Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pom preempted again

Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca Cola Co., 2013 WL 543361 (C.D. Cal.)

Pom sued Coca Cola; its remaining UCL and FAL claims are for falsely labeling its “Pomegranate Blueberry Blend” that contains 0.5% pomegranate and blueberry juices (finally, a sensible use of quote marks).  The Lanham Act claims were dismissed as preempted, per the Ninth Circuit, which remanded on the state-law claims.  Here, the court found that the state-law claims were equally preempted as attempting to impose a requirement not identical to those imposed by the FDCA and the FDA’s implementing regulations.

Pom argued that, while Coca Cola may have complied with FDA regulations, it didn’t comply with the FDCA.  But if the FDA defines what the FDCA means, that’s it: the court wasn’t going to distinguish between sections of the FDCA and the FDA’s implementation thereof.  (Presumably an APA challenge would be possible.)  “[W]here the FDA properly authorizes certain conduct pursuant to certain sections of the FDCA, such conduct must also be seen as being in compliance with the statute itself. To hold otherwise would be to undermine FDA's authority to implement the FDCA.”

Pom then contended that it was alleging violations of the FDCA unrelated to the FDA regulations with which Coca Cola complied.  But the FDCA bars obligations that aren’t imposed by the FDCA, so the court was being asked to find that the product was misleadingly labeled in spite of Coca Cola’s compliance with FDA regulations.  (This doesn’t seem responsive at that level of generality.  If the FDA regulated juice content and the problem was that the product also contained Unapproved Chemical A, complying with the juice content regulation wouldn’t free the producer from liability for the unrelated FDCA violation. I suspect the court here means that the claim isn’t really “unrelated” to the juice content regulations.  This interpretation is supported in a footnote where the court says that state law can create a private cause of action for violation of the FDCA, but can’t require defendants to give additional disclosures different from or in addition to federal requirements.)

Independently, California’s safe harbor doctrine precluded the claims.  If the legislature has specifically permitted certain conduct, courts can’t override that determination.  The rule applies to state and federal law. By complying with the FDCA, Coca Cola fell within the safe harbor.

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