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.
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.
A frequent target of consumer class actions are “structure/function” claims made in connection with dietary supplements. These claims describe a nutrient or dietary ingredient and its role in the body’s structure or function: for example, “glucosamine promotes healthy joints.” Plaintiffs may allege that a product’s labeling is misleading because the typical consumer already receives enough of the nutrient or ingredient from her diet. At the same time, those plaintiffs will seek a refund on behalf of everyone who bought the product—even if many in the class have received a benefit. A recent decision out of the Southern District of California, Alvarez v. NBTY, Inc., 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 87420 (May 22, 2019), suggests that this disconnect between the proposed class and the plaintiffs’ theory of liability and damages may no longer be tolerated at the class-certification stage.
A recent decision, MillerCoors v. Anheuser-Busch Cos., LLC, No. 19-cv-218-wmc, 2019 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88259 (W.D. Wis. May 24, 2019), denied and granted in part a preliminary injunction enjoining a series of advertisements and commercials depicting corn syrup in MillerCoors’s beer.
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.
While the New England Patriots were besting the Rams in the 2019 Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch tried to get the upper hand on MillerCoors in a series of ads highlighting the “use of” corn syrup in Miller Lite and Coors Light.
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?
Court Certifies Class Action Over Gerber “Good Start Gentle” Baby Formula, Citing Consumers’ General Exposure to Ad Campaign
A recent decision from the Eastern District of New York, Hoth v. Gerber Prods. Co., 15-cv-2995 (E.D.N.Y.), granted class certification to purchasers of Gerber baby formula in Florida and New York who claimed to have been misled by representations that the formula reduced infants’ risk of developing allergies. The certified class is unusual, however, in that not all of its members actually purchased the product labeled with the alleged misrepresentation. Many courts have concluded that this lack of uniform exposure defeats certification by precluding a showing of classwide injury, but the Hoth court credited evidence that the general “advertising and labeling practice [regarding allergy prevention] allowed a price premium to be charged across the entire line of [challenged] products.” Op. at 41 (emphasis in original).
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).
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.