How Ben & Jerry’s Defeated an “All Natural” Class Certification Motion
On January 7, 2014, the Northern District of California refused to certify a class of Ben & Jerry’s purchasers who allegedly had purchased ice cream that was falsely advertised as “all natural.” Astiana v. Ben & Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., No. C 10-4387 PJH, 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1640 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 7, 2014). This opinion shows the continuing viability of arguments based on ascertainability and the Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 133 S. Ct. 1426 (2013) to defeat consumer class actions. Thus, for many defendants, this opinion will get 2014 off to a delicious start.
In Astiana, the plaintiff alleged that certain Ben & Jerry’s ice creams were not “all natural” because they contained “alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient.” Astiana, p. 4. After asserting claims under the Unfair Competition Law, False Advertising Law, as well as common law fraud and unjust enrichment, the plaintiff sought to certify a class of all California purchasers of “Ben & Jerry’s ice cream products that were labeled ‘All Natural’ but contained alkalized cocoa processed with a synthetic ingredient.”
The court denied class certification. First, the court held that the class was not ascertainable so that it was “administratively feasible to determine whether a particular person is a class member.” Astiana, p. 5. The court found that the plaintiff provided no evidence as to how the plaintiff could tell which consumers purchased ice cream with the synthetic ingredients because the synthetic ingredient was not present in every ice cream labeled as “all natural.” Furthermore, because cocoa could be processed with a “natural” alkali, the ingredient list that only said “processed with alkali” was insufficient to identify the non-natural ice creams. Even though only one supplier provided Ben & Jerry’s with the alkalized cocoa, the evidence demonstrated that the supplier did not know whether a synthetic ingredient was used in every instance. Thus, even if every package was labeled “all natural,” it was impossible to tell which products actually contained the synthetic ingredients that would make the advertised claim false under California law.
Second, applying Comcast, the court held that the plaintiff was required to show “that there is a classwide method of awarding relief that is consistent with her theory of deceptive and fraudulent business practices.” Astiana, p. 21. The plaintiff offered no expert testimony on calculating damages, contending, instead, that it would be “simple math” to calculate Ben & Jerry’s profits and award “restitutionary disgorgement.” The court held that this was insufficient: there was no evidence that the price of Ben & Jerry’s “all natural” ice cream was higher than its ice cream without that label, thus there was no evidentiary model tying damages to plaintiff’s theory of the case. Since Ben & Jerry’s sold its products at wholesale (rather than to the public directly), these calculations would be extremely difficult, thereby debunking the plaintiff’s claim that the damages could be figured out with “simple math” and proving the need for expert testimony. In light of the plaintiff’s failure to present evidence of “a damages model that is capable of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3),” class certification was denied.
Astiana demonstrates that plaintiffs seeking to certify class actions involving small consumables will continue to run into ascertainability problems. See e.g. Carrera v. Bayer, Corp., 727 F.3d 300 (3d Cir. 2013). Astiana also represents the application of the strong reading of Comcast, essentially telling plaintiffs “No damages expert, no certification.” If courts continued to adopt this reading of Comcast, plaintiffs will no longer be able to gloss over these significant (and oftentimes difficult) damages issues by simply asserting that the court can certify now and figure out the damages later.