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Class Action Defense Cases–Holk v. Snapple: Third Circuit Reverses Dismissal Of Class Action Holding Class Action’s State Law Claims Regarding “All Natural” Label Not Preempted By Federal Nutrition Labeling And Education Act

District Court Erred in Dismissing Class Action because Class Action’s State Law Claims Alleging Snapple’s Use of Term “All Natural” was Deceptive were not Impliedly Preempted by Federal Nutrition Labeling and Education Act Third Circuit Holds

Plaintiff filed a putative class action in New Jersey state court against Snapple Beverage Corporation alleging inter alia violations of the state’s Consumer Fraud Act; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that plaintiff purchased a Snapple beverage advertised as “All Natural” when in truth the beverage “contained high fructose corn syrup (‘HFCS’), an ingredient manufactured from processed cornstarch.” Holk v. Snapple Beverage Corp., 575 F.3d 329 (3rd Cir. 2009) [Slip Opn., at 1, 5-6]. According to the allegations underlying the class action complaint, “the FDA has acknowledged[] ‘[t]he word “natural” is often used to convey that a food is composed only of substances that are not manmade and is, therefore, somehow more wholesome.’” Id., at 5. The class action therefore alleged that use of the phrase “All Natural” was deceptive because the beverages contain HFCS. Id., at 6, 7. Defense attorneys removed the class action to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), id., at 7. Eventually, defense attorneys moved to dismiss the class action’s claims on the grounds that they were preempted by federal law, id. Ultimately, the only issue before the district court was “the claim that Snapple products containing HFCS were deceptively labeled ‘All Natural.’” Id. The district court agreed that plaintiff’s claims were preempted and dismissed the class action, id., at 7-8. The district court rejected the express preemption argument, but concluded that plaintiff’s claims were “impliedly preempted by the detailed and extensive regulatory scheme established by the [FDCA] and the FDA’s implementing regulations.” Id., at 8. The Third Circuit reversed.

The Third Circuit noted that Congress has regulated food and beverage labeling for more than 100 years.” Holk, at 3. The statute implicated by this class action is the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA), enacted in 1990. Id., at 5. The Circuit Court also noted that there is “a presumption against preemption.” Id., at 11 (citation omitted). Additionally, health and safety issues, including the labeling and branding of food and beverage, has “traditionally fallen within the province of state regulation.” Id. (citation omitted). The federal government became involved in this field only 100 years ago, id., at 11-12. And finally, the Third Circuit held that Snapple’s arguments in the district court waived the express preemption ground as a basis for affirming the judgment on appeal, id., at 12-15, and that “field preemption” did not apply, id., at 15-22. So the Court turned to the issue of implied preemption.

“Implied conflict preemption is present when it is ‘impossible for a private party to comply with both state and federal requirements’” or “when state law ‘stands as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress.’” Holk, at 22 (citations omitted). Defense attorneys argued that the latter situation was presented by this case, id., at 23, and relied on an FDA letter that HFCS may be considered “natural,” id., at 28-29. The Third Circuit concluded that “the FDA’s policy statement regarding the use of the term ‘natural’ is not entitled to preemptive effect.” Id., at 26. The Court also rejected Snapple’s argument that the FDA’s policy should be given preemptive effect “because the FDA has enforced the informal policy.” Id., at 28. Accordingly, the Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of the class action complaint, id., at 30.

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