entities who own or owned certain HP computers, listed by product number, “who contacted HP about a lack of visibility of the display screen.”  HP opposed the motion, contending plaintiffs had not shown either that common issues of fact and law predominated or that there was an ascertainable class. Specifically, HP presented evidence that of the approximately 118,514 class model computers sold under the Pavilion brand name, only approximately 4,716 were reported to need repairs due to display screen problems. And that the causes were individual.


In November, 2005, the court determined that the proposed class definition was flawed, but that it would consider a subsequent motion should plaintiffs cure the defect. On August 30, 2006, plaintiffs filed a supplemental memorandum in support of their motion for class certification. Plaintiffs re-defined their proposed class as “[a]ll persons or entities who own or owned one or more of the following HP Pavilion notebook models: [model numbers]; [a]nd the computer contained or contains [a certain specific] inverter, [part numbers].”  The crux of the plaintiffs' claim was that the HP notebook computers contained types of inverters that would likely fail and cause the screens to dim and darken at some time before the end of the notebooks' "useful life," according to the court.  Inverters regulate electricity flowing to the display screen.


At the November, 2006 hearing on the supplemental motion, the court asked the parties to provide briefing on the effect of Daugherty v. American Honda Motor Co., Inc., 144 Cal.App.4th 824, 51 Cal.Rptr.3d 118 (2006), a case involving express warranties that had just been decided in October, 2006.

Eventually, the trial court certified the class. In its order certifying the class, the court stated that it was not ruling on the effect of the principles set forth in the Daugherty case. Following the California Supreme Court's denial of the petition for review in Daugherty, HP filed a motion for decertification on February 27, 2007, requesting the trial court rule on the effect that Daugherty had on the class certification. The court denied the motion in March, 2007, saying it was premature, so HP filed a petition for peremptory writ of mandate with the appeals court, which stayed the matter.

In Daugherty, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, held there can be no claim for breach of express warranty or unfair competition law violations arising from proof that "the manufacturer knew at the time of the sale that the component part might fail at some point in the future." HP focused on its holding that an express warranty does not extend the claims of defect beyond the warranty period. HP asserted Daugherty's rationale specifically limits its potential liability for the allegations set forth by plaintiff, making the issues individual, rather than subject to common proof. Moreover, HP argued the trial court erred in refusing to apply the principals of Daugherty to the determination of class certification.

In Daugherty, the plaintiffs were owners of Honda automobiles with an allegedly defective engine. The plaintiffs alleged that Honda had actual notice that the engines were experiencing severe mechanical problems due to oil leaks, but failed to provide adequate notice of the defect to owners of affected models. The plaintiffs first discovered the defects in their cars after the express warranty term of three years or 36,000 miles. The plaintiffs contended that “because the language of Honda's express warranty did not state that the defect must be ‘found,’ ‘discovered’ or ‘manifest’ during the warranty period, the warranty covers any defect that ‘exists' during the warranty period, no matter when or whether a malfunction occurs.” But the Daugherty court held: “[w]e agree with the trial court that, as a matter of law, in giving its promise to repair or replace any part that was defective in material or workmanship and stating the car was covered for three years or 36,000 miles, Honda did not agree, and plaintiffs did not understand it to agree, to repair latent defects that lead to a malfunction after the term of the warranty.”

Thus, Daugherty holds that failure of a component part after the expiration of the express warranty does not support a claim for relief under an express warranty claim. Daugherty holds there can be no claim for breach of express warranty or UCL violations arising from proof that the manufacturer knew at the time of the sale that the component part might fail at some point in the future. This would seem to cover plaintiffs' claim that certain HP notebook computers contained types of inverters that HP knew would likely fail and cause the screens to dim and darken at some time after warranty but before the end of the notebook's “useful life.”

However, the court of appeals found that while Daugherty may have implications for the merits of the underlying HP action, and indeed may serve to bar claims by plaintiffs that occurred outside the warranty period, it does not affect a determination of class certification. Daugherty was distinguished from the present action because it related to a substantive question on demurrer rather than a procedural question as here on a motion for class certification.

The court felt that if it were to accept HP's argument regarding the application of Daugherty to the present action, it would be considering the merits of the underlying action. And the question of class certification “does not ask whether an action is legally or factually meritorious.”

The court of appeals seemed to miss the point. While a court generally should not determine the merits of a claim at the class certification stage, it is appropriate to consider the merits of the case to the degree necessary to determine whether the requirements of class action rule will be satisfied. It may be necessary to analyze the plaintiff's factual allegations, the record evidence pertinent to class issues, and the applicable law in order to understand and evaluate the propriety of the class device. A court should look past the pleadings in order to determine whether a plaintiff's case meets the technical requirements for class certification. A court does not probe the merits when it probes behind a plaintiff's allegations because it is necessary to determine whether, if the class were certified, the issues presented could fairly and efficiently be resolved with respect to all the absent class members, based on the proof offered on behalf of only the named plaintiffs. Some inquiry into the substance of the plaintiff's case may be necessary for identifying the issues in the case and determining whether the complaint meets the requirements of commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation, and what California calls community of interest. Evidence relevant to the class issues is often intertwined with the merits.
 

District Court Certifies Nationwide Consumer Fraud Act Class Action

MassTortDefense has posted about the dangers lurking in consumer fraud class actions before. The threat is no more evident than in the recent decision in Nafar v. Hollywood Tanning Systems, Inc., 2008 WL 3821776 (D.N.J., August 11, 2008), where the district court certified a nationwide class of tanning customers.

Plaintiff alleged she purchased monthly tanning memberships from defendant Hollywood Tanning Systems, in New Jersey. Plaintiff alleged that defendant fraudulently failed to disclose the fact that any exposure to ultraviolet rays (UV rays) increases the risk of cancer and allegedly deceptively failed to warn consumers about the dangers of indoor tanning. While plaintiff acknowledged that defendant's machines may block out most UVB rays, she contended that defendant failed to inform consumers that UVA rays, also emitted by its machines, are allegedly linked to skin cancer. Plaintiff instituted suit alleging: (1) violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act (“NJCFA”), (2) fraud, (3) unjust enrichment, and (4) breach of warranty. Plaintiff disclaimed any remedy for personal injuries suffered, but proceeded on her fraud-based causes of action, seeking return of her membership fees, treble damages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees.

Plaintiff sought a nationwide class of consumers who had purchased tanning memberships. The court’s analysis of the Rule 23(b) requirements for class certification was, unfortunately, devoid of substance. For the all-important predominance inquiry, the court first stated that common issues of law predominated: “Common questions of law predominate because New Jersey law is central to this litigation. The NJCFA [consumer fraud act] will apply to all class members because this particular law governs Defendant's behavior and uniform policies. New Jersey has a strong interest in this litigation because the case's outcome will likely affect Defendant's nationwide behavior…. Indeed, the NJCFA is one of this nation's strongest consumer protection laws and its application will not frustrate other states' consumer protection laws. ” That conclusion was not based on an analysis of the choice of law rules of the forum state; cited no state court cases suggesting that NJ law should apply to the claims of consumer from other states; failed to analyze the differences among the consumer protection laws of the various states; and failed to analyze the interests other states may have in applying their laws by simply assuming every state would rather apply NJ’s law.

The court then stated that common fact issues predominated as well because the alleged misrepresentations and omissions concerning the negative consequences related to indoor tanning are alleged to be uniform. However, the court failed to conduct any analysis of the elements of the claims upon which the class was certified, and whether any of the elements might raise individual questions. Nor did it discuss any of the defenses. For example, the defendant apparently submitted surveys showing that the risks of tanning are common knowledge, and many consumers understood the cancer risks involved. Even if plaintiffs were not required to present any direct proof of individual reliance – which they would be under some state laws – this would not prevent a defendant from presenting direct evidence that an individual plaintiff did not rely on any representations from the company. Defendants have a right to present evidence negating a plaintiff's direct or circumstantial showing of causation and/or reliance. The "predominance" inquiry here thus resembled a mere commonality test.

Similarly, the cursory superiority analysis reads as a mere recitation of the elements of the inquiry rather than as an application of the elements. It also fails to cite a single federal appellate decision supporting the conclusion reached. To determine if these requirements have been met, a trial court must envision how a class action trial would proceed. (MassTortDefense has frequently urged trial judges to "look down the road" and not blindly accept plaintiffs' bold assertions about trial procedures.) Under this analysis, the trial court must determine whether the purported class representatives can prove their own individual cases and, by so doing, necessarily prove the cases for each one of the thousands of other members of the class. If they cannot, a class should not be certified.

Clearly, this certification decision ought to be reviewed by the Third Circuit.
 

Third Circuit Confirms Reliance Is Required For PA Consumer Fraud Act Claims

In a putative class-action suit alleging deceptive conduct by producers of smokeless tobacco products pursuant to the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, the Third Circuit has overruled a district court’s denial of defendants’ motion to dismiss, remanding the case for further proceedings under the rubric that a complaint alleging deceptive conduct must allege that plaintiff justifiably relied on defendant's wrongful conduct or representation.

In Hunt v. U.S. Tobacco Co., 2008 WL 2967249 (3d Cir., August 05, 2008), the Third Circuit considered whether a private plaintiff alleging “deceptive” (rather than fraudulent) conduct under the amended so-called catch-all provision of the Pennsylvania Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law must prove that he justifiably relied on the defendant’s alleged deceptive conduct or statements.

Hunt and proposed class members alleged that U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. engaged in anti-competitive behavior that artificially inflated the price of the company’s moist smokeless tobacco products. Hunt claimed that consumers “relied on a presumption that they were paying prices set by an efficient market, when in fact they were paying prices artificially inflated by the anti-competitive and deceptive conduct.” The alleged misconduct was framed as consumer deception in violation of Pennsylvania’s Uniform Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law. Specifically, plaintiff brought suit under the so-called “catch-all provision” of the Consumer Protection Law, which proscribes engaging in any fraudulent or deceptive conduct which creates a likelihood of confusion or of misunderstanding.

Defendant moved to dismiss the complaint under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on the ground that Hunt failed to allege that he had justifiably relied on the alleged deceptive conduct and suffered harm as a result of that reliance. The district court denied the motion, holding that a plaintiff does not need to establish reliance under the catch-all provision of the Consumer Protection Law. Interlocutory review was granted.

The Third Circuit disagreed, focusing on the causation requirement in the Consumer Protection Law’s standing provision, the part permitting suit by private plaintiffs who suffer loss “as a result of” the defendant’s deception. A private plaintiff pursuing a claim under the statute must prove justifiable reliance, otherwise the loss is not as a result of the conduct. See, e.g., Schwartz v. Rockey, 932 A.2d 885, 897 n.16 (Pa. 2007) (“the justifiable reliance criterion derives from the causation requirement” which is express on the face of the statute’s private-plaintiff standing provision). The Pennsylvania intermediate Superior Court had also applied the Supreme Court’s standing rule to the catch-all provision, see Debbs v. Chrysler Corp., 810 A.2d 137, 156–58 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002).

Pennsylvania thus rejects the approach of those states which interpret their consumer fraud acts, and the “as a result of” kind of language, to require only a mere and tenuous causal connection, which could be established by, for instance, proof that a misrepresentation supposedly inflated a product’s price, thereby injuring every purchaser because he paid more than he would have paid in the absence of the misrepresentation. [Even then, one wonders about proof that the plaintiff would not have happily paid the other price even knowing the info.] A justifiable reliance requirement, by contrast, requires the plaintiff to go further—he must show that he justifiably bought the product in the first place (or engaged in some other detrimental activity) because of the misrepresentation.

Indeed, the Third Circuit has already interpreted the justifiable reliance/standing requirement to apply to multiple substantive subsections of the Consumer Protection Law.  In Tran v. Metro. Life Ins. Co., 408 F.3d 130, 139–41 (3d Cir. 2005), the court observed that the plaintiff was wise to retreat at oral argument from his contention that, because he alleged only unfair business practices and deceptive conduct, not fraud, he need not allege justifiable reliance.

Such a reading is especially appropriate because the justifiable-reliance requirement emanates not from the catch-all provision that the legislature added to the consumer fraud act in 1996, but rather from the private-plaintiff standing provision. A private-plaintiff standing provision, by its nature, applies to all private plaintiffs, whatever substantive subsection of the act they invoke, for its purpose is to separate private plaintiffs (who may only sue for harm they actually suffered as a result of the defendant’s deception) from the state Attorney General (who typically may sue to protect the public from conduct that is likely to mislead).

The Third Circuit then went on to find that Hunt had not adequately alleged reliance. Hunt’s complaint was that defendant’s alleged “deception, including its affirmative misrepresentations and omissions concerning the price of moist smokeless tobacco products, likely misled all consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances to believe that they were purchasing moist smokeless tobacco products at prices born[e] by a free and fair market.” No real reliance there. And the court rejected Hunt’s suggestion that he enjoys a presumption of reliance, as this suggestion is inconsistent with Pennsylvania case law. Hunt could not enjoy a presumption of what he must prove affirmatively—that is, under the Consumer Protection Law, Hunt must prove justifiable reliance affirmatively.

Case remanded for consideration whether plaintiff should get leave to amend.
 

Lipstick Wars: Latest Round

Recently, MassTortDefense posted about a proposed class action alleging lead in lipstick. See Stella v. LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics USA Inc., No. 1:07-cv-06509, 2008 WL 2669662 (N.D. Ill. 7/8/08). The Northern District of Illinois denied the motion to dismiss consumer fraud claims. Now, a federal judge has thrown out a purported class action against L’Oreal USA Inc. and Procter & Gamble Distributing LLC that accused the companies of selling Cover Girl and Maybelline lipsticks containing lead. Koronthaly v. L’Oreal USA, Inc., et al., No. 07-5588 (D.N.J. July 29, 2008), opinion found here.

The plaintiff brought various claims, including unjust enrichment, breach of implied warranty and violations of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act. The plaintiff asked the court to enjoin the companies from carrying the lipsticks at issue and requested compensatory damages to recover the money she allegedly spent on the products. She also asked for damages to cover the costs of medical monitoring to detect lead poisoning. Plaintiff contended she would not have bought the lipsticks if the defendants had revealed that they contained the lead.

In contrast to the ruling in Illinois, the New Jersey District Court found the plaintiff lacked standing to sue since she had alleged no injury, harm or ascertainable loss from having purchased the lipstick. Plaintiff's allegations of a merely potential future injury were too remote and abstract to qualify as a concrete and particularized injury. Plaintiff had not alleged any present injury. Plaintiff's mere demand for damages did not establish injury-in-fact either. Plaintiff bought lipstick and used the lipstick, only complaining that the lipstick's alleged levels of lead were unsatisfactory to her. The FDA does not provide limitations on lead levels in lipstick. The FDA does not otherwise regulate lipstick. The plaintiff's analogy to lead in candy was insufficient. Plaintiff cannot seek a remedy for a harm that she has not actually or allegedly suffered.

The plaintiff's allegation of economic injury in a products liability action is insufficient to establish an injury-in-fact. The plaintiff had suffered no ill effects from use of the product, and had not alleged that any future harm was expected. The so-called benefit of the bargain injury could not sustain a claim under these circumstances.

What is interesting is that the court's analysis focused not so much on the elements of the state statue, but the requirement of standing under Article III. The triad of injury in fact, causation, and redressability comprises the core of Article III's case or controversy requirement. Plaintiff's alleged injury was too conjectural and hypothetical to satisfy the injury in fact requirement. Plaintiff thus lacked standing to bring her claim. And standing cannot be "acquired through the back door of a class action."

 

Ohio Federal Court Declines To Dismiss Consumer Fraud Putative Class Claim

A federal court has denied Whirlpool Corp.’s motion to dismiss in a proposed class action arising over allegedly defective ice chutes in the company’s side-by-side refrigerator models. Nessle v. Whirlpool Corp., No.1:07-cv-03009 (July 25, 2008 N.D. Ohio). See here.

Judge Christopher Boyko denied the motion, finding plaintiff had sufficiently pled the key elements required to allege a claim under the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act. MassTortDefense has posted before on the growing impact of state-law based consumer fraud class actions.

Nessle purchased a Whirlpool-manufactured side-by-side refrigerator in May, 2006. The refrigerator came with a one-year limited warranty. It was sold under Whirlpool’s “Gold” label, which Nessle alleges she took to mean that the product was special and worth purchasing at a premium, or at a minimum would work properly, according to the opinion. Within a few weeks of purchasing the refrigerator, Nessle claimed, she began experiencing problems with the ice dispensing function of the refrigerator’s ice maker, including clogs in the ice chute. A service technician was dispatched to service the ice maker on several occasions, the complaint claimed. But plaintiff alleged that the ice chute would allegedly jam up and freeze again.

The lawsuit, filed in October, 2007, claims Whirlpool was aware of an alleged design defect in the refrigerators and failed to disclose the defect. It seeks to represent a statewide class consisting of all current and former Ohio residents who have, since 2000, purchased a side-by-side Whirlpool refrigerator with a purportedly defective ice chute. The complaint seeks an order requiring Whirlpool to repair or replace the defective ice chutes, as well as monetary relief.

Whirlpool argued that plaintiff failed to plead any act or omission by the company that would constitute an unfair or deceptive act under the OCSPA. Second, plaintiff had failed to adequately plead the element of proximate cause.

The court gave a narrow reading to the Supreme Court guidance in Bell Atlantic v. Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1955 (2007), as requiring only enough facts to state a claim that is plausible on its face. Of course, the Court also has stated that, “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 1965.

On the conduct element, and the use of the term “Gold,” the court relied on the purpose of the Act to compensate consumers and the need to “liberally construe” such legislation.  One would presume that beyond the motion to dismiss stage a serious challenge exists to plaintiff's alleged interpretation of the term "Gold." 

On the causation issue, defendant stressed that plaintiff did not contend the “Gold” label affected her decision to buy her refrigerator, and that Plaintiff did not read, hear, or see any statements of fact by Whirlpool prior to purchasing the refrigerator. Defendant’s argument, the court said, is “largely unpersuasive” because there is no provision in the statute itself requiring Plaintiff to show reliance on any statement of fact or omission. While proximate cause is an essential element of an OCSPA claim, the court relied on dicta from the Sixth Circuit that “a showing of subjective reliance is probably not necessary to prove a violation of the OCSPA.” Butler v. Sterling, Inc., No. 98-3223, 2000 WL 353502 at *4 (6th Cir. Mar. 31, 2000).

The court also relied on an intermediate appeals level state court opinion, which the court read to suggest  that individual reliance is not necessary with regard to class action suits under the state consumer fraud act. Amato v. General Motors Corp., 11 Ohio App. 3d 124, 126 (1982). In Amato, the court specifically noted: “[C]onsumer claims would amount to little if acceptance of the representations made for the product could be manifested only by one-on-one proof of individual exposure.”   MassTortDefense notes that that 25 year-old opinion actually held that proof of reliance may be sufficiently established by inference or presumption from circumstantial evidence to warrant submission to a jury without direct testimony from each member of the class. That does not mean that reliance is not relevant to the causation element. And how one proves causation in an alleged fraud case without showing reliance of some sort is an issue many state courts have refused to clarify in their desire to have the reliance element not defeat consumer class actions (as a dominant individual issue). 

Judge Boyko also let stand Nessle’s claim for breach of implied warranty of merchantability, and unjust enrichment, but dismissed the claim for breach of express warranty. “The written warranty contains no language pertaining to the reliability or performance of the ice maker, and provides only for repair or replacement of any defective parts during the one-year limited warranty period.”
 

Federal Court Denies Motion To Dismiss In Proposed Lipstick Class Action

A federal court earlier this month permitted a proposed class action to move forward with its central allegation that Christian Dior lipstick contains excessive levels of lead. See Stella v. LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics USA Inc., No. 1:07-cv-06509, 2008 WL 2669662 (N.D. Ill. 7/8/08).

Named plaintiff Pamela Stella alleges that she purchased Christian Dior "Addict Positive Red" lipstick, manufactured by LVMH Perfumes and Cosmetics USA Inc., at a Nordstrom department store in June, 2007. The so-called “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” group issued a report in October, 2007 claiming that tests showed a lead level in LVMH lipsticks which slightly exceeds the regulatory limit established by the Food and Drug Administration for lead content in certain products like candy.  In reality, the average amount of lead a woman would be exposed to when using cosmetics is 1,000 times less than the amount she would get from eating, breathing and drinking water that meets Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drinking water standards, according to the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA).

Plaintiff then sued LVMH in November, 2007 on behalf of a proposed nationwide class of lipstick purchasers. She alleged that the company violated the Illinois deceptive business practices statute and breached an implied warranty of merchantability. She also brought claims for strict liability, negligence per se, unjust enrichment, and injunctive relief.

Judge Elaine E. Bucklo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois denied defendant’s motion to dismiss. She determined that Stella sufficiently alleged a claim under the deceptive trade practices law, including its requirement of actual damages. Stella sought to recover actual damages, the court said, "in the form of pecuniary damages (the cost of the lipstick).” The court also noted that plaintiff had alleged that her reliance on defendant's omission caused her to buy the lipstick and become exposed to lead. “This sufficiently alleges proximate cause.”

The court also agreed with plaintiff that Illinois law would permit medical monitoring as a remedy. The Illinois Supreme Court has not ruled on the question. But in Carey v. Kerr-McGee Chemical Corp., 999 F. Supp. 1109, 1118-19 (N.D. Ill. 1998), the district court had predicted that medical monitoring would be rec