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.