Class Action on Smoke Detectors Dismissed: All Smoke No Fire

A California federal court recently rejected rejected a proposed class action in which plaintiffs alleged smoke alarms were defective in that the product’s packaging allegedly omitted safety information.  See Bird v. First Alert Inc. et al., No. 4:14-cv-03585 (N.D. Cal. ).

The defendant sells two types of smoke detectors — ionization, which the opinion said are better at catching fast-flaming fires, and photoelectric, which are reportedly more sensitive to smoldering fires. The basis of plaintiff's complaint is that the defendant failed to adequately disclose the
dangers of using ionization smoke alarms – specifically, that ionization smoke alarms do
not alert occupants of smoldering-type fires as effectively as photoelectric smoke alarms.  However, the ionization alarm, which Bird purchased, explains these differences clearly on its packaging and recommended the use of both types of alarms for “maximum protection." 

Defendant moved to dismiss. The allegations in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007).  A motion to dismiss should be granted if the complaint does not proffer enough facts to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. See id. at 558-59. W]here the well-pleaded facts do not
permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged – but it has not shown – that the pleader is entitled to relief.  Although the court generally may not consider material outside the pleadings when resolving a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the court may consider matters that are properly the subject of judicial notice. Knievel v. ESPN, 393 F.3d 1068, 1076 (9th Cir. 2005); Lee v. City of Los Angeles, 250 F.3d 668, 688-89 (9th Cir. 2001). Additionally, the court may consider exhibits attached to the complaint, see Hal Roach Studios, Inc. v. Richard Feiner & Co., Inc., 896 F.2d 1542, 1555 n.19 (9th Cir. 1989),

Plaintiff obviously had a high hurdle to overcome to state a claim here, given that the product packaging explains that the two types of smoke alarms respond differently to different types of fires, and recommends that consumers utilize both types. Nevertheless, plaintiff contended that the disclosures on the packaging did not constitute a "warning" and did not amount to a "sufficient disclosure" of the extent of the "safety defect" inherent in the ionization smoke detectors, because they allegedly failed to state that the ionization smoke detectors might not safely alert consumers in time to escape the deadly effects of smoldering fires.

The court recognized that even a nondisclosure claim sounding in fraud must still be pled with particularity. Kearns, 567 F.3d at 1126-27; see also Marolda v. Symantec Corp., 672 F.Supp. 2d 992, 1002 (N.D. Cal. 2009). Specifically, the plaintiff must set forth an explanation as to why the omission complained of  made the warning or label false and misleading in order to state a claim under Rule 9(b). Bias v. Wells Fargo & Co., 942 F.Supp. 2d 915, 935 (N.D. Cal. 2013). Thus, plaintiff must describe the content of the omission and where the omitted information should or could have been revealed, as well as provide representative samples of advertisements, offers, or other representations that plaintiff relied on to make her purchase and that failed to include the allegedly omitted information. See Eisen v. Porsche Cars North Am., Inc.,, 2012 WL 841019 at *3 (citing
Marolda, 672 F.Supp. 2d at 1002). While the complaint alleged that the "packaging" on plaintiff's ionization smoke detector did not contain any warning, instructions, or other information disclosing,
describing, or warning about the smoke detector's inability to adequately, effectively, and
safely detect, warn, alert, and protect occupants from smoldering-type fires,  in fact the packaging did disclose information regarding the performance of ionization alarms in smoldering fires.

Yet, the complaint alleged no facts regarding these disclosures – in particular, when plaintiff looked
at the packaging (if ever), whether she reviewed the disclosures on the packaging (if at all),
or why she disregarded the clear recommendation that she use both ionization and photoelectric alarms. Nor did the complaint allege any facts showing that the disclosures were inadequate.

Motion to dismiss granted without prejudice.

Class Complaint Dismissed WITH Prejudice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).


 

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.