Photo of John Sullivan
“Read!  Read!  Read!”  That’s what our late-great civil procedure professor, Bob Carter, would always shout as he led the class through another close reading of the language in a key opinion.  He was a stickler for reading the whole thing.  (He was funny too, like when he told us the story of a panhandler who failed to convince a lawyer passing by that he too had once been a lawyer, at least until he shouted to the lawyer as he walked away, “Pennoyer v. Neeeeeffffffff!!!”)  But Professor Carter was right.  You’d better read the whole thing.  He didn’t shout “Parse!  Parse!  Parse!” or “Assume!  Assume!  Assume!”  That sure doesn’t work.
And that, along with preemption, is why the plaintiff lost in Hairston v. South Beach Beverage Co., 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 74729 (C.D. Cal. May 18, 2012.)  The plaintiff claimed that the labeling of a drink that he purchased had misled him.  So he brought claims under three different California statutes and the federal Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, arguing that the defendant had misrepresented its drink by (1) calling it “all natural,” (2) using fruit names to describe its flavors when it didn’t contain fruit juice, and (3) stating that it contained certain vitamins, but the vitamins were synthetic. 
The court disposed of the last two claims under California law first.  They’re preempted by the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”).  Id. at *8-9.  As we’ve posted before,
the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (“NLEA”), which amended the FDCA, contains an express preemption provision:

[N]o State or political subdivision of a State may directly or indirectly establish under any authority or continue in effect as to any food in interstate commerce . . . any requirement respecting any claim . . . made in the label or labeling of food that is not identical to the requirement . . .  of this title.
The court next dismissed the “all natural” claims under California law, adopting Professor Carter’s wisdom.  “Read! Read! Read!”  The label didn’t say “all natural” and stop there.  It also said “with vitamins.”  To the extent that plaintiff argued that this actually meant “with all natural vitamins,” the label also included an ingredients list.  And that list was explicit on what was in the drink, including the vitamins: 
[T]o the extent there is any ambiguity [to the “all natural” and “with vitamins” language], it is clarified by the detailed information contained in the ingredient list, which explains the exact contents of [the drink]  [R]easonable consumers expect that the ingredient list contains more detailed information about the product that confirms other representations on the packaging.
Id. at *14-14 (citations omitted).  Goodbye “all natural” claim under California state law.
We would have preferred it if the court had summarily dismissed the “all natural” claim on the basis of preemption.  The explicit preemption language of the NLEA is broad enough to encompass this claim, even if the FDA’s labeling regulations do not yet explicitly address the term “all natural.”  We’ve addressed this before.  But we’re also glad that this gave the court an opportunity to hold the plaintiff accountable for trying to parse the label to create a claim.  That’s not how lawsuits should work.
Finally, the court dismissed the federal claim under the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act.  Id. at *16-19.  We’ve already blogged on how the FDCA bars claims under other federal statutes (such as the Lanham Act) when it comes to food labeling.  This is true, too, for claims under the Magnuson Moss Warranty Act, which itself has a clause that says that its warranty protections give way to other federal legislation, such as the FDCA.  Id. at *17. 

Professor Carter was right then, and he’s right now.  If the plaintiff has just Read! Read! Read! he would have seen what the defendant was telling him all along, and this lawsuit wouldn’t have been necessary.  But then again it was fun to reminisce about Professor Carter.  Maybe a future decision will give us another opportunity to quote him.  He said lots of funny stuff.