Monday, October 11, 2021

counting chickens: should disgorgement be harder for false advertising than for TM?

Certified Neutraceuticals Inc. v. Clorox Co., 2021 WL 4460806, No. 18-cv-0744 W (KSC) (S.D. Cal. Sept. 29, 2021)

The Clorox defendants sell dietary supplements using the raw materials provided by Certified’s competitor, Avicenna. Certified alleged Lanham Act false advertising based on allegations that the Clorox defendants and Avicenna engaged in a scheme to falsely advertise the source of chicken collagen used in dietary supplements sold to retail consumers. Clorox allegedly labeled their Collagen2 Joint Complex product as containing “Chicken Sternum Collagen Type II,” but the collagen in the product is allegedly not pure sternal collagen, but rather collagen produced by Avicenna using chicken carcasses of inferior quality which are much more inexpensive to produce. (I am left wondering desperately what makes chicken sternal collagen better than other chicken collagen; Google suggests that it is the most human-collagen-like part of the chicken, at least according to purveyors of same.)

In a prior case between Avicenna and Certified, a different judge granted summary judgment in Avicenna’s favor on Certified’s Lanham Act claim because “Certified brought its claims with unclean hands by engaging in the same improper conduct for which it faulted Avicenna—publishing false statements about a product being ‘patented’ without a patent.” But that didn’t relate to the subject matter of this claim.

Literal falsity: The evidence showed that CJC does in fact contain sternal chicken collagen; Avicenna claims that its process produces 90 percent sternum cartilage. “Independent testing of Avicenna’s collagen backs this up, showing batches purchased from Avicenna contained sternal chicken collagen in substantially similar amounts to Certified’s product. It is therefore literally true for the Clorox Defendants and Avicenna to advertise their products as containing sternal chicken collagen.” But Certified argued that defendants were advertising their producst as 100% sternal chicken cartilage. Avicenna has advertised its product as “Avian (Chicken) Sternum Cartilage” and “Chicken (Avian) Full Frame Sternum Cartilage.” There was a triable issue on the first product name, which was a single ingredient: it could necessarily imply that 100% of the product was that ingredient. “By advertising its purportedly single-ingredient product as chicken sternal collagen, Avicenna appears to be representing that the entire product is chicken sternal collagen.” However, the second name wasn’t literally false because it was “an accurate depiction of Avicenna’s manufacturing process: deriving chicken sternum collagen from the full frame of a chicken.”

Also, the Clorox defendants did not advertise their product as comprised of only a single ingredient. They advertised that CJC contains 2,400 mg of sternal collagen among other ingredients. There was no actual evidence that CJC did not in fact contain 2,400 mg of sternal chicken collagen.

Misleadingness: There was no evidence of likely consumer deception. Certified’s only survey was “not representative of a population that actually consumes the product,” but instead surveyed rheumatologists. There was no evidence that rheumatologists actually influence buyers of the product. And the rheumatologists reviewed the supplement label on Clorox’s product, not Avicenna’s. “Avicenna has produced declarations of its customers stating Avicenna never represented its product as 100% sternum and that customers understood that it was not.”

Injury: Certified alleged monetary damages in the form of lost customers, reduced profits, additional advertising costs, and lost market share. It offered a list of lost customers and evidence that its profits declined and Advertising and Promotion expenses increased over disputed time periods. However, the list was overstated (it was just a list of past customers), and five customers Certified purported to have lost to Avicenna testified that they did not purchase Avicenna’s product based on the alleged misrepresentation. Certified argued that it was nonetheless entitled to damages on an unjust enrichment theory. The court disagreed because the advertising at issue wasn’t comparative, and so proof of past injury or causation was required. Certified’s evidence showed sales increased over the relevant period, though profits decreased because of a large increase in the cost of sales. “[I]t is not reasonable for the Court to assume the significant unaccounted for increase in the cost of sales, which could be attributed to the cost of goods sold among other things, is a direct result of Defendants’ product labeling.” Thus, Certified failed to show damages.

What about disgorgement? “15 U.S.C. § 1117(a) and Lindy [the key 9th Circuit precedent] both address damages in false comparative advertising cases, where a defendant violates ‘any right of the registrant of a mark registered in the Patent and Trademark Office.’” As a reminder, §1117(a) specifically also says “a violation under section 1125(a)” immediately after the quoted words. Romag should therefore be as good law for false advertising under §1125(a)(1)(B) as for trademark, but I’m not super surprised that courts are still intoning “trademark” as if that were somehow a sufficient distinction.

The court granted summary judgment on damages, but didn’t preclude injunctive relief: “[A] competitor need not prove injury when suing to enjoin conduct that violates section 43(a).” [Is this still true after TransUnion?]

No comments: