Monthly Archives: August 2016

Pokemon GMO

** Update on the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard Law **

 

closeup of a GMO UPC symbol on white

By a stroke of the pen, President Obama put to rest for all time (by “all time,” we mean a decade) the brouhaha over labeling foods containing GMO ingredients.  By signing the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard law on July 29, 2016, the President and Congress proclaimed to the citizenry that GMO labeling is important — but not so important that the labels actually have to be seen.  How did we get to this point?  A brief history is in order.

When one of the editors of this blog watches Netflix with his English Bulldog, he is enjoying the companionship of a genetically modified organism (“GMO”).  Long before the first GMO food – the Flavr Savr tomato — hit grocery store shelves in 1994, humans were engineering crops and livestock the old fashioned way – selective breeding.  Modern GMOs, of course, differ from those derived from selective breeding.  They are developed on a molecular level – a specific gene from a donor organism that expresses a desirable trait is inserted into the genome of the target organism to give the latter that same trait.  While consumer organizations and environmental activists have sounded the tocsin (or toxin) over GMOs since the beginning of bio-engineering, the federal government – particularly the FDA – has not been alarmed.

Two years before Flavr Savr, the FDA published its “Statement of Policy:  Foods Derived from New Plant Varieties.”  In this document, the FDA reminded the public that a food additive must be approved prior to use unless it is “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS).  The FDA concluded that, while a plant gene inserted into another plant is an additive, generally that gene is GRAS.  “The agency is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed from the new techniques present any different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.”  Based on that logic, the FDA’s regulations for plant GMOs are the same as those for traditional foods with the exception of a voluntary (“recommended”) consultation procedure with which developers of GMO-containing foods typically comply.  (Note that the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service plays a limited regulatory role with regard to GMOs that pose a risk to other plants or animals and the EPA regulates GMOs that are bio-engineered to produce a pesticide – for example, the infamous, but unblemished, Bt-corn.)

In the 1992 Policy, the FDA eschewed requiring food companies incorporating plant GMOs to label their products as such under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act because “the agency does not believe that the method of development of a new plaint variety (including recombinant DNA techniques) is normally material information within the meaning of 21 U.S.C. 321(n).”  The FDA has not deviated from this position in the past quarter decade.  The agency’s website has a page directed to consumers which rhetorically asks, “Are foods from GE plants safe to eat?”  The response is, “Yes.  Credible evidence has demonstrated that foods from the GE plant varieties marked to date are as safe as comparable, non-GE foods.”

The FDA’s refusal to mandate that food companies label their products containing GMOs does not mean that consumers who care about such things have been stymied.  In 1990, Congress enacted and George Herbert Walker Bush signed the Organic Foods Production Act, which required that the USDA develop national standards for organic products.  Ten years later, the USDA issued its final rule establishing the National Organic Program (NOP), which governs both fresh and processed food products, including crops and livestock.  The “USDA Organic” label means many things under the NOP — but one of them is no genetic engineering.  GMOs are prohibited in organic products as excluded methods of production.  7 CFR § 205.105.  Therefore, a consumer that doesn’t want to ingest a GMO need only look for the “USDA Organic” label.

The NOP was not enough for Vermont.  In 2014, Vermont enacted Act 120 – a manifesto against the federal government’s oversight of GMOs — that required labels on products containing genetically engineered ingredients.  “[F]ood offered for sale by a retailer after July 1, 2016 shall be labeled as produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering if it is a product:  (1) offered for retail sale in Vermont; and (2) entirely or partially produced with genetic engineering.”  Act 120, § 3043.  In addition, “a manufacturer of a food produced entirely or in part from genetic engineering shall not label the product on the package, in signage, or in advertising as ‘natural,’ ‘naturally made,’ ‘naturally grown,’ ‘all natural,’ or any words of similar import that would have a tendency to mislead a consumer.”  Id.

The food industry went into an uproar over Vermont’s law because – given the realities of interstate commerce – companies would have to change their labeling nationwide to satisfy the demands of Vermont.  While manufacturers have had to bend to the legislative will of California from time to time (“Made in the USA”/Prop 65), it’s quite another thing to answer to Vermont.

Due, in part, to persistent lobbying, Congress enacted the Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard law just in time to pre-empt Vermont’s organic labeling law from going into effect.  The law requires that the USDA “establish a national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard with respect to any bioengineered food and any food that may be bioengineered” by July 2018.  Therefore, GMO labeling will be required nationwide sometime after 2018.  But because Congress clearly believes that this law is a solution in search of a problem, the statute has a unique labeling provision that “require[s] that the form of a food disclosure under this section be a text, symbol, or electronic or digital link . . . with the disclosure option to be selected by the food manufacturer.”  What does this mean?  Simply put, food companies will have the option of either a product label with a bar code accompanied by the words, “scan here for more food information” or a toll-free telephone number with “call for more food information.”  In short, an actual GMO disclosure on the label is not required.  Consumers who care will roam supermarket aisles – smart phones in front of their faces – scanning bar codes to find their non-GMO groceries like Pokemon Go zombies looking for Poke Balls.

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No Pay, No Play

** District Court Rejects Settlement Deal That Extracts a Broad Release of Claims But Provides No Money to Class Members **

Pay writing on Keyboard

It is not common for judges to reject class settlements, usually because lawyers for the opposing sides — putting aside their adversary roles — are savvy enough not to give the judge cause.  That was not the case recently, however, in a long running homeopathic product false advertising case in the Southern District of California.  Allen v. Similasan Corp., No. 12-CV-376-BAS-JLB, 2016 WL 4249914, at *1 (S.D. Cal. Aug. 9, 2016).

The allegations in this case, which are similar to those of other recent homeopathy cases (see e.g., Nat’l Council Against Health Fraud v. King Bio Pharms., 107 Cal. App. 4th 1336, 1348 (2003); Herazo v. Whole Foods Mkt., Inc., No. 14-61909-CIV, 2015 WL 4514510, at *1 (S.D. Fla. July 24, 2015); Conrad v. Boiron, Inc., No. 13 C 7903, 2015 WL 7008136, at *1 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 12, 2015)) complain that Similasan engaged in false advertising by omission by not including on its products’ labels statements to the effect that (i) the product was not FDA approved as medically effective and (ii) the active ingredients were diluted.  Notably, neither of those disclaimers is required on homeopathic products – but even so, many companies voluntarily include them.

In Similasan, after four years of hard fought litigation  the Defendant had successfully narrowed the claims by summary judgment [Dkt. No. 142] and Plaintiffs had certified  a class [Dkt. No. 143].  Similasan, however, filed a motion to decertify, arguing that Plaintiffs would not be able to prove materiality or falsity with their expert witnesses’ survey evidence [Dkt. No. 164].  With the motion to decertify pending, the parties settled and sought judicial approval of their agreement [Dkt. No. 196].  But the settlement was not a cure the district court could swallow.  Judge Bashant noted her role in the fairness hearing was to look for “subtle signs that class counsel have allowed pursuit of their own self-interests and that of certain class members to infect the negotiations.” (2016 WL 4249914, at *3 citing In re Bluetooth Headset Prods. Liab. Litig., 654 F.3d 935, 947 (9th Cir.2011)).  In this case, the signs were not subtle, and it was not a close call for the Court to deny approval.

In particular, Judge Bashant took exception to the following features of the proposed agreement:

  • The remedy for the unnamed class was injunctive relief only. While the company agreed to add the disclaimers that Plaintiffs’ counsel had complained were omitted, Similasan was not required to compensate class members;
  • The only money went to the class representatives who would pocket $2,500.00 each and Plaintiff’s counsel who secured a clear-sailing agreement which would permit an award of fees in excess of $550,000.00;
  • In exchange for injunctive relief, class members released Similasan from all claims identified in the complaint;
  • The release covered a nationwide class even though the Court had certified a California class only.

These settlement terms were not good enough for the Court.  The class was being asked to give up the right to sue but receiving nothing in return.  Indeed, to the extent the remedy was an injunction, a class member who opted out would receive the same benefit without forfeiting any rights.  Tellingly, eight State Attorneys General (Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Texas and Wyoming) filed an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to reject the proposed settlement. [Dkt. No. 219].

The Court also discussed the role that notice (or lack thereof) played in its decision making.  The Court observed that the proposed class would have been in the tens of thousands [Dkt. No. 216], but the settlement notice prompted only 136 views of the settlement information website and 21 phone calls to the settlement hotline.  The Court attributed this lackluster response to the weakness of the notice, which consisted of a single ad in USA Today and some incidental online placements.  But the reality is the paucity of the economic return (i.e. zero) likely resulted in mass indifference.

 

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A Lodestar Off Our Mind!

** The California Supreme Court endorses the Percentage of Common Fund Approach for Class Action Settlements **                                                                                                                                                                                        

4427950_HiResIn a decision that consumer class action lawyers have been on pins and needles awaiting, the California Supreme Court just issued its opinion in Lafitte v. Robert Half Int’l Inc, Cal., No. S222996 (Aug. 11, 2016) regarding the proper way to determine attorney fee awards in common fund cases.  The Court concluded that the percentage of the fund method favored by plaintiffs’ class action lawyers (and, frankly, defense attorneys who settle consumer class actions by agreeing to a common fund) is alive and well.

For the past several years, objectors to class action settlements in California have become increasingly vocal with their criticism of this prevalent class action settlement device that creates a fund to compensate class members and pay class counsel (and sometimes claims administration costs as well).  In consumer fraud actions, after compensation to the class has been negotiated, additional money is placed in the common fund to compensate class counsel for their work on the case – typically 25% of the entire fund amount. Critics of the percentage of the common fund approach argue that it incentivizes plaintiffs’ counsel to put their interests ahead of class members (see e.g., Smith, Adam, The Wealth of Nations (1776)) and settle cases quickly in an amount that may not fully compensate class members in order to avoid otherwise needless effort in obtaining their fee.

Lafitte was a wage and hour case against Robert Half, the well-known staffing company.  The parties preliminarily settled the lawsuit by establishing a $19 million settlement fund that included a “clear sailing” provision for attorney fees of $6,333,333 – 33% of the common fund.  (Because courts must rule on the reasonableness of fees, a plaintiff and defendant settling a class action cannot agree on the plaintiff’s attorney’s fee award.  Instead, the defendant will sometimes agree that it will not oppose a specific fee award – giving plaintiff’s counsel “clear sailing” toward their requested fee.)

One of the class members in Lafitte thought the $6+ million award was a bit rich and believed it was not sufficiently justified or substantiated by class counsel, who relied primarily on the fact that 33% was within the range of typical class action settlement awards (20%-50%).  The class member filed an objection to that effect citing Serrano v. Priest (1977) 20 Cal.3d 25 (“Serrano III”) for the proposition that fee awards must be calculated on the basis of time spent by the attorneys on the case plus a multiplier.  The Los Angeles Superior Court denied the class member’s objection determining that a percentage of the common fund was the correct approach but double-checking it against the reasonable fee class counsel would have charged if it was a billable hour case – the “lodestar.”  The court analyzed plaintiff’s counsel’s billing records and concluded that the lodestar was between $2,968,620 and $3,118,620.  The gap between the lodestar amount and the $6,333,333 percentage fee was closed by applying a multiplier of between 2.03 and 2.13.  Why apply a multiplier?   To compensate class counsel “for the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (2) the skill displayed in presenting them, (3) the extent to which the nature of the litigation precluded other employment by the attorneys, (4) the contingent nature of the fee award.”  Ketchum v. Moses, 24 Cal.4th 1122, 1132 (2001) (citing Serrano III).

Viewing the “double check” methodology with Pope’s “jaundiced eye,” one might conclude that – because the multiplier is completely subjective – a court can always engineer a proposed percentage fee award in a class action settlement with the lodestar analysis.  This is precisely what the objector argued.  Any student of algebra can solve this simple equation where the contingent fee award and lodestar fee are known:

contingent fee award = lodestar fee x multiplier

In Lafitte, the California Supreme Court charted the birth, death and resurrection of the common fund percentage approach for attorney fee awards throughout legal history — at least from 1966 when Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 was amended so as to usher in the modern class action.  The Court also carefully analyzed the pros and cons of each approach.  For those keeping score:  Lodestar MethodPros:  (1) better accountability from class counsel for case handling, (2) encourages class counsel to pursue marginal increases in class recovery; Cons:  (1)  discourages early settlement, (2) consumes judicial resources in reviewing class counsel’s timesheets; Percentage MethodPros:  (1) easy to calculate, (2) creates reasonable expectations for class counsel in terms of recovery, (3) encourages early settlement; Cons:  (1) encourages class counsel to settle too early for a reduced amount, (2) may create a windfall when the common fund is very large.  After this detailed analysis, the Court concluded, “[W]e clarify today that use of the percentage method to calculate a fee in a common fund case, where the award serves to spread the attorney fee among all the beneficiaries of the fund, does not in itself constitute an abuse of discretion.”  Moreover, “[T]rial courts have discretion to conduct a lodestar cross-check on a percentage fee . . . [but]; they also retain the discretion to forgo a lodestar cross-check and use other means to evaluate the reasonableness of a requested percentage fee.”  The Lafitte Court acknowledged that Serrano III may have caused confusion on the issue, but limited Serrano III’s lodestar requirement to cases involving enforcement of statutes with fee-shifting provisions – for example, where prosecution of the case “has resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest.”  Cal. Code Civ. Proc. §1021.5.

Before California consumer class action lawyers fire up their calculators, however, a few words of warning are in order.  First and foremost, the Lafitte Court did not dispense with the fundamental requirement that the fee award be reasonable.  While the Court’s opinion does not require a lodestar double check, it does mandate that the trial court use some means to evaluate the reasonableness of the fee.  Interestingly, the Court shied away from endorsing the “sliding scale” approach sometimes employed in class action settlements to promote reasonableness where the fee percentage decreases as the settlement increases in amount:  “[W]e do not mean to endorse the use of a sliding percentage scale. That issue is not before us and is not without controversy.” In addition, the California Supreme Court made clear that its ruling does not inform whether and how a contingent fee can be applied where there is no common fund – i.e., where class counsel argues for a “’constructive common fund’ created by the defendant‘s agreement to pay claims made by class members and, separately, to  pay class counsel a reasonable fee as determined by the court.”

Most importantly for counsel who settle consumer class actions, the Court stated that its decision does not apply to a case where “a settlement agreement establishes a fund but provides that portions not distributed in claims revert to the defendant or be distributed to a third party or the state, making the fund‘s value to the class depend on how many claims are made and allowed.”   Because it is often the case that the common fund settlement amount in a consumer class action includes more money (even minus class counsel fees and administration costs) than is needed to compensate class members’ claims, such settlements often include cy pres provisions requiring that left-over money not claimed by class members (or eaten up by fees and costs) be donated to a specific charity.  Cy pres provisions are employed to:  (1) convince the court deciding whether to approve the settlement that the amount is “real” in that the defendant isn’t getting any of it back; and (2) establish a concrete settlement number on which to apply the attorney fee percentage.  The Lafitte Court grounded its decision to approve the percentage of fund method on the basis that “the percentage of the fund method more accurately reflects the results achieved.”  But if cash in the settlement fund ends up going to a charity – no matter how worthy the cause – does this amount “reflect the results achieved” for the class?  No doubt, given the ever-increasing use of cy pres provisions in consumer class actions, we will almost certainly learn the answer to this question in the very near future.

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