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Another Judge Chimes in on Tito’s

On Tuesday, January 12, 2016, a federal district court in New York granted in part and denied in part Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka’s motion to dismiss several claims brought against it by a class of consumers in the case Singleton v. Fifth Generation, Inc.

Judge Brenda K. Sannes of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York issued the opinion, holding that federal approval of Tito’s labels does not provide Tito’s with a “safe harbor” from litigation, and that Tito’s use of the term “handmade” and the phrase “crafted in an old fashioned pot still” “could plausibly mislead a reasonable consumer to believe that [Tito’s] vodka is made in a hands-on, small-batch process.”

Judge Sannes’ decision to allow Singleton to move forward marks yet another instance of a federal judge finding merit in false labeling claims against Tito’s. Singleton joins Hoffman v. Fifth Generation, Inc. and Cabrera v. Fifth Generation, Inc. (both federal cases in California) as well as Pye v. Fifth Generation, Inc. (a federal case in Florida) and Terlesky v. Fifth Generation, Inc. (a federal case in Ohio), which have all survived motions by Tito’s to cut the cases short.

Singleton is more akin to the two California cases, as the judges in all three refused to apply the safe harbor and held that the term “handmade” is not puffery, and therefore actionable. The judges in Pye and Terlesky, on the other hand, both applied the safe harbor, but held that consumers did state a valid claim for breach of warranty based on Tito’s statement that its vodka is “crafted in an old-fashioned pot still.” Judge Sannes, however, dismissed the breach of warranty claims in Singleton.

 With at least ten distinct cases brought by classes of consumers against Tito’s over the past year and a half, it can be difficult to keep track of how each side is faring. What is clear is that Tito’s has won two cases—Aliano v. Fifth Generation, Inc. in Illinois, and Wilson v. Fifth Generation, Inc. in Alabama—as both cases have been dismissed and the time to appeal has expired. It also seems relatively safe to say that Tito’s has the high ground in Pye and Terlesky, as the false labeling claims have been dismissed, and only the breach of warranty claims remain. What is less clear, however, is how Tito’s will fare in Singleton, Cabrera, and Hofmann, all of which are all moving forward on the plaintiffs’ mightiest claim—that they were deceived by Tito’s use of the term “handmade.”

Because Singleton survived (in part) Tito’s motion to dismiss, Tito’s will have to answer the consumer-plaintiffs’ claims. Tito’s will, however, have another chance to dismantle the plaintiffs’ case before it goes to trial, by filing a motion for summary judgment. Tito’s tried this in both Cabrera and Hofmann, but was unsuccessful. As for the three other cases against Tito’s (not listed here), the relevant courts have yet to rule on Tito’s motions to dismiss.

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Tito’s Scorecard

scoreI don’t mean to keep harping on the Tito’s Vodka cases — but there sure are a lot of them — and they are important. Because there are so many, it is not easy to keep track of how it’s going, hence this handy Scorecard. Most of the cases are slowly grinding along, with no clear winner or loser (as shown with the ⇔ symbol). At one extreme, the Aliano case went especially well for Tito (⇑). At the other extreme is the Hofmann case (⇓). In late November Judge Miller allowed Hofmann, the first-filed case, to go forward, past the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It got even worse, five days later, when the court gave the plaintiffs permission to go into the plant and see exactly how Tito’s Vodka is made, despite the company’s strong objections.


 

Plaintiff (State)Status (Filed Date)Notes
Aliano (IL)Closed. Dismissed 9/24/2015. (11/7/2014)⇑⇑ Big win for Tito.
Cabrera (CA)Open. On 11/20/2015 Judge Miller denied Tito's motion for summary judgment. (12/22/2014)⇓ This case is not going well for the defendant.
ConsolidationClosed. The Hofmann lawyers withdrew their motion to consolidate the cases listed on this table on 5/15/2015. (4/6/2015)
Emanuello (MA)Open. (4/3/2015)
Grayson (NV)Open. (1/26/2015)
Hofmann (CA)Open. On 11/20/2015 Judge Miller denied Tito's motion for summary judgment , and on 11/25/2015 the court ok'd a site visit. (9/15/2014)⇓⇓ This case is not going well for the defendant.
McBrearty (NJ)Open. (10/24/2014)
Pye (FL)Open. On 9/23/2015 the federal court dismissed the statutory deception-type claims but let stand the warranty-type claims. (9/25/2014)
Singleton (NY)Open. (4/7/2015)
Terlesky (OH)Open. 11/17/2015 the court dismissed the statutory deception-type claims but let stand the warranty-type claims. (6/4/2015)
Wilson (AL)Closed. Dismissed 9/30/2015. (8/4/2015)⇑ Win for Tito.

 

We reached out to Tito and his lead lawyer to make sure we are not missing anything important, and to ask a few questions, as follows. From early on, Tito said he knew it was going to be a long haul.

How’s it going? Business has continued to be good. The lawsuits have been a distraction. But our consumer base is growing, and they have been extremely loyal. They appreciate Tito’s Handmade Vodka for what it is:  a premium quality vodka at a price they can afford. That’s what we set out to make, and the fact that our fans appreciate it makes it all worthwhile.

Do you still think you are going to win? Yes, we do believe we will win. So far, the cases that have been decided on the merits have gone our way. The others are still in the early stages.

Anything you want to say and can say that has not already been in the media? As the courts get more into the issues, they are starting to understand that the regulatory process we have to go through to get label approval means something. And when the federal government issues an approval for our labels, it means they have found them to be in compliance and not misleading to consumers. Everyone in the industry should be able to rely on their approved labels to do business.

Why not just settle or compromise? Settling cases like these simply invites more people to bring more cases. Some principles are worth fighting for.

Biggest surprises about our legal system, so far? Things move slowly in the court system. And in the early stages, people can make a lot of baseless accusations and get the benefit of the doubt for a long time, with no real skin in the game and no downside when those accusations are disproven.

How if at all have the cases affected sales? I haven’t had anyone tell me they won’t buy the product because we’ve been sued. To the contrary, I’ve had people tell me that this means I’ve arrived. All I know is we keep doing the same thing we’ve been doing for years; we just do more of it.

What else? On the Florida case … continued here.

With so many cases pending, and so much at stake, it won’t be long until this scorecard needs a major update.

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Judge Miller Not Too Impressed With TTB System or Tito Approvals

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There is big news out of a federal court in San Diego. On Friday, the judge in two of the Tito’s labeling cases said it, loud and clear. Words matter — on labels. This is important because it was starting to get very confusing, what with all the label cases floating around, and many dismissals. There are at least eight separate Tito’s cases scattered around the country, and a couple dozen alcohol beverage litigations pending in recent months. Along the way, Judge Miller made it clear he is not too impressed with the rigor of TTB’s label review system, or the fact that the Tito’s “Handmade” Vodka labels have been approved on many occasions.

On Friday, November 20, 2015, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Judge Jeffrey Miller issued two very similar Orders in two separate cases against Tito’s Vodka. The cases are:
   – Hofmann v. Fifth Generation
   – Cabrera v. Fifth Generation

In hindsight, Judge Miller’s November 20th Orders seem obvious. If the claim meant little to nothing, why would Tito spend zillions of dollars to make sure everyone knows his vodka is “handmade”? Why else would it be the main word on the main label, and throughout his marketing? Why else would it work so well, to shoot this brand to the top of a tall and slippery pole? In recent months Tito has argued that the term is mere puff. But I can’t think of any puff term that has a prayer of moving the bottles as well as a term, such as the one at issue, with a little more grit and traction. I don’t see the terms “premium,” “finest,” “smooth,”  or any other agreed-upon puff terms getting anyone far, as compared to a term that is much more likely to actually mean something.

tIn a 17 page Order, Judge Miller denied Tito’s motion for summary judgment in Hofmann v. Fifth Generation, the first of many such cases. The Judge did likewise in a 14 page Order, in the Cabrera case. This means both cases have much greater odds of ending up at trial someday, even though most such cases are settled well before that. This also means the odds are much higher, that a judge or jury might actually tell us, someday in our lifetimes, what this inscrutable term actually means, and whether Tito’s is made thusly. Without having a strong opinion on whether Tito should win or lose, I do have a strong opinion that it is a huge copout to say, the term is simply too hard to define, or, as so many people on the internet like to say about it, “who cares.” For better or worse, my job is more or less about what words do, don’t, should, or shouldn’t mean, hence my deep interest in this case. A term like “bourbon” or “straight” means a lot, and that is good.

The Orders tend to say that TTB approval of the label and term at issue are determinative only to the extent TTB conducted a rigorous review. It is hard to say TTB’s review is other than non-rigorous, inasmuch as TTB quite clearly said they don’t even have any standards or rules around such a term. The plaintiffs argued, and the Judge agreed (in the Hofmann and Cabrera Orders), that “a federal regulator’s actions create a safe harbor only … where the agency’s actions ‘were the result of a formal, deliberative process akin to notice and comment rulemaking or an adjudicative enforcement action,’ and are therefore sufficiently formal to merit Chevron deference.” I have been interacting with TTB’s label review system on a daily basis for more than 25 years now. It would be preposterous to claim that the system has been anything close to formal, deliberative, or similar to an adjudication. Most of the time, no lawyers or neutrals are involved. Most of the time there is no evidence, and there are no evidentiary rules. Many times the system has all the rigor of a bouncer, at the trendiest nightclub, deciding whether you are cool enough to enter the club. Far less often, the system involves knowledgeable people, on opposing sides of an issue, with a plausibly neutral decisionmaker.

It is quite easy to illustrate this. Take a competing vodka; let’s call it Pedro’s. Pretend Pedro’s Vodka is demonstrably distilled in a humongous vodka plant, outside Texas, and shipped to Dallas in railroad …

Continued here

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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 day 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) Hofmann (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 Hofmann 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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Oak Aged Vodka

oak

TTB does not allow Aged Vodka, or Aged Gin. But this would seem to show it’s pretty easy to work around these arcane, antiquated restrictions. Note how the word “aged” is nowhere but everywhere on this label, and Absolut does not mind throwing in a reference to “craft” for good measure.

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