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.

 

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 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.

 

 

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 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. 



 

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.

Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Leads to Dismissal of Food Claim

As our loyal readers know, the plaintiffs bar is poised to bring proposed class action litigation against food and beverage sellers over virtually any ingredient, marketing, label, or advertising it can shoehorn into an alleged unlawful trade practice.  It is gratifying when a court recognizes that proper forum for many such complaints is the Food and Drug Administration, not in court.  A recent example arises from the proposed class action over an ingredient in yogurt.  See Taradejna v. General Mills Inc., No. 12-993 (D. Minn.,12/10/12).

Plaintiff Martin Taradejna brought this putative class action alleging violations under the Minnesota Prevention of Consumer Fraud Act, the Minnesota Unlawful Trade Practices Act, and the Minnesota Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act, related to the alleged mislabeling of Greek yogurt. Plaintiff alleged that Greek yogurt is typically strained to remove the whey, resulting in a creamier product, richer in protein and lower in lactose.  Taradejna alleged that rather than straining, Defendants chose to use Milk Protein Concentrate (“MPC”) when they entered the Greek yogurt market in 2010. A blend of dry dairy products, MPC is sold in a powdered form that typically retains all protein components of milk.  Defendants’ use of MPC in the manufacture of its Greek yogurt results in a product with the thickness and protein content typical of Greek yogurt.  And the labeling of Defendant’s Greek yogurt discloses MPC as an ingredient. Taradejna contended, however, that this Greek yogurt failed to comply with legal and regulatory rules governing the labeling of food because it contained significant amounts of  MPC, and thus was not true Greek   yogurt.  Consequently, Taradejna alleged that Defendants’ actions in marketing this product violated the various Minnesota consumer protection statutes.

The FDA regulates food product ingredients and labeling and creates definitions and “standards of identity” for certain foods. Standards of identity define the particular food, and describe its ingredients, and approved processes of manufacture; as far back as 1981, the FDA promulgated such standards of identity for yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.200, low-fat yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.203, and nonfat yogurt, 21 C.F.R. § 131.206.  Plaintiff alleged use of MPC as an ingredient is not permitted in yogurt. Defendants pointed to a publicly available response to questions raised with the FDA at a 2004 milk seminar, stating that milk protein concentrate can be used as an ingredient in yogurt to increase the nonfat solids content.  And in 2009, the FDA proposed additional regulations to permit the optional use of any safe and suitable milk-derived ingredient as an optional dairy ingredient in the manufacture of yogurt to increase the nonfat solids content of the food above the minimum required 8.25 percent.

Plaintiff sought to represent a national class that had allegedly paid too much for this Greek yogurt made another way.  Defendant moved to dismiss on several grounds, but the district court focused on primary jurisdiction, a common-law doctrine that is utilized to coordinate judicial and administrative decision making. See Access Telecomms. v. Southwestern Bell Tel. Co., 137 F.3d 605, 608 (8th Cir. 1998). The doctrine applies where a claim may be cognizable in the courts, but where enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body. See Alpharma, Inc. v. Pennfield Oil Co., 411 F.3d 934, 938 (8th Cir. 2005).  Agency expertise is the most common reason that courts apply the doctrine of primary jurisdiction. In addition, courts apply the doctrine to promote uniformity and consistency within the particular field of regulation.

The underlying issue here was whether MPC is a proper or permitted ingredient in the yogurt. The court concluded that resolution of this question falls squarely within the competence and expertise of the FDA, pursuant to the authority granted to the Agency by Congress. Issues of food labeling are sufficiently complex that they are best left to FDA for consideration prior to judicial review.  See Lever Bros. Co. v. Mauer, 712 F. Supp. 645, 651 (S.D. Ohio 1989); Heller v. Coca-Cola Co., 230 A.D.2d 768, 769-70 (N.Y. App. Div. 1996).)  The current standard of identity for yogurt, the  Agency’s public statements about the standard, and the 2009 Proposed Rule all may impact the question, and the FDA is in the best position to resolve any ambiguity about the standard of identity for yogurt – a matter requiring scientific and nutritional expertise.

Moreover, said the court, given that the FDA has issued its 2009 Proposed Rule on the standard of identity for yogurt, it would be imprudent for a court, at this juncture, to substitute its judgment for that of the Agency’s while revision of the standard is pending. Moreover, the FDA’s ultimate decision on the permitted ingredients in yogurt would ensure national uniformity in labeling, utilizing the Agency’s special expertise in this regard.

So, bottom line, the court used primary jurisdiction to put these issues where they belong—with the FDA.

 

"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. 

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.

 

Federal Court Denies Class Certification After Daubert Analysis

A  federal court late last month declined to certify three classes of consumers in litigation claiming that a defect in Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Inc.'s motorcycles caused severe wobbling and instability. See Steven C. Bruce, et al. v. Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Inc., et al., No. 2:09-cv-06588 (C.D. Cal.).

Plaintiffs were owners of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. According to plaintiffs, beginning in or before 2002, Harley-Davidson manufactured and sold touring motorcycles that had an alleged design defect in the form of an excessively flexible chassis. According to plaintiffs, the alleged defect caused “severe wobbling, weaving and/or instability,” especially occurring when riders made sweeping turns, and traveled at speeds above 55 miles per hour. Plaintiffs alleged that had they and other class members known of the defective nature of the vehicles, they would not have purchased or leased their motorcycles, or at least would have reduced the amount they were willing to pay for them. Hence, the classic alleged consumer fraud class action.

Plaintiffs moved for class certification, and relied on expert testimony to establish some of the Rule 23 elements.  Specifically, plaintiffs’ expert opined that a rider of a properly-designed
motorcycle should not experience a weave-mode instability event when riding within the
range of expected speeds.  He asserted that the class-purchased cycles shared a common design defect in the form of an “excessively flexible” chassis. The vehicles allegedly failed to “damp out,” or reduce, weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within the time frame (a couple seconds) necessary to prevent them from becoming perceptible to the riders.

Defendants challenged the admissibility of that expert testimony under Daubert, contending that Rule 702 and Daubert apply with “full force” at the class certification stage. In support of this
position, Harley-Davidson relied primarily on Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), and Am. Honda Motor Co. v. Allen, 600 F.3d 813, 815–16 (7th Cir. 2010) (per curiam).  In Dukes, the Supreme Court noted that it doubted that Daubert did not apply at the certification stage of class-action proceedings. 131 S. Ct. at 2554. In American Honda, which we commented on here, the Seventh Circuit 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. Earlier this month, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its holding in 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).

Plaintiffs argued that a full Daubert inquiry into the reliability of expert opinions is not required or appropriate at the class certification stage. They cited In In re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prods. Liability Litig., 644 F.3d 604, 613 (8th Cir. 2011),which we criticized here, and in which the Eighth Circuit reasoned that an “exhaustive and conclusive Daubert inquiry before the completion of merits discovery” is not necessary due to the “inherently preliminary nature of pretrial evidentiary and
class certification rulings.”  See also Behrend v. Comcast Corp., 655 F. 3d 182, 204 n. 13 (3d Cir. 2011) (district court need not turn class certification into a "mini-trial”).

Here the district court found the approach adopted by the Eighth Circuit to be the appropriate application of Daubert at the class certification stage. Thus, a “tailored” or “focused” inquiry, to assess whether the experts’ opinions, based on their areas of expertise and the reliability of their analysis of the available evidence, should be considered in deciding the issues relating to class certification, said the court. Especially where discovery has been bifurcated into a class phase and a merits phase, an expert’s analysis may have to later adapt, as gaps in the available
evidence are filled in by merits discovery. Here, the court had granted defendants’ request for bifurcated discovery. Accordingly, the expert opinions would be assessed in light of the evidence currently available.

Even with a less than full inquiry, the court found that the proposed expert testimony must be excluded. In reaching this conclusion, the court decided the expert had not adequately
explained the scientific basis for his proposed standard, which also had not been accepted in
the field of motorcycle dynamics. While the evidence supported that the damping out of weave-mode oscillations may be an important factor for motorcycle stability, it did not establish that the expert's "rule" requiring the reduction of weave-mode oscillations to one half of their original amplitude within two seconds was scientifically valid.

The expert formed his opinions exclusively for the purposes of litigation and had not published his "rule" for peer review, providing further support for his exclusion.

Additionally, the court believed that he had not sufficiently accounted for other potential causes of the instability. He failed to consider and test for other possible causes including the use of non-specified tires and leaky shocks. See, e.g., Clausen v. M/V NEW CARISSA, 339 F. 3d 1049, 1058
(9th Cir. 2003) (“The expert must provide reasons for rejecting alternative hypotheses using scientific methods and procedures and elimination of those hypotheses must be founded on more than ‘subjective beliefs or unsupported speculation.’”).

Thus, plaintiffs failed to establish that common questions of law and fact predominated over individual inquiries. Once the opinions were excluded, plaintiffs failed to show that they had the ability to use common evidence by which they could demonstrate the defect. The fact that the chassis was the same for each vehicle ignored the failure to show how common evidence would ultimately be admissible to prove that they shared a common defect, and also was unavailing because it overlooked the Supreme Court’s admonition that a “rigorous analysis” will often “entail some overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim.” Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2551.

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.

  

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.

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‚Äüs 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.


 

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.

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 High Court Issues Consumer Fraud Act Decision

One of the dangers for defendants of claims based on state consumer fraud acts is the reluctance of some state courts to recognize the reliance and causation elements inherent in most such statutes.  The absence of a reliance element allows plaintiffs to argue that such claims are more amenable to class treatment, removing a significant individual element.  West Virginia's high court recently confirmed, however, that plaintiffs alleging affirmative misrepresentation claims under West Virginia's consumer protection law must show actual reliance on the allegedly misleading statement. White v. Wyeth, No. 35296 (W. Va., 12/17/10).
 

The underlying consumer fraud suit was filed pursuant to the WV Consumer Protection Act by purchasers of prescription hormone replacement therapy (“HRT”) drugs.  Plaintiffs alleged that the defendants used unfair and deceptive practices in promoting HRT prescription drug products to doctors and patients for treatment of serious menopausal disorders by allegedly using misleading statements in advertising, marketing and labeling.  Following completion of class certification discovery, defendant Wyeth filed alternative motions for dismissal or summary judgment, arguing that plaintiffs could not establish that they had standing to sue because they failed to meet their burden of showing a causal connection between their individual claims of injury and any alleged unfair or deceptive conduct attributed to Wyeth.

Defendant Wyeth particularly noted the lack of evidence demonstrating that plaintiffs decided to purchase HRT drugs because of anything they learned from Wyeth, or that their treating physicians considered information from Wyeth when they issued the prescriptions for HRT drugs. Plaintiffs responded that the statutory language only requires that they prove causation by alleging that Wyeth engaged in deceptive practices and that Respondents were harmed. They maintained that reliance on deceptive statements or practices need not be demonstrated.  In essence, plaintiffs read out of the WVCCPA the requirement that they “suffered ascertainable loss”  as a "result of” various unfair and deceptive acts of Wyeth. W. Va. Code § 46A-6-106(a).  Wyeth argued that the “as a result of” language contained in the statute requires plaintiffs to allege that they relied, or their doctors relied, on Wyeth’s allegedly deceptive actions when they made the decision to purchase hormone replacement therapy -- the phrase “as of result of” has to be read to mean that a plaintiff relied on the improper act or practice alleged in order to satisfy standing requirements.  Plaintiffs, in turn, argued that if the plaintiffs received drugs that were different from or inferior to that which they were entitled to receive, they did not receive the benefit of their bargain, and they therefore suffered an ascertainable loss.

The court noted that the private cause of action provisions of twenty-eight states' consumer fraud acts contain the “as a result of” language.  Many of the decisions addressing the issue of reliance in the context of private consumer protection causes of action show courts struggling to arrive at a way to be faithful to the purposes of consumer protection statutes – promoting fair and honest business practices and protecting consumers – without inviting nuisance lawsuits which impede commerce. In determining the meaning of the phrase “as a result of” in the WVCCPA, the court agreed with those decisions requiring proof of a causal nexus between the deceptive conduct giving rise to the private cause of action and the ascertainable loss, and the conclusion that this may require proof of reliance in some but not all instances.  The court found that reliance and causation are twin concepts, "often intertwined, but not identical."

Following this reasoning, when consumers allege that a purchase was made because of an express or affirmative misrepresentation, the causal connection between the deceptive conduct and the loss would necessarily include proof of reliance on those overt representations. Where concealment or omission is alleged, and proving reliance is an impossibility, the causal connection between the deceptive act and the ascertainable loss is established by presentation of facts showing that the deceptive conduct was the proximate cause of the loss. In other words, the facts have to establish that “but for” the deceptive conduct or practice a reasonable consumer would not have purchased the product and incurred the ascertainable loss. 

The court determined that this approach best serves the WVCCPA’s dual purpose of protecting the consumer while promoting “fair and honest competition.” W. Va. Code § 46A-6-101. Thus, a private cause of action under the provisions of West Virginia Code § 46A-6-106(a) of the West Virginia Consumer Credit and Protection Act must allege: (1) unlawful conduct by a seller; (2) an ascertainable loss on the part of the consumer; and (3) proof of a causal connection between the alleged unlawful conduct and the consumer’s ascertainable loss. Where the deceptive conduct or practice alleged involves affirmative misrepresentations, reliance on such misrepresentations must be proven in order to satisfy the requisite causal connection

The court went on to address an important second issue, finding that prescription drug cases are not the type of private causes of action contemplated under the terms and purposes of the WVCCPA.  The consumer cannot and does not decide what product to purchase. The intervention by a physician in the decision-making process necessitated by his or her exercise of judgment whether or not to prescribe a particular medication protects consumers in ways respecting efficacy that are lacking in advertising campaigns for other products. Accordingly, the court found that the private cause of action afforded consumers under West Virginia Code § 46A-6-106(a) does not extend to prescription drug purchases. See also New Jersey Citizen Action v. Schering-Plough Corp., 842 A.2d 174 (N.J. Super. 2003). , in which a New Jersey appeals court emphasized the difference between the pharmaceutical industry and other companies. According to the West Virginia court, the New Jersey court noted that physician intervention in prescribing decisions protects consumers and observed that the high degree of federal regulation of prescription drug products “attenuates the effect product marketing has on a consumer's prescriptive drug purchasing decision.”
The court remanded for dismissal.
 

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.

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.

 

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. 

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.

 

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.

California Right To Know Bill Strikes the Wrong Balance

Last week, the California Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials approved the Consumer Right to Know Act, S.B. 928.  The bill passed the California State Senate last April, and is currently pending in the California Assembly’s Committee on Appropriations.

This bill would ban the manufacture, sale, or distribution of certain consumer products unless the manufacturer publishes a comprehensive list of ingredients on a publicly available website and directs consumers to a web address on the product’s label. The ingredients would have to be identified with a Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) number. Additionally, they should be identified by either the Consumer Specialty Products Association Consumer Product Ingredients Dictionary (CSPA dictionary) name or the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredient (INCI) name.

As originally drafted, the bill applied to all consumer products as defined by the federal Consumer Product Safety Act. As amended, the current bill applies only to “designated consumer products.” So far, those products include: air care products, automotive products, cleaning products, and polish or floor maintenance products. But, according to observers, the scope of products is under review and could be changed by the legislature before enactment.

One huge issue with the bill is its inadequate protection for legitimate intellectual property, including trade secret information.

As it is currently drafted, S.B. 928 purports to protect trade secrets from disclosure, but it also restricts this ostensible protection in several problematic ways.

  • First, “hazardous” ingredients cannot be trade secrets for purposes of the bill. And the bill has an overbroad broad definition of “hazardous.” That is, a “hazardous substance” is defined as a chemical, or chemical compound, including breakdown products, identified by any state or federal agency or other governmental body or the World Health Organization as potentially having properties of eye and skin irritation, sensitization, acute or chronic toxicity, carcinogenicity, cytotoxicity, neurotoxicity, developmental or reproductive toxicity, or both, endocrine disruption or ecotoxicity.  Any chemical has the "potential" to be toxic at the wrong dose. Even substances universally regarded as safe can cause sensitization in a few hyper-allergic persons.

 

  • Second, hazardous incidental ingredients—those without a technical or functional effect, which, for example, can be present in very small quantities from processing or the production of other products—cannot be protected as trade secrets.

 

  • Third, if a product or its ingredients or incidental ingredients can be reverse engineered, it should not receive trade secret protection. Of course, it is impossible for manufacturers to know in advance what is capable of being reversed engineered for the purposes of disclosing ingredients.

Such disclosure of all chemical ingredients in products may lead to final product manufacturers being placed in the awkward situation of asking suppliers to divulge ingredient information, unique combinations of ingredients, and/or formulas that are patented, proprietary, or considered trade secrets. Many times these formulas are provided to final product manufacturers only under confidentiality agreements. The legislation, in those cases, would appear to require manufacturers to violate those confidentiality agreements by disclosing chemical ingredient information.


In addition, the bill requires that a manufacturer complete a complicated and unworkable formal process to have product information protected as a trade secret. This includes a showing of how secrecy leads to value, the ease of duplication if disclosure is made, how the chemical identity relates to how the chemical is made, how the manufacturer maintains secrecy, and how hard it is to reverse engineer the product. Most importantly, this includes disclosure of the basis for the manufacturer’s determination that its ingredients are not hazardous. That is, prove the negative. 

Finally, if the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) determines that the product is not deserving of trade secret protection for any number of listed reasons, including request from the public, the government can affirmatively disclose the product information. In order to prevent disclosure, the manufacturer will have 30 days to file for an injunction. That is an unfair and unworkable time frame.

A coalition of business interests led by the California Chamber of Commerce is opposing the bill on the grounds it increases costs to consumers and will expose confidential business information.  It fears that the definition of product will be expanded "to include everything under the California sun."

The bill would also eliminate trade secret protection after six years unless the manufacturer renews its claim. There is no apparent purpose for such a sunset provision on a trade secret claim other than to burden and place additional expense on the manufacturer. Finally, the bill provides no protections against private rights of action, including actions that may arise under California consumer fraud laws.

We could go on, but isn't that enough reason to conclude the bill strikes the wrong balance?

 

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.
 

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.

 

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.

 

 


 

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).
 

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.

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.
 

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.


 

Federal Court Dismisses Trasylol Class Action Complaint

A federal judge in Florida has dismissed the class action claims of plaintiffs asserting economic loss from Bayer's drug Trasylol, ruling that they have failed to adequately plead that their alleged damages flowed directly from the company's alleged conduct in marketing the drug. See Southeast Laborers Health and Welfare Fund, et al. v. Bayer Corporation, et al., 2009 WL 2355747 (S.D. Fla.).

Trasylol was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to prevent excessive bleeding during coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The plaintiffs, including a health and welfare fund responsible for paying for members' prescription drugs, allege that cheaper and safer alternatives were available but that Bayer somehow "over-promoted" the drug for CABG use.  They also allege the company promoted it for unapproved off-label uses, such as orthopedic surgery. They say, bottom line, that they would not have paid for Trasylol had they known the true story.

Such claims are typical of the consumer fraud act claims of plaintiffs in drug litigation, and equally typical is the fact that calculation of plaintiff's alleged losses would be extremely difficult, fact intensive, and absent such facts, purely speculative. Plaintiff must allege the causation element of the claim, and even the requisite short and plain statement of the claim requires more than labels and conclusions, and more than a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 ).

In a causation analysis that applies to both the consumer fraud act and RICO allegations, the court noted that there are many factors that a doctor may consider in determining what medication to administer to a given patient. Doctors are presumed to, and actually do, go beyond advertising and marketing and also use their independent knowledge in making medical decisions. Loss calculation, therefore, necessarily would require an analysis of whether or not a particular physician ever received or relied on Bayer's allegedly fraudulent statements, and whether or not a physician, knowing the risks vs. benefit of Trasylol, would still have used it during an operation.

It would require a determination as to how many doses a patient received, and whether or not the number of doses was tied into any fraudulent marketing. It would also require speculation as to what alternative medications a particular physician would have ordered in a particular surgery, and how much that medication would have cost. Such a cost calculation would be problematic, as costs clearly would have fluctuated over the ten year period. Lastly, it would entail determining those patients who received Trasylol who did not suffer any adverse reactions, and who might have been helped by the use of the drug. Plaintiffs plead none of those facts.

The plaintiffs here attempted to rely on a "fraud on the market" theory to avoid this analysis, citing In re Zyprexa Prod Liab. Litig., 493 F.Supp.2d 571 (E.D. N.Y. 2007), but the court called this "simply misplaced." The fraud-on-the-market doctrine in both the Eleventh and Third Circuits has been held to be limited strictly to securities cases and is inappropriate in claims alleging deceptive advertising such as the ones presented by drug litigation.   

Further, on the RICO count, the court said that the plaintiffs' factual allegations were not sufficient to constitute a representative sample of the defendants' allegedly fraudulent acts, when they occurred and who engaged in them.

Judge Middlebrooks granted the plaintiffs leave to amend but said it was "unlikely" they would be able to cure the proximate causation deficiency in their claims.

 

 

 

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.

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 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.
 

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.
 

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.
 

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.
 

Federal Court Rejects Inkjet Printer Class Action

A federal district court has rejected a proposed nationwide class action in the litigation alleging that Hewlett Packard engaged in unfair and deceptive conduct in connection with the “smart chip” technology in its ink cartridges. In re HP Inkjet Printer Litigation, 2008 WL 2949265 (N.D.Cal. July 25, 2008). According to Plaintiffs, the “smart chips” are programmed to indicate prematurely that replacement is needed, when in fact “hundreds of additional pages” of ink remain. The “smart chip” technology allegedly also renders cartridges unusable on a concealed, built-in “expiration date,” which is the earlier of thirty months after installation or thirty months after a factory-set “install-by” date, regardless of the amount of usable ink remaining. Plaintiffs claim that HP's “SureSupply” marketing campaign falsely promised consumers an easy way to maintain adequate printer supplies that saves time and money while failing to disclose the premature ink warnings and built-in expiration dates. HP makes some of the best printers in the world and stands behind its technology.

Plaintiffs asserted several claims for relief including: (1) breach of express warranty; (2) breach of implied warranty; (3) unjust enrichment; (4) violations of several California consumer fraud statutes. The court addressed competing motions – defendant's for summary judgment and plaintiffs' for class certification.

Defendant moved for summary judgment, contending that named plaintiffs did not have standing because they cannot prove that they ever received a “low on ink” warning. However, the court found an issue of fact based on their deposition testimony, despite the fact they could not remember the precise wording of the low ink message received and did not recognize the actual message when shown it by opposing counsel at the deposition. “While the evidence is weak,” a reasonable jury could find that each named plaintiff has suffered a cognizable injury, said the court.

Specifically regarding the warranty claim, while neither plaintiff identified the precise language of the statements upon which he allegedly relied, the court found that recitation of the precise language is not an element of an express warranty claim. Again, while Plaintiffs' evidence is weak, it was sufficient to survive summary judgment.

No Class

Importantly for readers of MassTortDefense, the court rejected the proposed class. First, plaintiffs were seeking to represent the claims of a nationwide class without addressing any of the complexities involved in doing so. Plaintiffs appeared to simply presume that California law should apply to all putative class members nationwide; they made no attempt to satisfy their burden of establishing that the application of California law to the entire proposed class would be appropriate under Rule 23(b)(3). Plaintiffs did not adequately address any of the potential jurisdictional and due process limitations upon the application of California law to the claims of non-resident class members. Second, the plaintiffs did not address the potential choice of law problems that would arise should the court certify a nationwide class, noting each class member's home state has an interest in protecting its consumers from in-state injuries caused by foreign corporations and in delineating the scope of recovery for its citizens under its own laws.

In contrast to plaintiffs' dropping the ball, HP submitted a detailed analysis of the variations in state consumer protection and deceptive trade practice laws. This analysis demonstrates the many differences among states with respect to, for example, statutes of limitations, scienter requirements, and calculation of damages. See, e.g., In re Bridgestone/Firestone, 288 F.3d 1012, 1017-18 (7th Cir.2002) (“State consumer-protection laws vary considerably, and courts must respect these differences rather than apply one state's laws to sales in other states with different rules.”).

Based on the record before it, the court concluded that the proposed nationwide class would be unmanageable.
 

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 recognized as cognizable under Illinois law.

MassTortDefense has posted on medical monitoring before, here and here. The clear trend has been away from recognizing these claims, see Lowe v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 344 Or. 403, 183 P.3d 181 (2008), or to narrow their scope. See Sinclair v. Merck & Co., 195 N.J. 51, 948 A.2d 587 (2008).

Where recognized, medical monitoring plaintiffs typically must prove:
1. exposure greater than normal background levels;
2. to a proven hazardous substance;
3. caused by the defendant's negligence;
4. as a proximate result of the exposure, plaintiff has a significantly increased risk of contracting a serious latent disease;
5. a monitoring procedure exists that makes the early detection of the disease possible;
6. the prescribed monitoring regime is different from that normally recommended in the absence of the exposure; and
7. the prescribed monitoring regime is reasonably necessary according to contemporary scientific principles.

Medical monitoring is almost always seen as a potential class action claim, for several reasons:
• First, the individual damages associated with periodic testing of a so-far healthy plaintiff may not be all that financially attractive to plaintiff attorneys.
• Secondly, a number of the elements of the claim (or remedy) of medical monitoring seem, on the surface, amenable to “common” proof in the form of epidemiological evidence. For example, the increased risk that typically must be shown.

When the issue is ripe, it should be clear that such claims are not appropriate for class treatment, as numerous individual issues will arise, including choice of law, properly viewed, in a nationwide class.

Defendant LVMH's also challenged the implied warranty claims, based on the absence of contractual privity between plaintiff and LVMH. But the court narrowly construed the privity requirement to say that Illinois law requires contractual privity as a prerequisite for breach of implied warranty claims only for recovery of economic losses. Voelker v. Porsche Cars North Am., Inc., 353 F.3d 516, 527 (7th Cir.2003). The medical monitoring claim, as "a form of personal injury claim," brought plaintiff out from under this privity requirement, said the court.



State Appeals Court Rejects Consumer Fraud Class Action

The Third DCA appeals court in Florida ruled last week that a class action involving consumers who bought Sephia model vehicles with allegedly defective brake systems from Kia Motors should not have been certified. Kia Motors America Corp. v. Butler, 2008 WL 2356354 (June 11, 2008, Fla. App. 3rd Dist.).

The panel held that the trial court in Miami-Dade County had abused its discretion by certifying the class. The named plaintiff, Yvonne Butler, had filed the proposed class action on behalf of all Florida purchasers of 1999-2001 Kia Sephia model passenger motor vehicles. The complaint alleged that all Sephias manufactured during those years contain a brake system design defect that causes premature wear of the brakes, as a result of which the vehicles fail to meet a U.S. market brake-wear expectation of 20,000-30,000 miles. According to the complaint, the defect caused the cars to be unable to stop, or to suffer impaired stopping performance, increased stopping distances, brake shudder, brake vibration, or brake lockup and loss of control. The class sought damages to each class member for economic losses, including the difference between the price paid for each vehicle and the value of the vehicle, reduced resale value, and any out-of-pocket repair costs on the cars. It was estimated that about 18,000 Sephia vehicles were sold or leased in the state during the class period.

Consumer Fraud Claim Made

Plaintiffs sought to proceed under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act (FDUTPA), Fla. Stat. §§ 501.201-.213, as well as breach of statutory, implied and express warranty. That makes the case one of the recent trend in which plaintiffs bring consumer fraud claims for what in the past might have been traditional products liability claims for product defects, under the theory that consumer fraud claims are easier to get certified as class actions. Not this time.

The Decision

The appeals court noted that class actions are an exception to the general rule that litigation is conducted by, and on behalf of, individual named parties only. For that reason, the trial court must conduct a rigorous analysis to determine whether the elements of the class action rule have been met. The first set of these requirements are referred to as the numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation elements of class certification. But in addition to satisfying those, a plaintiff also must satisfy one of the three subdivisions of Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.220(b). The relevant subdivision in this case was subsection (b)(3), which requires that common questions of law or fact predominate over any individual questions of the separate members, and that class representation is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy. Thus, to certify a class, this rule requires not only that common questions exist, but that those common questions predominate over individual questions; and that the class action to be manageable and superior to other proceedings. (much like the federal rule)

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.


Predominance Lacking


The class certification in this case failed, first, to satisfy the predominance criteria. While plaintiffs alleged a common defect, the evidence demonstrated that the brake systems found in the three Kia Sephia models in this case were far from uniform. The disc braking process in an automobile is a complicated mechanical and hydraulically assisted process. The Kia Sephia vehicle disc brakes installed during the model years at issue were comprised of component parts specific to that model year. For example, the pad material was changed, the pad shim material was changed, the pad shim protector was removed, and rotor material modified. The 2000 model Sephia was manufactured with a different brake pad design from the prior model. Additionally, the rotor thickness was changed. For the 2001 model-year, the Sephia's front brake system was completely redesigned.

Thus, the court concluded that the component and design changes resulted in significant  differences in the performance of the Kia Sephia's front brakes over the three model years at issue here. “It is therefore scientifically and logically impossible to conclude that any performance issues for these three model years were the result of a common design.”  And it follows that even if there existed a difference between the price paid for each vehicle and the value of the vehicle as delivered for any design period, that difference cannot be proven on a class-wide basis.

Due Process Concerns

Importantly, the court took on plaintiffs' vague trial plan assertions, noting that to proceed at the level of abstraction urged by plaintiffs would raise due process concerns. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Epstein, 516 U.S. 367, 377-78 (1996). The Third DCA cited the famous language from Broussard v. Meineke Disc. Muffler Shops, Inc., 155 F.3d 331, 344 (4th Cir.1998), about a trial plan denying a class action defendant a fair trial when it is forced to defend against a composite “perfect plaintiff” pieced together for litigation. The court went on to note that due process requires that class actions not be used to diminish the substantive rights of any party to the litigation. See generally Moller, The Rule of Law Problem: Unconstitutional Class Actions and Options for Reform, 28 Harv. J.L. & Pub. Pol. 855 (2005); Epstein, Class Actions: Aggregation, Amplification, and Distortion, 2003 U. Chi. Legal F. 475 (2003).

Consumer Fraud Act Analysis

A claim for damages under FDUTPA has three elements: (1) a deceptive act or unfair practice; (2) causation; and (3) actual damages. The FDUPTA class claim failed in this case on both the causation and actual damages elements. Among the individual questions that can be reasonably envisioned in the prosecution of this count, said the court, are: (1) whether the purchaser had knowledge of the alleged brake defect and purchased the vehicle despite such knowledge; (2) whether a deficiency attributable to Kia manifested itself; (3) whether an individual vehicle suffered diminished value as a result of the alleged deficiency if the deficiency was repaired; and (4) whether the purchase price of the vehicle reflected the alleged defect at the time it was purchased. These issues are compounded by the fact that the class representative in this case sought compensation not only for class members whose brakes have manifested a deficiency, but also for those whose brakes have performed satisfactorily. In certifying the class, the trial court had deviated from the majority of jurisdictions which consistently have denied class recovery on this type of theory.

The court concluded that without individual inquiry, there is no way to adjudicate this case to determine whether the need for a particular repair made by a class member was based on normal wear, a defective original part, a defective after market part, environmental factors, such as weather or road conditions, the presence of foreign objects in the braking system, the failure of parts other than the braking system, poor workmanship by a third party, or individual driving habits.

Superiority Lacking Too

To find superiority, a court must find all other methods of resolving the issues in a case to be inferior to a class action. Here, fewer than half of the class members reported brake difficulty. An individual inquiry and an inestimable number of mini-trials would be necessary to identify the class. Class certification is not ipso facto required where there exist multiple claims and potentially low dollar recovery.

Accordingly, the class was decertified.  And a decision product sellers may be able to use.