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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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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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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False Advertising to the Dogs

**Record Payout By Blue Buffalo in Multi District Pet Food Class Settlement sparked by Nestle Purina Competitor Law Suit** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

Competitor lawsuits give class action plaintiffs a helpful leg-up.  See Prior post.  The Blue Buffalo matter is a good case in point.  Blue Buffalo makes pet food which was advertised, amongst other things, as not containing animal by-products or grain.  According to Blue Buffalo’s main competitor Nestle Purina that advertising claim is not true.  Nestlé Purina PetCare Company v. Blue Buffalo Company Ltd., Civil Case No. 4:14-cv-008590 (E.D. Mo. May 6, 2014) Compl. ECF No. 2, see also First Amended Compl. (Nov. 13, 2014) ECF No. 104.  Nestle Purina’s claim was that its own lab testing of the Blue Buffalo’s products found – contrary to the advertising – both poultry by-products and grain.  And indeed, during discovery, Nestle Purina claims that it found smoking gun emails between Blue Buffalo’s suppliers and brokers about by-products in the supply chain (and unfortunately for Blue Buffalo the emails literally used the phrase “smoking gun”).  See 4:14-cv-00859-RWS, Doc. #. 77-1 (E.D. Mo. Oct. 10, 2014).  The inevitable consumer led class actions ensued (using the Nestle Purina claims and findings as their model)–: Fisher et al v. The Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd. et al, Case No. 14-cv-5937 (C.D. Cal.); Teperson et al v. The Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd et al, Case No. 14-cv-1682, (S.D. Cal.); Delre et al v. Blue Buffalo Co., Ltd, Case No. 14-cv-768, (D. Ct.); Renna et al v. Blue Buffalo Co., Ltd., Case No. 14-cv-833, (D. Ct.); Mackenzie et al v. The Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd., Inc., Case No. 14-cv-80634, (S.D. Fl.); Stone et al v. Blue Buffalo Company Ltd., Case No. 14-cv-520, (S.D. Ill.); Keil et al v. Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd., Case No. 14-cv-880, (E.D. Mo.); Hutchison et al v. Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd., Case No. 14-cv-1070, (E.D. Mo.); Andacky et al v. The Blue Buffalo Company, Ltd., Case No. 14-cv-2938, (E.D. N.Y.).  Blue Buffalo in turn counterclaimed against Nestle Purina asking for an injunction to stop Nestle Purina from its advertising attacking Blue Buffalo’s practices.  And when the “smoking gun” appeared, Blue Buffalo sued the third party companies who allegedly supplied it with by-product material.  The various class complaints were transferred after a Multi District Litigation Panel hearing to federal court in Missouri.  In re Blue Buffalo Co., Ltd. Marketing and Sales Practice Litigation Case No. 4:14-md-02562-RWS (E.D. Mo.).   On December 9, 2015 class settlement and class certification approval was filed.  ECF No. 159.  The court, preliminarily approved the certification and settlement a week later.  ECF No. 164.  The fairness hearing is set for May 19, 2016.  Nestle Purina is trumpeting the $32 million settlement as the “largest pet food class action settlement in history.” Interestingly, Blue Buffalo fought most of the litigation at the same time as listing its IPO.  The class action’s impact on the IPO is unclear – the shares gained 38 percent on the issue’s first full day of trading on the Nasdaq in July 2015.  That said, pursuant to the settlement Blue Buffalo will take a charge against Q4 2015 earnings of $32 million. In the third quarter, the company’s net profit totaled $27 million.

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Honest-ly: All Natural

**Jessica Alba’s Honest Company the Latest Target in California of the All Natural Plaintiff Class Action Bar in cocamidopropyl betaine case ** . . .                                                                                                                                                                           

Honesty and related virtues on a product box or package for instant reputation building, including sinerity, trustworthiness, honor, candor and integrity

The “All Natural” conundrum is yet to be solved.  The latest target is The Honest Co. – the celebrity driven purveyor of baby and cleaning products.  Rubin v. The Honest Company, Inc., 3:15-cv-04036-EDL (N.D. Cal. September 3, 2015).  The complaint touts a familiar trope – that defendant’s products with “natural” labeling actually have some artificial or synthetic ingredients.  In this case (inter alia) the allegedly offending ingredient is cocamidopropyl betaine.  A scary sounding ingredient – and one that sounds artificial.  In reality, it is a compound derived from coconut oil.  Courts have been consistent that scary sounding names aside, just because an ingredient is manufactured or extracted does not make it “un-natural.”  See Pelayo v. Nestle USA, Inc., 989 F. Supp. 2d 973, 978 (C.D. Cal. 2013) (holding that the “reasonable consumer is aware that Buitoni Pastas are not springing fully-formed from Ravioli trees and Tortellini bushes”); Balser v. Hain Celestial Group, Inc., CV 13–05604–R, 2013 WL 6673617 (C.D. Cal. Dec. 18, 2013) (dismissing without leave to amend a complaint involving a product line of over 30 “natural” shampoos and cosmetics, because “shampoos and lotions do not exist in nature, there are no shampoo trees, cosmetics are manufactured  . . . [t]hus Plaintiffs cannot plausibly allege they were deceived to believe shampoo was existing in or produced by nature”); Kane v. Chobani, Inc., 973 F.Supp.2d 1120, 1137 (N.D. Cal. 2014) (rejecting outright the assertion that fruit or vegetable juices were “highly processed unnatural substances far removed from the fruits or vegetables they were supposedly derived from and in fact were more akin to synthetic dyes like coal tar dyes”); see Rooney v. Cumberland Packing Corp., 2012 WL 1512106 (S.D. Cal. Apr. 16, 2012) (dismissing without leave to amend a complaint alleging that “Sugar in the Raw” was deceptive because it was actually processed and not natural sugar).  Thus ingredients with “un-natural” names like sodium bicarbonate, citric acid and glycerin have been held to be natural and thus not misleading.  See, respectively, Astiana v. Dreyer’s Grand Ice Cream, Inc., No. C-11-2910 EMC, 2012 WL 2990766, at *1 (N.D. Cal. July 20, 2012) (noting that sodium bicarbonate is a non-synthetic alkalizing agent); Ries v. Arizona Beverages USA LLC, No. 10-01139 RS, 2013 WL 1287416, at *1 (N.D. Cal. Mar. 28, 2013) (granting summary judgment to defendant on question of whether citric acid in iced tea was natural, and defendant’s expert testimony that citric acid is a natural ingredient); Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC, No. 12-CV-01831-LHK, 2014 WL 6901867, at *5 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 8, 2014) (same); Thurston v. Bear Naked, Inc., 2013 WL 5664985, at *7–8 (N.D.Cal. July 30, 2013) (holding, at class certification stage, plaintiff not entitled to proceed with claim that reasonable consumer would “view the presence of glycerin . . . as contrary to 100% Natural statement on label”).  A number of other cosmetic companies have been hit with cocamidopropyl betaine claims – including Neutrogena (4:12-cv-00426-PJH (N.D. Cal)), Johnson & Johnson (3:13-cv-00524 (D.N.J.)).  These matters settled.

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All Eyes on the Supreme Court for Consumer Class Action Lawyers

supreme-court

**The Supreme Court’s 2015 Term Opens With a Series of Cases Important for Consumer Class Action Defendants: Campbell-Ewald v Gomez, Spokeo v Robins and Tyson Foods v Bouaphakeo** . . .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

In recent years, the Supreme Court has handed down victories to the class action defense bar.  In Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 564 U.S. ___ (2011), the Court reversed a California district court certification of a gender discrimination class – raising the bar on commonality questions for plaintiffs.  In Comcast v. Behrend, 569 U.S. __ (2013), the Court again reversed a district court certification – heightening scrutiny on plaintiffs’ methods for alleging class wide damages.  As the 2015 term opens this week, defense counsel around the country eye further potential victories in three key cases.

The first case up is Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez (No. 14-857) on appeal from the Ninth Circuit where the Court will deal with two frequently litigated questions as yet unresolved by the circuits.  Namely, does a Rule 68 offer of complete relief to a plaintiff moot his or her claim and, if so, does it also moot the resulting class claim under Rule 23?  The underlying case concerns unsolicited text messages prohibited by the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) 47 U.S.C. § 227.  The TCPA contains a statutory remedy and defendants argued that, to the extent they had offered Plaintiff  the full amount of the statutory remedy (per Rule 68) as relief,  the plaintiff suffered no cognizable Article III damages.  Thus, defendants argue that because the plaintiff suffered no injury,  he has no right to represent a class of people who may have been damaged.  From a practical perspective, the case addresses the question:  Can a defendant “pick off” would be class representatives through Rule 68 offers of judgment thereby destroying the foundation of the class action claim?  As anyone who has defended corporations receiving required pre-litigation notices under consumer protection statutes has observed, plaintiff law firms have become increasingly reticent to disclose the identity of their clients at the notice stage in order to forestall Rule 68 offers of judgment until the putative class action lawsuit has been filed.

The second case is Spokeo Inc. v. Robins, (No. 13-1339) also on appeal from the Ninth Circuit.  This case involves a related question of Article III standing for class representatives.  Spokeo concerns the  Fair Credit Reporting Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1681 (FCRA), which requires consumer credit agencies to take reasonable steps to ensure the accuracy of their published reports.  Plaintiff in a putative class action argued in the Central District of California that results for his name on the Spokeo website contained inaccurate information about plaintiff’s education and professional experience – and that this inaccuracy harmed his employment prospects.   The District Court dismissed, finding that the alleged damages – based on hypothetical impact on his employment – were too speculative to satisfy Article III standing.  The Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the statutory violation implicitly creates a private cause of action to enforce and that this violation of a statutory right was an “injury” sufficient to confer standing.  The Ninth Circuit Spokeo decision was the latest in a circuit split – on one side the Second and Fourth circuits, which have rejected standing arguments from plaintiffs who alleged bare statutory violations that did not result in any actual harm (Kendall v. Emps. Ret. Plan of Avon Prods., 561 F.3d 112 (2d Cir. 2009); David v. Alphin, 704 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 2013)); and the Ninth Circuit joining the Sixth and Seventh Circuits, which have come out on the side of recognizing “damages” for private plaintiffs with respect to minor statutory violations.  Beaudry v. TeleCheck Servs, 579 F.3d 702 (6th Cir. 2009); Murray v. GMAC Mortg. Corp., 434 F.3d 948 (7th Cir, 2006).  If the Supreme Court recognizes damages irrespective of actual harm, the impact could be felt more broadly than FCRA – there are numerous similar statutory schemes, including truth-in-lending legislation (15 U.S.C. § 1640(a)); debt collection statutes, (15 U.S.C. § 1692k(a)); as well as various privacy laws (18 U.S.C. § 2710(c)(1); 47 U.S.C. § 551(f)(1)-(2)).

The third case is Tyson Foods v. Bouaphakeo (No. 14-1146) – a challenge to a $5.8 million wage-and-hour judgment in favor of a class of employees at Tyson’s meat packing plant in Iowa.  Tyson’s petition seeks a reversal of the district court and Eight Circuit’s decision to permit liability and damages verdicts to be based – not on an individual analysis of each purported class member – but by extrapolating a statistical average across the board based on the discrepancies observed in a sample class of workers’ hours and pay.  Tyson further appeals on the lack of ascertainability of the class itself – that is, that the certified group (even according to the Plaintiffs’ own expert) included a significant number of people who weren’t underpaid at all.  If successful, the Tyson case will build upon the Court’s disapproval in Wal-Mart of “trial by formula” and provide a significant bulwark against plaintiffs in putative class actions glossing over differences amongst their claimed class in order to achieve certification.

Not surprisingly, this trifecta of cases has generated a significant amount of interest, amicus briefing, and optimistic thinking from the defense bar that momentum is on its side.  The implications are not insubstantial if defendants prevail:  the type of de facto strict liability for statutory compliance created by such class actions will diminish, there will be new avenues to derail cases pre-certification, and the barrier of ascertainable and reliable class wide damages that plaintiff s must hurdle will be reinforced.

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