A federal magistrate in California has certified two statewide classes of those who purchased Hain Celestial Group Inc.’s Avalon Organics and Jason personal-care product lines that were labeled organic but allegedly contained less than 70-percent organic ingredients as required by the state’s Organic Products Act (COPA ). Brown v. Hain Celestial Group, Inc., No. 11-3082 (U.S. Dist. Ct., N.D. Cal., San Francisco Div., order entered November 14, 2014). The plaintiffs alleged violations of COPA , the Unfair Competition Law, Consumers Legal Remedies Act, and the Commercial Code’s express warranties provision.
Among other matters, Hain contended that (i) the class definitions in the plaintiffs’ motion for certification differed from the definitions in the first amended complaint and potentially included non-actionable products, and (ii) the class is not ascertainable because consumers must self-identify and are unlikely to have receipts. The magistrate noted that class definitions are often revised over the course of a lawsuit and said this was “not a ground on which to viably challenge the plaintiffs’ motion.” She did, however, discuss at some length Hain’s suggestion that the Avalon Organics class definition violates “one-way intervention” because it asks the court to make a merits ruling before class certification—i.e., the class would expand or contract depending on whether post-June 2011 Avalon Organics purchasers could prove that water used to rehydrate aloe powder counts toward COPA ’s 70-percent threshold, a matter raised in the plaintiffs’ summary-judgment motion. The magistrate agreed that “one-way intervention” is a serious issue, because a merits ruling before certification binds the named parties but not the absent putative class members who would be able to “re-litigate ostensibly decided questions. Generally speaking, this is inefficient and unfair.”
The magistrate agreed with Hain that she should not rule on merits issues before a class is certified and thus denied as premature the summary-judgment motion without prejudice. Still, the magistrate observed that “within the context of ascertaining the class, the issue is not quite the one that Hain identifies. . . . Hain misapprehends the role and effect of the parties’ disagreement over whether water counts toward organic content in the reformulated (after about June 2011) Avalon Organics products. That issue doesn’t affect the class definition. All purchasers are defined into the class. A key merits question for those who bought after June 2011 will then be: Does water count toward organic content? If Hain proves that water should count, then Hain will prevail over post-June 2011 buyers.”
The magistrate further disagreed with Hain that the class was not ascertainable, distinguishing cases to the contrary because they were either in a different circuit or involved a multiplicity of products, a “proliferating variety” in product labels (which the plaintiffs here accounted for in their class definitions) or potential damages that were “wildly disproportionate to any adverse effects class members suffered.” The magistrate assessed the Rule 23(a) prerequisites and the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance and superiority requirements and found them all met. The magistrate also rejected Hain’s objections to plaintiffs’ damages models and found them consistent with Comcast. Having certified two damages classes, the magistrate declined the alternative injunction-only class requested under Rule 23(b)(2).