How Variations in the Law on Deceptive Conduct Can Affect Litigation Strategy

North Carolina is not the only jurisdiction with a statute that prohibits deceptive conduct. These statutes, however, are not identical.

Today’s post shows how the variations among these statutes can affect litigation strategy.

The recent decision in Greene v. Gerber Products Co. provides the backdrop. Greene is a putative class action about advertisements and marketing for baby formula. The plaintiffs claim that Gerber falsely advertised that its formula reduces the risk that infants will develop allergies.

Greene features three sets of putative named plaintiffs. The plaintiffs bought the formula in three different states: Ohio, New York, and North Carolina. Each plaintiff alleged a violation of the statutory prohibition on deception in the state of purchase (for North Carolina, N.C. Gen. Stat. § 75-1.1). The plaintiffs sued Gerber in federal court in New York.

Gerber moved to dismiss. Its arguments for dismissing the statutory claims, however, varied significantly as to each set of plaintiffs.

Our inquiry: if the plaintiffs all alleged basically the same facts, and if each state prohibits deceptive advertisements, why do the arguments vary so much?

Good Start, but Bad Ending

Gerber sells a line of baby formula called “Good Start.” The plaintiffs took issue with statements on the label of this formula and with certain print and television advertising. Good Start contains partially hydrolyzed whey protein, an ingredient that Gerber claimed reduces the risk of developing allergies.

The plaintiffs alleged that these claims are false or deceptive. They then alleged that, when they decided to buy Good Start, they reviewed the representations about the formula’s alleged effects on allergies. They further alleged that Gerber used those statements to lure the plaintiffs—and all putative class members—to pay an inflated price.

Three Statutes, Three Sets of Arguments

Gerber moved to dismiss the statutory claims under Ohio, New York, and North Carolina law.

  1. Ohio

The Ohio plaintiffs alleged a violation of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practice Act. To pursue a class action under that act, a plaintiff must show that the defendant had notice that the alleged violation is substantially similar to an act or practice previously declared to be deceptive.

Gerber argued that it never had the required notice. In response, the plaintiffs argued that Gerber did have notice, based on (a) a rule promulgated by the Ohio attorney general, and (b) certain consent decrees between the attorney general and parties that allegedly made false health claims. The court agreed with Gerber, concluding—without getting into the weeds—that neither the rule nor the consent judgments count as prior determinations of deceptive conduct.

The court also dismissed the Ohio plaintiffs’ claims under the Ohio Deceptive Trade Practices Act. That act has mainly been interpreted as an analogue of the federal Lanham Act—and therefore does not confer standing on consumers.

Notably, Gerber’s arguments as to the Ohio plaintiffs have no application to a section 75-1.1 claim. Consumers can sue under section 75-1.1, and there’s no notice requirement for a class action.

  1. New York

The New York plaintiffs sued for violation of New York General Business Law § 349, which prohibits deceptive acts or practices against consumers. Gerber primarily argued that the New York plaintiffs couldn’t make out a violation of this statute because the plaintiffs didn’t suffer an actual injury, which section 349 requires.

The court disagreed. The complaint alleged that the New York plaintiffs would have purchased less-expensive formula but for the statements about allergies. That theory was sufficient, the court concluded, because it reflected a loss of money directly connected to an allegedly deceptive statement.

Would a “no injury” argument have fared better for an alleged violation of section 75-1.1? In 75-1.1 jurisprudence, courts have tended to refer to this issue as one of “standing.”  Courts have dismissed section 75-1.1 claims for failing to connect allegedly unfair or deceptive conduct to a real injury.

  1. North Carolina

Gerber, however, didn’t seek dismissal of the 75-1.1 claim in Greene based on an absence of injury. Instead, Gerber turned to a relatively recent line of cases that require a misrepresentation-based claim under section 75-1.1 to be pleaded with particularity.

The plaintiffs, citing earlier caselaw, argued against the particularity requirement.

The court then sidestepped the issue. It ruled that, even if the law requires particularity, the plaintiffs had satisfied that requirement. The court showed that the complaint:

  • specified and attached the alleged misrepresentations,
  • described where the misrepresentations were located,
  • explained why the statements were false or deceptive, and
  • included a statement of the plaintiffs’ reliance on the statements.

Interestingly, Gerber did not seek dismissal of the 75-1.1 claim based on the economic-loss rule. That tactical decision could be because of recent decisions about the interplay between that doctrine and section 75-1.1.

Know Your Geography

Gerber offers a vivid example of the havoc that a multistate consumer class action can wreak. Even when the case involves fundamentally a single fact pattern, state-by-state differences in the law on deceptive trade practices mean that a defendant that wants to file a Rule 12(b)(6) motion can raise a deluge of arguments.

That deluge, of course, can drown a reader. These cases therefore require careful strategic and tactical decisions in selecting the best arguments. Those decisions, in turn, call for a deep understanding of the law in each relevant state.

Plaintiffs, too, face hard decisions in (a) selecting which state’s law on deceptive conduct might be the best for a putative class action, and (b) crafting a complaint to anticipate the Rule 12(b)(6) arguments to come.

On top of these considerations, both plaintiffs and defendants in consumer class actions must assess the extraterritorial effect of statutory prohibitions on deceptive conduct, as well as questions of personal jurisdiction.

As these points show, there’s simply no magic bullet—for any party—in multistate claims about deceptive conduct. Even if a single theme might apply across all claims, the claims themselves might turn on different elements and defenses, and attention to these nuances can determine success or defeat.

Author: Stephen Feldman

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