As readers of this blog are well aware, manufacturers and retailers have faced a tidal wave of consumer class actions alleging false advertising in recent years. In these cases, the plaintiffs bemoan how they were deceived by the labels or advertising of all kinds of products – from yogurt to waffles to dog food to shampoo. But no matter how implausible these claims may be, judges often allow them to survive motions to dismiss (often multiple times), which inevitably ratchets up the pressure to settle. For companies that stick it out and take discovery of the named plaintiff, however, there can be a payoff. Sometimes, the plaintiff’s own testimony can halt an expensive class action in its tracks. That is exactly what happened in Major v. Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.
Major was a putative class action filed in the Northern District of California. A California purchaser alleged that Ocean Spray’s 100% Juice products violated California’s consumer protection statutes. Specifically, she alleged that the statement “No Sugar Added” deceived her because (1) the juice labels did not include a disclaimer (one required by federal regulations) explaining that the products were not a low-calorie food, and (2) the products contained “juices from concentrate,” which the plaintiff characterized as a form of added sugar.
The truth of the matter, however, came out at the plaintiff’s deposition. Armed with admissions demonstrating that plaintiff wasn’t even remotely deceived by the term “No Sugar Added,” Ocean Spray moved for partial summary judgment on precisely the same claims that were the subject of the plaintiff’s pending motion for class certification. Judge Davila agreed with Ocean Spray and granted the motion for summary judgment, which in turn rendered the plaintiff’s motion for class certification moot.
First, the plaintiff’s testimony demonstrated that the absence of a disclaimer that the juices were not low calorie had zero effect on her decision to purchase Ocean Spray’s juices. When asked whether she purchased the 100% Juice products because she thought they were “a reduced calorie product,” the plaintiff said no. And when she was asked whether she thought the juices were low calorie products at the time she purchased them, she also said no. In other words, she had not been even remotely deceived by the absence of the disclaimer because (1) she knew the juices were not low in calories and (2) calorie content was not a motivating factor for her purchase. In response, the plaintiff argued that she had understood “No Sugar Added’ to mean “better and healthier.” Judge Davila agreed with Ocean Spray, however, that this argument was just an improper attempt to “amend her Complaint ‘on the fly’” and in any event, the plaintiff hadn’t identified the particular statements on the juice labels that proclaimed the products to be “better.”
The plaintiff’s deposition testimony also disproved her second theory of deception alleged in the complaint (i.e., that including “concentrated fruit juice” as an ingredient belied the “No Sugar Added” labeling statement). She testified that she understood the term “No Sugar Added” to mean that “there’s literally nothing containing sugar that’s added to this other than the natural sugar from the fruit.” Ocean Spray was able to show that its juice (1) was accurately portrayed under the relevant regulations as having “no sugar added” and (2) satisfied the plaintiff’s own understanding of what “no sugar added” means. As a factual matter, the plaintiff’s allegation in the complaint that Ocean Spray’s products contained “concentrated fruit juice” was untrue; Ocean Spray produced undisputed evidence that its juices were “fruit juice from concentrate.” The difference between the two seemingly similar terms is critical: Ocean Spray’s evidence showed that “juices from concentrate, such as Defendant’s products, contain the same ratio of water to sugar solids and other compounds that exist naturally,” which is “is in contrast to products containing fruit juice concentrate, which do contain a higher level of sugar than would exist naturally.” Because “products made with juice from concentrate contain the same amount of sugar that would have existed naturally,” the court held that “the products cannot be said to contain ‘added sugars.’” And this factual showing also “conform[ed] to plaintiffs’ understanding” that “no sugar added” means no sugar beyond “the natural sugar from the fruit.” As a result, the plaintiff could not meet her burden of showing a factual dispute over whether she was deceived about the sugar content in Ocean Spray juice.
To be sure, not every plaintiff will provide deposition testimony that will so neatly end a case. But the Major decision demonstrates that settlement is far from the only option when a judge denies a motion to dismiss, even in a false advertising case.