In September of 2019, Charles Wilcoxen fell seriously ill after vaping cannabis oil from a cartridge. Just days after he began experiencing symptoms he was hospitalized and later diagnosed with lipoid pneumonia, the mysterious lung illness now known as EVALI associated with the 2019 vape crisis.
Wilcoxen spent three days in the hospital and ever since he was diagnosed, he has been unable to exercise, return to work full time or even play with his daughter. Attorneys for Herrmann Law Group representing Wilcoxen filed a product liability lawsuit, Wilcoxen v. Canna Brand Solutions, LLC, et al., in Washington State Court, naming six cannabis companies as defendants: Canna Brand Solutions, Conscious Cannabis, Rainbow’s Aloft, Leafwerx, MFused and Janes Garden.
Canna Brand Solutions, the primary defendant named in the complaint, is a packaging supplier and distributor for CCELL vaping products (heating elements, pens and batteries) in the state of Washington. The complaint alleges that Wilcoxen believes he used a CCELL vape. CCELL is a Chinese company, which makes it notoriously difficult to pursue legal action against them, hence why Canna Brand Solutions was listed as a defendant instead.
On August 31, 2020, Judge Michael Schwartz dismissed all claims against Canna Brand Solutions. “All claims asserted by Plaintiff against Canna Brand in the above-mentioned matter shall be voluntarily dismissed without prejudice and without costs or fees to any of the parties to this litigation,” Judge Schwartz says in the dismissal. Judge Schwartz dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it could be brought to the court again should the plaintiff’s attorneys decide to do so.
With the allegations against Canna Brand Solutions focusing on CCELL products, it seems that the case was dismissed largely due to a lack of evidence connecting exactly which product resulted in the illness, as well as the lack of culpability for a distributor of products they did not manufacture.
Daniel Allen, founder and president of Canna Brands Solutions, claims that the product mentioned in the complaint did not come from his company. “We stand by our high quality and customizable CCELL vaporization products,” says Allen. “We feel vindicated in this case by the judge’s decision, which shows the claims against our company and products were completely unfounded from the beginning.”
He also added that the quality and safety of the products they distribute is their highest priority. “The product in question involved in this case did not come from Canna Brand Solutions,” says Allen.
Wilcoxen’s illness and subsequent long-term lung injury is extremely unfortunate. Thousands of people have been hospitalized and 68 deaths have been confirmed by the CDC. The CDC is still calling the illness EVALI (e-cigarette, or vaping, product use-associated lung injury). According to the CDC, there is no real known cause of EVALI, but they have found that vitamin E acetate is “strongly linked” to the outbreak. Knowing that, it is entirely possible that Mr. Wilcoxen’s illness was a result of one of the cannabis products he consumed, just most likely not anything that came from Canna Brand Solutions. A closer look at the contents with an independent lab test of the THC oil he consumed could shed some more light on what exactly caused the illness.
I would venture to guess that one of the products he consumed did have vitamin E acetate. Because the case was dismissed without prejudice, it could be brought to the court again if, say, Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys were to obtain more evidence, such as an independent lab report showing vitamin E acetate in the contents of one of the products he consumed. If Mr. Wilcoxen’s attorneys can figure out which product actually contained vitamin E acetate, perhaps the lawsuit could get a second shot and Mr. Wilcoxen could have a greater chance at getting some long-overdue and much-deserved restitution.
Over the past year, more and more consumer class actions have been filed against manufacturers and distributors of CBD-infused products. These actions typically assert claims based on how the product is marketed, such as whether it (i) contained the advertised amount of CBD, (ii) contained more THC than it should have or (iii) has the ability to provide the therapeutic benefits touted. The marketing of these products is subject to regulation by FDA, which has yet to issue pertinent regulations that have been expected since passage of the 2018 Farm Bill legalizing hemp and CBD products derived therefrom. Thus, in recent months, a number of federal courts have stopped these class actions in their tracks pending further guidance from FDA as to how CBD-infused products should be regulated. This growing body of precedent should be welcome news for the CBD supply chain, as it may provide a disincentive to the plaintiffs’ bar to expend their resources on similar actions until the regulatory framework is clear.
The first case that was put on hold until the “FDA completes its rulemaking regarding the marketing, including labeling, of hemp-derived ingestible products” was Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida, a case about the content of CBD in Green Roads’ products pendingin the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Then, in May, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California took the same approach, deciding to stay the case of Colette v. CV Sciences, Inc., also on account of the lack of FDA regulations. Less than one month later, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, relying on the rulings in Snyder and Colette, stayed Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, also under the primary jurisdiction—a doctrine implicated where the claims involve a federal agency’s expertise concerning a regulated product.
On August 11, 2020, two federal judges became the most recent to stay putative class actions involving the sale of CBD products under the primary jurisdiction doctrine: Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, and Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Both were stayed on account of a lack of regulatory direction from FDA.
A trend appears to be developing, but not all courts faced with the option to stay the proceedings pursuant to the primary jurisdiction doctrine have chosen to put their respective cases on hold. In March, the judge overseeing Potter v. Diamond CBD (pending in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida) declined to stay the proceedings despite the absence of FDA regulations concerning ingestible CBD products. Despite the defendant’s objection, the court declined to stay the proceedings, finding that to the extent FDA regulations were forthcoming, they would be unlikely to change the food labeling requirements which were at issue in that case.
The stays of federal court cases involving CBD products highlight the need for FDA to issue regulations that cover the marketing of them. They also may provide the CBD product supply chain with a break in the number of consumer class actions filed until such regulations are issued.
By David J. Apfel, Nilda M. Isidro, Brendan Radke, Emily Notini, Zoe Bellars No Comments
Consumer demand for products containing cannabidiol (CBD) is on the rise across the country, with industry experts estimating that the market for CBD products will reach $20 billion by 2024. This boom in consumer demand has outpaced the regulatory framework surrounding these products. While the 2018 Farm Bill decriminalized hemp, it left much up to individual states and preserved the FDA’s jurisdiction over dietary supplements, foods and cosmetics. The FDA has not yet issued any specific rulemaking for CBD products.
Against this background, it is not surprising that consumer class actions regarding hemp-derived CBD products are flourishing. Over the past year alone, the plaintiffs’ bar has filed approximately twenty putative class action lawsuits against manufacturers of hemp-derived CBD products. The cases are primarily in federal court in California and Florida, with additional cases in Illinois and Massachusetts. Plaintiffs challenge the marketing and advertising of a variety of CBD products, including oils, gummies, capsules, creams, pet products and more.
The cases so far follow a familiar pattern seen in prior consumer class actions, especially in the food and beverage industry. Read on to learn what plaintiffs have claimed in the CBD lawsuits, how companies are defending their products, and how best to position your hemp-derived CBD products in light of lessons learned from past litigation.
What These Lawsuits Are Claiming, and How Companies Are Defending Their Products
In most of the recent CBD lawsuits, plaintiffs claim either that: 1) product labels over- or understate the amount of CBD in the products; and/or 2) the sale of CBD products is inherently misleading to consumers because the products are purportedly illegal under federal law. Regardless of which theory underlies the claims, plaintiffs typically frame their claims as consumer fraud, false advertising, breach of warranty, unjust enrichment, and/or deceptive trade practices.
In most cases, defendants have filed motions to dismiss seeking to have the cases thrown out. In these motions, defendants argue that plaintiffs’ claims are “preempted” by the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), and that only the federal government can enforce the FDCA. Some defendants have additionally argued that if the court is not prepared to dismiss the claims as preempted, the doctrine of “primary jurisdiction” applies. This means that the issues raised regarding CBD are for the FDA to decide, and the cases should be stayed until the FDA finalizes and issues rules on products containing hemp-derived CBD. Many defendants have also advanced dismissal arguments for lack of standing, claiming that the individuals bringing the lawsuits are trying to sue for conduct that never harmed them personally (e.g., because they never purchased a particular product), or will not harm them in the future (e.g., because plaintiffs have stated they will not buy the product again). The standing arguments often apply to particular claims or products within the lawsuit, rather than to the lawsuit as a whole.
Current Status of the Cases
Of the approximately twenty consumer class actions filed over the last year, about half remain pending:
Five have been stayed pursuant to motions filed by defendants;
Two have motions to dismiss pending;
One has a pending motion to vacate a default judgment against defendants;
One was filed earlier this month, and defendant’s deadline to respond has not yet elapsed.
To date, none of the cases (currently pending or otherwise) has proceeded to discovery, and no class has yet been certified. That means that no court has yet determined that these cases are appropriate to bring as class action lawsuits, rather than as separate claims on behalf of each individual member of the putative class. This is significant, because plaintiffs’ ability to achieve class certification will likely influence whether these CBD lawsuits will continue to be filed. Consumer fraud cases like these typically do not claim any physical injury, and the monetary damages per individual plaintiff are relatively low. As such, the cases often are not worth pursuing if they cannot proceed as class actions.
Of the cases that are no longer pending, all but two were voluntarily dismissed by plaintiffs. While the motivation behind these dismissals is not always announced, approximately half of the voluntary dismissals came after defendants filed a motion to dismiss, but before the court had ruled on it. One Florida case was mediated and settled after the court denied defendant’s motion to dismiss.1 A California court spontaneously dismissed one matter (without the defendant having filed any motion) due to a procedural defect in the complaint, which plaintiffs failed to correct by the court-imposed deadline.2
Early Outcomes on Motions to Dismiss
Of the thirteen motions to dismiss filed to date, only five have been decided. So far:
No court has dismissed a case based on federal preemption grounds. Courts have either deferred ruling on preemption, or denied it without prejudice to re-raising it at a later time.
Four courts have stayed cases based on primary jurisdiction.3
Only one court has denied the primary jurisdiction argument.4
Standing arguments have been successful in three cases,5 and deferred or denied without prejudice to later re-raising in the other two cases.6 However, the standing arguments applied only to certain products/claims, and were not dispositive of all claims in any case.
These rulings show a clear trend towards staying the cases pursuant to primary jurisdiction. In granting these stays, courts have noted that regulatory oversight of CBD ingestible products, including labeling, is currently the subject of FDA rulemaking, and that FDA is “under considerable pressure from Congress” to expedite the publication of regulations and guidance.7
Plaintiffs may be recognizing the trend towards primary jurisdiction as well, since there is now at least one case where plaintiffs agreed to a stay after defendant filed a motion to dismiss asserting, among other things, primary jurisdiction.8 But some plaintiffs are still resisting. For example, in the first case to have been stayed plaintiffs have since filed a motion to lift the stay. The motion—which was filed after the case was reassigned to a different judge—argues that primary jurisdiction does not apply, and that the FDA’s recent report to Congress suggests no CBD-specific rulemaking is forthcoming.9 The motion is pending.
Lessons Learned From Food Industry Consumer Class Actions
The motions to dismiss that have been filed to date in CBD-related class actions follow a tried and true playbook that has been developed by defense counsel in other food and beverage industry class actions. For example, the primary jurisdiction arguments that have been gaining traction in the CBD consumer class actions are very similar to primary jurisdiction arguments that were successful years earlier in cases involving the term “natural” and other food labeling matters.10
Similarly, the standing arguments that have succeeded in the early motions to dismiss CBD consumer class actions followed similar standing arguments made years earlier in food and beverage class actions.11
The preemption arguments that have largely been deferred in CBD consumer class actions to date could become a powerful argument if and when the FDA completes its CBD rulemaking. The preemption defense has been particularly effective when the preemption arguments focus on state law claims that require defendants to omit or add language to their federally approved or mandated product labeling, or where plaintiffs otherwise seek to require something different from what federal standards mandate.12 These arguments could be particularly compelling once the FDA issues its long-anticipated rulemaking with respect to CBD products.
Until then, primary jurisdiction will likely continue to gain traction. The FDA’s comprehensive regulatory scheme over food, dietary supplement, drug, and cosmetic products, combined with the FDA’s frequently-expressed intention to issue rulemaking with respect to CBD-products, and a need for national uniformity in how such rulemaking will interface with state requirements, converge to make primary jurisdiction especially appropriate for CBD-related class actions.13
How to Best Position Your Products
Until the FDA issues its long-awaited rulemaking regarding CBD products, companies can take the following steps to best position their products to avoid litigation and/or succeed in the event litigation arises:
Work with reputable labs to ensure the amount of CBD stated on product labeling and advertising is accurate;
Ensure that the product is manufactured according to appropriate current Good Manufacturing Processes (cGMPs);
Ensure that any claims made on product labeling and/or in advertising are consistent with FDCA requirements and applicable FDA guidance to date – for example, if the product is a dietary supplement, avoid making express or implied claims that it can cure or prevent disease;
Maintain a file with appropriate substantiation to support any claims stated in product labeling and advertising;
Work with legal counsel to stay abreast of developments in federal and state laws applicable to hemp-derived CBD products, and how any changes might impact potential class action defenses; and
If a lawsuit arises, work with legal counsel to develop a strategy that not only resolves the current litigation as efficiently as possible, but also positions the company strategically for any future consumer claims that may arise.
Final Mediation Report, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. July 30, 2020).
Court Order, Davis v. Redwood Wellness, LLC, 2:20-cv-03273-PA-JEM (C.D. Cal. Apr. 10, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020); Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020).
Order Granting in Part Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss and Staying Remaining Causes of Action, Colette et al. v. CV Sciences Inc., 2:19-cv-10227-VAP-JEM (C.D. Cal. May 22, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Potter v. Potnetwork Holdings, Inc., 1:19-cv-24017-RNS, (S.D. Fla. Mar. 30, 2020); Order on Motion to Dismiss, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Electronic Order, Ahumada v. Global Widget LLC, 1:19-cv-12005-ADB (D. Mass. Aug, 11, 2020); Memorandum and Order, Glass v. Global Widget, LLC, 2:19-cv-01906-MCE-KJN (E.D. Cal. June 15, 2020).
Order on Motion to Dismiss at 12, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. Jan. 3, 2020).
Minute Entry, Pfister v. Charlotte’s Web Holdings, Inc., 1:20-cv-00418 (N.D. Ill. Aug. 11, 2020).
Plaintiff’s Motion to Lift Stay, Snyder v. Green Roads of Florida LLC, 0:19-cv-62342-AHS (S.D. Fla. July 13, 2020).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
See Miller v. Ghirardelli, 912 F. Supp. 2d 861, 869 (N.D. Cal. 2012) (holding that the named plaintiff lacked standing where the products purchased by the putative class members were not “substantially similar” enough to those purchased by the named plaintiff); Colucci v. ZonePerfect Nutrition Co., No. 12-2907-SC, 2012 WL 6737800 (N.D. Cal. Dec. 28, 2012) (finding one of two named plaintiffs lacked standing because, even though the other named plaintiff (his fiancée) purchased the nutrition bars for him, he himself did not purchase any of the bars); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013); Robinson v. Hornell Brewing Co., No. 11-2183 (JBS-JS), 2012 WL 6213777 (D.N.J. Dec. 13, 2012) (holding that there was no Article III standing because the named plaintiff had testified and stated in written discovery that he would not purchase the product in the future).
See, e.g., Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423 (7th Cir. 2011); Lam v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 859 F. Supp. 2d 1097 (N.D. Cal. 2012); Veal v. Citrus World, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-801-IPJ, 2013 WL 120761, at *9-10 (N.D. Ala. Jan. 8, 2013).
See, e.g., Astiana v. Hain Celestial Grp., Inc., 905 F. Supp. 2d 1013 (N.D. Cal. 2012), rev’d on other grounds, 783 F.3d 753 (9th Cir. 2015); Taradejna v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 909 F. Supp. 2d 1128 (D. Minn. 2012).
A Cannabis Related Business (or CRB), whether a plant-touching operation or a provider of goods and services to plant-touching operations cannot seek protection from the bankruptcy court as it is a federal court and cannabis remains illegal at the federal level. As such, a CRB does not have the benefit of a court approved restructuring as provided by Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code and does not receive the benefit of an orderly liquidation as provided by Chapter 7 of the Bankruptcy Code. However, alternatives to bankruptcy do exist and are available to a CRB.
Before the emergence of the Bankruptcy Code, businesses and their creditors had very few options available to undertake a court-supervised restructuring or liquidation other than seeking the appointment of a court neutral, typically called a receiver or special master. That “neutral” would take the business or its assets into “legal custody” or custodia legis and begin the process of dissolving the entities, selling the assets or otherwise sell the business as a going-concern. In the 1880s and 1890s with the Gilded Age coming to an abrupt halt, this process was successfully used to restructure and recapitalize the failing network of over-extended railways and rail lines, leading to the consolidation in the market that remains to this day.
Cannabis businesses can be legal and now an “essential” business but, still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court.During the Great Depression, the federal judiciary established “reference” courts to deal specifically with bankrupt businesses and individuals laying the foundations for the modern bankruptcy code which is still in effect today. Many of those first precedents used to establish the bankruptcy code and rules were drawn directly from the receivership case law and receivership statutes ever-present in the historical record of common law cases and common law countries, reaching all the way back to the Courts of Chancery in Britain established soon after the Norman invasion of the British Isles in 1066.
In the United States, the equitable power of courts to initiate receiverships or other insolvency proceedings and crafting orders and decrees based on equity, as opposed as based on law or statute, is codified clearly in Article III of the United States Constitution. Today, receiverships and special masters are still utilized by state and federal courts to remedy unique circumstances where a simple bankruptcy cannot address the inequities presented in that case.
State Court Powers & Financing of Receivership Estates
State courts in particular, and California especially, have a wide body of case law supporting the equitable powers of the court, the quasi-judicial immunity of the receiver and the many equitable tools available to receivers. These powers include the negotiation and transfer of liens, with liens attaching to proceeds of sales of assets, the dissolution of a business and the establishment of a claims process akin to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors.
One of the many overlooked powers of a receiver is their ability to bring in outside financing or capital to fund the receivership estate to maintain a business as an ongoing concern or to provide short term leverage so that assets can be properly maintained, “dusted off” and sold.
This process of bringing in new capital is typically done by the issuance of receivership certificates. These certificates are approved, ahead of time, by the court and courts can authorize that such certificates prime all other claims (including sometimes administrative claims) and that these certificates can be reduced to a security interest recorded against real or personal property.
The Mechanics of a Receivership
However, because cannabis is approved at the state level, state courts retain their equitable powers and the power to appoint a receiver over a business in need of restructuring or liquidation. There are many avenues to get to court for this benefit, but the primary path to a receivership is either through a creditor (or group of creditors) filing a lawsuit and seeking the appointment of a receiver. This scenario can be done through cooperation and stipulation but can be hostile as well. The receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.Or, a legal entity, can seek dissolution protection from the state court and seek a neutral dissolution officer (a receiver) to manage that process which may include the infusion of new capital through receivership certificates, the sale of assets to third parties, the negotiation and payment of liens and claims through a claims process and the final restructure of dissolution of the legal entity in a manner similar to a bankruptcy or assignment for benefit of creditors. This voluntary petition is permitted by statute and case law and is a mechanism available to a business that is unable to file for bankruptcy protection but is in dire need of court supervision and authority to work through its insolvency problems. Further, by court order, a receiver is able to establish banking relations where a CRB may be unable.
Typically, it is recommended that any receivership filing whether by creditors, claimants or the business itself, be guided by a well-written, explicit order that outlines the parameters of the receivership, the funding requirements and limits, the rights of claimants and some sort of stay of claims against the receivership estate to give the receiver the time needed to work through all of the issues in that receivership estate. Further, outside funding can be pre-approved by the court and the priority of that funding can be established through the open process that the court provides, much akin to a debtor in possession (DIP) financing motion in bankruptcy court.
Because of the unique circumstance that CRBs find themselves in here in California, where they are a legal and now an “essential” business but still cannot receive the benefits of bankruptcy court, the receiver option is available and open to address the needs of insolvency for this rapidly expanding industry.
Due to anticipated contractions in the industry and concerns over a potential nationwide recession, cannabis industry employers may be planning on implementing large scale reduction in force (RIF) layoffs or employee furloughs to reduce payroll. While RIFs can provide business-saving cost reductions, they can subject an employer to substantial potential legal liability, including but not limited to class action lawsuits and enforcement actions from state and federal agencies. Understanding and addressing potential legal pitfalls before implementing an RIF can help in materially limiting an employer’s potential legal exposure.
Employers should first consider potential cost saving alternatives to implementing mass employee layoffs. Such steps can include reducing the salaries and/or work hours for current employees, temporarily freezing company operations for limited periods, or placing non-critical positions in a limited paid leave of absence at reduced wages. While each of these steps bear their own risks, they may assist in avoiding mass employee layoffs.
Next, federal law and the laws of certain states require employers to provide written notice to employees and local governments at least 60 days before implementing mass layoffs. For example, under the federal Work Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, an employer must generally provide a written notice to employees regarding an impending reduction in force when it: (1) permanently or temporarily shuts down a worksite which results in an employment loss of 50 or more employees; (2) lays off between 50 to 499 workers at a single worksite when such layoffs constitute at least 33% of the employer’s workforce; (3) lays off at least 500 employees within a 30 day period; (4) implements a wide scale temporary layoff of more than 6 months; or (5) reduces the work hours of 50 or more employees by at least 50% during each month of any six month period. Please note that the WARN Act aggregates layoffs over 90 days; thus, an employer conducting a series of smaller layoffs may still need to provide employees with a WARN notice. An employer who fails to provide a required notice could owe each impacted employee up to 60 days’ back pay, which includes but is not limited to the cost of potential employment benefits.
An employer should also take steps to limit potential discrimination claims based on an RIF. It is illegal for an employer to select an employee for layoff because of their protected characteristics, including but not limited to race, religion, gender or age. The primary defense to such a discrimination lawsuit is to prove the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the layoff decision. As a result, employers are strongly encouraged to create a formal RIF plan which documents the legitimate reasons for layoff decisions. The RIF plan should expressly articulate the cost-saving grounds for the RIF and the goals to be achieved by its implementation; these grounds and goals should be the sole reason for any subsequent layoff decision.
Employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIFFor example, an employer should identify all necessary positions and employee skills needed for a company’s current and future business operations in order to identify non-essential positions that may be subject to position eliminations or layoffs. Similarly, employers should create standards to select employees for a RIF when multiple employees hold the same or similar jobs. These standards commonly include considering employees’ education, skills, unique knowledge, previous job performance and seniority. Most importantly, an employer should make actual layoff decisions that are consistent with its articulated RIF plans; under both state and federal law, a termination decision that is inconsistent with or contradictory to the articulated reasons for a layoff decision may provide an employee with considerable evidence that that his or her termination was at least partly motivated by their protected characteristics.
Even when making and implementing a reduction in force plan based solely on legitimate business reasons, employers must be aware of the adverse impact those decisions have on certain groups of employees. It is illegal for an employer to implement policies and practices that are facially neutral but have an unintentional discriminatory effect on protected groups of employees if those policies and practices are not job related or required by business necessity. Before implementing an RIF, employers are strongly encouraged to perform a statistical analysis of the protected characteristics of individuals selected for layoffs to determine whether they are being selected for layoffs at a significantly higher rate than other employees. If an employer does discover that certain groups are being selected for layoffs at a disproportionate rate, an employer should review its layoff decisions to confirm that these decisions are in fact required by business necessity.
Finally, employers will commonly provide severance packages to laid off employees to assist in their transition to other employment. A key factor in these packages is an employee providing an employer with a full release of potential legal claims in exchange for a severance payment. Employers are strongly encouraged to ensure that they obtain full and complete legal releases in any severance agreements they provide. For example, under California law, an employee can only provide a full and complete release of legal claims when a separation agreement specifically cites and waives a specific provision of California’s civil code. Additionally, an employer cannot obtain a legal release of federal age discrimination claims when it offers a separation package to multiple employees over 40 during an RIF program unless it provides specific information regarding the job positions and ages of employees who were and were not selected for layoffs.
While a reduction in force layoff program may help ensure a business’ survival, employers are strongly encouraged to consult with legal counsel before implementing an RIF to detect and avoid potential future legal claims.
Texting consumers is a very effective means to drive engagement and ultimately sales. Text messages have outpaced emails when looking at conversion and click-thru rates. In fact, 95% of texts are read in ninety seconds or less! While text messages can be a great way to engage with prospects and customers, the FCC’s Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) is a regulation you need to be mindful of. In fact, the average cost of a TCPA settlement is over $6m dollars, which doesn’t include legal fees or reputational damage.
Over the past few years, there have been about 4,000 TCPA cases filed annually. Take a look at the growth:
Companies are being targeted for various reasons, but there are a few that I’ll cover below along with some advice on how to avoid TCPA suits.
See if you can spot the trend in these cases:
Papa Johns: $16.5m settlement due to texting pizza specials to consumers without their consent.
Abercrombie & Fitch: $10m settlement due to texting store promotions to consumers without their consent.
Rack Room Shoes: $26m settlement for texting their reward program members with various sales without their consent.
Do any of these campaigns sound like something your company is engaged in?
So, you’ve got someone who has signed up for a rewards program, wants to receive deals, or has provided their number to your company for other purposes, but you are concerned about the TCPA (hopefully). Based on my experience working with hundreds of clients at CompliancePoint, here’s where I think you should start. But first…
Quick assumption: Your company is using an automated system to send both informational and promotional texts. Examples include “blast campaigns” (upcoming sale) or “triggered campaigns” (signed up for rewards).
Quick point: Just because the text message says your store is having a sale but doesn’t ask the consumer to buy anything on the message, you may think it’s not considered “telemarketing”. This is wrong. Any plan to sell now or in the future through direct marketing is telemarketing and subject to the TCPA.
Here are my top 5 things to consider:
Obtain consent. This is not achieved by simply having a number provided by the consumer. Instead, the consumer must affirmatively agree to receive promotional calls/texts by automated means. This is done through a clear disclosure and often accompanied by an unchecked checkbox.
Honor opt-outs. This seems obvious right? Provide instructions on how to opt-out and look for other phrases like “stop/quit/cancel”. Opt-outs should occur immediately with most common texting platforms.
Keep records. If you receive a complaint, you want to be able to respond confidently and records help you do that. The key records to maintain are your texting records (the phone numbers you texted, the date/time of the text, and the content of the text), your consent opt-in forms, and opt-out requests from consumers with dates. Ask yourself: what records do you need to prove you had consent, and what records prove you didn’t text a consumer after they opted out.
Only text consumers between the hours of 8AM and 9PM according to their time zone. I always recommend going off address and not phone number due to cellphone mobility. If you text a California number at 8PM, but the phone owner lives in New York, you might get a few complaints.
Monitor compliance with these items. Another one that seems obvious, yet most companies fail to do so, and you see above what happens. I guarantee you’ll find issues with most audits.
Bonus – here is a more comprehensive checklist on how to achieve a Safe-Harbor defense.
This article is not intended to be a scare tactic. The TCPA legal landscape is rampant and consumers are more aware now than ever of their rights. A quick Google search of “Cannabis TCPA” helps to illustrate the fact that this industry, like most, is not immune. However, with proper compliance parameters in place, your company can enjoy the benefits of texting with consumers with peace of mind.
By Jonathan C. Sandler, Alissa Gardenswartz No Comments
By now, cannabis companies have heard that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a slew of warning letters to sellers of CBD products for selling unapproved and mislabeled drugs and illegally adulterated food, as prohibited by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. However, companies marketing CBD products should know that making any health-related claims about their products also exposes them to liability under state and federal consumer protection laws. These laws additionally prevent CBD sellers from misrepresenting how much CBD is contained in their products, and even govern how companies communicate with their customers via text message. As the former head of consumer protection enforcement in Colorado and a lawyer routinely defending consumer protection class actions in California, we have seen firsthand how not considering these laws when developing a sales and marketing strategy can result in protracted and expensive litigation.
Consumer Protection Laws – Federal and State
Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act provides that “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce . . . are declared unlawful.”1 The FTC enforces this law, and has clarified that “deceptive” practices involve a material representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead a reasonable consumer under the circumstances.2 In other words, a claim is deceptive if an average consumer would believe and rely on the misleading claim to buy something. With the rise of social media marketing, the FTC has also issued disclosure guidelines for companies and influencers promoting products online.3 Every state has some form of consumer protection statute that similarly prevents deceptive marketing, and is typically enforced by the state’s attorney general. Many state laws also allow for consumers to bring actions themselves.
Both the FTC and state attorneys general have used these laws for decades against companies making scientifically unsupported health claims about their products. Just this month, the FTC and the Maine attorney general filed a lawsuit against two dietary supplement companies who were claiming that their products were a “miraculous natural solution” for life-threatening diseases. According to the lawsuit, the companies violated a 2018 settlement that required them to not make any health claims about their products without first conducting at least one randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to support the claims.4 While much of the enforcement around dietary supplements has focused on unsubstantiated health claims, other actions have been brought for improper “expert” endorsements as well as misrepresenting the amount of active ingredient contained in the supplement.5 In other words, these laws are used to police all manner of labelling and marketing of products, including those containing CBD. The FTC has already issued warning letters to CBD companies several times this year, and has stated that CBD sellers could be subject to enforcement for making unsubstantiated health claims.6
While consumer protection laws are largely focused on the content of advertisements, there are also laws that address how sellers can communicate with consumers. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) restricts telemarketing and the use of automated systems to contact consumers, and applies to both voice calls and text messaging. Both the FTC and state attorneys general can enforce the TCPA, and consumers can bring private TCPA actions as well. Because the TCPA allows for courts to award $500 per violation—that is, per illegal call or text—companies can face judgments into the millions of dollars.
Recent Consumer Protection Lawsuits in the Cannabis Industry
Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation.All companies need to navigate consumer protection laws when they market their products, but class action lawyers may be pursuing cannabis companies in particular because of the products’ legal uncertainty, and because they provide opportunities for unique claims of deception. For example, a nationwide class of consumers recently filed a lawsuit in California against a CBD company that had received a warning letter from the FDA in November of this year, alleging that they would not have purchased the company’s CBD products if they knew selling the items was illegal.7 The consumers claimed violations of a variety of California and Arizona consumer protection laws, including those related to breach of warranty and unfair competition. Other lawsuits have been brought because products did not contain the amount of CBD as represented on the label, or because the product claimed to not contain THC when it did.8
Cannabis companies have been subject to TCPA class actions as well. Florida’s largest medical marijuana company has been accused of spamming customers with unwanted texts in violation of the TCPA.9 A dispensary with multiple locations in Colorado was also the subject of a TCPA class action complaint in Florida alleging that it did not obtain prior consent from consumers prior to texting them.10
Cannabis is proving to be an attractive target for consumer protection litigation. However, companies can head off lawsuits by thoroughly vetting their marketing strategies with experienced consumer protection lawyers before going to market.
15 U.S.C. Sec. 45(a)(1).
See FTC Policy Statement on Deception, October 14, 1983.
Cannabis manufacturers and consumers are currently in a honeymoon phase. Consumers love their CBD gummies and believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of cannabis-related products. But it is only a matter of time before industrious plaintiffs’ lawyers take a close look at ways to attack manufacturers. We know from other industries that product labels tend to be the entry point for plaintiff lawyers eyeing manufacturers and looking for easy targets. Any company in the business of manufacturing cannabis-related products needs to devote significant time and resources to developing labels that minimize the risk of bet-the-company litigation down the road. Most notably, manufacturers need to think through whether there are any adverse effects associated with their products of which consumers should be aware. Also, manufacturers must scrutinize any “all natural” or “organic” claims on their labels to ensure that they are not misleading consumers.
Failure to Warn of Potential Detrimental Effects
Most manufacturers are well aware of state mandated labels for cannabis products. And, based on the recent FDA public hearing on cannabis, the industry will likely see FDA labeling requirements in the near future. However, simply complying with these requirements does not insulate a manufacturer from litigation, particularly failure to warn claims. One example, dating back to the 1970s, relates to OSHA’s regulation of asbestos-containing products as it became more and more clear that certain types of asbestos could cause a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma. Among other things, OSHA required manufacturers of asbestos-containing products to add a warning to all packaging. The mandated warning included very specific language. Manufacturers largely complied and added the OSHA-mandated label to their product packaging.
Fast-forward 40 years and today, several of those manufacturers are now bankrupt due to litigation based on their alleged failure to warn consumers that asbestos can cause cancer. Plaintiffs have been successful in bringing these claims because the OSHA label only warned that asbestos could cause harm, but it did not mention the word cancer. Some juries have found that the language in the warning was not sufficient to caution end users of the increased risk of developing cancer. While there have also been numerous defense verdicts in asbestos litigation and many asbestos-related cases lack merit – especially against certain defendants – the plaintiffs’ verdicts and legal fees to defend these cases are staggering. Recent plaintiffs’ verdicts have ranged from $20 to $70 million.
While there are risks involved with failing to warn consumers of possible adverse effects of a product, manufacturers should not try to mention every alleged adverse effect on its labels. Rather, manufacturers must do their due diligence and investigate whether claimed adverse effects are legitimate, then warn of those that appear to be based on valid scientific studies. Each manufacturer’s research department should assess the credibility of any study linking cannabis use to an adverse health effect and have a candid discussion with their attorneys on whether a warning is warranted. Do not fear lawsuits, they are unavoidable. Rather, work toward ensuring that the company and product(s) have a strong, defensible warning in the event litigation arises.
Questionable “All Natural” and “Organic” Claims
It seems like every CBD product on the market has an “all natural” or “organic” claim on the label. If the product is truly organic, fantastic. Flaunt that organic label. But several food companies have landed in hot water with these labels when there is a hidden ingredient that is not natural. What’s more, manufacturers have been sued when their product contain genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. These lawsuits come in the form of class actions at the state and federal level. Class action litigation is very expensive to defend. And they typically result in settlements for beaucoup bucks – typically multi-million-dollar settlements. Plaintiffs lawyers love these claims because their fees typically also end up in the millions. One example of this kind of class action is a case involving the well-known Kashi brand. Kashi was accused of misleading consumers by including the words “All Natural” on some of its products. Plaintiffs asserted that the products contained bio-engineered, artificial and synthetic ingredients. The class action was settled for $3.9 million.
How can all natural or organic claims lead to millions of dollars in damages? Here is an example of how these cases usually work: A group of consumers determine that an “all natural” product is not “all natural.” Let’s call this Product A and assume it sells for $5 per unit. The consumers then find a similar product that is not labeled “all natural.” That product is $2 per unit. The consumers argue that they overpaid for Product A by $3 per unit because they thought the product was all natural. Three dollars may not sound too bad, but if the class consists of two-million consumers, each entitled to $3, that’s a $6 million damages claim against a company. That does not count the hundreds of thousands of dollars that will be spent on legal fees defending the class action.
Cannabis manufacturers should not use all natural labels loosely and should consult with an attorney experienced in product labeling class actions to determine whether they should forgo these labels. The same is true for any labels that claim a product provides unique health benefits.
When manufacturers are excited about introducing a product to the market, trying to compete with other manufacturers and already dealing with miles of regulatory red tape, it may be tempting to avoid self-imposed labeling requirements. But to ensure their businesses are sustainable over the long-term, manufacturers need to take necessary steps now that will limit future litigation risk. The cost of taking preventative measures to develop a meaningful label is considerably less than the types of product labeling verdicts and settlements affecting other industries. Focus on warnings and the use of all natural labels as a starting point. Then speak with an attorney about the unique aspects of your product, potential adverse effects and the adequacy of your warning. We are here to help.
It is hard to believe that two years have passed since the German government changed the law to mandate insurance coverage of cannabis by public health insurers. It is not so much the passing of time, but what has and what has not happened here on the ground during this stretch.
This is borne out by a quick overview of regional developments just in the last few weeks on the ground across the European Union.
The country that is still given credit for kicking off the whole medical cannabis enchilada discussion on a formal, federal level in Europe, still has not issued its first domestic cannabis cultivation tender. It will be two years this April since the initiative was first announced. Since then, several lawsuits have derailed the process, BfArM, the federal agency in charge of the tender, has admitted to a “technical fault,” and, presumably after the next round in court, the agency might be able to get on with business. The next date of note is April 10 (when the lawsuit will be heard in Dusseldorf).
Hopefully, this also means that the domestic cultivation of cannabis will finally begin (according to the agency) by, at latest, the fourth quarter of 2020. In the meantime, look for the awarding of bid finalists (or in the worst case, one more bid issuance after April) this year.
In the meantime, and even according to BfArM’s press statements, the import industry will fill in the gaps- meaning that by the time cultivation actually gets under way for real here, it will already be swamped, in terms of volume, by imports.
Where those imports will come from is another discussion. Right now, the only two countries with import rights for cannabis into Deutschland are Holland and Canada. Expect that to change this year, with Israel, Portugal, Spain and potentially even Greece all being very likely contenders.
Significantly, this tiny, non-EU but Schengen state is considering a pilot to study recreational cannabis. Namely, 5,000 recreational users could soon be recruited to help the government set the rules for a fully recreational market, presumably sometime in the near future.
Switzerland has led the discussion in the region on several fronts- notably setting the pace on CBD sales and continuing to air debates about how profitable the fully recreational industry will be for the public purse.
It is all very intriguing, particularly to neighbouring DACH state, Germany, but don’t expect the Swiss to do anything too outrageous on the legalization front- namely step too far out in front of either the UN or the European Parliament. Or anger their other DACH trade partner, Austria, who has taken the extreme polar opposite approach to all things CBD.
So to the extent that the Swiss have very much led the charge on the CBD front, such policies have not and will certainly not be copied across Europe (and has not been so far) any time soon. See the controversies over “novel foods” popping up not only in Austria, but Spain too.
Regardless, like Luxembourg, the Swiss are eyeing this new industry and proceeding cautiously in line with larger, international regulations that so far have led the pack on tweaking, testing and presumably changing in the next couple of years.
There are at least 200,000 people who currently use the fully leaded THC version of the drug illegally. Those who would qualify for the pilot study (only one of several proposed as the country considers the impact of cannabinoids from all angles) would have to be adults who already use the drug.
Stay tuned. This will certainly be one interesting trial.
Belgium has also just announced the formation of its own “Cannabis Agency.” The new agency will, just as in Germany, oversee the development of the industry domestically- namely issuing licenses for production and import and overseeing quality.
Does this mean a Belgian cultivation bid is on the horizon? Could be. Although so far, no country except Greece has engaged in any large-scale cultivation effort commissioned by the government. And no country except Germany has so far issued a public tender. Even Italy proceeded with a unique hybrid last year when the military essentially turned over the domestic production it controlled over to Aurora.
This too is also likely to be an interesting space over the next few years.
A Belgian tender, right along with a Polish one (also expected after BfArM successfully executes at least one) may well be in the offing this year. This may also put additional heat on the German agency to bite the bullet and issue cultivation licenses by the end of 2019 no matter what happens in Dusseldorf in April.
Federal trademark registrations are invaluable tools for emerging businesses. They put the world on notice of a company’s name; they can secure nationwide priority over others using similar names; they distinguish a product in the marketplace; they provide crucial advantages in trademark infringement lawsuits; and they are instrumental in building goodwill. But if you sell cannabis, a federal trademark registration will not do any of those things for you … because you can’t get one.
Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations.The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) continues to refuse to register federal trademarks for cannabis businesses, even if the sale of cannabis is legal in the state where the businesses are located. The USPTO’s reasoning goes something like this: federal trademark law allows for the registration of trademarks associated with goods in “lawful” commerce, which means that the goods are not illegal under federal law. Cannabis, and its psychoactive component, THC, remain Schedule I substances under the federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Therefore, irrespective of state laws to the contrary, and irrespective of whether the federal law is actually enforced, the manufacture and sale of cannabis is not “lawful” commerce.
This reasoning is of fairly recent vintage. In 2009, by which time about fifteen states had legalized medical cannabis, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration would cease raids on state-sanctioned medical cannabis facilities. The USPTO followed Holder’s lead in 2010 and created a new category of acceptable goods and services for marks related to “medical marijuana.” Within months, however, the USPTO had retreated from this “mistake” and changed its practice manual expressly to preclude such registrations.
Many argue that the USPTO’s position is unjustifiable as a matter of public policy. Making it easier to infringe the trademarks of state-sanctioned businesses does not advance the purposes of the CSA, and it directly undermines a key goal of trademark law, which is to prevent the proliferation of confusingly similar trademarks. But the merits of these arguments have been lost on the USPTO, which continues to refuse to register marks for anything it perceives to be prohibited by the CSA.
So if you own a cannabis business, what can you do to protect your goodwill while the federal government maintains its current policy? Below are some ideas. Admittedly, none of them– individually or collectively – is a substitute for federal registration. But each of them is better than nothing, and all of them may help to establish your ownership and priority when and if the USPTO changes its policy.
State Trademark Registrations. Each state has its own trademark registration system. State registration may offer protection from infringers within the state, or at least within the parts of the state where the registrant operates, and for that reason alone it is probably worth the small cost involved. However, state registration will have little to no efficacy outside the state. You cannot use a State A registration to file a lawsuit in State B, or to stop infringement in State B, or even to prevent conflicting registrations in State B. Additionally, most state trademark registrants, unlike federal registrants, do not benefit from presumptions of validity and ownership in the litigation context.
Related Federal Registrations. Many cannabis businesses also pursue federal registrations for whatever aspects of their business are not prohibited by the CSA. For example, even though the USPTO refused the POWERED BY JUJU mark for cannabis vaporizers (because it was CSA-prohibited “paraphernalia”), it allowed the same company to register the same mark for “vaporizers for smoking purposes not for use with cannabis.” The USPTO has also allowed registrations for cannabis-related business consulting (e.g., CANNACARD; PRAIRIEJUANA); investment analysis (e.g., FORTUNE420); clothing (e.g., CANNABIS COUTURE, THE MARIJUANA COMPANY); and for CBD – as opposed to THC – derivatives (e.g., CBD LIQUID GOLD). Once the USPTO permits federal registrations for cannabis marks and the inevitable disputes over ownership arise, such federal registrations for these related products and services are likely to be highly persuasive evidence in the registrants’ favor. Moreover, even in the current legal climate, federal registrations (especially when cited in a demand letter) are of great practical use in convincing others not to use confusingly similar marks.
Common Law Unfair Competition. Unfair competition is a state common law cause of action that was a precursor to modern trademark law, and it is still available to protect commercial goodwill even in the absence of a state or federal trademark registration. However, unfair competition law has similar territorial restrictions as state registration. In some cases, the protected territory may be even narrower, limited only to the area within which the plaintiff can prove consumer recognition of the mark.
Other Intellectual Property Protection. Copyright law, unlike federal trademark law, has no “lawful” commerce requirement, and the U.S. Copyright Office regularly issues registrations for cannabis-related copyrights. While copyright will not protect a short phrase such as a business name, it will protect a creative logo design or original packaging, and can be very effective when it comes to getting infringing uses taken down from the internet. Note also that the USPTO does not appear to have the same qualms about legality when it comes to patents, and it often grants patent protection to useful, new and non-obvious inventions related to the cannabis industry.
Save stuff. Finally, if you do nothing else, save stuff. Document that first sale; keep a copy of that first shipping invoice; and save that file containing your original packaging design. Someday, the USPTO policy may change and there could be a gold rush for federal cannabis trademark registrations. Your lawyer is going to ask you for proof of your first uses of the mark, and you don’t want your response to be a glassy stare. So keep your eyes on the eventual prize and stay ready.
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