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Gabriele v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

June 25, 2015

JARED GABRIELE, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
CONAGRA FOODS, INC., Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, District Judge.

Currently before the Court are Defendant ConAgra Foods, Inc's ("ConAgra") Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 30) and brief in support (Doc. 30-1), Plaintiff Jared Gabriele's ("Gabriele") Response in Opposition (Doc. 42), and ConAgra's Reply (Doc. 54). Also before the Court are Gabriele's Memorandum Regarding the Safe Harbor Provision of the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act (Doc. 49) and ConAgra's Supplemental Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 50). For the reasons set forth herein, ConAgra's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 30) is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.

I. BACKGROUND

Gabriele brings this putative class action on behalf of Arkansas consumers pursuant to the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, Ark. Code Ann. § 4-88-101, et seq., and other state law causes of action, regarding allegedly deceptive and misleading labels on Hunt's tomato products. The Court has original jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d)(2) as this is a class action in which the matter in controversy exceeds the sum or value of $5, 000, 000, at least one member of the class of plaintiffs is a citizen of a different state than a defendant, and the class has more than 100 members.

The allegations in the Amended Complaint ("Complaint") stem from labeling used in marketing and advertising Hunt's tomato products, which describes those products as "100% Natural" and "free of artificial ingredients and preservatives." Gabriele alleges that ConAgra's labeling is deceptive because the products actually "contain artificial ingredients and are not 100% Natural.'" (Doc. 5, p. 2). Gabriele contends that ConAgra mislabeled its tomato products in order to charge a premium for the products. According to Gabriele, mislabeled products cannot be legally sold or possessed, and misbranded food has no economic value. He further contends that had he known that the misbranded tomato products were illegal to sell or possess, he would not have purchased them.

Gabriele alleges violations of the Arkansas, Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act ("AFDCA"), Ark. Code Ann. § 20-56-201, et. seq., which serves as the factual predicate for five causes of action: (1) deceptive trade practices in violation of the Arkansas Deceptive Trade Practices Act ("ADTPA"), Ark. Code Ann. § 4-88-101, et seq.; (2) unjust enrichment; (3) breach of implied warranty of merchantability; (4) breach of express warranty; and (5) negligence.

ConAgra seeks to have the Complaint dismissed due to express preemption by the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 301 et seq. ("FDCA"); failure to allege facts sufficient to support his claims; and Gabriele's lack of standing to pursue claims for products he never purchased.

In response, Gabriele maintains that preemption is not proper since he seeks to enforce state law food-labeling requirements that are identical to those of the FDCA. He contends that his other claims under Arkansas law are properly pled. Gabriele also argues that he has standing to seek recovery for products substantially similar to those he actually purchased.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

A motion for judgment on the pleadings made pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) requires the Court to "accept as true all factual allegations set out in the complaint" and to "construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff[s], drawing all inferences in [their] favor." Ashley Co., Ark. v. Pfizer, Inc., 552 F.3d 659, 665 (8th Cir. 2009) (internal citation omitted). "Judgment on the pleadings is appropriate only when there is no dispute as to any material facts and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, the same standard used to address a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6)." Id. (internal citation omitted). "[W]ell-pleaded facts, not legal theories or conclusions, determine [the] adequacy of [t]he complaint." Clemons v. Crawford, 585 F.3d 1119, 1124 (8th Cir. 2009) (internal citations omitted). The facts alleged in the complaint "must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. (citing Drobnak v. Andersen Corp., 561 F.3d 778, 783 (8th Cir. 2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007))). When considering a motion for judgment on th pleadings, the Court ordinarily does not consider matters outside the pleadings. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d).

III. DISCUSSION

A. Whether Gabriele's Claims are Preempted by the FDCA

ConAgra first asserts that this action should be dismissed because Gabriele's Complaint is preempted by the FDCA as amended by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act ("NLEA"). Pub. L. No. 101-535, 104 Stat. 2353 (1990). Gabriele counters that he is not suing under the FDCA but rather under Arkansas state law for claims arising under the AFDCA, which Gabriele contends is identical to the food labeling regulations of the Food and Drug Administration ("FDA"). In support of this contention, he points out that section 20-56-209(7) of the Arkansas Code provides that any food is misbranded if it falls short of standards prescribed by the FDCA.

The Supreme Court has long recognized that state laws that conflict with federal law are "without effect." Maryland v. Louisiana, 451 U.S. 725, 746 (1981) (internal citation omitted). That is, Congress has the power to preempt state laws. Fid. Fed. Sav. & Loan Ass'n v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 152-53 (1982). Federal preemption occurs when: (1) Congress enacts a statute that explicitly preempts state law; (2) state law actually conflicts with federal law; or (3) federal law occupies a legislative field to such an extent that it is reasonable to conclude that Congress left no room for state regulation in that field. See generally In re Aurora Dairy Corp. Organic Milk Mktg. & Sales Practices Litig., 621 F.3d 781, 791-94 (8th Cir. 2010). Although in the instant case, ConAgra only argues that Gabriele's claims are expressly preempted, the Court will also address field preemption, as the lack of a formal definition of "natural" reveals that the FDA did not intend to occupy the field as to labels containing the term "100% Natural."

Preemption is express where Congress has "explicitly stated [its intent] in the statute's language...." Cipollone v. Liggett Grp., Inc., 505 U.S. 504, 516 (1992) (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, "[t]he critical question in any pre-emption analysis is whether Congress intended that federal regulation supersede state law." La. Pub. Serv. Comm'n v. F.C.C., 476 U.S. 355, 369 (1986). Moreover, in the context of state laws dealing with matters traditionally within the historic police powers of the states, congressional intent to preempt such laws must be "clear and manifest." Medtronic, Inc. v. Lohr, 518 U.S. 470, 485 (1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). In the absence of explicit statutory language, state law is preempted where it regulates conduct in a field that Congress intended to occupy exclusively, English v. Gen. Elec. Co., 496 U.S. 72, 79 (1990), such that the scheme of federal regulation is "so pervasive as to make reasonable the inference that Congress left no room for the States to supplement it, " Gade v. Nat'l Solid Wastes Mgmt. Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 98 (1992) (internal citation and quotations omitted).

The FDCA grants the FDA the responsibility to protect public health by ensuring that "foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled." 21 U.S.C. § 393(b)(2). There is no private right of action under the FDCA. 21 U.S.C. § 337(a). In 1990 Congress passed the NLEA, amending the FDCA, to specifically address labeling requirements for certain food and beverage products. The NLEA, codified as part of the FDCA, provides for national uniform nutrition labeling, and expressly preempts state law that is inconsistent with its requirements. 21 U.S.C. § 343-1(a). A food is misbranded "[i]f it bears or contains any artificial flavoring, artificial coloring, or chemical preservative, unless it bears labeling stating that fact...." 21 U.S.C. § 343(k). ...


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