The California legislature made headlines on June 28 when it passed—and the Governor signed—AB 375, a sweeping new data privacy bill known as the “California Consumer Privacy Act.” As further described in our colleagues’ report, the Act grants broad new privacy rights to customers of certain companies doing business in California. In addition, the Act both provides for enforcement by the California Attorney General and creates a private right of action for some violations. Because of the latter feature, this new legislation may pave a new road to court for class actions in the wake of data breaches affecting California consumers.
Last Friday, a panel of the D.C. Circuit issued its decision in ACA International v. FCC (pdf). The decision, which arrived nearly 17 months after the oral argument, struck down key elements of the FCC’s controversial 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order interpreting the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA).
Here are the key takeaways from the decision:
- The court held that the FCC’s broad definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS), which threatened to include all smartphones, is arbitrary and capricious, and required the FCC to reconsider its definition.
- The court overturned the FCC’s conclusion that a caller could be subjected to liability for calls placed or text messages sent to a phone number that had been reassigned after a “safe harbor” of a single errant call or text. Because the “safe harbor” ruling was arbitrary and capricious, the court concluded that the FCC was required to reexamine whether a caller should be liable for any calls or texts to reassigned numbers.
- The panel sustained the FCC’s rule authorizing consumers to retract their consent to receive autodialed calls or text messages through “any reasonable means.” But the panel decision notes that the FCC’s rule doesn’t speak to situations where parties have contractually agreed to a specific method of revocation.
Unless the FCC seeks further appellate review (which seems unlikely), the agency will be reconsidering the autodialer and reassigned-number issues. Notably, the composition of the FCC has changed since the 2015 order; the chairman of the FCC is Commissioner Ajit Pai, who dissented from the 2015 ruling.
We summarize the decision in detail below. In the meantime, we expect businesses facing TCPA litigation to take at least three possible approaches.
First, the D.C. Circuit’s decision reopens a number of questions that plaintiffs have argued were resolved by the FCC’s 2015 ruling, and parties will seek to litigate those issues.
Second, the FCC will have something new to say on each of the issues remanded to it by the D.C. Circuit, and businesses and trade associations will doubtless want to participate in that regulatory discussion—especially given their extensive experience on the receiving end of TCPA lawsuits.
Third, and relatedly, a number of courts will surely find it more efficient to wait for the FCC’s pronouncements on these issues before allowing TCPA litigation to proceed.
We’ve previously blogged about Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court (“BMS”), in which the Supreme Court granted certiorari to review a decision of the California Supreme Court that adopted an unusual—and extraordinarily expansive—view of California courts’ power to exercise specific personal jurisdiction over a defendant.
We filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America, the California Chamber of Commerce, the American Tort Reform Association, and the Civil Justice Association of California, arguing that the California court’s holding conflicted with numerous Supreme Court decisions making clear that in order to invoke specific jurisdiction, a plaintiff’s claims must arise out of the defendant’s in-state conduct. (The views in this post are ours, and not those of our clients.)
The case was argued in April, and the Court announced its decision today. The result is an 8-1 opinion rejecting the California Supreme Court’s approach and, in our view, recognizing important limits imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause on the ability of courts to adjudicate cases that aggregate the claims of plaintiffs from many jurisdictions.
The immediate impact of the decision is to limit the forums where nationwide mass actions in state court can proceed to those states in which the defendant is subject to general jurisdiction (usually the state of incorporation and principal place of business). In addition, as we discuss below, the decision raises substantial questions about whether nationwide class actions can proceed in jurisdictions where a defendant is not subject to general jurisdiction. Continue Reading Supreme Court’s Decision In Bristol-Myers Squibb v. Superior Court Rejects Expansive View Of Specific Jurisdiction
Good news for businesses that use fax machines to communicate with customers: A panel of the D.C. Circuit has just struck down the FCC’s 2014 order mandating that even faxes requested by the recipient that contain advertising material include a special opt-out notice. The decision issued today in Bais Yaakov of Spring Valley v. FCC, No. 14-1234 (D.C. Cir. Mar. 31, 2017), is available here (pdf).
Hundreds of lower courts have interpreted and applied the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins over the past ten months. We will provide a more comprehensive report on the post-Spokeo landscape in the near future, but the overarching takeaway is that the majority of federal courts of appeals have faithfully applied Spokeo’s core holdings that “Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation,” and that a plaintiff does not “automatically satisf[y] the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to sue to vindicate that right.” Nonetheless, a handful of other decisions have been receptive to arguments by the plaintiffs’ bar that Spokeo did not make a difference in the law of standing, and that the bare allegation that a statutory right has been violated, without more, remains enough to open the federal courthouse doors to “no-injury” class actions.
Two recent decisions by the Seventh and Third Circuits illustrate these contrasting approaches.
Today, a panel of the D.C. Circuit—composed of Judges Srinivasan and Pillard and Senior Judge Edwards—heard argument in ACA International v. FCC, the consolidated appeals from the FCC’s 2015 Declaratory Ruling and Order, which greatly expanded the reach of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”). (An audio recording of the argument is here, and Kevin attended the argument.) The case has been closely watched, and a number of TCPA class actions around the country have been stayed to await the D.C. Circuit’s decision. More detail is below the fold, but here are our quick impressions from the argument:
- The panel asked tough questions of lawyers for both sides in an argument that went two full hours over the allotted 40 minutes.
- The panel focused most of its attention on the FCC’s new—and far-reaching—definition of an automatic telephone dialing system (ATDS, or “autodialer”). All three judges expressed discomfort with the fact that the FCC’s new definition could be read to cover smartphones.
- Judge Edwards repeatedly voiced criticisms of the FCC’s expansive readings of the TCPA across the board, and may be inclined to vacate large portions of the FCC’s Declaratory Ruling.
- Judge Pillard seemed the most receptive to the FCC’s arguments.
- Judges Srinivasan was the hardest to read, but it seems possible that he might join Judge Edwards in setting aside major portions of the FCC’s Declaratory Ruling.
What’s the difference between claiming that a food product is improperly certified as organic and claiming that the producer was properly certified but the product isn’t really organic? A unanimous California Supreme Court held in Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc. (pdf) that state courts and juries should figure out the answer. That ruling opens the door to state-law actions that challenge food producers’ compliance with the federal organic food product certification and labeling scheme, so long as the claims don’t take issue with the original certification decision. The decision revived a consumer class action alleging that a food producer—though properly certified to use the “organic” label—intentionally misapplied that label to products containing conventionally produced herbs from one of its noncertified facilities.
Drawing an exquisitely fine line, the California Supreme Court held that preemption extends only to “matters related to certifying production as organic” and left “untouched enforcement against abuse of the label ‘organic.’” The court concluded that state lawsuits alleging intentional misuse of an organic label were not preempted because (in the California court’s view) lawsuits of that kind would help rather than hinder Congress’s objective.
The federal Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) creates a uniform, federal definition of the term “organic” and gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture exclusive authority to elucidate the labeling standard and to certify producers as qualifying to label food as “organic.” The USDA may approve a state agency to carry out the certification function and impose more stringent state substantive standards. The California Department of Food and Agriculture has been approved for both of these roles. The OFPA and its California counterpart both provide for administrative enforcement of the regulations, including processes for consumer complaints to the relevant agency.
In Quesada, the plaintiff sued Herb Thyme Farms under California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and Consumers Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), alleging that Herb Thyme applied a “Fresh Organic” label to conventionally produced herbs and to a mixture of organic and conventional herbs. Herb Thyme has an organic farm that has been certified to use the “organic” label, but also operates conventional, nonorganic farms.
The California Supreme Court held that the federal OFPA did not preempt Quesada’s state-law claims. First, the court held that, because the pertinent provisions of OFPA do not reference enforcement, the statute expressly preempts state law only as to the definition of “organic” and the process for certifying that a grower’s methods of production entitle it to use the “organic” label. The California court relied on the fact that the mislabeling claims did not address the certification or compliance of Herb Thyme’s organic facility, but only challenged the use of the “organic” label for Herb Thyme products that contained (or consisted solely of) herbs that were not produced at the certified farm. The federal certification standards also address the procedures to be followed where a producer has both organic and conventional facilities, but the California Supreme Court found that regulation insufficient to bring the case within the OFPA’s preemptive scope.
Second, the California court concluded that Quesada’s claims were not impliedly preempted because they did not pose an obstacle to the uniform federal regulatory scheme, but rather furthered the purpose of that scheme. In the court’s view, once the regulators decide whether a producer or product meets the standards in the first instance, private plaintiffs may enlist state-law theories to enforce the producer’s later compliance with the labeling requirements. According to the court, allowing plaintiffs to use state statutory and common law to enforce the OFPA would “affirmatively further the purposes of the Act”—the more enforcement, the merrier.
By allowing a private plaintiff to pursue a state-law misrepresentation theory to police compliance with OFPA labeling standards, Quesada conflicts with the Eighth Circuit’s decision in In re Aurora Dairy Corp. Organic Milk Marketing & Sales Practices Litigation. The Eighth Circuit held in Aurora Dairy that claims alleging that “milk [was sold] as organic when in fact it was not organic are preempted because they conflict with the OFPA.” As the court of appeals put it, “compliance and certification cannot be separate requirements.” While the plaintiffs in Aurora Dairy could not sue over the use of the “organic” label, they could challenge related assertions and omissions about the way the cows were raised and fed, including affirmative claims that the cows were antibiotic- and hormone-free.
The California Supreme Court tried to avoid the conflict by asserting that the plaintiffs in Aurora Dairy were challenging the certification process itself. But that is not what the Aurora court said; moreover, the claims it allowed were based on representations that did not use the word “organic.”
Although the Quesada decision is limited on its face to claims involving fraudulent or intentional substitution of uncertified products for certified ones, that restriction may provide only modest comfort to defendants. Plaintiffs’ counsel can manipulate the allegations in their complaints with relative ease, particularly under the elastic standards of the UCL and CLRA. And the California Supreme Court opinion reflects hostility to federal preemption, suggesting that state lawsuits serve the purposes of an otherwise uniform federal regulatory scheme merely by increasing the volume of litigation, and that the so-called presumption against preemption may be dispositive even in an area like food safety, where the federal government has been heavily involved for more than 100 years. .
Rule 23 may be in for some major changes. The Advisory Committee has commissioned a Rule 23 subcommittee to investigate possible revisions to the class action rules. That subcommittee issued a report (pdf) discussing its progress, and recently has been conducting a “listening tour” of sorts regarding potential rule changes.
Our initial view is that the business community should have serious concerns about the approach that at least some members of the subcommittee appear to be taking, as several proposals are aimed at rolling back judicial decisions—including Supreme Court decisions—that are critical to ensuring that class actions satisfy the requirements of due process.
Here are ten things you need to know from the subcommittee’s report.
“This Order will make abuse of the TCPA much, much easier. And the primary beneficiaries will be trial lawyers, not the American public.” That’s what FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai had to say in his dissent from the FCC’s recent Declaratory Ruling and Order, issued on July 10, 2015. The FCC’s Order reflected the agency’s response to 21 petitions seeking guidance regarding or exemptions from various requirements under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), 47 U.S.C. § 227, and its implementing regulations.
The TCPA prohibits certain fax and automated-dialing practices and authorizes recovery of up to $1,500 per call, text message, or fax sent in willful violation of its restrictions. The TCPA has led to a tidal wave of class-action litigation, and the FCC’s recent Order may hasten that trend.
Most prominently, the FCC’s recent ruling:
Plaintiffs’ lawyers love to challenge products labeled as “natural,” with hundreds of false advertising class actions filed in just the last few years. Recently, in Astiana v. Hain Celestial (pdf), the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of one such class action, and in doing so, addressed some key recurring arguments made at the pleading stage in litigation over “natural” labeling.
The Hain Celestial Group makes moisturizing lotion, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, and other cosmetics products. Hain labels these products “All Natural,” “Pure Natural,” or “Pure, Natural & Organic.” A number of named plaintiffs, including Skye Astiana, filed a putative nationwide class action, alleging that they had been duped into purchasing Hain’s cosmetics. According to plaintiffs, those cosmetics were not natural at all, but allegedly contained “synthetic and artificial ingredients ranging from benzyl alcohol to airplane anti-freeze.” Astiana claimed that she likely would not have purchased Hain’s cosmetics at market prices had she been aware of their synthetic and artificial contents. As is typical in such cases, she sought damages and injunctive relief under a variety of theories: for alleged violations of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws, and common law theories of fraud and quasi-contract.
The district court dismissed the entire case in deference to the “primary jurisdiction” of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over natural labeling of cosmetics. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit made two important rulings to which defendants in “natural” litigation should pay special attention:
Federal regulators have (with a few limited exceptions not relevant here) declined either to adopt a formal definition of the term “natural” or to regulate that term’s use on cosmetics or food labels. But both plaintiffs and defendants have pointed to informal FDA statements and letters on the subject to advance particular litigation positions. For example, in this case, Hain invoked the prudential doctrine of primary jurisdiction to argue that a case challenging labeling statements cannot go forward because the FDA, not the courts, must determine in the first instance what the challenged labeling statement means and how it should be used. (Indeed, as we have previously discussed, the primary jurisdiction doctrine has led more than a dozen courts to stay false advertising cases in which plaintiffs allege that the ingredient name “evaporated cane juice” is misleading.)
Critically for other defendants intending to invoke primary jurisdiction in the future, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court had not erred in concluding that the doctrine applied. Rather, the district court’s error was only in dismissing the case rather than staying it. As the Ninth Circuit explained, “[w]ithout doubt, defining what is ‘natural’ for cosmetics labeling is both an area within the FDA’s expertise and a question not yet addressed by the agency,” and “[o]btaining expert advice from that agency would help ensure uniformity in administration of the comprehensive regulatory regime established by the [Food Drug and Cosmetics Act.]” Significantly, as the Ninth Circuit noted, the FDA had shown “reticence to define ‘natural’” at the time Hain invoked the doctrine with respect to food labels, in light of competing demands on the agency, and there is no reason to believe the FDA is on the verge of rulemaking on ‘natural’ labeling. But that was not a reason to bar the doctrine’s application.
That said, when, as in Astiana, additional judicial proceedings are contemplated once the FDA completes its work, the Ninth Circuit held that the case should be stayed rather than dismissed. And on that basis, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal. Whether the Astiana decision supports primary jurisdiction arguments outside the context of “natural” labeling on cosmetics—such as ‘natural’ statements on food labels—remains to be seen. But as we read it, the court’s core holding would seem to have broader application.
Hain separately argued that the FDCA expressly preempted the plaintiffs’ claims challenging the use of the term “natural.” But because there are no regulations defining ‘natural’ or its use on cosmetics labels, the Ninth Circuit disagreed, concluding that neither plaintiffs’ claims nor their requested remedy would impose requirements different from the (non-existent) federal rules on “natural” labeling. The Court did not find persuasive Hain’s argument that the FDA’s conscious decision not to define or regulate the term “natural” supports express preemption. That said, in other settings, including in “natural” cases, defendants may still find it appropriate to point out that the FDA (or another agency) has made a conscious decision not to regulate, and that such a decision should be entitled to deference and respect, or should be taken into account in assessing whether plaintiff has stated a claim.