Posts Tagged ‘legally interesting/controversial’
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.
Is it just a matter of time before TTB is scutinizing cannabis labels — for sneaky references to — wine?
I hope so. That would be great.
Did TTB approve the label yet? Not that I can see. I don’t find any Indica label approved for this Colorado brewery so far. But I do find this Dank label, which is pretty close. The label mentions a run-in with “the man” and pounds of resinous west coast Cannabacae. Dad and Dudes (the brewer) did a wonderful job of securing some trademark rights in this important term (DANK) sure to be much and more in demand in the future. But the label oddly implies that the company has a trademark registration on the term DANK in and of itself, when it does not appear that anyone does. I wonder if D&D’s registration will be sufficient, someday, to block pot purveyors from using the term DANK as part of their branding, and if pot will be considered highly-related to beer/wine/spirits.
Thanks to LabelVision, it’s quite easy to see that TTB has allowed only two “cannabis” labels so far: vodka with cannabis sativa, and Cabernet Franc with notes of cannabis (“pairs well with baked food or an after dinner smoke”).
There are quite a few Indica labels (not including the one in the drinks business article). There are plenty of pot labels wafting around already, and it seems clear there are many more on the way, in one form or another.
There should be no doubt that a solid disclaimer can help make your label ok. And if there was, the Bad Medicine brand of spirits should put it to rest. In at least two places, the Bad Medicine labels say “The name Bad Medicine does not refer to any claimed health benefits.”
Not so long ago, it would be unthinkable that TTB would allow “medicine” or “health” talk — outside the mandated Government Warning. But the case law keeps changing, and so do the labels, along with it.
What other disclaimers are out there (beer, wine, spirits) and what ones should be?
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.
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.