Tough Nut to Crack: First Circuit Panel Splits on Reasonable Interpretation of Flavored Coffee Packaging
We have written previously about application of the “reasonable consumer” standard when labeling statements are claimed to be false or misleading, despite the presence of clarifying information elsewhere on the product label. We’ve observed the inconsistent standards courts apply in ruling on a motion to dismiss, particularly as to whether a “reasonable consumer” views the alleged misstatement in the context of the entire product packaging and ingredient list.
Last month, Misbranded co-editors Josh Kipnees, Jonah Knobler, and Jane Metcalf presented a live-streamed webinar via Bloomberg Law titled “Hot Topics in Consumer False Advertising Litigation.” The free hour-long webinar, now available on demand, covers the following subjects, some of which should be familiar to regular readers of this blog:
- “Natural” / “no artificial ingredients” claims
- “No preservatives” claims
- Ingredient claims (“made with [X]”)
- Geographic origin claims (e.g., “Made in the USA”)
- Slack-fill claims
- Claims involving nondisclosure of morally troubling/offensive facts
- What’s next in consumer false advertising litigation?
We encourage you to check it out (and obtain some CLE credit in the process).
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.
“Contains detectable levels of the weed-killer chemical glyphosate.”
“Contains limonene, which causes kidney toxicity and tumors, and linalool, a cockroach insecticide.”
“Contains a potent biocide and endocrine disruptor, with detrimental health effects that are still becoming known.”
These are the sorts of headline-grabbing allegations the plaintiffs’ bar has recently relied upon in claiming that products advertised or positioned as “natural” are deceptively marketed. At first blush, the presence of allegedly dangerous ingredients in foods, cosmetics, and other consumer products might seem like the basis of a strong false advertising case—especially when those substances are undisclosed. How could a company so deceive the public by promising a “good-for-you” product that contains such “bad” ingredients?
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.
Last Friday, the Third Circuit held that a J. Crew customer lacked standing to sue the company for printing ten digits of his credit card on a receipt, in violation of the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act (which provides that companies should print only the last four digits). Relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Spokeo v. Robins, the court held that the plaintiff’s alleged injuries—a violation of the statute and the “risk of identity theft”—were merely “procedural,” and thus insufficiently “concrete” to confer standing under Article III. The Third Circuit’s rigorous application of Article III standing requirements is good news for defendants in mislabeling cases, some of which are “gotcha”-type suits arising from highly technical labeling violations.
Many recent consumer class actions against food and beverage manufacturers have related to label claims that a particular category of ingredient is not used in the product—e.g., “No Preservatives,” “No Artificial Flavors.” These lawsuits follow a predictable formula: the plaintiff, relying on the product’s ingredient list, alleges that a particular ingredient in the product functions as an artificial flavor and/or chemical preservative, and that the “no preservatives” or “no artificial flavors” claim is therefore false.
In consumer cases alleging product mislabeling, one frequently litigated question is whether the plaintiff has standing to seek an injunction of the labeling practice that he or she claims is misleading. Over the past decade, consumer protection defendants have often won on this issue by demonstrating that the plaintiff is at no risk of future injury. But last year, in Davidson v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., 889 F.3d 956 (9th Cir. 2018), the Ninth Circuit made this issue tougher for defendants, adopting an exceptionally broad view of plaintiffs’ standing to seek injunctive relief in mislabeling cases. Below, we discuss the aberrant holding in Davidson, and how Ninth Circuit defendants may still be able to distinguish its facts to defeat a claim for injunctive relief.
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?