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 Their theory rests almost entirely on a draft guidance that the FDA issued in 2009, in which the agency proposed the ingredient be called “dried cane syrup” (notably, not “sugar”), and invited public comment on the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 Because the FDA did not take action for over four years after issuing the 2009 draft guidance, plaintiffs had a great deal of success in convincing courts that the FDA was not actively addressing the evaporated-cane-juice issue further and therefore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changed in March 2014, when the FDA published a notice in the Federal Register reopening the comment period on the 2009 draft guidance and emphasizing that it has “not reached a final decision on the common or usual name for” evaporated cane juice and that it “intend[s] to revise the draft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.)

* * *

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.

The spate of class actions under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) isn’t ending anytime soon. And the risks to businesses have just increased in the Third Circuit, thanks to that court’s recent ruling that the TCPA permits consumers to retract consent to receiving calls on their cell phones placed by automatic telephone dialing systems.

The TCPA prohibits making any call to a cell phone “using any automatic telephone dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice” unless (among various exceptions) the call is made with the “prior express consent of the called party.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). Courts have upheld various ways of demonstrating “express consent,” including:

  • verbally, such as when the consumer orally provides a cell phone number as a contact number (Greene v. DirecTV, Inc., 2010 WL 4628734 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 8, 2010)); 
  • in writing, such as when a contract authorizes cell phone calls (Moore v. Firstsource Advantage, LLC, 2011 WL 4345703 (W.D.N.Y. Sept. 15, 2011)); and 
  • through a third party, such as when a spouse authorizes cell phone calls (Gutierrez v. Barclays Bank Group, 2011 WL 579238 (S.D. Cal. Feb. 9, 2011)).

But once consumers have consented to receiving these calls, can they rescind their consent? The TCPA’s text is silent on the subject. And although the FCC’s 1992 TCPA Order indicates that consumers who provide their cell phone number can give “instructions” that they don’t agree to receive autodialer calls, the order doesn’t address whether the consumer can give those instructions long after initially providing the cell phone contact number.

By contrast, other privacy statutes—such as the CAN-SPAM Act, the Junk Fax Protection Act, and the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act—have express provisions allowing consumers to opt out of receiving communications at any time. A number of district courts have concluded that the lack of a corresponding express provision in the TCPA means that consumers don’t have the statutory right to retract consent once it has been given. See, e.g., Osorio v. State Farm Bank, F.S.B., 2012 WL 1671780 (S.D. Fla. May 10, 2012); Cunningham v. Credit Mgmt., L.P. (pdf), 2010 WL 3791104 (N.D. Tex. Aug. 30, 2010); Starkey v. Firstsource Advantage, L.L.C. (pdf), 2010 WL 2541756 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 11, 2010).

But in Gager v. Dell Financial Services, Inc. (pdf), the Third Circuit sided with courts that have taken the opposite view. See Adamcik v. Credit Control Servs., Inc., 832 F. Supp. 2d 744 (W.D. Tex. 2011); Gutierrez, supra.

The Third Circuit gave three reasons for its holding. In my view, each one is questionable.

Continue Reading Third Circuit Rules that TCPA Authorizes Consumers To Retract Consent to Cell Phone Calls

Readers of this blog are likely familiar with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TPCA”), the law that prohibits certain types of calls using an automatic telephone dialing system or prerecorded message. The plaintiffs’ bar has filed numerous class actions seeking statutory damages under the TCPA.  Businesses facing these actions should be alert for opportunities to defend themselves by invoking the TCPA’s exception from liability for calls made with the “prior express consent” of the recipient.  A recent decision, Balthazor v. Central Credit Services, Inc., No. 10-cv-62435 (S.D. Fla.), illustrates how this exception can be used to defeat class certification in TCPA class actions. Continue Reading Balthazor: Individualized Questions as to Consent Torpedo Attempt to Certify TCPA Class Action