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Colby Center v. Conagra Foods, Inc.

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

July 6, 2015

COLBY CENTER, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated Plaintiff,


TIMOTHY L. BROOKS, District Judge.

Currently before the Court are Defendant ConAgra Foods, Inc's ("ConAgra") Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 29) and brief in support (Doc. 29-1), Plaintiff Colby Center's ("Center") Response in Opposition (Doc. 40), and ConAgra's Reply (Doc. 50). For the reasons set forth herein, ConAgra's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings (Doc. 29) is GRANTED IN PART AND DENIED IN PART.


Center 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 certain PAM 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.

Center filed this action in the Circuit Court of Washington County, Arkansas. ConAgra removed the matter to this Court on August 6, 2014. The allegations in the Amended Complaint ("Complaint") stem from labeling used in marketing and advertising PAM Original cooking spray, 100% Natural PAM Certified Organic Olive Oil cooking spray, and 100% Natural PAM Butter Flavor cooking spray ("PAM products"), which describes those products as "100% Natural." Center alleges that ConAgra has labeled PAM products deceptively because they actually contain "24% Petroleum gas (liquified), Propane, Propane 2-methyl (isobutene) and Butane." (Doc. 3, p. 5). Center contends that ConAgra mislabeled PAM products in order to charge a premium for the products. According to Center, 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 cooking sprays were illegal to sell or possess, he would not have purchased them.

Center 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) violations 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") and Center's failure to allege sufficient facts to support his claims. In response, Center 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.


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))).


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

ConAgra first asserts that this action should be dismissed because Center's Complaint is preempted by the FDCA as amended by the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, Pub. L. No. 101-535, 104 Stat. 2353 (1990) ("NLEA"). Center counters that he is not suing under the FDCA but rather under Arkansas state law for claims arising under the AFDCA, which Center 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 Center'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 ...

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