Plaintiffs’ lawyers love to challenge products labeled as “natural,” with hundreds of false advertising class actions filed in just the last few years. Recently, in Astiana v. Hain Celestial (pdf), the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of one such class action, and in doing so, addressed some key recurring arguments made at the pleading stage in litigation over “natural” labeling.

The Hain Celestial Group makes moisturizing lotion, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, and other cosmetics products. Hain labels these products “All Natural,” “Pure Natural,” or “Pure, Natural & Organic.” A number of named plaintiffs, including Skye Astiana, filed a putative nationwide class action, alleging that they had been duped into purchasing Hain’s cosmetics. According to plaintiffs, those cosmetics were not natural at all, but allegedly contained “synthetic and artificial ingredients ranging from benzyl alcohol to airplane anti-freeze.” Astiana claimed that she likely would not have purchased Hain’s cosmetics at market prices had she been aware of their synthetic and artificial contents. As is typical in such cases, she sought damages and injunctive relief under a variety of theories: for alleged violations of the federal Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws, and common law theories of fraud and quasi-contract.

The district court dismissed the entire case in deference to the “primary jurisdiction” of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over natural labeling of cosmetics. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit made two important rulings to which defendants in “natural” litigation should pay special attention:

Primary Jurisdiction

Federal regulators have (with a few limited exceptions not relevant here) declined either to adopt a formal definition of the term “natural” or to regulate that term’s use on cosmetics or food labels. But both plaintiffs and defendants have pointed to informal FDA statements and letters on the subject to advance particular litigation positions. For example, in this case, Hain invoked the prudential doctrine of primary jurisdiction to argue that a case challenging labeling statements cannot go forward because the FDA, not the courts, must determine in the first instance what the challenged labeling statement means and how it should be used. (Indeed, as we have previously discussed, the primary jurisdiction doctrine has led more than a dozen courts to stay false advertising cases in which plaintiffs allege that the ingredient name “evaporated cane juice” is misleading.)

Critically for other defendants intending to invoke primary jurisdiction in the future, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the district court had not erred in concluding that the doctrine applied. Rather, the district court’s error was only in dismissing the case rather than staying it. As the Ninth Circuit explained, “[w]ithout doubt, defining what is ‘natural’ for cosmetics labeling is both an area within the FDA’s expertise and a question not yet addressed by the agency,” and “[o]btaining expert advice from that agency would help ensure uniformity in administration of the comprehensive regulatory regime established by the [Food Drug and Cosmetics Act.]” Significantly, as the Ninth Circuit noted, the FDA had shown “reticence to define ‘natural’” at the time Hain invoked the doctrine with respect to food labels, in light of competing demands on the agency, and there is no reason to believe the FDA is on the verge of rulemaking on ‘natural’ labeling. But that was not a reason to bar the doctrine’s application.

That said, when, as in Astiana, additional judicial proceedings are contemplated once the FDA completes its work, the Ninth Circuit held that the case should be stayed rather than dismissed. And on that basis, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal. Whether the Astiana decision supports primary jurisdiction arguments outside the context of ‘natural’ labeling on cosmetics—such as ‘natural’ statements on food labels—remains to be seen. But as we read it, the court’s core holding would seem to have broader application.

Express Preemption

Hain separately argued that the FDCA expressly preempted the plaintiffs’ claims challenging the use of the term “natural.” But because there are no regulations defining ‘natural’ or its use on cosmetics labels, the Ninth Circuit disagreed, concluding that neither plaintiffs’ claims nor their requested remedy would impose requirements different from the (non-existent) federal rules on “natural” labeling. The Court did not find persuasive Hain’s argument that the FDA’s conscious decision not to define or regulate the term ‘natural’ supports express preemption. That said, in other settings, including in “natural” cases, defendants may still find it appropriate to point out that the FDA (or another agency) has made a conscious decision not to regulate, and that such a decision should be entitled to deference and respect, or should be taken into account in assessing whether plaintiff has stated a claim.