Food-Court Follies: Judge Grates Parmesan-Cheese Multidistrict Litigation

parma cheeseThanks to America’s regrettably litigious nature, the “Reasonable Person” is always busy. This prototypically average, ordinary human being is routinely called upon in legal disputes governed by common-law tort principles and asked: What would you think or do in this situation? One strain of litigation—consumer-fraud class actions—has kept the Reasonable Person especially occupied in recent years.

A recent court case asked the Reasonable Person to put on her “reasonable consumer” hat and determine the meaning of the term “100% Grated Parmesan Cheese” as it appears on containers of shelf-stable, processed shaky cheese.

In February 2016, inspired by overblown media stories, 15 lawsuits were filed in 6 different courts against 7 defendants (Kraft Heinz Co., Albertsons Cos., Target Corp., Wal-Mart Stores, ICCO-Cheese Co., and Publix Super Markets) alleging common-law and statutory violations for those companies’ false or misleading use of that statement. Continue reading

FCA “Qui Tam” Relator Sanctioned for Lawyers’ Scheme to Manufacture Evidence

ethicsBy Bailey McGowan, a 2017 Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at Washington Legal Foundation who will be entering her third year at Texas Tech University School of Law in the fall.

A double agent, an undercover operation, and deceit: No, these aren’t the well-worn plot elements of the latest James Bond movie. They are some of the tactics in a law firm’s scandalous attempt to manufacture the proof needed to survive a motion to dismiss in a False Claims Act (FCA) case, Leysock v. Forest Laboratories. The elaborate scheme exhibits the lengths to which deputized FCA plaintiffs and their lawyers will go to pursue their cut of a qui tam lawsuit’s routinely lucrative recovery. The federal court’s sanction for such behavior—barring the use of information fraudulently obtained in the plaintiff’s opposition motion—was an appropriate and laudable response, one that should embolden inspire other judges overseeing big-money litigation to take similar action against such blatant misconduct. Continue reading

Update: Northern District of Illinois Judge Puts Starbucks Serving-Size Class Action on Ice

Misleading?

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.”

After Oral Argument in “Salman v. US,” Will Supreme Court Meaningfully Limit What Counts as Insider Trading?

bainbridgeFeatured Expert Contributor — Corporate Governance/Securities Law

Stephen M. Bainbridge, William D. Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, UCLA School of Law

Over a three-year period from 2004 to 2007, Citigroup investment banker Maher Kara disclosed confidential nonpublic information about upcoming mergers and acquisitions to his brother Michael Kara. In turn, Michael disclosed the information to his close friend Bassam Salman, who then indirectly traded in the affected stocks. When Salman was tried on charges of illegal insider trading, the government offered evidence that he knew the information originated with Maher.

The case presented two issues: First, what is the basis of liability when an insider tips information to an outsider? Second, what must the government prove in order to hold a remote tippee liable when the information is passed down a chain from tipper to tippee to a tippee of that tippee and so on? Continue reading

Federal Court in NY Cites Obstacle Preemption in Dismissing State-Law Fraud Suit Against Organic Producer

Cruz-Alvarez_FFeatured Expert Contributor — Civil Justice/Class Actions

Frank Cruz-Alvarez, a Partner in the Miami, FL office of  Shook, Hardy & Bacon L.L.P. with Ravika Rameshwar, an Associate with the firm.

On August 23. 2016, the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York dismissed a class-action suit that alleged the makers of Similac® Advance® Organic Infant Formulas fraudulently misrepresented the products as “organic,” holding that the state claims are preempted by federal law—specifically, the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  Marentette et. al. v. Abbott Laboratories, Inc., 2016 WL 4444787 (E.D.N.Y Aug. 23, 2016).  The court stated that Congress designed the OFPA to create a national standard for organic labeling that would be “disrupted, if not thwarted,” by inconsistent state and federal court decisions.  Marentette, 2016 WL 4444787, at *8. Continue reading

Ninth Circuit to Hear Oral Argument in Pair of Food-Labeling Cases

9thCirToday, September 12, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in two class-action food-labeling cases.  The issues before the court are similar and the cases arise from nearly identical facts: the plaintiffs allege that the defendants’ product labels are false or misleading in violation of various state laws because they claim to be “natural.”  The appeals will also be heard by the same panel—Judges Fletcher, Christen, and Friedland.  In considering these two appeals, the Ninth Circuit will have a chance to set a major precedent that could either reduce the flow of food-labeling suits into California-based federal courts or open the spigot even wider.

The similarities between the two cases, Brazil v. Dole Packaged Foods, LLC and Briseno v. ConAgra, Inc., are striking.  The plaintiffs filed putative class actions alleging that the defendants violated various statutory and common-law causes of action by labeling some of their products as “All Natural” or “100% Natural.”  Brazil claims that Dole’s use of “All Natural” on several of its juices’ labels is false or misleading because the company added ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and citric acid.  Both additives occur naturally in the juice products.  Similarly, Briseno claims that ConAgra’s “100% Natural” label is false or misleading because the Wesson Oil in question contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Continue reading

When Prices for an App Increase, There’s a Lawsuit for That

LogMeInBy Trey Wassdorf, a Judge K.K. Legett Fellow at Washington Legal Foundation in the summer of 2016 who is currently a third-year student at Texas Tech University School of Law.

Recently, online video-on-demand service Hulu decided to migrate from a business model that had provided either a free ad-supported service or a subscription-based premium service. The new service is a bit complicated; there will be a $7.99 per month ad-supported service, an $11.99 per month ad-free service, and users will still be able to watch some Hulu content for free through their distribution partners, most notably Yahoo’s new Yahoo View.  Hulu will also offer customers that currently use its free service a 30-day free trial to the subscription service.

Hulu’s decision is one that many digitally-based businesses, especially developers of mobile-device applications, are making. They accept that some users won’t be thrilled with having to pay for what they previously got gratis, but it’s unlikely that many businesses have contemplated the threat of litigation when making such a move. Recent litigation against app developer LogMeIn, however, should act as a wake-up call to digital businesses large and small. Continue reading