Certification

Alert: Ninth Circuit Opens A Door For All Natural Class Claims

** Appeal Court Panel Holds That Genuine Dispute Remained As To Whether All Natural Claims Would Survive Reasonable Consumer Test **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      hires-2Judge Lucy H. Koh gave all natural class defendants cause for celebration back in 2014 when she closed the door on a putative class representative’s claim that Dole’s fruit juices and fruit cups were wrongfully labelled as “All Natural.”  Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, No. 12-CV-01831-LHK, 2014 WL 6901867 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 8, 2014).  Last week, however, the Ninth Circuit re-opened that door slightly – at least enough for the plaintiffs’ bar to try to squeeze their feet in.

Mr. Brazil alleged in his 2012 Complaint that Dole’s fruit cups and fruit juices were falsely labelled as “All Natural” because they contained citric acid (i.e. vitamin C) and ascorbic acid (used to prevent discoloring).  Dole successfully argued on summary judgment that Plaintiff had failed to show that a significant portion of the consuming public or of targeted consumers, acting reasonably under the circumstances, would be misled by its labeling.  Id. at *4, citing Lavie v. Procter & Gamble Co., 105 Cal.App. 4th 496, 507 (2003).  Plaintiff’s own opinion about the added Vitamin C and absorbic acid was not enough.  Id.  Neither was his rationale that a reasonable consumer could be misled by virtue of a label that violated FDA guidance on the topic (the FDA is not a reasonable consumer and vice versa, Judge Koh reasoned).  Further, in a prior ruling, Judge Koh decertified Plaintiff’s main damages class because Plaintiff’s damages model (or lack thereof) failed the threshold test of Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. ___ (2013), i.e., that damages could be adequately calculated with proof common to the class.  Brazil appealed both the summary judgment and decertification decisions.

The Ninth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part.  Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, No. 14-17480, 2016 WL 5539863, at *1 (9th Cir. Sept. 30, 2016).

The good news is that the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judge Koh’s decertification of the damages class – and by so doing signaling that the Circuit will continue adhering to the Comcast principle that Plaintiffs have the burden of demonstrating a viable class-wide basis of calculating damages.  It held that the lower court correctly limited damages to the difference between the prices customers paid and the value of the fruit they bought—in other words, the “price premium.”  2016 WL 5539863, at *2 – 3, citing In re Vioxx Class Cases, 103 Cal. Rptr. 3d 83, 96 (Cal. Ct. App. 2009).  The Ninth Circuit reiterated that under the price premium theory, a plaintiff cannot be awarded a full refund unless the product she purchased was worthless – which in this case – the fruit was not.  Id. citing In re Tobacco Cases II, 192 Cal. Rptr. 3d 881, 895 (Cal. Ct. App. 2015).  Because Mr. Brazil did not (and presumably could not) explain how this premium could be calculated across a common class, the motion to decertify was rightly decided.  Id. at *3.

The bad news is that the Appeals Court rejected the lower court’s reasoning that bare allegations of an individual’s claims of deception were insufficient to show the reasonable consumer would be equally deceived.  Troublingly, the court used the FDA’s informal policy statement (see Janney v. Mills, 944 F. Supp. 2d 806, 812 (N.D. Cal. 2013) (citing 58 Fed. Reg. 2302–01)) on the issue as determinative of the reasonable consumer standard.  As one commentator has noted, this converts informal guidance into binding authority.

With the damages class gone, the Ninth Circuit remanded the case for a determination of Plaintiff’s injunctive relief class.  That may be a pyrrhic victory in the end.  As we have blogged in the past, a plaintiff who is aware of the supposed deception is not in a position, as Pete Townshend penned, to be fooled again.

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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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Long Term Effects of Tobacco II

** A Return to the Limits of In Re Tobacco II?  Courts Find That Not Every Advertisement is Part of a “Long-Term Campaign” **                                                                                                                                                                                              

London, England - May 20, 2016: Packets of Various Old Cigarette Boxes from the 1970's

We normally don’t blog about unpublished decisions because . . . lack of precedential value and all that . . . .  and that may turn out to be the case with the recent California Court of Appeal’s opinion in Santamarina v. Sears Roebuck & Co., B246705, 2016 WL 1714226, at *1 (Cal. Ct. App. Apr. 26, 2016) and the Ninth Circuit’s memorandum decision in Haskins v. Symantec Corp., No. 14-16141 (9th Cir. June 20, 2016).  But these decisions are simply too good for us to pass up the opportunity to post about them  – particularly for those who represent clients being sued under California’s CLRA or UCL based on foggy claims of consumer fraud.  Invariably, a defendant bringing a Rule 9(b) motion to dismiss or opposing class certification based on the putative class representative’s inability to identify the false advertisements she relied on will be met with the plaintiff’s invocation of the “long-term advertising campaign” language in In re Tobacco II Cases (Tobacco II), 46 Cal. 4th 298 (2009) – the salve that heals all reliance deficiencies.

Of course, Tobacco II dealt with a class representatives’ allegations of “a decades-long campaign of deceptive advertising and misleading statements about the addictive nature of nicotine and the relationship between tobacco use and disease.”  46 Cal. 4th at 306 (emphasis added.)  Which is no exaggeration, Joe Camel was R.J. Reynolds’ pitchman for a decade — although it seemed much longer — and the Marlboro Man rode shotgun for Philip Morris for almost half a century.  Based on that allegation, the California Supreme Court held, “[W]here . . . a plaintiff alleges exposure to a long-term advertising campaign, the plaintiff is not required to plead with an unrealistic degree of specificity that the plaintiff relied on particular advertisements or statements.”  Id. at 328.  Despite the limited nature of this ruling, plaintiffs who have no idea what advertisements they may have seen frequently claim that the defendant engaged in a “long-term [false] advertising campaign.” Id.

Courts have shown varying degrees of willingness to go along with this class representative claim, particularly at the pleading and class certification stages.  Those that do, often quote this language from Tobacco II:  “The substantive right extended to the public by the UCL is the right to protection from fraud, deceit and unlawful conduct, and the focus of the statute is on the defendant’s conduct.” 46 Cal 4th at 324.  Courts accepting the “long-term advertising campaign” excuse for the plaintiff’s inability to identify the advertisements he relied on tend to read Tobacco II as a judicial declaration that the UCL and CLRA are primarily punish-the-defendant statutes and only secondarily consumer protection laws.

But in Santamarina – a case involving “Made in the USA” advertising by Sears for its Craftsman® tools – the California Court of Appeal scaled back the expansive readings of Tobacco II by other California courts.  In Santamarina, the putative class representatives were able to identify the specific advertising and labeling on which they relied so standing was not at issue as it was in Tobacco II.  In addition, falsity and materiality were not in dispute given California law on “Made in the USA” claims.  Moreover, discovery in the case apparently showed that Sears understood that “Made in the USA” was a valuable sales claim and internal marketing studies demonstrated that a significant percentage of consumers believed Craftsman® tools were made in the United States.

Despite the above, the Court of Appeal concluded that plaintiffs could not establish commonality or that the proposed class was ascertainable.  Notably, the plaintiffs defined the class as “All persons who purchased, in the State of California from January 6, 2001 through the present, any Craftsman branded tool or product where any unit or part thereof was entirely or substantially made, manufactured, or produced outside of the United States.”  The Court of Appeal agreed with the superior court that this definition doomed the proposed class under commonality and ascertainability requirements because the proposed class included consumers who never saw any Craftsman® “Made in the USA” advertising or labeling.  The Court of Appeal responded to plaintiffs’ incantation of Tobacco II by holding, “Given that the time period at issue was several years, and only some Sears advertising and marketing could potentially be found to be false or misleading, substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the advertising at issue here is not equivalent to the decades-long campaign in Tobacco II.”  Particularly important are these words:  “In contrast to the evidence here, Tobacco II ‘involved identical misrepresentations and/or nondisclosures by the defendants made to the entire class.’” Santamarina, 2016 WL 1714226, at *10 (citing  Kaldenbach v. Mutual of Omaha Life Ins. Co. (2009) 178 Cal.App.4th 830, 849.

For being designated as an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeal’s decision in Santamarina is unusually expansive in its analysis – covering 34 pages.  In contrast, Haskins v. Symantec is the soul of wit.  In a mere two paragraphs, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s dismissal of a putative class action complaint alleging that Symantec failed to warn consumers that hackers had compromised the 2006 version of its ubiquitous Norton antivirus software.  The plaintiff claimed, among other things, that she relied on Symantec’s advertising that its software was secure (when it allegedly wasn’t) in buying it – without identifying the specific advertising.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal under Rule 9(b) “[b]ecause Haskins’s complaint did not allege that she read and relied on a specific misrepresentation by Symantec.”  In response to the plaintiff’s predictable invocation of Tobacco II, the Ninth Circuit found that the plaintiff “failed to establish that the Tobacco II standard is applicable to her pleadings because the misrepresentations at issue here were not part of an extensive and long-term advertising campaign like the decades-long campaign engaging in saturation advertising targeting adolescents in Tobacco II.”

Two cases do not a trend make — especially when California law is involved.  But it is encouraging to see courts – even in unpublished decisions – return Tobacco II to its stated limits rather than assuming that any and every advertisement is part of a long-term campaign.

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No New Year Cheer For “Meaningless” Class Settlements

** Second Circuit Affirms Denial of Class Certification in Low Ball Settlement of New York Fair Debt Collection Suit **                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

A recent Second Circuit decision highlights the thorny issues involved in a “low dollar” class settlement.  In Gallego v. Northland Group Inc. No. 15-1666-CV (2d Cir. Feb. 22, 2016), Gallego, along with about 100,000 New York residents, received a rather perky dunning letter from defendant collection agency Northland in January 2014 declaring, “IT’S A NEW YEAR WITH NEW OPPORTUNITIES!” and inviting Gallego to settle his debt with a department store credit card company.  Rather than heralding the new year by settling the claim, Gallego rang it in by bringing a putative class action lawsuit against Northland under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”).  The substance of the claim was dubious – attempting to bootstrap a technical violation of the New York City Administrative Code (not providing the name of an individual to contact) into a false representation or unfair or unconscionable means under the FDCPA.

Northland, apparently calculating that it was cheaper to settle than fight, entered into a proposed settlement with Gallego.  In addition to an attorneys’ fee cap of $35,000, Northland agreed to establish a settlement fund of $17,500 – approximately 1% of the net worth liability limit under the FDCPA.  Gallego would receive a $1,000 incentive fee and the remaining $16,500 would be distributed pro rata to class members who made a claim.  The proposed settlement dissolved if there were 50 opt outs – who could then bring individual actions under the FDCPA with statutory damages of $1,000 each plus attorney fees.

The district court denied class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) superiority observing that class members would receive 16.5 cents each while, if they brought individual actions, they might each recover $1,000 statutory damages and attorney fees. Gallego v. Northland Group Inc. 102 F.Supp.3d 506 (S.D.N.Y 2015).  The court opined that the prospects of a recovery measured in pennies would likely result in “mass indifference” among most class members who would be deterred from filing individual lawsuits or joining the class.  This could result in a few class members reaping a windfall from the settlement.  “The prospects of mass indifference, a few profiteers, and a quick fee to clever lawyers is hardly the intended outcome for Rule 23 class actions.”

On appeal, the Second Circuit agreed that the district court did not abuse its discretion by denying certification.  Gallego argued that it was unlikely that all 100,000 class members would make claims so the individual class member recovery would be higher (a particularly noteworthy admission given that because Northland sent the offending letters in the first place – individual notice was practical and would likely be effective in this case) – basically agreeing with the district court that there would be “mass indifference” to the settlement.  The Court of Appeals retorted, “An expected low participation rate is hardly a selling point for a proposed classwide settlement.”  The Second Circuit went even further, determining that the district court would have been right in doubting that Gallego would “fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class,” as required by Rule 23(a)(4) pointing out that the proposed settlement included a release – not only of class members’ FDCPA claims – but all “claims arising out of any of the facts, events, occurrences, acts or omissions complained of in the Lawsuit, or other related matters . . . relating to letters sent to them that are substantially similar to the letter” received by Gallego.

It is important to reiterate that the FDCPA provides for an individual right of action with statutory damages as well as attorney fees, which are often absent from general consumer protection statutes.  This made it easy for the district court to find that the class action lawsuit was not a superior method for resolving the dispute given the proposed settlement value.  Nevertheless, the district court’s “a plague on both your houses” conclusion on class certification serves up a cautionary note:  “Because I find that certifying a class would do little more than turn [Nortland’s] settlement with Mr. Gallego into a general release of liability from all similarly situated plaintiffs at minimal extra cost while furthering a cottage industry among enterprising lawyers, class certification is denied.”

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