Judges George Wu and Manuel Real both recently dismissed two class actions in the Central District of California that challenged the labeling of food and cosmetics as false and misleading. Defendants (represented by a team of MoFo litigators led by William Stern) persuaded the courts that the plaintiffs’ claims were implausible as a matter of law. The judges dismissed both cases with prejudice.
In the first case, Shaker v. Nature’s Path Foods Inc. et al, No. CV-13-1138-GW (OPx), plaintiffs claimed that the label for “Optimum® Blueberry Cinnamon” cereal was deceptive because the cereal did not contain dried strawberries and failed to meet plaintiffs’ notions of “optimum.” The claim was based on the image of fresh strawberries shown on top of a bowl of cereal on the front label. The court found plaintiffs’ claims implausible, ruling that:
“no reasonable consumer would be deceived into believing that the Cereal – whose packaging prominently features the words ‘Blueberry Cinnamon’ – contained dried strawberries by virtue of the photograph of fiber/flake cereal in a bowl, with a spoon, milk, blueberries, and a topping of fresh strawberries.”
The court further held that the brand name “Optimum®” is non-actionable puffery.
Judge Real arrived at the same conclusion in Balser v. The Hain Celestial Group, Inc., No. CV-13-5604-R. There, plaintiffs claimed that the “natural” statement on the labels of Hain’s Alba Botanica® line of lotion, shampoo and body wash was false and misleading because the products contained synthetic ingredients. The court disagreed, finding that “natural” is a vague and ambiguous term, and plaintiffs’ alleged definition – “existing in or produced by nature; not artificial” – is “implausible as applied to the products at issue: shampoos and lotions do not exist in nature, there are no shampoo trees, cosmetics are manufactured.” The court further found that the “defendant actively defines what its use of natural means, so that no reasonable consumer could be deceived.”
Together the opinions might signal renewed willingness of judges to dismiss cases on plausibility grounds and to rule on the “reasonable consumer standard” at the pleading stage. This is especially welcome news for cases challenging “natural” labels – a favorite claim of plaintiffs’ attorneys that often survives motions to dismiss.