Court denies consolidation of class suit against Conagra over margarine claims

By Tomas Kassahun | Apr 8, 2019

SAN FRANCISCO – The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California has denied a motion to consolidate two class action complaints against Conagra over the alleged mislabeling of trans fat in margarine.

According to the opinion, plaintiff Troy Backus was rejected as a class representative in 2016 for presenting individualized issues and failing to satisfy the typicality requirement. Backus then filed another putative class action against Conagra with new plaintiffs Marjel McFaddin and Mark Beasley, according to the ruling. 

In the ruling issued March 5, District Judge William Alsup said Backus has already failed class certification and there is a risk that his individualized issues could cause confusion. 

According to the opinion, Backus brought his class action in January 2016 against Conagra Brands Inc.’s alleged use and mislabeling of artificial trans fats in its margarine products. 

Backus purchased and consumed a variety of margarine spreads and sticks under the brand name Fleischmann’s, which was manufactured and sold by ConAgra Foods, predecessor to defendant Conagra Brands, the opinion stated.

“Backus’ amended complaint alleged various claims for relief for Conagra’s use of artificial trans fat, on the basis that using artificial trans fat in food products was unlawful and unfair, and for its product mislabeling, on the basis that its labels misrepresented the product,” Alsup wrote.

When Backus filed another class action against Conagra with new plaintiffs McFaddin and Beasley, Alsup said the complaint included the use and mislabeling claims that had already been dismissed.

“Accordingly, Conagra again filed a motion to dismiss,” the opinion stated. “With the motion still pending, however, both the Backus and McFaddin actions were stayed in October 2017 in light of two separate actions, both also brought by plaintiffs’ counsel, fully briefed and pending before our court of appeals that teed up the same issues of law that controlled these actions.”

Alsup said the benefits of allowing Backus to file as a class representative is unclear.

“Plaintiffs’ counsel stated at oral argument that the benefit was access to discovery from the Backus action,” the opinion stated. “That benefit, however, can still be achieved without consolidation and without the possible confusion caused by plaintiff Backus’s individualized issues. Thus, the motion to consolidate is denied.” 

Alsup said the counsel for plaintiffs had attached a consolidated, amended complaint that recycles arguments and “claims already rejected in the Backus action to attempt to gain another bite of the apple.”

“The consolidated complaint attempts to reintroduce claims related to the use of partially hydrogenated oils that had already been dismissed in the Backus action,” the opinion stated. “...Thus, the motion to amend the complaints with claims related to the use of partially hydrogenated oils is denied.”

Alsup also denied the attempt to reintroduce mislabeling claims that were based on labels claiming “70 percent less saturated fat” and “100 percent less cholesterol” than butter. 

“Those mislabeling claims were dismissed in the Backus action and plaintiffs has provided no change in factual or legal circumstance to support why they should be allowed again,” the opinion stated.

Alsup however said the mislabeling claims and the healthy lifestyle mislabeling claim that survived the original Backus action can be included in the amended complaints.

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