What California Employers Must Know About Coronavirus and COVID-19

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Federal, California and other state and local governments continue to grapple with responding to and reducing the spread of Coronavirus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 
(SARS-CoV-2))
and the disease caused by it, COVID-19. In addition to grappling with the personal and family effects, employers must ensure that they have a response plan in place to address Coronavirus’ impact on their business. In doing so, employers must be conscious of responding appropriately in light of the legal and business implications. In some ways, employers are in uncharted territory, but there are guideposts in existing laws and regulations. Here are some of the important considerations for employers to keep in mind in responding to Coronavirus:

Stay Up to Date on Government Guidance

In order to make an educated decision regarding what course of action will best protect employee safety, employers need to stay informed about the latest developments regarding the spread of the virus and adhere to government guidance for responding to the virus.

The Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) has provided Interim Guidance for Business and Employers  meant to help prevent workplace exposures based on the information currently known about the virus. Given the rapidly evolving nature of this situation, employers should check the CDC’s website frequently for updates.

Employee Education to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 in the Workplace

Some basic steps employers should take to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus and protect workers’ health and safety include:

  • > Educate employees on Coronavirus signs and symptoms and precautions to take to minimize the risk of contracting the virus
  • > Encourage employees to wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and avoid touching their mouth, nose, and eyes with unwashed hands
  • > Practice social distancing, including minimizing non-essential travel, meetings and visitors
  • > Provide employees who continue to work in the office with hand sanitizer, flu masks, disinfecting wipes and paper towels, instruct them on proper use, and direct them to diligently clean frequently touched surfaces and objects (such as doorknobs, telephones, keyboards and mice)
  • > Actively encourage employees who show any symptoms of the disease caused by Coronavirus (COVID-19) or are close to others who have, to stay home and not come to work

Formulate a Response Plan

Employers should move quickly to implement workplace policies to prevent the spread of the virus and protect employees. Some examples of potential elements of an employer’s response plan may include:

  • > Establish processes to communicate information to employees and business partners on your infectious disease outbreak response plan
  • > Review human resources policies to make sure that policies and practices are consistent with public health recommendations and existing state and federal workplace laws
  • > Increase the frequency and thoroughness of worksite cleaning efforts, particularly in common areas such as bathrooms, break rooms and kitchens
  • > Seriously consider new policies and practices to reduce congregations and increase the physical distance between employees, customers, vendors and others, to reduce the chances for exposure – for example, staggered break times, phone or video conferences instead of meetings
  • > To the extent feasible, ensure that employees have the requisite computer, phone and other technological capabilities to perform their work from home
  • > Formulate plans for suppliers and workers whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, such as staggered schedules and breaks, off-hours deliveries, or having some tasks performed by outside contractors
  • > Encourage employees who are feeling sick to stay home or work remotely, even if they are not showing Coronavirus symptoms
  • > Prepare to respond to employees who may be nervous or concerned about contracting COVID-19. Employers should be understanding of  employees’ concerns and evaluate each request or issue based on the individual employee’s specific circumstances.

Legal Implications of Workplace Strategy

Although there is currently no California law or regulations addressing an employer’s legal obligations relating specifically to Coronavirus, workplace safety and health regulations in California require employers to protect workers exposed to airborne infectious diseases. Therefore, it is important for employers to understand the legal issues implicated by Coronavirus and the guiding legal principles which will inform the employer’s response to the virus.

OSHA Standards for Maintaining a Safe Workplace

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe workplace for employees, and the best way to prevent infection is to avoid exposure. The General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act of 1970, 29 U.S.C. 654(a)(1) requires employers to provide workers with working conditions free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm, to receive information and training about workplace hazards; and to exercise their rights without retaliation, among others.

Cal/OSHA Requirements

The Aerosol Transmissible Diseases (ATD) standard (California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 5199) requires employers to take certain actions to protect employees from airborne diseases and pathogens such as Coronavirus. The regulations apply only to specific industries, such as health care facilities, law enforcement services and public health services, in which employees are reasonably expected to be exposed to suspected or confirmed cases of aerosol transmissible diseases.

The ATD requires such employers to protect employees through a written ATD exposure control plan and procedure, training, and personal protective equipment, among other things. However, the requirements are less stringent in situations where the likelihood of exposure to airborne infectious diseases is reduced. For more information, Cal/OSHA has posted guidance to help employers comply with these safety requirements and to provide workers information on how to protect themselves.

Medical Leave, Paid Sick Leave Issues and Disability Discrimination

If an employee is forced to miss work due to the need to be quarantined or the need to care for a family member for similar reasons, employers must determine whether the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or other leave laws apply to an employee’s absence. If the employee has exhibited symptoms and is required to be away from work per the advice of a healthcare provider or is needed to care for a family member, leave laws may apply to the absence.

The FMLA regulations state that the flu ordinarily does not meet the Act’s definition of a “serious health condition,” it may qualify if it requires inpatient care or continuing treatment by a health care provider. In addition, eligible employees might be entitled to FMLA leave when taking time off for examinations to determine if a serious health condition exists, and evaluations of the condition, under the FMLA definition of “treatment.”

In contrast, if the employer itself implements health and safety precautions that require the employee to be away from work, an employer should proceed with caution before designating any time away from work as leave under a specific law. Doing so may require that the employee provide such leave when it otherwise would not be required to do so.

Review your sick leave, PTO (paid time off), or vacation policies. Consider reminding workers that the use of paid sick leave (PSL) is available to help workers who are sick to stay home. However, the employer cannot require that the worker use PSL – that is the employee’s choice. Employers may require employees use their vacation or PTO benefits before they are allowed to take unpaid leave, but cannot mandate that employees use PSL.

Employees in California at worksites with 25 or more employees may also be provided up to 40 hours of leave per year for specific school-related emergencies, such as the closure of a child’s school or day care by civil authorities (Labor Code section 230.8). Whether that leave is paid or unpaid depends on the employer’s paid leave, vacation or other PTO policies.

Paying Workers During a Pandemic

Depending on your organization’s business, some employees may be directed to work from home, temporarily furloughed, or work a reduced schedule.

Furloughs and Layoffs

Short-term layoffs or furloughs are generally permitted as long as the criteria for selection are not protected classes such as race, national origin, gender, etc. Exempt employees generally should continue to receive their full salary for each workweek in which they perform work. In contrast, hourly workers need not be paid for time not worked. A short-term layoff or furlough of less than six months should not implicate notice obligations under the Federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, but may require advance notice under the California WARN Act, which was recently interpreted as having been triggered by certain short-term furloughs.

If non-exempt employees’ work schedules are reduced due to a temporary closure, they need not be paid according to their regular schedule under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). However, they may be eligible for state Disability Insurance (“DI”), and Paid Family Leave (“PFL”) benefits for caring for themselves or their family members. Employees receiving reduced hours because of the effects of COVID-19 may be eligible for unemployment insurance (“UI”). In California, the Governor’s Executive Order waives the one-week unpaid waiting period for DI and UI, so workers can collect those benefits for the first week out of work.

Resources for Additional Information about Coronavirus from the CDC

For more information about the Coronavirus and how businesses and individuals should best respond, refer to the below resources provided by the CDC and California’s Employment Development Department:

CDC: About Coronavirus and COVID-19

CDC: What You Need to Know About Coronavirus

CDC: Interim Guidance for Businesses and Employers

CDC: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

EDD: Coronavirus 2019 and COVID-19

CK&E Can Help

During these uncertain and rapidly changing developments, employers need to be proactive and careful as to the steps they take to protect their businesses, employees, customers and vendors. Lawyers at Conkle, Kremer & Engel have decades of experience advising California employers and companies doing business in California about labor, regulatory, consumer and contract concerns. We remain available and ready to help our clients navigate these difficult times. Please contact John Conkle, Amanda Washton or any of our attorneys to discuss your concerns.

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AB 51 at a Crossroad: Can California Employers Still Compel Employees to Arbitrate Disputes?

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California Assembly Bill 51 (“AB 51”) has been in the news because it imposes a far-reaching ban on California employers requiring employees to arbitrate employment disputes. AB 51 was set to take effect on January 1, 2020, but its effect was temporarily stopped by a court injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller on December 30, 2019, in a lawsuit filed by the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce. A fuller hearing on whether the court will extend the injunction is set for January 10, 2020. If the injunction is extended, AB 51 will remain in limbo as long as that case remains pending, and very possibly permanently.

AB 51, if it is allowed to take effect, would have far-reaching implications for California employers who use arbitration agreements for resolution of disputes with employees. AB 51 was signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom on October 10, 2019, and applies to “contracts for employment entered into, modified, or extended on or after January 1, 2020.” The law prohibits any person from requiring applicants and employees, as a condition of employment, continued employment, or the receipt of any employment-related benefit, to waive any rights, forum, or procedure established by the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and the California Labor Code.

The Impact of AB 51
Although AB 51 was originally promoted to target the #MeToo movement and was characterized as a anti-sexual harassment law, because many sexual harassment claims against employers have been kept from public view by resolutions in private arbitrations rather than public court proceedings. But the new law covers much more than just sexual harassment claims. In practical effect, AB 51 would prohibit most employers from requiring employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements for nearly all types of employment law claims, including any discrimination claims covered under FEHA and for any claims brought under the California Labor Code. AB 51 also precludes employers from threatening, retaliating or discriminating against, or terminating any job applicant or employee for refusing to consent to arbitration or any other type of waiver of a judicial “right, forum, or procedure” for violation of the FEHA or the Labor Code.

Nor can employers avoid AB 51 by having a standard arbitration agreement that requires applicants or employees to “opt out” to avoid. The law effectively prohibits employers from using voluntary opt-out clauses to avoid the reach of the bill. New California Labor Code Section 432.6(c) states that “an agreement that requires an employee to opt out of a waiver or take any affirmative action in order to preserve their rights is deemed a condition of employment.”

In addition, new Government Code Section 12953 states that any violation of the various provisions in AB 51 will be an unlawful employment practice, subjecting the employer to a private right of action under FEHA. Although this will presumably require an employee to exhaust the administrative remedy under FEHA, this provision would nevertheless lead to further exposure for California employers who utilize arbitration agreements with their employees. Importantly, however, AB 51 explicitly does not apply to post-dispute settlement agreements or negotiated severance agreements.

Federal Preemption of AB 51?
Generally, the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 1, et seq., (“FAA”) preempts state laws like AB 51 that attempt to regulate or restrict arbitration agreements. Under the FAA, a state may not pass or enforce laws that interfere with, limit, or discriminate against arbitration, and state laws attempting to interfere with arbitration have repeatedly been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court as preempted by the FAA. AB 51, however, expressly states that it does not invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the FAA. Proponents of AB 51 argue that it is not preempted by the FAA because it only impacts “mandatory” arbitration agreements and does not affect “voluntary” agreements.

Impending Court Challenges
Many questions surrounding the validity and application of AB 51 remain unanswered. Therefore, legal challenges on the ground that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA were inevitable. On December 6, 2019, the U.S. and California Chambers of Commerce filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleging that AB 51 is preempted by the FAA. The complaint seeks a permanent injunction to halt enforcement of AB 51 until its legality is determined. The January 10, 2020 hearing of the preliminary injunction may give strong indication which way the Court will turn on the issue for the time being, but the ultimate determination will likely take years to wend its way through the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal and perhaps the U.S. Supreme Court.

What Should Employers Do In Response to AB 51?
As this challenge to AB 51 makes its way through the courts, employers with ongoing arbitration agreements (or those interested in implementing arbitration programs) face a difficult choice starting in 2020: Play it safe and strike all mandatory arbitration agreements, or maintain the status quo until the litigation plays out. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every employer.

Employers currently using arbitration agreements should consider either staying the course based on the assumption that AB 51 will be held preempted by the FAA and therefore unenforceable, or suspending their arbitration programs until more clarity on AB 51 is provided. Employers implementing arbitration programs after January 1, 2020 should consider including in their arbitration agreements specific language to conform with Labor Code 432.6 and emphasizing the voluntary nature of the agreement.

The attorneys at Conkle, Kremer & Engel remain vigilant on employment law developments to advise businesses on all aspects of employee legal relations, including updates on the use of arbitration agreements as uncertainty looms.

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What do Goop, Sexual Energy, Jade Eggs and CBD Have in Common?

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Answer: Unproven Health Claims

Goop, a life-style branding company founded by Gwyneth Paltrow, was recently fined $145,000 by a consortium of California Counties for making exaggerated and false advertising claims about its products.  The makers and distributors of everything from clothes to perfume, and face cream to condoms, Goop has a well-documented history of over-the-top marketing claims.  In the action brought by the County District Attorneys, the government took exception to the claim made by Goop regarding its Jade Egg product.  Goop claimed among other things that the egg product, when inserted into the vagina, prevented uterine prolapse and improved sex.  In the parlance of the regulators, this was an unsubstantiated or unapproved new drug claim.

In similar fashion, cannabidiol oil or “CBD” products are at the forefront of aggressive (sometimes overly aggressive) health and medical claims. Everyone knows about “medical” marijuana, and CBD is one of several “active” ingredients found in marijuana and hemp plants which is often associated with the beneficial effects of the plant: pain relief, stress or anxiety relief, anti-nausea, and anti-inflammatory.  This phenomenon has lead to a budding market in consumer products featuring CBD, accompanied by assertive health claims.  The CBD market already covers a wide range of products, including cosmetics (skin creams), food products  (edibles), and even CBD laced beer.  To add to the confusion, a compound found in marijuana was recently approved by the FDA for treatment of a rare seizure disorder.

And this highlights the problem, especially for marketers of cosmetics.  The only FDA-approved medical claim for marijuana compounds is directed to a rare seizure disorder, and this is a tiny market. To make a valid advertising claim that a  skin cream product treats, for example, eczema, psoriasis or a rash, the company or brand would need to have FDA approval of the active ingredient for that particular disease or condition at issue.  Absent such approval, the marketing claim would likely be regarded as an unapproved new drug and subject to regulatory fines and seizure.  Thus, for example, if you want to make a skin-protectant claim for your product, you would need to use one of the FDA approved ingredients for such claims, and limit the claim to the language approved in the FDA monograph for skin protectants.  To illustrate the point, witch hazel is one of the FDA approved skin protectant active ingredients. If you use witch hazel as an ingredient in your product, in the correct percentage, it would allow you to make the claim “[r]elieves minor skin irritations due to either i) insect bites, ii) minor cuts, and/or iii) minor scrapes”.

The point of all this is to make sure that your advertising claims are reviewed and approved by experienced legal counsel.  This is a common area for regulatory action, as well as private class actions.  The FDA routinely polices the internet looking for unsubstantiated and unapproved new drug claims. When the FDA finds a violation, it sends out a warning letter that will look something like this.  You do not want to be the first one on your block to own one of these.  Consult your CK&E attorney before you put a label on your product, make an advertising claim on your website, press send on an email blast promotion, or even drop a product catalog in the mail.  Yes, even old school mailers can get you in trouble.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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At Critical Juncture, CK&E Defeats Consumer Class Action Against Charity

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On October 13, 2016 Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Eric S. Engel and Zachary Page successfully defended a charitable organization faced with an attempted consumer class action.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, a charity that accepted donations of vehicles was charged with fraud, false advertising, unfair competition and violation of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA).  Plaintiff Delgado had donated a boat and trailer to Cars 4 Causes, and later complained that Cars 4 Causes did not adequately disclose its fees before providing a portion of the net proceeds from sale of the donation to Delgado’s designated third party charity.

In a class action, a critical juncture is reached when the plaintiff files a motion to ask the court to certify a class.  Without a class certification, the action is just an individual claim, often with little value on its own.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present compelling evidence and legal arguments that the claims of the prospective class members did not have sufficient common issues of fact, and that the proposed class members were not sufficiently ascertainable, to permit class certification.  When class certification is denied, courts often allow the plaintiff a second or third chance to modify his class definition or otherwise amend his claims in order to meet the class certification requirements.  But in Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present such solid evidence and legal argument that the court was convinced of the futility of any such additional chances for the plaintiff.  As a result, the court denied Delgado’s motion for class certification
“with prejudice.”  This permanent denial of class certification ended the plaintiff’s effort to pursue a class action against Cars 4 Causes.

CK&E attorneys have substantial experience and success in defending class actions ranging from consumer unfair competition, false advertising and CLRA claims, to employment wage and hour claims.

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The Conkle Firm Participates in ICMAD Regulatory Forum

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric S. Engel attended the ICMAD Regulatory Forum in Newport Beach, California on February 17, 2016.  The Forum has been an annual event for more than a decade, and offers CK&E an opportunity to meet with professionals in the personal care products industry to discuss important legislative and regulatory issues affecting the industry.  Among the topics of concern to the beauty industry, on which CK&E stays current through participation in the Forum and otherwise, include labeling and advertising claims, EU labeling and regulatory compliance, and California regulatory compliance, including Prop 65 issues, California Safe Cosmetics Act and California Air Resources Board (CARB), California Safer Consumer Products regulations, and the potential for class action liability.  One topic that generated particular industry interest was the pending “Personal Care Products Safety Act” introduced by Senators Feinstein and Collins.

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Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

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Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

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The Conkle Firm to Present on Emerging Legal Trends in Personal Care Products Industry

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On November 19, 2014, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys John Conkle and Kim Sim will speak on emerging legal trends in the cosmetic and personal care products industry at the Emerging Issues Conference in Santa Monica, California.  Their topics will include recent developments concerning hazardous waste regulation, trends in advertising and class action litigation affecting the personal care products industry, and an update on California’s regulation of volatile organic compounds in consumer products.

The Emerging Issues Conference is an annual presentation by the Personal Care Products Council.  The PCPC is the leading national trade association for the cosmetic and personal care products industry and represents the most innovative names in beauty today.  For more than 600 member companies, the PCPC is the voice on scientific, legal, regulatory, legislative and international issues for the personal care product industry. The PCPC is a leading and trusted source of information for and about the industry and a vocal advocate for consumer safety and continued access to new, innovative products.

Please join CK&E at the conference to hear important information on the latest legal trends affecting the industry.

 

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Organic products? Really?

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Are your personal care products really organic? There is no federal regulation of cosmetics sold as “organic,” other than a voluntary USDA certification process, but California takes use of the term “organic” seriously.

The California Organic Products Act (COPA), requires that multi-ingredient cosmetics labeled or sold as organic contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients.  The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sued 40 cosmetics manufacturers in 2011 and 2012 in Alameda County for violating COPA. One of the defendants in CEH’s first lawsuit was Todd Christopher International, dba Vogue International, (Vogue) the manufacturer of Organix brand products.  While the Organix products contained less than 10% organic ingredients, Vogue contended that the “active” ingredients in its products were organic.  Vogue argued that COPA did not apply to its Organix hair care products because hair care products are not “cosmetics” and that “Organix” is not a grammatical variation of the term “organic.”  The court rejected Vogue’s arguments.  In September 2012, Vogue agreed to either change its packaging and stop using “Organix,” or change the ingredients of its products to comply with COPA.

CEH then brought another lawsuit against Vogue.   This time, it was a class action aimed at stopping Vogue’s use of “Organix” nationwide – not just in California.  CEH claimed that Vogue’s labeling is unfair and deceptive under each state’s consumer protection laws because Vogue’s Organix products are not composed of predominately organic ingredients.  In October 2013, the federal court for the Northern District of California preliminarily approved a settlement of the class action in which Vogue would pay $6.5 million and stop using “Organix” for cosmetics that did not contain at least 70% organic ingredients.  The final approval hearing is set for April 3, 2014.  Vogue has already begun to transition its packaging and advertising to the more defensible “Ogx”.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel stays current on federal and state regulatory issues and helps its clients avoid the kind of labeling problem that befell Vogue.

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Naked Juice Labels to be Stripped of "All Natural" and "Non-GMO" Claims in False Advertising Settlement

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PepsiCo has agreed to pay $9 million to settle a class action battle over its use of the words “All Natural” and “Non-GMO” (non-Genetically Modified Organism) on its Naked Juice drink products.  As part of the settlement, PepsiCo agreed to change its labeling.

If approved by the district court, the settlement would resolve five separate class action lawsuits, which were consolidated with the lead case Pappas v. Naked Juice Co. of Glendora, Inc., in March 2012.

The case against PepsiCo stems from allegations that statements on the Naked Juice labels constitute false advertising.  The plaintiffs sued for violation of a number of California statutes – the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA) and False Advertising and Unfair Competition Laws.

According to the plaintiffs, independent testing revealed genetically modified soy protein in some Naked Juice products.  The plaintiffs also alleged that several ingredients in the Naked Juice products are non-natural, including ingredients like beta carotene and biotin which do occur naturally but are produced synthetically when added as supplements to foods, and a fiber ingredient that is produced by chemically rearranging corn starch molecules.  All of these ingredients are listed in the ingredient panel, but according to the plaintiffs, a reasonable consumer wouldn’t scrutinize the ingredient list for information contradicting the plain, conspicuous statements “All Natural” and “Non-GMO.”

The settlement in the PepsiCo case is likely to lead to many more class action lawsuits against businesses that advertise their products as “natural” or “all natural.”  Unlike use of the word “organic,” use of the word “natural” is not explicitly regulated by federal or state law, leaving the door open for claims of false or misleading advertising by consumers.

What’s the moral of this story?  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  It is important to scrutinize health-related language used in advertising, especially on food products, and ensure there is documentation to back up claims.  CK&E routinely works with clients to evaluate the language on product packaging and in advertising as part of a comprehensive risk analysis so they can make informed choices for their businesses.  CK&E also has extensive experience defending clients against consumer false advertising claims.

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