CKE’s L.A. Daily Journal Article: Treble Damages for Breach of Oral Contract

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The article “Breach of Oral Contract, Treble Damages,” was published in the Los Angeles Daily Journal on August 13, 2013.  The article discusses the importance for manufacturers, distributors and sales representatives of the published decision of Reilly v. Inquest Technology, Inc., 2013 DJDAR 10164 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. July 31, 2013).  The Reilly decision is the first precedent in California to uphold a jury verdict and judgment of treble damages and attorney fees against a manufacturer who failed to pay all sales commissions owed to an independent sales representative.  Eric S. Engel and H. Kim Sim represented Peter Reilly, the sales representative, at trial in Orange County Superior Court.  They obtained a unanimous jury verdict awarding Reilly $2.1 million in unpaid commissions.  Using the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, CK&E then obtained an order from Judge Frederick Horn multiplying the jury’s award by a factor of three, for a judgment of $6.2 million plus attorney’s fees and interest.  That judgment was fully upheld by the California Court of Appeal in its July 31, 2013 decision.  The decision provides a template for future cases seeking treble damages for breach of commission contracts made with independent sales representatives, and can serve as a guide to manufacturers and distributors who want to avoid exposure to such liability.

Click here for the full text of the article, “Breach of oral contract, treble damages”:  Reilly v Inquest Daily Journal Article

Click here for the full copy of the California Court of Appeal decision:  Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

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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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Closing the Door to Class Actions for False Advertising Claims

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Advertising claims are often the subject of lawsuits in California. Ads, slogans, packaging or even product images are claimed to be “false or misleading.” Plaintiffs make claims under a variety of consumer protection laws, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Business and Professions Code section 17200; False Advertising Law (FAL), Business and Professions Code section 17500; and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Civil Code section 1750.

But an individual who wants to sue has a problem, because a single person who claims to have been misled into purchasing a product will usually only have purchased one product and therefore has just a few dollars (or sometimes only pennies) of “out of pocket” money damages. It’s usually not realistic for a lawsuit to be pursued for just a few dollars. As a result, plaintiffs’ lawyers sometimes try to make a “class action” claim to join together many people who can each claim a few dollars of damages, which can add up to a great deal of money. In a class action, the plaintiff can assert that similar injuries happened under similar circumstances to a large number of people, and the plaintiff should be allowed to make a claim for all of the damages to that group of people. Further, the lawyers for the class action can make claims for attorneys’ fees that are much larger than they would otherwise be permitted for representing an individual claimant.

To proceed with a class action lawsuit, the plaintiff must show the court that the proposed “class” meets the rules for “certification.” That is a big hurdle in many cases, because it requires that the plaintiff show that all of the proposed class members have similar claims and issues. A recent ruling from the United States District Court, Central District of California shows how hard it can be to prove that there are such common claims and issues. In Mara Chow v. Neutrogena Corp., Case No. CV 12-04624, the plaintiff claimed that Neutrogena had made false and misleading labels and advertising for its “anti-aging” skincare products, including that the products are “clinically proven,” can cause a person to look younger, and can prevent and repair signs of aging within one week. The plaintiff tried to show that she had a proper class action because all of the class members had similar claims. But District Judge Manuel L. Real refused to certify a class.

Judge Real found that too many individual questions existed as to whether the Neutrogena product had worked as advertised for each individual class member. In other words, each member would have to individually show whether the claims were false as to that member. Further, some of the claims required that each class member would have to show that she “relied” on the false advertising when she purchased the Neutrogena product, which also could only be proved individually and not on a class-wide basis. But the news wasn’t all bad for plaintiff – the individual plaintiff was allowed to continue asserting her own individual claim for a few dollars in damages. No one will be surprised when the case is dismissed, because it isn’t worth pursuing.

CK&E’s lawyers have experience handling all aspects of claims of false or misleading advertising under the UCL, FAL and CLRA. CK&E’s lawyers are particularly well-versed in developing methods to reduce the risk of such lawsuits before they are filed. If a claim does arise, it often comes first to a business in the form of a demand letter, and CK&E attorneys are skilled at responding to such demand letters in ways that eliminate or minimize the claim and can lead to a quick and cost-effective resolution.

Update:  The plaintiff filed a petition for permission to appeal the District Court’s Order denying class certification.  On April 23, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition for permission to appeal.  The lawsuit was subsequently settled and dismissed with prejudice on June 10, 2013.

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Prop. 65 Reform — Is a Safe Harbor from Bounty Hunters on the Horizon?

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California’s now-infamous Proposition 65 (Prop. 65, Cal. Health & Safety Code § 25249.5) allows a private citizen to file a lawsuit against any business that fails to post adequate warnings about the presence of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  The private enforcer may seek an injunction, penalties of up to $2500 per violation, per day, and an award of attorneys’ fees.

Assembly Member Mike Gatto (43rd District of California)  recently proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 227, that would reform Prop. 65 by providing a “safe harbor” in the form of a 14-day period for businesses to correct alleged violations.  If enacted as proposed, a business who receives a demand under Prop. 65 would have a brief opportunity to demonstrate its compliance with Prop. 65 requirements to the California State Attorney General, or the responsible city attorney or district attorney.  If the business takes advantage of that “safe harbor” then the claimant would be barred from filing a lawsuit against that business.

While the purpose of Prop. 65’s private enforcement provision is to allow private citizens to act on behalf of the public to ensure warnings are properly posted, supporters of AB 227 criticize Prop. 65 as a “bounty hunter” statute that primarily benefits plaintiff’s attorneys.  In 2011, businesses paid a total of nearly $16 million to settle lawsuits brought by  private citizens, of which almost $12 million was paid to the plaintiffs’ attorneys.  In fact, nearly half of the attorneys’ fees were paid to a single firm: The Chanler Group.

AB 227 would give businesses the opportunity to come into compliance with Prop. 65 warning requirements without paying exorbitant settlement fees to prevent costly litigation.  But businesses would have to take swift action.  As CK&E attorneys John A. Conkle, Amy Burke and Mark Riedel discussed in their November 2012 presentation to the Personal Care Products Council, What’s Your Game Plan?, it is important for businesses to develop strategies for ensuring regulatory compliance and for handling notices of violation quickly and efficiently.  AB 227, if signed into law, would be another reason that businesses should prepare contingency plans for the day that they receive a notice of violation from plaintiffs seeking to take advantage of Prop. 65 — a business could avoid being sued at all if it responds quickly and correctly to take advantage of the safe harbor.  CK&E advises clients in regulatory compliance, responding to warning and demand letters, and developing an individualized game plan to suit each client’s needs.

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CK&E Lawyers CRASH Santa Monica Superior Court

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel lawyers John Conkle and H. Kim Sim recently volunteered their time and expertise to the Santa Monica Superior Court, serving as attorney volunteers in the Court’s Civil Referee Assisted Settlement Hearing (CRASH) mediation program.  Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process in which a neutral person (usually an experienced lawyer or retired judge) meets with the opposing parties to discuss the merits and risks of their claims and defenses, to try to reach a negotiated settlement.

The services of John and Kim were in high demand due to severe budget cuts affecting California courts. In an effort to deal with a significant budget shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced in March the implementation of a countywide consolidation plan that will create regional hubs for certain types of cases. Personal injury civil cases filed in local courthouses are slated for transfer to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, and when they come up for trial they can be transferred to be tried anywhere in Los Angeles County. The CRASH mediation program took on increased importance as parties in those personal injury cases – in danger of being transferred out of Santa Monica – were sent to participate in mediation conducted by attorney volunteers in a final attempt to settle and avoid a transfer.

CK&E attorneys seldom handle personal injury matters, but they are well practiced in the ways that insurance can be used to help resolve claims.  John and Kim also brought to the table their extensive experience in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practice, including the mixture of law and psychology that is mediation.  But it was a different experience for them to sit at the center as a neutral, rather than as one of the advocates.  The Court and litigants were not the only beneficiaries of their work.  Volunteering for this program enhanced their insight into the mediation process and will enhance their effectiveness as client advocates.

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Announcing Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s New Website

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel started in 1982 as Conkle & Olesten, Professional Law Corporation.  After 25 years, in 2007 the firm changed its name from Conkle & Olesten to Conkle, Kremer & Engel, Professional Law Corporation. Since 1982, the firm has operated continuously without change to its practice, and with complete commitment to service of its clients.

When we created our first website in the mid-1990’s, the Conkle & Olesten homepage featured “The Gavel” to announce our entries about recent case developments.  It apparently was a memorable image because some of our visitors still ask about The Gavel.  It seems appropriate to bring The Gavel back to announce the launch of the revamped CK&E website.

Conkle & Olesten Gavel

Conkle & Olesten Gavel

We hope you enjoy the website and find the articles and posts helpful.  Please let us know if there are any topics that you suggest we address in future posts, or if there are any questions about previous articles and posts.

Conkle & Olesten Homepage

Conkle & Olesten Homepage

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