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Tito Case Moves Forward, Not in Tito’s Favor

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3/23/2015 Update. Caution. The above headline seems fairly skewed. See below for what we think really happened last week. The case is not halted at all.

Tito had another bad yesterday, this time in federal court in San Diego. This further makes it obvious that the world of labeling has changed markedly since the Supreme Court’s Pom decision of June 12, 2014. On March 18, 2015, Judge Jeffrey Miller (of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California) ruled that the Tito’s vodka case, relating to deception and the term “handmade,” should move forward. Since the case was filed on September 19, 2014, Tito has argued that the case should be dismissed.

The judge did agree with Tito on a few points, but agreed with the complainants on the larger points. Tito had argued that the case should not move forward because there was no real damage to anyone. In response, the court’s Order Granting in Part and Denying in Part Tito’s Motion to Dismiss, noted some consumers care a lot about “processes and places of origin” when deciding what to buy. By way of example, the court pointed to past controversies about kosher, halal, diamonds from conflict zones, and wine appellations.

Background about the case is here (the main complaints) and here (the main defense). This posting is a short version, and more commentary will be available at Wine & Spirits Daily, later today (or upon request). The nub of the matter is, the label and indeed the main selling proposition for Tito’s vodka, all the way back to its inception, center on its “handmade” aspects. This claim (the biggest word on the label) is now the subject of at least five lawsuits all over the U.S. They are 1) Hoffman (as here), 2) Pye (filed in federal court in Florida), 3) Aliano (filed in Cook County and removed to federal court), 4) McBrearty (filed in New Jersey state court and removed to federal court), 5) Cabrera (filed in San Diego, federal court), and 6) Grayson (filed in Las Vegas, federal court).

The Hoffman court said the class action claimants need not show that the vodka was defective or that the vodka was worth the price paid. Instead, the relevant inquiry is whether consumers were deceived about the “handmade” claim, and persuaded to buy on the basis of that deception. In essence, the judge is saying the plaintiffs made a mistake by arguing that class member would pay less – instead of arguing that they would not buy the product at all – but for the label claim at issue.

The Order has a funny typo on page 11 (stemming from the plaintiff’s brief), referring to the label term as “homemade,” when in reality the label shows the term “handmade.” A pillar of Tito’s defense, so far, is that TTB has approved the label on many occasions and after careful review. The court was not impressed by this point: “the court concludes that [Tito] has not shown that the safe harbor bars Plaintiff’s claims.” The court said TTB’s review was peripheral and informal at most, especially in view of the fact that TTB does not even have standards or rules for the term at issue.

The order seems careful and even-handed, but then seems to lean against Tito more, by saying:

In the court’s view, the representation that vodka that is (allegedly) mass-produced in automated modern stills from commercially manufactured neutral grain spirit is nonetheless “Handmade” in old-fashioned pot stills arguably could mislead a reasonable consumer. This is not, therefore, an issue that can be resolved at this stage.

Judge Miller further ruled that the 2013 Forbes article, that largely raised the questions about the Tito claim, is reliable enough, to form a basis for the allegations. Relatedly, the court was not too impressed with Tito’s argument that this article sufficiently alerted consumers that the claim might be dubious.

Finally, the court asserted that the complaint is not too vague for Tito to prepare an adequate response. The court said Tito’s “cogent” responses prove it. The court sided with the plaintiffs in most areas, but went against the plaintiffs in dismissing three major claims, on the basis that they were not pled properly. The court also, however, provided the plaintiffs with 14 days to fix those deficiencies and so this order is overwhelmingly helpful to the plaintiff side.

Simon Fleischmann (a top class action litigator at Locke Lord in Chicago) explained:

While this is a disappointing ruling from a defense standpoint, it is important to remember that this is just one trial court decision on the pleadings in what will likely be a broader war waged in several courts across the country on similar issues. And perhaps most importantly, the opinion emphasizes the highly individualized nature of that particular plaintiff’s purchasing decisions in a way that will make it difficult to certify a class of similarly situated consumers later on in the litigation.

Simon knows the context well. He is litigating very similar issues on behalf of Templeton Whiskey.

The court’s order is here.

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Palcohol is Back

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Palcohol is back.

After approval from out of nowhere about a year ago, and cancellation of the same approvals a few days later, it is back. I have it on good authority that TTB has ironed out the kinks and approved the labels this week. Sen. Schumer will not be pleased (aka, he may be very pleased to have this whipping boy back within striking distance). Many states have already banned it. But this gives new life to this new category. Hats off to Mark Phillips for weathering the storm and persevering.

Below is the approved label as of 2014 alongside the label as approved on March 10, 2015. There are small, technical changes, mostly relating to how to measure the taxable commodity. Boxes 20 and 23 reconfirm that it took Mark almost a year to get this approval. The back label makes it look like an awful lot of work and controversy for a small amount of alcohol (when prepared, it only has half the liquid of a beer, and 1/4 the abv compared to vodka?!?).

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In an email on the day of re-approval, Mark, the force behind Palcohol, explained:

Yes, Palcohol is back. It’s been quite a journey, over four years to get Palcohol approved by the TTB. I do want people to know that the TTB has been great to work with. Very fair and professional. And I’m not just saying that to kiss up to them as they have now approved Palcohol and it’s done.

The next challenge is trying to stop the states from banning it based on misinformation and ignorant speculation. It is a mistake for a state to ban Palcohol because…

(more…)

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ARTAL: The Movie

First there was ARTAL the list. Then there was ARTAL the blog post. And now, there is ARTAL:  The Movie. In which Oli tries to help you remember the power and pitfalls of the big list of Allowable Revisions to Approved Labels. In brief, this should help you remember that you don’t need a new COLA every time you make a change to your already-approved label. There are dozens of small and not so small changes that are ok to make, without any need of a new COLA — or the wait, frustration, and expense.

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Why on Earth Would Anyone Need a Lawyer to Help Get a COLA?

Ladies and gentlemen it is with great pleasure that I introduce Oli, the sporadically employed climate scientist, from Chichester. What does that have to do with labels and COLAs? Watch and see. Find out why some may benefit from having a small group of specialized lawyers and paralegals to help you get things moved through TTB and to the marketplace with less pain and delay.

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Tito Responds

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Over the years many have suggested that Tito’s vodka is not really made in small batches or by hand. I tried to keep an open mind, as the brand grew, and even in the face of the lawsuits summarized here.

So I have been particularly looking forward to a response, on the merits, at long last, from the source. Tito finally responded, on November 17, 2014, in the form of a motion to dismiss the Florida case. (The defendants also filed a similar motion, a month later, in the California case. The California motion is 28 pages and substantially similar to the one filed in Florida, right down to mangling the name of the agency that issued the so-crucial approvals. It does add a dash of spice here:  “Plaintiff himself knows nothing, and he filed a lawsuit that ignores what the Tito’s label actually says and instead bases his claim on hearsay statements in a magazine article, hoping he can later commit discovery to get the facts he admittedly lacks.”)

With the aid of more than one big law firm, and a superior command of the facts, I was eager to sit back and see how deftly Tito could shut down its many detractors. The motion weighs in at 20 or so pages and it does not seem an exaggeration to say that the entire brand, the company, and just about everything on the front label hang in the balance. Also, Tito had the immense benefit that he knew or certainly should have known this day would come around sooner or later. This should have been clear since the first references to “handmade.” This should have been further clear upon the various inquiries about the term over the years, as described in the motion.

The motion starts pretty strong, asserting that plaintiff’s complaint is so vague:  “We do not know how many bottles they bought or how much they paid, because they do not tell us those facts. They do not claim there was anything wrong with the vodka they allegedly purchased, or that they did not like it for some reason. They do not claim they complained about it, tried to return it, or even notified anyone of their dissatisfaction … .” Then, “With so many details missing, Fifth Generation is not in a position to make a meaningful response to the Complaint (other than simply to deny the allegations). Nor is the Court in any position to assess whether all or any of the claims pass the plausibility standard. … Measured by those standards, the Complaint is woefully deficient and must be dismissed.”

This may be a good start, but by page 3, the motion seems to go off the rails. It tries to say that the plaintiffs could not have been deceived, because a 2013 Forbes article had already suggested Tito was playing fast and loose with the truth. Tito’s motion says:

In light of what Plaintiffs have pled – and in particular their reliance upon a widely-circulated 2013 Forbes magazine article – it is hard to see how they could plausibly claim they were misled by the label on Tito’s Handmade Vodka for any purchases made after the article was published. Similarly, the number of times they purchased may raise plausibility concerns: If they enjoyed the taste of the product and thought it was a good value, did the label truly influence any but their first purchase? And, if the first time they ever tasted Tito’s Handmade Vodka was at a party, at a restaurant, or in some other setting in which they decided they liked the taste before they ever saw the label, could the label plausibly be said to have influenced even their first purchase? Plaintiffs’ skeletal allegations raise all of these questions and more, but answer none of them.

The defendants seem impressed with this point, breaking out the bolded italics.

Maybe I am missing something fundamental, but this seems absurd as any kind of defense, let alone a cornerstone of a defense. Does it really make sense to assume the plaintiffs would, should, or did get key information about the product from a magazine article — instead of the big, federally mandated, reviewed and approved label plastered on the front of the bottle? The Forbes article is interesting, relevant, and important — but is it really so epochal that everyone interested in vodka should be intimately familiar with it, from the moment of its publication? On the very same page, the motion makes clear in any event that “Plaintiffs never claim that they saw or read the article.” The motion seems to be saying that even though the article is wrong, and low-quality, every yahoo from Texas to California to Florida should know all about it, from the moment of its publication. Perhaps Tito seeks to argue that the lead plaintiffs knew about the article before the purchases at issue, and that this should have caused them not to buy the vodka, or, at the very least, that it would make them not good representatives for the class.

Next, the motion veers over into shaking the pompoms, declaring Tito’s to be “great tasting” and with a value proposition “true to its Austin, Texas roots.” By page five, the motion tees it up beautifully, saying “Plaintiffs contend that Tito’s Handmade Vodka cannot be ‘handmade’ because it is ‘made from commercially manufactured neutral grain spirit that is trucked and pumped into Defendants’ industrial facility.'” This would seem to be the heart of the matter. And so I move to the edge of my seat, waiting for Tito to hit this duly teed-up softball out of the park. And then I wait some more, as the softball seems to sit on the tee, without the benefit of even a swing or a miss, let alone a base hit. Immediately after raising this tantalizing question, the motion changes the subject toward an unilluminating primer on how vodka is normally made.

The defense is a bit too romantic when it explains how the “secret,” “pre-Civil War” pot still methods somehow make the product handmade. And it moves in the other direction when it describes how Tito grasped a pen with his own hands to design the label:  “The label on Tito’s Handmade Vodka is also ‘handmade’ in its origins. The graphic of the old fashioned pot still was drawn by Tito Beveridge himself. He chose the fonts, the colors and the other elements of the label that communicate the consumers the essence of the brand.”

Tito makes a stronger point by explaining that TTB inspected Tito’s labels, plant and methods on many occasions, and still allowed the “handmade” claim. The defendants make quite a few other technical arguments and on some of those it’s hard to know who is right. And yet I find myself still waiting for the defendants to simply assert, at long last, that they do not bring in tankers of commodity spirits mass produced with continuous stills, far from Texas or the hands of anyone in Austin. Looks like we will need to keep waiting.

Finally, for all those who wrote in and said the label claims don’t matter and are only for nerds, please take another look at the label and web page depicted above. This is a screenshot of www.titosvodka.com as of January 4, 2015. I did not add any words or images but I did add a yellow tag near each of the most relevant spots; I emphasized the relevant portions and discarded a lot of the less relevant matter.

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