In what is becoming a bit of a pattern, the Ninth Circuit has again ruled that a lower court’s dismissal of a consumer class action against The Hain Celestial Group was the wrong result.
On December 5, 2013, Judge Manuel Real dismissed without leave to amend claims by Alessandra Balser and Ruth Kresha that Hain Celestial falsely advertised body wash, lotion, and hair care products as “natural” when the products allegedly contain unnatural, synthetic ingredients. Judge Real held it was implausible that plaintiffs could believe the products were “existing in or produced by nature” because shampoos and cosmetics are, by definition, not natural.
The Ninth Circuit disagreed . In an unpublished opinion issued on February 22, the court reversed and remanded the decision for three different reasons.
First, the Court held that Plaintiffs’ claims were plead with sufficient particularity under Rule 9(b) because they provided a definition of natural and that those claims were “sufficient plausibly to allege a reasonable consumer’s understanding of ‘natural’….”
The Court also found that whether a business practice is deceptive is for a jury to decide, and a jury could find reasonable consumers believe “natural” means that no synthetic chemicals were used in the products.
Finally, the Court was critical of notorious Central District Local Rule 23-3, which requires that motions for class certification be filed within 90 days of service of “a pleading purporting to commence a class action….” The Court held that this rule was “quite unrealistic” when considered with federal rules regarding status conferences and the timing of discovery and that the lower court abused its discretion by denying precertification discovery.
This decision, aside from knocking the Central District’s “90 day” rule, only further cements the Ninth Circuit’s reputation as “plaintiff-friendly” in the consumer class action landscape. It also finds that, so long as a plaintiff can include some definition of “natural,” irrespective of whether it makes sense in the context of a particular product, this is enough to survive a motion to dismiss. Given results like this, FDA guidance on what the term “natural” in manufactured products actually means is long overdue.