Advertising Litigation

Earlier this week, the FTC settled its case with BLU Products, Inc., a cell phone company the FTC claimed misled consumers about its privacy and data security practices. According to the agency, the company represented that it did not collect unnecessary personal information and that it imposed specific data security procedures to protect consumers’ personal information. But the FTC claimed not so fast, alleging that BLU allowed one of its partners, an advertising software company, to collect sensitive consumer information such as text message contents and call logs with full telephone numbers. The FTC also alleged that BLU failed to implement the security features it represented to consumers, allowing the company’s devices to be subject to security vulnerabilities that could allow third parties to gain full access to the devices.

In settling the case, BLU agreed not to misrepresent its data collection or data security practices. The order also requires BLU to clearly and conspicuously disclose: (1) all of the “covered information” that the company collects, uses, or shares; (2) any third parties that will receive this “covered information”; and (3) all purposes for collecting, using, or sharing such information. This disclosure must be separate from the company’s privacy policy or terms of use and the company must obtain the consumer’s affirmative express consent to the collection, use, and sharing of such information. “Covered Information” is defined as geolocation information, text message content, audio conversations, photographs, or video communications from or about a consumer or their device.
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This week, by a 2-1 vote, a Ninth Circuit panel reversed a district court’s approval of a massive class action settlement involving Hyundai’s and Kia’s allegedly inflated statements of fuel efficiency.  The majority’s long decision, over a vigorous dissent, amounted only to a “greatest hits” collection of Ninth Circuit class action and settlement skepticism.  Nothing in it was new, and importantly, the panel majority Court said explicitly that the district court could approve the settlement anew upon remand.   

Put another way:  Settlement proponents in Ninth Circuit cases are going to have to deal with this decision in In re: Hyundai and Kia Fuel Econ. Litig. for the foreseeable future, but the case really did not erect any hurdles to approval that weren’t already there.

Twenty years ago, when the asbestos bar proposed a multibillion-dollar, highly creative settlement of tens of thousands of asbestos cases, the Supreme Court bounced the settlement because the proposed class raised too many individual issues.  The Supreme Court’s holding in that case—Amchem Prods. Inc. v. Windsor—was that although federal judges need not consider the manageability of a class action trial when a settlement is proposed, a settlement class still has to satisfy Rule 23(b)(3)’s requirement that common questions “predominate” over questions that are purely individual to each class member.  That a settlement would resolve a matter on fair terms is not enough if the settlement glosses over too many individualized issues. 
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Most Popular Ad Law Access Posts of 2017

As reported in our Ad Law News and Views newsletter, Kelley Drye’s Advertising Law practice posted 106 updates on consumer protection trends, issues, and developments to this blog in 2017. Here are some of the most popular:

The decision in Kwan v. Sanmedica International, 854 F.3d 1088 (9th Cir. 2017) in April, has occasioned a lot of discussion about the apparent demise of the establishment claim “standard” in California.  What the Kwan decision should have done, but did not, is provoke some hard thinking about what this “standard” is and how we use it.  From the Kwan decision, it is apparent that the Ninth Circuit does not understand where the establishment claim principle came from and what it means.  But its error is understandable, because attorneys and judges have been careless with the principle and arguably have made much more of it than it should be.                                                                                                                                             

Kwan has been accepted as standing for two propositions.  The first, which should be non-controversial and unsurprising, is that in private suits brought under California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), a plaintiff must allege and ultimately prove that the offending advertising claim is false, not merely unsubstantiated.  There has been no serious dispute about this since the California Court of Appeal (Second District) decision in National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. v. King Bio Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 107 Cal. App. 4th 1336, 133 Cal. Rptr. 2d 207 (2003).  What made Kwan news was that the court also rejected plaintiff’s allegations that defendant’s dietary supplements were “clinically tested to boost [human growth hormone] by a mean of 682%,” is provably false, and in so doing refused to “incorporate Lanham Act provisions into California’s unfair competition and consumer protection law by distinguishing between ‘establishment’ and ‘non-establishment’ claims.”  854 F.3d at 1097.   
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On October 25, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts dismissed a consumer class action under Massachusetts law, contending that Wesson vegetable oil is falsely labeled “100% natural” because it allegedly is extracted from genetically modified corn, soybean and rapeseed.  Lee v. Conagra Brands., Inc., 1:17-cv-11042 (D. Mass Oct. 25, 2017).  This

On Thursday, a federal court in New York dismissed an FTC and New York Attorney General action against Quincy Bioscience, which sells the dietary supplement, Prevagen.  Quincy bases claims for its product on research that includes a randomized, controlled clinical study.  The court observed that the parties agreed that this “gold standard” study followed “normal

The consumer advocacy non-profit Truth in Advertising, Inc. (TINA.org) has set its sights on Goop, the lifestyle brand launched by Gwyneth Paltrow.  In a complaint filed earlier this week with the Santa Clara and Santa Cruz County California district attorneys, both members of the California Food and Drug and medical Device Task Force, TINA alleges they found over 50 instances where claims were made that products Goop produces or promotes “can treat, cure, prevent, alleviate the symptoms of, or reduce the risk of developing a number of ailments.”  TINA has requested that the California district attorneys investigate Goop’s marketing practices. 

This is not the first time Goop has been forced to defend claims that it promotes.  Last summer, the National Advertising Division took issue with claims related to using “dust” dietary supplements, such as Action Dust and Brain Dust, both sold by Moon Juice.  The NAD closed the case after Goop agreed to permanently discontinue the dust claims.
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What should a corporation do when a class action lawsuit claims it broke the law, the group of allegedly affected people is massive, but the real-world “harm” is effectively nil?

If the lawsuit fails to state a valid claim, obviously you move to dismiss it. But what if your best arguments require expensive discovery, you can’t be certain of a victory even then, and the downside risk—such as from statutory minimum damages—is intolerable to you?

One good strategy for corporate defendants facing these situations is to settle by making corrective changes to address the alleged problem and, in lieu of what would be tiny damages payments to affected class members, contribute a palatable amount of money to non-profit groups working to protect the interests of those consumers.
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