Monthly Archives: July 2016

Uber Investigated for Investigating

** Uber Sanctioned for Their Tactics in Consumer Class Action Case **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

San Francisco, USA - May 12, 2016: Uber headquarters entrance in San Francisco with sign on the right. A woman is leaving the building through the front door. Reflections of Market street in the window.

Some interesting detours have developed in the Uber anti-trust consumer class action in the Southern District of New York (Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 1:15-cv-09796-JSR (S.D.N.Y December 12, 2015)).

The first is that the case was actually not bought against Uber, but against its CEO Travis Kalanick, possibly in order to avoid an arbitration clause in the Uber User Agreement.  Uber was successful in joining the corporation as a necessary party (Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3509496, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 20, 2016)). The court heard argument on whether the joinder case should be subject to the Uber arbitration agreement on July 14, 2016 (Dkt. No. 91).

The second detour – and not one you’d expect – Uber and its lawyers (and the private investigative firm Ergo hired by the legal team) are accused of fraudulent conduct during their informal investigation of opposing counsel and opposing parties.  Plaintiff’s counsel began to get suspicious when his friends, colleagues and acquaintances started receiving phone calls in which, it was alleged, false statements were made that the caller was compiling a profile of up-and-coming labor lawyers in the United States.  Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3189961, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. June 7, 2016).  Similar phone calls were allegedly made regarding the putative class representative – purportedly profiling his work as an environmental conservationist.  Plaintiff’s counsel confronted Defense counsel about these suspicious calls – and they initially responded by denying any involvement, then backtracked and admitted they had hired Ergo (but asserted that Uber or counsel did not direct Ergo to make any misrepresentations).  Id.  This was enough for the court to order discovery on what Uber and its lawyers knew and did – taking the extraordinary step of allowing depositions of Uber’s in-house legal director and Ergo over Uber’s privilege objections.  Id. at *2.  The court also ordered legal communications be turned over for in-camera review to determine if defense counsel was involved in the alleged fraud.  Id. at *3.  Following the Ergo discovery, Plaintiff’s counsel moved for sanctions under Rule 37 (Dkt. No. 103) arguing that Uber was at best reckless in its oversight of the investigation – and at worst part of the fraud.  Id. at 11.

Judge Rakoff ruled on the sanctions motion on July 29, 2016.  Meyer v. Kalanick, No. 15 CIV. 9796, 2016 WL 3981369, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. July 25, 2016).  Judge Rakoff began his opinion and order with this salvo: “It is a sad day when, in response to the filing of a commercial lawsuit, a corporate defendant feels compelled to hire unlicensed private investigators to conduct secret personal background investigations of both the plaintiff and his counsel. It is sadder yet when these investigators flagrantly lie to friends and acquaintances of the plaintiff and his counsel in an (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to obtain derogatory information about them.”  Id.  Judge Rakoff noted that Uber claimed work-product privilege over relevant material – but at the same time – argued that the purpose of the investigation was not to secure derogatory information about Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s counsel (but merely to determine if there was a security threat to Uber personnel).  Id. at *4.  The court noted that Uber could not have its cake and eat it too.  If Uber wanted to allege that the purpose of the investigation was security–focused, then it was not in anticipation of litigation and the privilege did not apply.  As to the investigative methods employed by Ergo, Judge Rakoff was scathing.  He characterized lying to the target witnesses about the nature and intent of the calls as inherently fraudulent – and materially so.  Id. at *6.  He rejected the argument that a party to litigation may properly make misrepresentations in order to advance its own interests vis-a-vis its legal adversaries.  Id. at * 7.  The court further observed that Uber’s in-house and external counsel are bound by the New York Rules of Professional Conduct to adequately supervise non-lawyers retained to do work in order to ensure that the non-lawyers do not engage in actions that would be a violation of the Rules if a lawyer performed them.  Id. (citing N.Y. Rules of Professional Conduct § 5.3).  Judge Rakoff was also scornful of Ergo for not licensing in New York as a private investigative firm and for recording calls with targets located in states (Connecticut and New Hampshire, for example) where unilateral recording of conversations is illegal.  Id. at *8.  Judge Rakoff enjoined the Uber defendants from using any of the information obtained through Ergo’s investigation in any manner, including by presenting arguments or seeking discovery concerning the same and enjoined both Uber and Ergo from undertaking any further personal background investigations of individuals involved in the litigation.  Id.  The court noted that the parties had already come to a confidential agreement as to the payment by Uber of Plaintiff’s fees in bringing the motion.  Id.

Uber’s litigation detour provides some valuable insights into how judges will likely treat “enhanced investigation techniques” during formal discovery – and further proves the maxim that it is not the original scandal that gets people in the most trouble – it’s the attempted cover-up.

 

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Fair in Love and War?

** Popular Match Making App Tinder Loses on Second Bite To Defeat Gender-Bias Class Action **                                                                                                                                                                               

Antalya, Turkey - February 02, 2016 : A close up of an Apple iPhone 6s Plus screen showing various dating apps, including happn, Tinder, The Grade, POF, Badoo, Glint, LOVOO, eHarmony, OkCupid

The popular geo-location dating application Tinder was rebuffed in its latest attempt to have a putative California class action complaint against it dismissed.  Manapol. v. Tinder, No. BC589036, (Sup. Ct. L.A. County) (filed April 28, 2015).  The complaint alleges that Tinder illegally discriminated against Plaintiff by charging him more than a similarly situated woman (for the Tinder Plus service) and therefore violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.  Id.   Earlier this year, Plaintiff’s initial complaint was dismissed without prejudice for his failure to “connect the dots” on the facts.  Id. (Order and Opinion, Feb. 17, 2016).  The court held that Plaintiff’s complaint was built on his naked (pun intended) allegation that a female friend’s Tinder Plus bill was lower than his, which, (even if were true) was merely an isolated event and, therefore, insufficient to show a pattern of price discrimination based on gender.  Plaintiff returned with an amended complaint alleging that the disparate pricing he experienced was not a one-off occurrence – but embedded in the algorithms at the heart of the functionality of Tinder Plus.

Superior Court Judge William F. Highberger rejected Tinder’s demurrer to this amended complaint, holding that Plaintiff’s allegations were adequately pled.  Id. (Order and Opinion, July 21, 2016).  In an oral argument (which we would have paid money to attend), the parties went back and forth with Judge Highberger over whether Tinder engages in gender discrimination with Tinder offering the declaration of a company employee that Tinder does not discriminate in its pricing for Tinder Plus or the number of free swipes a user gets on Tinder – and Plaintiff asserting he has his own contrary facts and will be able to obtain more evidence from Tinder.  Clearly, a fight is brewing over the discoverability of Tinder’s trade secret algorithms.

The most surprising thing about this lawsuit for those who are unversed in California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act is that, even accepting the allegations as true, the complaint states a claim.  Long before Ronald Bell of Kool & the Gang penned his immortal 1979 ballad (best performed by Jon Lovitz in the Wedding Singer), of the same name, “Ladies Night” was a ubiquitous part of American nightlife.  But ironically, at about the same time the song reached its zenith at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100, a gentleman by the name of Dennis Koire was visiting Orange County car washes asking for the advertised “Ladies’ Day” discount and the Jezebel Nightclub in Anaheim demanding the “Ladies’ Night” reduced admission, all to no avail.  The lawsuit he filed made it to the California Supreme Court in 1985, where the Court put the kibosh on Ladies Night in Koire v. Metro Car Wash, 40 Cal.3d 24 (1985), holding that such discounts violate the Unruh Act’s requirement that “[a]ll persons within the jurisdiction of this state are free and equal, and no matter what their sex . . .  are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, privileges, or services in all business establishments of every kind whatsoever . . . .”  Cal. Civil Code §51.  Jezebel’s owner argued that the “social policy” exception applied in other Unruh Act cases was warranted in his case because “’Ladies Night’ encourages more women to attend the bar, thereby promoting more interaction between the sexes.”  Koire, 40 Cal.3d at 33.  The Court found this argument “not sufficiently compelling.”  Id.   Although such an argument is not likely to assist Tinder — if in fact it does gender discriminate as Plaintiff alleges — the California Supreme Court might want to reconsider its rejection of Jezebel’s social policy argument.  In a world of millennials (and seniors!) looking for love on their laptop screens, there may be social utility in encouraging live interaction between Californians.

 

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MillerCoors Over the Moon

** Brewer prevails against Blue Moon “Craft Beer” false advertising suit **

Craft beers in different bottles.

We’ve blogged in the past about the raft of consumer class actions hitting beer and spirits makers – particularly lawsuits targeting manufacturers with claims that terms such as “handcrafted” or “handmade” are misleading if used by companies employing typical mass-production methods.  For example in Parent v. MillerCoors LLC., No. 15-cv-01204-GPC-WVG (S.D. Cal. May 30, 2015), MillerCoors – maker of that campus staple, Keystone Light (among a host of other brews) — was sued based on the premise that it’s Blue Moon beer misleads consumers into believing it is a “microbrew” or “craft beer” by using those terms in its advertising and by withholding the name “MillerCoors” from its label.

On October 26, 2015, the court granted MillerCoor’s  first motion to dismiss.  Dkt No. 17.

The court found that a reasonable consumer was not likely to be deceived by Defendant’s representations because MillerCoors’ use of the “Artfully Crafted” trademark was mere puffery.  Id. at 12–16.  The court also rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Blue Moon’s “placement among other craft beers” in retail stores was deceptive because Plaintiff did not allege, and provided no factual allegations from which the court could reasonably infer, that MillerCoors had any control over where retailers place Blue Moon on their shelves.  Id.  Plaintiff was given leave to amend, however, which he did, focusing his amended argument on the definition of “craft beer” set forth by the Brewer’s Association (and in various common dictionaries) providing that a “craft beer” connotes a beer made by traditional or non-mechanized means.  Dkt No. 19.  Plaintiff also alleged that the price differential between Blue Moon and comparable non-craft beers was, itself, a representation that the beer was superior.

The court rejected these arguments and dismissed the second amended complaint — this time with prejudice.  Parent v. Millercoors LLC, No. 3:15-CV-1204-GPC-WVG, 2016 WL 3348818, at *6 (S.D. Cal. June 16, 2016).  Again, the court considered MillerCoors’ Blue Moon advertising, as far as it pertains to representations about “craft beer,” as non-actionable puffery.  Id. ([T]he “advertisements contain ‘generalized, vague, and unspecified assertions’ that amount to ‘mere puffery upon which a reasonable consumer could not rely.’”)  Further, the court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the price of a product can constitute a representation or statement of product quality.  Id. (citing Boris v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 35 F. Supp. 3d 1163, 1169 (C.D. Cal. 2014) (finding that the price of a migraine medication did not constitute a representation or statement about the product that could support consumer claims against a retailer under the UCL, CLRA, or FAL)).

Our takeaway:  Drink what you like.  Beer snobbery will get you nowhere.

 

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Turning Tide on the Whole Nation as a Viable Class?

** Is the All State Nationwide Class Back for False Advertising Plaintiffs?**                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     

Abstract map of the United States of America covered by a social network composed of blue people symbols connected together at various sizes and depths on a white background with pixelated borders. Futuristic north american computer and social network background.

Class defense counsel, faced with a false advertising law suit seeking to certify a class of consumers across multiple states, often rely on Mazza v. Am. Honda Motor Co., 666 F.3d 581 (9th Cir. 2012) as impenetrable authority for the proposition that material differences between various state consumer protection laws preclude one single court from certifying a nationwide consumer class.  Mazza was a defining “stay in your lane” case for consumer class actions – but are chinks in the armor showing?

In Mazza, defendant Honda on appeal from the lower court, which certified a class of Acura RL buyers who complained of a faulty collision-mitigation braking system, successfully argued at the Ninth Circuit that several material differences between California consumer-protection laws and those of other jurisdictions at issue precluded certification of a nationwide class.  666 F.3d at 591.  Some states, for example, require plaintiffs to demonstrate scienter and/or reliance, while others do not.  Id. Similarly, some state’s consumer laws have no private right of action.  Id.  And significant differences exist in the remedies available to plaintiffs under the various state laws.  Id.  Because prevailing choice-of-law analysis required that home-state law should govern each class member’s claim, the court vacated the class-certification order.  Id.

Many trial courts – not just those in the Ninth Circuit – have followed the Mazza court’s reasoning and denied nationwide class certification where material differences in state laws were identified – even at the pleading stage. Gianino v. Alacer Corp., 846 F. Supp. 2d 1096 (C.D. Cal. 2012); Frezza v. Google Inc., 2013 WL 1736788 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 22, 2013) (precluding North Carolina plaintiffs from asserting claims under California law, given that the transaction at issue took place in North Carolina); Ralston v. Mortgage Investors Group, Inc., 2012 WL 1094633 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 30, 2012) (out of state adjustable-rate mortgage holders could not rely on California UCL); Maniscalo v. Brother International (USA) Corp., 709 F.3d 202 (3d Cir. 2013) (New Jersey law does not apply to South Carolina consumers); Garland v. Servicelink L.P., No. GLR–13–1472, 2013 WL 5428716 (D. Md. 2013) (Pennsylvania Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) does not apply to Maryland residents);  In re Celexa & Lexapro Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., 291 F.R.D. 13 (D. Mass. 2013) (nationwide class of prescription anti-depressant drugs buyers could not be certified); Harris v. CVS Pharm., Inc., CV 13–02329 AB (AGRx), 2015 WL 4694047, at *4–5 (C.D. Cal. Aug. 6, 2015) (California plaintiff who purchased products in California lacked standing to bring a claim under a Rhode Island statute); Davison v. Kia Motors Am., Inc., No. SACV 15-00239-CJC, 2015 WL 3970502, at *2 (C.D. Cal. June 29, 2015) (denying nationwide certification on behalf of Kia Optima owners whose vehicle had allegedly defective electronic door locks).

But more recently, judges are taking a second look at Mazza.  Judge Gillan in the Northern District of California recently stated that reading a “bright line rule” into Mazza “significantly overreads” the case.  Valencia v. Volkswagen Grp. of Am. Inc., No. 15-CV-00887-HSG, 2015 WL 4760707, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Aug. 11, 2015).  Rather, he stated, Mazza’s application should be limited to its choice-of-law analysis and its determination that California law should not be applied to non-California residents, rather than a wholesale edict that nationwide classes are, as a matter of law, un-certifiable.  Id. citing Forcellati v. Hyland’s Inc., 876 F.Supp.2d 1155, 1159 (C.D.Cal.2012).  And rather than the choice of law analysis being performed at the pleading stage on a motion to dismiss, Judge Gillan held that this factual inquiry is more appropriately addressed at the class certification stage.  Id. citing In re Clorox Consumer Litigation, 894 F.Supp.2d 1224, 1237 (N.D.Cal.2012) (“Since the parties have yet to develop a factual record, it is unclear whether applying different state consumer protection statutes could have a material impact on the viability of Plaintiffs’ claims”).

Last week, the court in Kaatz v Hyland’s Inc., No. 7:16-cv-00237-VB, (S.D.N.Y July 6, 2016) (Dkt. No. 29) similarly found it premature to deal with concerns about standing to represent consumers in all 50 states at the pleading stage. Judge Briccetti stated he was part of a “growing consensus” of federal district judges who believe standing issues that go to putative class members’ commonality and typicality are better addressed at the class certification stage, rather than on a motion to dismiss.  Dkt. No. 29 at 7 – 8, citing In re DDAVP Indirect Purchaser Antitrust Litig., 903 F. Supp. 2d 198, 214 (S.D.N.Y. 2012).  The Kaatz case, itself, dealt with two New York residents who claimed they were misled by the marketing and labeling for Hyland’s homeopathic baby products such as Baby Teething Gel and Baby Nighttime Tiny Cold Syrup.  The allegations followed the familiar trope of “natural” claims being misleading, as the product/s allegedly contained synthetic ingredients such as sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which are used as food preservatives.  They accused Hyland of violating all 50 states’ consumer protection laws and sought to certify a nationwide class.  Plaintiffs argued that even though they were all New York residents, the questions of common issues and manageability of the proposed nationwide class were better left for the class certification stage.  Judge Briccetti agreed, holding that Hyland’s arguments were “premature” at the motion to dismiss stage – finding that “class certification is logically antecedent to standing when, as here, class certification is the source of the potential standing problems.”  Id.

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