Here we go again. Lawsuits over allegedly deceptive food labels have become commonplace—a tried-and-true tactic for some plaintiffs’ attorneys to earn an easy buck. By claiming that the labels were intentionally misleading in some way, these lawyers and the purportedly confused clients they represent, seek to leverage the specter of a class action to force quick settlements. Unfortunately, this tactic often works. In fact, it has worked so well that entire subsets of labeling lawsuits have sprung up, among them “healthy food” labels, “all natural” labels, and slack-fill cases. We can now add a new category to the list: plaintiffs alleging they were deceived because their beer was not brewed where they thought it was.
Plaintiffs Sara Cilloni and Simone Zimmer filed a putative class action, Cilloni v. Craft Brew Alliance, Inc., in the Food Court (also known as the US District Court for the Northern District of California) against Craft Brew Alliance, the owners of Kona Brewing Company (Kona). Kona was founded in 1995 on Hawaii’s Big Island. Taking pride in the company’s origins, Kona stylizes each of its beers in an overtly Hawaiian theme, inviting customers to enjoy the “Liquid Aloha” and “Catch A Wave.” With names like Big Wave Golden Ale, Longboard Island Lager, and Wailua Wheat, Kona’s products celebrate their history and ties to Hawaiian culture. Continue reading
In creating the federal judicial branch, the Framers of the US Constitution did not intend that courts would right every possible wrong. Article III authorizes federal courts to resolve “Cases” and “Controversies.” The US Supreme Court has interpreted that power to mean that civil-litigation plaintiffs must prove they suffered an “injury in fact,” which is concrete and particularized, and not speculative. We’ve discussed Article III standing jurisprudence here in numerous contexts, most frequently in consumer class actions targeting food labels or data-security breaches, areas where the ever-amorphous concept of “economic harm” is often alleged. A March 6, 2017 Seventh Circuit decision, Eike v. Allergan, Inc. et al., shot down an especially outlandish attempt to expand standing based on an alleged economic injury. Continue reading
Partially hydrogenated oil
In 2016, class-action lawsuits alleging that a processed food product or its labeling violated state consumer-protection laws continued to clog the federal courts, especially in California. The number of new food-related consumer class actions filed last year nearly equaled the number filed in 2015, according to a report in Food Navigator USA. It’s unclear whether these trends will hold in 2017, but there is one set of blatantly frivolous claims that should disappear this year: those that seek judicial regulation of products that contain partially hydrogenated oil (PHO), the main source of trans fat. A December 13, 2016 Southern District of California decision should frustrate such claims in the short term, and a forthcoming US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision in a pending case may (and should) end them permanently. Continue reading
Tomorrow is “Small Business Saturday,” (November 26), so it’s a good time to reflect upon the especially challenging regulatory and legal environments such businesses have faced in recent years. Even though the federal government maintains an entire agency whose mission is purportedly to assist small businesses—the Small Business Administration—regulators seem ever oblivious to their impact on entrepreneurs. The National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) effort to redefine who is an “employer” and the NLRB’s and the Department of Labor’s (DOL) enmity toward independent contracting are two current examples. A third is DOL’s so-called Fiduciary Rule, which hits sole-practitioner and small-business investment and insurance advisors especially hard.
Small businesses are also at a particular disadvantage when disputes with the government end up in court. A recent US Court of Federal Claims decision, SUFI Network Services, Inc. v. US, exhibits government’s unfortunate willingness to exploit its power in disputes with a small business and the role courts can play in protecting entrepreneurs’ rights. Continue reading
A September 7 WLF Legal Pulse commentary, Court Pours Cold Water on Unreasonable Serving-Size Class Action vs. Starbucks, discussed the US District Court for the Central District of California’s dismissal of a fraud suit alleging that Starbucks duped iced-drink consumers into purchasing a 12-ounce iced coffee/tea which, because it included ice, contained somewhat less than 12 ounces of liquid. The post noted that copycat suits were pending in federal courts in Illinois and New York. On October 14, Judge Thomas M. Durkin of the Northern District of Illinois granted Starbucks’s motion to dismiss the seven-count suit of disenchanted customer Steven Galanis. (Galanis v. Starbucks Corp.)
What Mr. Galanis, and Mr. Forouzesh before him in Forouzesh v. Starbucks Corp., in essence argue is that when purchasing a “tall” iced coffee, for which there is a 12-ounce cup, they expect to get 12 ounces of coffee plus ice. Upon receiving their drink, they, and the thousands of consumers whom they claim to represent, realize they were deceived, and that the deception made them pay more than what the product was worth. The Illinois consumer fraud law under which Galanis sued requires that the defendant’s action would mislead a reasonable consumer. Just as in Forouzesh, that requirement proved to be Mr. Galanis’s downfall.
“Galanis’s claims ask the Court to interpret Starbucks’s menus in an unreasonable fashion,” Judge Durkin explained. Referencing a screen capture of iced coffee on Starbucks’s online menu reproduced in the opinion, Judge Durkin noted that the company lists the serving size separately from the product’s contents, which specifically include “Ice” and “Brewed Coffee.” The description of the drink also references that it is coffee served “over ice.” The court added that as a matter of law, a reasonable consumer understands that “‘fluid ounces’ is a measurement of a drink’s volume, not a description of a drink’s contents.”
“Enough is enough.”
That is how Judge Clay D. Land, Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Middle District of Georgia, concluded the first paragraph of a scathing five-page order in the multidistrict litigation (MDL) proceeding In re Mentor Corp. Obtape Transobturator Sling Products Liability Litigation. The September 7, 2016 order includes three-and-a-half pages of what Judge Clay himself labeled “Obiter Dictum.” For non-lawyers or those not fluent in Latin, obiter dictum is that part of a judicial opinion that is not necessary to the holding of the case.
Dicta it may be, but those three-and-a-half pages offer a spot-on critique of the MDL process by an experienced judge who has garnered significant criticism from defense-side lawyers for some of his pro-plaintiff rulings in the In re Mentor litigation. Continue reading
Warning: Includes Ice
Since its inception in the spring of 2010, the WLF Legal Pulse has routinely cast aspersions upon (mostly California-based) class-action lawsuits alleging fraudulent food labeling and the shopping-cart-chasing lawyers who file them. The blog even has a tag devoted entirely to posts on these suits: Food Court.
Of all the lawsuits we’ve discussed here, few cases epitomize the absurdity of this litigation trend better than the recently decided Forouzesh v. Starbucks Corp. Filed not in the “Food Court” (aka the Northern District of California), but rather in the Central District of California, this suit alleged that Starbucks committed, among other wrongs, fraud, false advertising and breach of warranty by misrepresenting the specific number of ounces in an iced drink. In other words a “Grande” iced coffee or tea, which is 16 ounces, actually contains 12 ounces of coffee plus 4 ounces of ice. As reflected by the grainy photos of a Starbucks cup and a Pyrex bowl in the complaint, Forouzesh actually measured this out. He sought to represent a class of California Starbucks iced-drink purchasers and demanded compensatory and punitive damages, and injunctive relief. Continue reading