Second Circuit

Is the Primary Jurisdiction Doctrine Alive Again for “Natural” Defendants?

 ** Ninth Circuit Stays Natural Case In “Food Court” **
maxresdefault

The doctrine of primary jurisdiction is a prudential means to stay or dismiss a party’s claims if the claims are better adjudicated or answered by an administrative agency – it “is concerned with promoting proper relationships between the courts and administrative agencies charged with particular regulatory duties.” Ellis v. Tribune Television Co., 443 F.3d 71, 81 (2d Cir.2006). It is properly applied “whenever enforcement of the claim requires the resolution of issues which, under a regulatory scheme, have been placed within the special competence of an administrative body.” Id. When applicable, “a court defers to the agency for advisory findings and either stays the pending action or dismisses it without prejudice” Johnson v. Nyack Hosp., 86 F.3d 8, 11 (2d Cir.1996).

Courts must make a case-by-case determination when considering primary jurisdiction.   In doing so, they generally focus on: (1) whether the question at issue is within the conventional experience of judges or whether it involves technical or policy considerations within the agency’s particular field of expertise; (2) whether the question at issue is particularly within the agency’s discretion; (3) whether there exists a substantial danger of inconsistent rulings; and (4) whether a prior application to the agency has been made. Nat’l Commc’ns Ass’n v. AT & T, 46 F.3d 220, 222 (2d Cir.1995).

There was a time when “primary jurisdiction” was in vogue for “all natural” defendants because of the perception that the FDA was the proper administrative body to answer the question of what sort of ingredients and products qualify as “natural.”  The leading case was Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012). This case involved Hain Celestial’s cosmetics products with labels including “All Natural,” “Pure Natural,” or “Pure, Natural & Organic.” In this case, the putative nationwide class representatives alleged that they had been duped into purchasing Hain’s cosmetics that allegedly contained synthetic and artificial ingredients such as benzyl alcohol.  As is typical in such cases, the plaintiffs sought damages and injunctive relief under a variety of theories including statutory violations under the California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act. The district court dismissed the case, applying primary jurisdiction, holding that “[in] the absence of any FDA rules or regulations (or even informal policy statements) regarding the use of the word “natural” on cosmetics labels, the court declines to make any independent determination of whether defendants’ use of “natural” was false or misleading. Doing so would “risk undercutting the FDA’s expert judgments and authority.” Other district courts invoked the agency’s primary jurisdiction to wait and see if the FDA intended to offer  regulations regarding the use of the term “natural” (in particular in GMO food cases). In re Gen. Mills, Inc. Kix Cereal Litig., No. CIV–A–12–249 KM, 2013 WL 5943972 (D.N.J. Nov. 1, 2013), Barnes v. Campbell Soup Co., No. C12–05185 JSW, 2013 WL 5530017 (N.D.Cal. July 25, 2013) (GMO food case), Cox v. Gruma Corp., No. 12–CV–6502 YGR, 2013 WL 3828800 (N.D.Cal. July 11, 2013) (GMO case).

Undeterred by the district court’s dismissal, the Plaintiffs in Astiana went on a two pronged attack. They went directly to the FDA seeking guidance on the definition of “natural.”  The FDA responded by letter stating – “cosmetic public health and safety matters are currently fully occupying the resources that FDA has available for proceedings on cosmetics matters” and “proceedings to define ‘natural’ do not fit within [the agency’s] current health and safety priorities.” Plaintiffs also appealed to the Ninth Circuit.  Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 783 F.3d 753, 759 (9th Cir. 2015). The Ninth Circuit held that — while the district’s court primary jurisdiction doctrine decision was not wrong — it should have stayed the matter awaiting an FDA response. Upon remand, the district court revisited the primary jurisdiction argument and, recognizing that the recent FDA letter demonstrated that the FDA has no interest in the subject matter and, therefore,  referral to the FDA would be futile, the court denied defendant’s motion to stay on primary jurisdiction grounds. Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., No. 4:11-cv-06342-PJH (N.D. Cal. October 9, 2015) (Dkt. No. 114).

Courts in other jurisdictions have followed this same rejection of the primary jurisdiction doctrine argument made by cosmetic company defendants in “natural” cases. Goldemberg v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc., 8 F. Supp. 3d 467, 476 (S.D.N.Y. 2014) (“the FDA has not begun to promulgate a rule concerning the term natural in cosmetics . . [i]nstead, it recently declined to make such a determination . . . [t]hus, as the agency is not simultaneously contemplating the same issue . . . this factor weighs against applying the primary jurisdiction doctrine”); Paulino v. Conopco, Inc., No. 14-CV-5145 JG RML, 2015 WL 4895234, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2015); Langan v. Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies, Inc., 95 F. Supp. 3d 284, 290 (D. Conn. 2015); Fagan v. Neutrogena Corp., No. 5:13-CV-01316-SVW-OP, 2014 WL 92255, at *1 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 8, 2014) (“Plaintiffs’ claims are not barred by the doctrine of primary jurisdiction . . . [as the] FDA has affirmed that proceedings to define the term natural in the context of cosmetics do not fit within its current health and safety priorities.”); see also Reid v. GMC Skin Care USA Inc., No. 815CV277BKSCFH, 2016 WL 403497, at *1 (N.D.N.Y. Jan. 15, 2016) (rejecting primary jurisdiction in case alleging that face cream with “DNA repair effect” statements was misleading); Randolph v. J.M. Smucker Co., No. 13-80581-CIV, 2014 WL 1018007, at *6 (S.D. Fla. Mar. 14, 2014).

At the same time that the primary jurisdiction doctrine was being buried with respect to “natural” claims, it remained viable in various food cases, particularly those presenting discrete technical questions, i.e. Backus v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 122 F. Supp. 3d 909, 933 (N.D. Cal. 2015) (primary jurisdiction invoked on question of the amount of trans fat in baked goods that is safe); Saubers v. Kashi Co., 39 F. Supp. 3d 1108 (S.D. Cal. 2014) (primary jurisdiction invoked with respect to “evaporated cane juice” labels) (collecting cases). The basis for primary jurisdiction in particular in the ECJ cases is that that FDA has indicated that it WILL issue regulatory guidance on evaporated cane juice – but not until the end of 2016. See also Draft Guidance for Industry on Ingredients Declared as Evaporated Cane Juice; Reopening of Comment Period; Request for Comments, Data, and Information, 79 Fed.Reg. 12,507 (Mar. 5, 2014).  Most evaporated cane juice cases are currently stayed (or dismissed) see, e.g., Gitson, et al. v. Clover-Stornetta Farms, Inc., Case No. 3:13-cv-01517-EDL (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2016) (extending ECJ stay for an additional 180 days, until August 2016) (Laporte, J.); Swearingen v. Amazon Preservation Partners, Inc., Case No. 13-cv-04402-WHO (N.D. Cal. Jan. 11, 2016) (Orrick, J.) (extending ECJ stay and continuing case management conference until July 2016). A few judges have lifted the ECJ stay (impatient at the FDA’s movement) but they appear to be out-liers. See Figy v. Lifeway Foods, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-4828-TEH (N.D. Cal. Jan. 4, 2016), Dkt. No. 57; Swearingen v. Pacific Foods of Oregon, Inc., No. 13-cv-04157 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2015), Dkt. No. 61.

But we digress.  Back to “natural” and a significant development.  In November 2015, the FDA issued a request for comments regarding the use of the term “natural” in connection with food product labeling. See Use of the Term “Natural” in the Labeling of Human Food Products; Request for Information and Comments, 80 Fed. Reg. 69,905 (Nov. 12, 2015)See our previous blog post.  While noteworthy in and of itself, the FDA’s requests for comments also raised the secondary issue of whether the FDA’s new-found interest in potentially defining “natural” with respect to foods  triggers the primary jurisdiction doctrine?   Last week, the Ninth Circuit answered – Yes. In Kane v. Chobani, LLC, No. 14-15670, 2016 WL 1161782, at *1 (9th Cir. Mar. 24, 2016), the circuit court dealt with an appeal from the Northern District of California where buyers of Chobani fruit flavored Greek yogurt filed suit against  the company alleging that its labels and advertising violated California law because the “all natural” yogurt included fruit juice and turmeric.  Before the district court, the plaintiffs had a difficult time articulating why it was plausible to allege that fruit juice and turmeric are unnatural vacillating between the argument that it is unnatural to use these ingredients to color yogurt and the argument that the fruit juices at issue were so heavily processed that they are no longer natural.  Ultimately the district court found that the case warranted dismissal on Rule 9(b) and 12(b)(6) grounds. Kane v. Chobani, LLC, 973 F. Supp. 2d 1120, 1138 (N.D. Cal. 2014).  Plaintiffs appealed on the basis that under primary jurisdiction their case should have been stayed – not dismissed. And the Ninth Circuit agreed,  vacating the dismissal and remanding to the district court under a stay pending resolution of the FDA’s “natural” proceedings. So a win for the plaintiffs in Chobani – but one that defendants will take careful note of – in the Ninth Circuit and beyond.

 

Share this:
Facebooktwitterlinkedin

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.”

Share this:
Facebooktwitterlinkedin