Lead Plaintiff Spreads Her Misleading Butter Case a Little Too Thin

In April, a New York federal court denied certification for a purported class alleging that Johnson & Johnson misled customers by placing the words “no trans fat” on labels for its Benecol buttery spreads. See Bowling v. Johnson & Johnson, et al., 1:17-cv-03892, S.D.N.Y. 2017. The court’s order focused on issues highly specific to the lead plaintiff, showing the benefits of carefully investigating the lead plaintiff in class actions.

Case Background

In 2017, Suzanna Bowling brought suit against Johnson & Johnson alleging that the labeling for its Benecol buttery spreads was misleading. According to the complaint, the labeling includes text reading “No Trans Fat” and “No Trans Fatty Acids,” some of which is in “all capitalized, bolded letters.” It was these statements that the complaint alleged misled a New York class of customers to purchase, and overpay for, the product.

Court Denies Plaintiff’s Motion for Class Certification

The United States District Judge Alison J. Nathan denied Ms. Bowling’s motion to certify the New York class, finding that Ms. Bowling was not a suitable class representative for a couple of reasons.

First, Ms. Bowling had previously settled with Johnson & Johnson, and as a part of that settlement, there was a “covenant not to sue” in place. This covenant, among other aspects of the settlement, could potentially impede the current case were it to proceed. Judge Nathan stated, “It may be that the covenant not to sue is not binding or is inapplicable to Bowling’s claims here, but … the court concludes she will be required to ‘devote considerable time’ to rebutting its applicability.” As a result of this potentially binding covenant, Ms. Bowling was certainly an atypical—and arguably an inadequate—class representative.

Second, Ms. Bowling’s credibility suffered “on key issues.” In fact, key allegations in her complaint were demonstrably false. Ms. Bowling stated in the complaint that she purchased Benecol at a particular location and time, but Johnson & Johnson’s internal records showed that Benecol was never sold at that particular location and time. Ms. Bowling also alleged that, after she came to believe that Benecol actually contained trans fats, she immediately wrote Johnson & Johnson requesting a refund. However, Johnson & Johnson’s customer service department found no record of such a refund request.

In conclusion, Judge Nathan stated, “Here, defendants have presented unrebutted evidence that Bowling could not have purchased Benecol Light in the manner in which she has testified; she is therefore ‘vulnerable to serious attacks’ on her credibility.” Accordingly, Ms. Bowling’s motion for class certification was denied.

Takeaway

This case reinforces that it is imperative for defendants to always carefully investigate the lead plaintiffs, whether by running a background check or asking questions about their prior litigation history during depositions. All too often, as was the case here, the lead plaintiff is an inadequate class representative for personal reasons that are not apparent at first glance. And while the plaintiff’s unsuitability to represent the class may not end the entire litigation, it can certainly stall the proceedings and create leverage for defendants during settlement negotiations.