The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California recently issued an interesting decision (pdf) denying class certification in 15 consolidated consumer class actions against the maker of 5-hour ENERGY drinks.
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. .
The California Supreme Court has a reputation for hostility to arbitration, especially in the consumers and employment context. Much of the arbitration docket of the United States Supreme Court over the past 30 years has involved reversals of California Supreme Court decisions refusing to enforce arbitration agreements, most recently (and perhaps most notably) in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (in which the authors were counsel). Even when seemingly compelled to enforce an arbitration provision in the face of recent U.S. Supreme Court authority, the California court has often found a way to carve out some exception to arbitration in the particular case or to offer suggestions to plaintiffs seeking to avoid arbitration in a future case. A prime example is the 2014 decision in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation, which exempted from arbitration all wage-and-hour civil-penalty claims under the Private Attorney General Act.
The decision in Sanchez v. Valencia Holding Co. (pdf) represents a welcome break from this pattern, upholding an arbitration agreement against an array of unconscionability challenges without finding it necessary to sever even a single clause to render the agreement enforceable. Although every point decided in Sanchez is consistent with recent U.S. Supreme Court authority applying the Federal Arbitration Act, however, the opinion’s emphasis on the specific factual setting may seed further efforts to evade arbitration agreements . As so often is the case, the devil is often in the details.
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.
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.
After the oral argument in POM Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. (pdf), No. 12-761, the Supreme Court appeared all but certain to allow competitors to sue for false advertising under the Lanham Act over labels of FDA-regulated food products. Food manufactures have been waiting to see just how broad the ruling would be and whether it would affect the onslaught of consumer class actions challenging food and beverage labels. The wait is over, and the POM v. Coke decision, while effecting a dramatic change in competitor actions, should have little impact on consumer class actions.
As described by the Supreme Court, here are the facts of the case: POM markets a juice product labeled “Pomegranate Blueberry 100% Juice,” which consists entirely of pomegranate and blueberry juices. Coke (under its Minute Maid brand) markets “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices,” a competing product that contains 99.4% apple and grape juices, with pomegranate, blueberry, and raspberry juices accounting for the remaining 0.6%. The label on the Minute Maid product features a picture of all five fruits and the words “Pomegranate Blueberry” in a larger font than the words “Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.” Significantly, the Minute Maid label complies with the technical labeling rules set out in the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) and FDA’s related regulations for naming a flavored juice blend.
POM alleged that Coke’s product name and label violate the Lanham Act’s false-advertising provision because (according to POM) consumers will be fooled into thinking there is more pomegranate and blueberry juice in the product than there really is. The district court and Ninth Circuit rejected the Lanham Act claims, accepting Coke’s argument that because juice labeling is pervasively regulated by FDA, applying generalized principles of false advertising under the Lanham Act would destroy the uniform, national labeling standard announced by the agency under the FDCA. As the Ninth Circuit put it, “the FDCA and its regulations bar pursuit of both the name and labeling aspect” of the Lanham Act claim because allowing the claim would “undermine the FDA’s regulations and expert judgments” about how juices may and should be included in the product name.
The Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision in an opinion by Justice Kennedy. In analyzing whether one federal statute (the FDCA) precludes a remedy available under another (the Lanham Act), the Court ruled that the FDCA and Lanham Act can be harmonized because they are “complementary and have separate scopes and purposes” and—unlike FDCA’s express preemption of state-law claims—neither statute “discloses a purpose” by Congress to bar competitor suits like POM’s. (A more detailed discussion of the Court’s opinion is available here.) Notably—although the Court repeatedly tells us that the FDCA and Lanham Act can get along—the opinion never actually does the hard work of harmonizing Coke’s compliance with the FDCA’s detailed rules for naming flavored juice blends with POM’s theory of liability challenging the FDCA-compliant name under a generalized theory of false advertising.
By contrast with competitor lawsuits, the Court’s decision should have virtually no impact on food labeling consumer class actions. While the Court expressed the view that consumers will be indirect beneficiaries of competitor Lanham Act claims over allegedly misleading labels, it made clear that its decision does not address or alter the interplay between state consumer protection laws or consumer suits and the FDCA. In other words, the decision does not in any way undermine preemption principles that would apply to state-law claims challenging labels regulated by FDA. That’s important not just for food companies facing consumer class actions, but also to avoid a problem the Court specifically recognized in its decision: the “disuniformity that would arise from the multitude of state laws, state regulations, state administrative agency rulings, and state-court decisions that are partially forbidden by the FDCA’s pre-emption provision.” Though the Court correctly recognizes the resulting chaos if each state could impose non-identical labeling requirements, it characterizes the potential disuniformity from the potential tension between the FDCA and the Lanham Act a result that Congress envisioned.
Whether the Court was right or wrong about that, one thing is clear: In creating food labels, food companies should consider not only what the FDCA and federal regulations say, but also analyze the potential risks of competitor lawsuits under the Lanham Act. We will have more to say about these issues on a webinar tomorrow; interested clients or friends of the firm may register for the webinar here.
The plaintiffs’ bar continues to file consumer class actions challenging food and beverage labels en masse, especially in the Northern District of California—also known as the “Food Court.” One particular line of cases—at least 52 class actions, at last count—targets companies selling products containing evaporated cane juice. The battle over evaporated cane juice has become the latest front in the war over whether federal courts should apply the primary-jurisdiction doctrine and dismiss or stay food class actions while awaiting guidance from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
In these cases, plaintiffs allege that the term “evaporated cane juice” is misleading because (in their view) it disguises the fact that the ingredient is a type of “sugar”; they contend that the ingredient should be identified as “sugar.” Their theory rests almost entirely on a draft guidance that the FDA issued in 2009, in which the agency proposed the ingredient be called “dried cane syrup” (notably, not “sugar”), and invited public comment on the issue. That guidance suggested that the name “evaporated cane juice” not be used because it suggests the ingredient is a juice.
In response to these lawsuit, many defendants have emphasized that the FDA’s 2009 guidance not only is non-binding, but that the existence of the guidance establishes that the FDA is examining the precise issue underlying plaintiffs’ theory of liability. Accordingly, defendants argue, courts should let the agency finish its work. Or, put another way, because the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act squarely authorizes the FDA to regulate the names of ingredients as part of its power to prescribe uniform national standards for food labels, the issue is within the FDA’s “primary jurisdiction.” Thus, as we have contended in advancing the primary-jurisdiction argument, the issue should be decided by an expert agency, not via litigation brought by profit-motivated consumer class action lawyers.
How have these arguments fared? Because the FDA did not take action for over four years after issuing the 2009 draft guidance, plaintiffs had a great deal of success in convincing courts that the FDA was not actively addressing the evaporated-cane-juice issue further and therefore that applying the primary-jurisdiction doctrine was inappropriate.
All that changed in March 2014, when the FDA published a notice in the Federal Register reopening the comment period on the 2009 draft guidance and emphasizing that it has “not reached a final decision on the common or usual name for” evaporated cane juice and that it “intend[s] to revise the draft guidance, if appropriate, and issue it in final form.” [Our firm recently filed a comment with the FDA on this issue.]
As if a light had been switched on, virtually every court to consider the issue since the March notice—at least 10 class actions so far—has ruled in favor of deferring to the FDA’s primary jurisdiction in evaporated-cane-juice cases. This overwhelming trend is welcome news.
But from our perspective, the fact that the FDA recently reiterated its interest in this area should not have been necessary to trigger the primary-jurisdiction doctrine. Indeed, even before the March 2014 notice, the question of the proper labeling of evaporated cane juice was one within the primary jurisdiction of the FDA, as at least one court recognized.
To be sure, as one judge has put it, whether the FDA (or another regulatory agency) “has shown any interest in the issues presented by the litigants” appears to be an “unofficial fifth factor” that influences courts grappling with whether primary jurisdiction should be applied in a given case. Greenfield v. Yucatan Foods, L.P., — F. Supp. 2d –, 2014 WL 1891140, at *4-5 (S.D. Fla. May 7, 2014). But this “unofficial fifth factor” is neither necessary nor part of the four, well-recognized factors for applying primary jurisdiction: “(1) [a] need to resolve an issue that (2) has been placed by Congress within the jurisdiction of an administrative body having regulatory authority (3) pursuant to a statute that subjects an industry or activity to a comprehensive regulatory authority that (4) requires expertise or uniformity in administration.” Clark v. Time Warner Cable, 523 F.3d 1110, 1115 (9th Cir. 2008).
The same factors were satisfied in the evaporated-cane-juice context even before the March 2014 notice. And—speaking more generally—uncertainty over when the FDA will act should not be treated as an invitation for different courts to apply different state laws and develop differing labeling regimes.
Here’s hoping for a few more helpings of primary jurisdiction at the Food Court—and a few more scoops of uniformity and certainty for the food and beverage industry.
Can you have a class action if you can’t figure out who’s in the proposed class? According to many in the plaintiffs’ bar, the answer is “yes.” But as we have discussed in prior blog posts, there is an emerging consensus to the contrary. Most courts agree that plaintiffs in consumer class actions have the burden of proving that members of the putative class can be identified (i.e., that the class is ascertainable). And most of those courts have held that it is not sufficient for plaintiffs to rely upon affidavits by would-be class members who attest that they fall within the class definition.
The Third Circuit adopted both of those principles last fall in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013). As we have reported, that court recently denied en banc review over objections by plaintiffs’ lawyers that taking ascertainability seriously would render many class actions unsustainable.
As it turns out, a growing number of other courts are following Carrera’s lead in holding that classes whose membership cannot be determined flunk the ascertainability requirement and therefore cannot be certified.
For example, in Karhu v. Vital Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (pdf) (S.D. Fla. Mar. 3, 2014), the court refused to certify a putative class of purchasers of weight-loss supplements. The court explained that the plaintiffs had failed to show any objective, administratively feasible method of ascertaining the identities of class members. Class members could not be identified from the defendants’ records because the products were sold to retailers, and defendants therefore had no database of end-user consumers. The plaintiffs could not show that the purchasers could be identified from the records of third-party retailers. And, of course, few if any purchasers would have retained receipts from such purchases years after the fact.
The plaintiffs argued that class members could simply submit affidavits confirming that they bought the supplements at issue during the relevant time period. But the court recognized that this process would be extremely unwieldy, and would inevitably devolve into “a series of mini-trials” over the circumstances of particular purchases that would “defeat the purpose of class action treatment.” And the court added—citing Carrera—that simply exempting the affidavits from individualized challenges would lead to fraudulent claims, which “could dilute the recovery of genuine class members.”
Similarly, a federal court recently decertified a California class action—in part on ascertainability grounds— in In re Pom Wonderful LLC Marketing and Sales Practices Litigation (pdf) (C.D. Cal. Mar. 25, 2014). The plaintiffs alleged that Pom Wonderful had misled a class of California customers with purportedly false or misleading statements in advertising about the “various health benefits” of “certain Pom juice products.” But the court held that class members could not be identified, and therefore that no “ascertainable class exists.” In reaching that conclusion, the court provided some useful guidance on how ascertainability works:
- “Class actions, and consumer class actions in particular, each fall on a continuum of ascertainability dependent upon the facts of the particular case or product.”
- “While no single factor is dispositive, relevant considerations include the price of the product, the range of potential or intended uses of a product, and the availability of purchase records.”
- “In situations where purported class members purchase an inexpensive product for a variety of reasons, and are unlikely to retain receipts or other transaction records, class actions may present such daunting administrative challenges that class treatment is not feasible.”
Applying these principles, the court readily concluded that the proposed class in Pom Wonderful “falls well towards the unascertainable end of the spectrum.” That was so for multiple reasons, including that (i) “millions of consumers paid only a few dollars per bottle”; (ii) “[f]ew, if any consumers, are likely to have retained receipts”; (iii) “[n]o bottle, label, or package included any of the alleged misrepresentations” (as they were all contained in advertising); and (iv) “consumer motivations” for purchasing Pom juice “likely vary greatly, and could include a wide array of sentiments such as ‘I was thirsty,’ ‘I wanted to try something new,’ ‘I like the color,’ ‘It mixes well with other beverages,’ or even, ‘I like the taste,’ or, as Plaintiffs contend, ‘It prevents prostate cancer.’” As a result, “there is no way to reliably determine who purchased [the challenged] products or when they did so.”
(The decision also contains an extensive discussion of why the plaintiffs’ proposed damages models failed to satisfy the predominance requirement under Comcast Corp. v. Behrend.)
Carrera, Karhu, and Pom Wonderful should be helpful for defendants who oppose class certification when the proposed class consists of purchasers of consumer products for which there are no customer lists. In these cases, plaintiffs often have no real plan for satisfying the ascertainability requirement other than by inviting a show of hands—via barebones affidavits—from the (relatively few) individuals who might want a small payout from a potential class fund.
In response, defendants routinely (and appropriately) argue that affidavits are not good enough, because due process entitles them to challenge an individual’s claim that he or she purchased a given product, such as by cross examination at a trial. Recognizing that the right to individualized cross-examination would render a trial unmanageable—making class certification inappropriate—plaintiffs sometimes argue that fraudulent claims can be winnowed out through the use of a claims administrator.
That approach strikes us as improper. To be sure, in class action settlements, the parties often agree that a claims administrator may make judgments to determine whether a claimant truly is a class member who qualifies for benefits and to assess whether any submitted claims are fraudulent. But that agreement reflects one of the compromises of settling a case, in which defendants trade away the right to cross-examine each putative class member in exchange for certainty, finality, and—most significantly—a substantial discount on the potential liability claimed by the plaintiff and his or her counsel.
By contrast, in a litigated case, defendants’ due process rights cannot be so easily jettisoned. In the absence of party agreement, how can it be that the administrative determinations of an outside third party serve as an adequate substitute for a defendant’s right to cross-examine its accusers and for judicial resolution of factual disputes? (We leave to one side whether assessments by claims administrators would be accurate, but commend to our readers an article by Alison Frankel discussing an interesting amicus brief on the subject that was filed in Carrera.)
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In short, when it comes to ascertainability, the list of questions goes on and on. Defendants targeted by consumer class actions where customer lists are not readily available may wish to insist upon answers.
We previously wrote about the Third Circuit’s decision in Carrera v. Bayer Corp., which reversed a district court’s class-certification order because there was no reliable way to ascertain class membership—indeed, no way to identify who was a member of the class aside from a class member’s own say-so. Last week, the full Third Circuit denied (pdf) the plaintiff’s request to rehear the case en banc over the dissent of four judges. The clear message of Carrera is that when plaintiffs file class actions that have no hope of compensating class members for alleged wrongs because the class members can’t be found, courts should refuse to let these actions proceed.
As we discuss below, the denial of rehearing is significant in itself, given the concerted efforts by Carrera and his amici to draw attention to the case. But what might be most significant about this latest set of opinions is what even the dissenting judges did not say.
It is no secret that many private class actions are filed as follow-on lawsuits to news reports, government investigations, regulatory developments, and identical earlier-filed class actions. But a recent gambit by the plaintiffs’ bar is among the more creative efforts we have seen. Earlier this week, a well-known plaintiffs’ firm filed Dang v. Samsung Electronics Co., in the Northern District of California. The complaint alleges that Apple’s victory over Samsung (at least in part) in certain highly publicized patent infringement actions establishes that Samsung has violated California’s consumer protection law as well as warranty statutes in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The background of the patent battle between Apple and Samsung is well known, so we mention only a few highlights. In fall 2013, the federal court for the Northern District of California found Samsung liable for infringing several patents relating to Apple’s iPhone. The International Trade Commission also found that certain devices were infringing and precluded Samsung from importing or selling those devices. The same court already has granted partial summary judgment to Apple in a second patent lawsuit targeting additional Samsung devices, with a jury trial set for the end of March. (The battles are not over, to be sure.)
The Dang lawsuit alleges that Samsung induced consumers to purchase its devices by concealing its infringing activities, and that once those activities became known, the resale prices of Samsung smartphones and tablets “dropped dramatically,” injuring consumers and unjustly enriching Samsung. Mr. Dang alleges that “[h]ad [he] known the Product he purchased infringed on the patents held by [Samsung’s] competitor, Apple, he would not have purchased the Product.” He seeks to represent everyone in the U.S. who has purchased one of the allegedly infringing devices since 2008—a proposed class that undoubtedly totals in the millions.
Will Dang become a model for other plaintiffs’ lawyers to follow? The short answer: It depends on whether courts will accept the notion that the alleged infringement harms consumers (as opposed to competitors). Color us skeptical—to put it mildly, we have a number of questions:
- How plausible is it that the interpretation of complex technology patents matters to consumers when they purchase a product?
- How many Samsung purchasers even know that there is litigation involving Apple patents, much less the determination of the claims?
- In light of the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Mazza v. American Honda Motor Co.—a case we have discussed before—what are the chances that a nationwide class could be certified given the variations among state warranty and consumer protection laws?
- Is it realistic to believe that injury and damages can be proven on a classwide basis?
Nevertheless, it is easy to see why plaintiffs’ lawyers might find these kinds of cases attractive. If the result of a battle between competitors is that a product has been determined to be infringing by a court or agency, that may substantially reduce the work a plaintiffs’ lawyer needs to do to pursue the case. And that lawyer will likely argue that key aspects of liability have already been established before the class action even gets started.
The theory espoused in Dang parallels the strategies used by plaintiffs’ firms in the recent wave of false advertising class actions against food and beverage manufacturers. As we have discussed, many of these lawsuits rely on California’s wholesale incorporation of the federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”). Plaintiffs attempt to convert alleged technical violations of FDCA labeling requirements into consumer claims alleging that the mere sale of such products is illegal—without the need to show that class members actually were deceived by or relied on the alleged mislabeling. And most of those lawsuits have landed in the Northern District of California—now known as the nation’s “Food Court.”
It’s no coincidence that the Dang lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of California by two plaintiffs’ firms that are highly active in the Food Court wars. Will plaintiffs’ lawyers next flock to copycat class actions seeking to leverage findings of patent infringement? Stay tuned. We’ll be monitoring the situation.