Back in May, we wrote about a package of “extreme pro-plaintiff changes” that legislators had proposed to New York’s main consumer-protection statute, Gen. Bus. Law § 349. There have been some significant developments on this front, so we figured an update was in order.
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Misbranded is Patterson Belknap’s blog covering false advertising litigation—both consumer class actions and competitor suits—with a particular focus on FDA-regulated products (foods/beverages, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, and dietary supplements). Writing from the industry perspective, we provide timely updates on important cases, surveys of litigation trends, and in-depth analyses of “hot” legal issues. Our firm pioneered the modern practice of false advertising law more than 40 years ago, bringing the first competitor suits under the Lanham Act. In the decades since, we have continued to practice at the cutting edge, handling many of the field’s most groundbreaking cases on behalf of the nation’s best-known businesses. Today, led by Steven A. Zalesin, our team advocates creatively, strategically, and efficiently on behalf of our clients at all phases of litigation, from pre-complaint demands to Supreme Court appeals.
Breaking: Supreme Court To Decide Whether Willfulness Is Required To Disgorge Profits Under Lanham Act
Today, in its final orders list of the Term, the Supreme Court granted cert in Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil Inc. (No. 18-1233), to resolve a deep circuit split regarding Lanham Act remedies. The specific question in Romag is “[w]hether … willful [wrongdoing] is a prerequisite for an award of [the defendant’s] profits.” (All agree that an award of the plaintiff’s actual damages, as opposed to disgorgement of the defendant’s profits, is available irrespective of the defendant’s mens rea—but actual damages are often difficult to prove.) Romag presents this question in the context of a trademark infringement claim, but the outcome should also control in federal false advertising cases, which are likewise governed by the Lanham Act.
Another One Bytes the Dust: Court Dismisses Flash Drive False Advertising Suit Based On Back-Of-Package Clarifying Disclosures
A few months ago, we wrote about courts’ inconsistent application of the “reasonable consumer” standard when labeling statements are claimed to be false or misleading, despite clarifying information elsewhere on the product label. In Williams v. Gerber Products Co., 552 F.3d 934 (9th Cir. 2008), the Ninth Circuit (in)famously held that a “reasonable consumer” should not be “expected to look beyond misleading representations on the front of the box to discover the truth … on the side of the box.” Id. at 939-40. As we explained in our prior post, Williams is in tension with longstanding authority that “reasonable consumers” are expected to read the entire advertisement, including disclaimers and clarifying language. We observed that numerous lower-court decisions, recognizing Williams’ shaky foundation, have sought to distinguish it and narrow it to its facts.
Add to this list Dinan v. SanDisk LLC, No. 5:18-cv-5420 (BLF), 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91633 (N.D. Cal. May 31, 2019), a recent decision out of the Northern District of California. While Dinan was not a food, drug, or cosmetic case, its discussion of Williams and the “reasonable consumer” test bears directly on such cases, and should help manufacturers dispatch some false advertising claims at the pleadings stage when their packages include proper clarifying disclosures.
Last month, the Second Circuit heard oral argument in what had seemed like the most consequential consumer class-action appeal in that court in years: three consolidated cases involving “flushable” hygienic wipes. Both sides of the class-action bar were at the edge of their seat waiting for the Second Circuit’s guidance on several controversial issues of class-action law, including the appropriate standard for reviewing damages models at the class-certification stage. Earlier this week, however, the Second Circuit essentially punted, sending the cases back to the district court for “further factual development.” This is a frustrating result, but reading between the lines, class-action defendants may have reasons for cautious optimism.
It’s hard to argue that New York’s consumer-protection laws (Gen. Bus. Law §§ 349–350) are being underutilized by private plaintiffs. But, on that claimed basis, the state’s Legislature is considering a multifaceted amendment that would make those laws vastly more plaintiff-friendly—and business-unfriendly—than they already are. It’s hard to understate the impact these changes would have on the business community. We’re not sure what the bill’s odds of passage are, but given the extremity of the amendments, we’re a bit surprised they haven’t attracted more public attention.
Speak of the Devil and he doth appear. Today, it’s just a figure of speech. In medieval England, by contrast, people meant it literally—as a warning that uttering the Prince of Darkness’s name would conjure his evil presence. Maybe those Anglo-Saxons had a point. A few weeks ago, we wrote a post about a remarkable string of defense victories in “slack-fill” cases—i.e., lawsuits complaining of too much empty space in product packaging. In particular, we noted that “every slack-fill case to reach the class-certification stage ha[d] flunked Rule 23’s rigorous test for certification,” and we wondered aloud “how a slack-fill class could ever be certified.” Well, speak of the Devil: just four days later, a California court certified a class in a slack-fill case for the first time ever. We apologize for any causal role we may have had in this truly diabolical development. The good news is that the decision may not stick—and even if it does, it’s likely to remain an outlier.
Proving Retail Sales Figures In Consumer Class Actions: Different Approaches Lead To Very Different Results
To prove damages in a consumer class action, the named plaintiff must show—among other things—how many units of the defendant’s product were purchased by consumers in the relevant state (or states). This is easier said than done. Manufacturers generally keep records of their own wholesale transactions—i.e., how much product they shipped to distributors or large retail chains. But they generally don’t have direct visibility into sales at the retail level, since they aren’t a party to those transactions. If not all of the product sold at wholesale ends up being purchased by consumers, manufacturers’ records may not reflect this. Likewise, if the product that a manufacturer ships to an address in State A (e.g., a regional distribution center) ends up being moved to State B before reaching store shelves, manufacturers’ records will not reflect this either. What, then, is a class-action plaintiff to do?
As astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Plaintiffs have not gotten the message. They often allege that a defendant’s marketing or labeling statements are false and misleading on the sole basis that there is purportedly no evidence (or insufficient evidence) proving their truth. These so-called “lack of substantiation” claims are easy to plead because a plaintiff does not need to conduct an investigation to identify evidence that the challenged statement is false. Rather, she alleges only an absence of supporting evidence for the statement—and generally, in a conclusory manner.
Unless you were born yesterday, you know that packaged goods usually contain some empty space in the box, bottle, or bag. This has been true for as long as there have been packaged goods. What is relatively new is that consumers—or, rather, a small cadre of specialized plaintiff’s lawyers—are suing over it. But as Newton said, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And the more that lawyers have inundated courts with these suits, the more aggressively courts have responded to shut the silliness down. This post examines the regulatory underpinnings of these so-called “slack-fill” suits and the many bases that courts have found for letting the air out of them.
All’s Not Well(er) in Pennsylvania: Court Sanctions Defendant For Contact With Putative Class Members
There is nothing inherently wrong with outreach to putative members of an uncertified class—whether by the named plaintiff’s counsel or by the defendant’s counsel. As the ABA has recognized, “[b]oth plaintiffs’ counsel and defense counsel have legitimate need to reach out to potential class members regarding … information that may be relevant to whether or not a class should be certified.” ABA Formal Op. 07-445 (2007); see also Austen v. Catterton Partners V, LP, 831 F. Supp. 2d 559, 567 (D. Conn. 2011) (“Both parties need to be able to communicate with putative class members … from the earliest stages of class litigation.”). Thus, as the Supreme Court has unanimously held, restrictions on pre-certification communication with putative class members must be justified by a “clear record and specific findings” of actual “abuses.” Gulf Oil v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101-04 (1981). And even then, any limitations must be “carefully drawn … [to] limit speech as little as possible.” Id.
The rise of social media has redefined advertising, giving businesses exciting new ways to reach consumers and deliver their messages. To no one’s surprise, it has also provided new fodder for advertising class actions. However, as one plaintiff recently learned the hard way, these social-media class actions can founder on the same shoals as their traditional-media counterparts.
In Comcast v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27 (2013), the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff cannot obtain class certification with an inadequate damages model. In the years since, courts have diverged over how much a plaintiff must do to satisfy this requirement. Often, plaintiffs seek class certification with nothing more than a skeletal proposal to develop and perform an analysis at some future point, using information they do not—and might never—possess. While some courts have found such adumbrative “models” sufficient at the class certification stage, the better decisions require more. As Comcast recognizes, Rule 23 “does not set forth a mere pleading standard.” Rather, a plaintiff “must affirmatively demonstrate” through “evidentiary proof” that damages are measurable on a class-wide basis through a common methodology. Faithful application of that principle obligates plaintiffs and their experts to offer a detailed methodology that is tailored to the facts of the case, and to show that any data that the model requires in fact exists and can be obtained.
Over the last few years, “conjoint analysis” has become the methodology du jour for false advertising plaintiffs seeking to demonstrate they can calculate class-wide damages. Conjoint analysis is so named because it is used to study the joint effects of multiple product attributes on consumers’ choices. At bottom, conjoint analysis uses survey data to measure the strength of consumers’ preferences for particular product features. Or, put differently, it tries to isolate how much people care about an individual product attribute in a multi-feature product (in a more scientific manner than just asking them directly).
This is an exciting time for manufacturers on guard against compelled disclosures in their product labeling or advertising. Late last June, the Supreme Court decided National Institute of Family & Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018) (“NIFLA”), an abortion case with potentially far-reaching effects on the law of compelled commercial speech more generally. However, as lower courts begin to interpret and apply NIFLA in the context of product disclosures, major uncertainties remain.
By law, packaged foods and beverages must bear an accurate list of their ingredients “in descending order of predominance by weight.” 21 C.F.R. § 101.4. Consumers routinely sue food and beverage companies alleging that they were misled about the presence or absence of particular ingredients—even though a mere glance at the ingredient list would have averted any confusion. Do such plaintiffs have a plausible claim for relief under false advertising laws, or should these claims be dismissed at the threshold?
Many statutes, including the Lanham Act, impose strict liability for false advertising. Business may therefore incur liability even if a third party was partially or wholly at fault for the challenged inaccuracy. For example, a cosmetics company that advertises its products as “all natural” may be held liable to a competitor through no fault of its own if an unscrupulous supplier substitutes synthetic pigments for the more expensive natural pigments that the company ordered and paid for. Similarly, a food company that labels a product as containing “50 grams of protein per serving” may incur liability to consumers if the laboratory it retained to assay its products’ nutritional content botched those tests.
In the olden days, the law was content to leave whichever tortfeasor the plaintiff chose to sue on the hook for the whole tab—even if the chosen defendant was not the truly blameworthy party. However, “[i]t is now widely recognized that fundamental fairness demands a sharing of the liability” in these situations.