Patrick Jane is the fictional lead character of the TV series “The Mentalist.”  Ably played by Simon Baker, the character used his skills of reading people, knowledge of people’s reactions, keen powers of observation and deduction, and prodigious memory to assist the police — all the while sipping his cup of tea.  Prior to being a consultant, he used those same skills to pretend to be a psychic, defrauding customers with his scam.

Reactions, observation, tea, fraud…that brings us to today’s case.  A New York federal court has dismissed a proposed class action alleging Oregon Chai Inc. misled its consumers into thinking its tea mixes contain real vanilla. Cosgrove v. Oregon Chai Inc.,No. 1:19-cv-10686, 2021 WL 706227 (S.D.N.Y. 2/21/21). Plaintiffs sued, claiming that Defendant’s use of the term “vanilla” and other statements on the packaging of its chai tea latte powdered mix were misleading to consumers. The Court agreed with the vast majority of district courts to have considered similar “vanilla” claims, and dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim.

The Complaint focused on the Oregon Chai products’ packaging, and in particular the alleged representations “Oregon Chai,” “Vanilla,” Vanilla and honey combine with premium black tea and chai spices,” and “Made with Natural Ingredients.”  According to Plaintiffs, the last three of these representations, individually and in tandem, misled consumers concerning the amount, the percentage, and the types of ingredients in the Oregon Chai products. Plaintiffs argued that Defendant’s use of the term “Vanilla,” along with the identifying description of “Vanilla and honey combine with premium black tea and chai spices,” foster the misimpression that the vanilla flavor is present in an amount greater than the honey and the chai spices, when in fact there is more honey and cinnamon in the products. Plaintiffs reasoned that the prominent use of the term “Vanilla” also fosters the misimpression that the vanilla flavor is derived from vanilla beans, rather than artificial vanillin.  Finally, Plaintiffs argued that the products’ reference to “Made with Natural Ingredients”  reinforces the impression that the vanilla flavor is derived from vanilla beans and not artificial vanillin.

The Court concluded that Plaintiffs’ allegations concerning the Oregon Chai products’ packaging did not suffice to state an actionable claim under the NY consumer statutes, GBL §§ 349 or 350. On the front of the packaging, the word “Vanilla” appears just below the words “Chai Tea Latte” in a slightly larger font. As such, the term appears to describe a flavor more than an ingredient — more particularly, to distinguish the vanilla flavor from Defendant’s other chai tea latte flavors, including “Salted Caramel,” and “Spiced.” Second, while the statement, “Vanilla and honey combine with premium black tea and chai spices,” appear to be ingredients (as distinguished from flavors), there is nothing to suggest the exclusive, or even predominant, use of vanilla beans as opposed to other sources. There is no reference to “vanilla bean” or “vanilla extract” anywhere on the packaging; nor is there any reference to the product being “made with” or “made from” any part of the vanilla plant.

Third, the Court didn’t have to be a mentalist to reject as a matter of law Plaintiffs’ broader argument that consumers were or could be deceived for GBL purposes about the relevant quantities of vanilla, honey, and cinnamon in the Oregon Chai products. On this point, it bears noting that consumers would be selecting among chai tea lattes. Plaintiffs themselves adopted a definition of chai that includes tea and spices in no particular proportions.  So long as the products contained vanilla, honey, and chai spices (which can include cinnamon), any consumer could not be deceived by the packaging in this case. For similar reasons, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that references to “natural ingredients” or “natural flavors” lead inexorably to the conclusion that the vanilla flavor in the Oregon Chai products is derived from vanilla beans and not artificial vanillin. The statements in the Oregon Chai products’ packaging, in context, cannot fairly be read to claim that the vanilla flavor derives exclusively, or even predominantly, from vanilla beans or vanilla extract. Defendant’s use of the terms “natural ingredients” and “natural flavors” only confirms that analysis, said the Court.

In sum, viewing each of the challenged statements in context, the Court concluded as a matter of law that Plaintiffs have failed to plausibly allege a violation of GBL §§ 349 and 350. To the extent the reasonable consumer would view the “vanilla” reference as an ingredient rather than a flavor of chai tea latte, there is nothing in the packaging to suggest that the vanilla is sourced exclusively or predominantly to vanilla beans or vanilla extract. Nor would the reasonable consumer be misled by the packaging’s references to natural ingredients or natural flavors, as Plaintiffs have failed plausibly to allege that the challenged flavoring substances were artificially derived. 2021 WL 706227, at *15.