May 10, 2021

Volume XI, Number 130

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Much A-Brew About Nothing: Court Dismisses False Ad Suit Against Starbucks

Judge Alison Nathan of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently dismissed with prejudice a putative class action alleging Starbucks misrepresented itself as a “premium” coffee retailer. In doing so, the Court found that plaintiffs failed to allege Starbucks made any statements likely to mislead reasonable consumers, and that nearly all of the challenged statements were just puffery.  George v. Starbucks, (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2020).

Plaintiffs alleged Starbucks marketed itself as a high-end coffee brand, including claims that it serves “the finest whole bean coffees”; has a reputation for “quality” products; provides a “PERFECT” coffee experience; offers the “Best Coffee for the Best You”; brags that “It’s Not Just Coffee. It’s Starbucks;” and touts its warm welcoming environment. According to plaintiffs, this was false and misleading because many New York Starbucks locations allegedly are infested with pests and use noxious pesticides to abate these pests. Plaintiffs alleged violations of Sections 349 and 350 of the New York General Business Law, this statute’s unfair competition and false advertising provisions.

In dismissing plaintiffs’ claims, Judge Nathan found that “[n]early all of the language the customers object to consists of obvious ‘puffery’” that no reasonably buyer would take at face value. Plaintiffs argued that the whole of Starbucks’s brand messaging was “more than the sum of its parts,” pointing to two cases in which courts allowed advertising suits to proceed even where a defendant’s ads were not literally false when taken in isolation. However, the court noted that in both those cases, the plaintiffs claimed that defendants’ advertising campaign “implied specific, falsifiable facts.” By contrast, plaintiffs here did not allege Starbucks’s advertising communicated—even indirectly—any specific details about its products. Instead, plaintiffs argued the advertising was misleading because it portrayed Starbucks as providing “premium products made with the best ingredients.” However, as Judge Nathan found, claims that a seller’s products are “premium” or “the best” cannot support a cause of action for deceptive practices, whether made once or across all of the company’s brand messaging.

The court found one statement cited in the amended complaint could, if false, be actionable—that Starbucks baked goods contain “no artificial dyes or flavors.” However, the court noted the pesticide mentioned in the complaint was not an “artificial dye or flavor,” and no reasonable consumer would understand this statement to convey information about the company’s use of pesticides in its stores.

In their amended complaint, plaintiffs alleged that the pesticides Starbucks supposedly uses have manufacturer warnings against use in food service establishments, and the CDC warns that exposure to these pesticides can have serious health effects. However, none of the plaintiffs claimed to have gotten sick. Nor did plaintiffs allege that Starbucks advertised that it did not use these (or any other) pesticides. This case serves as yet another reminder that absent an actionably false or misleading statement, false advertising claims cannot be used to remedy other consumer complaints, and consumer assumptions not grounded in the text of advertising are ripe for dismissal. Watch this space for further development.

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© 2021 Proskauer Rose LLP. National Law Review, Volume X, Number 356
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TRENDING LEGAL ANALYSIS

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About this Author

Lawrence I Weinstein, False Advertising and Trademark Copywright Law, Proskauer
Partner

Larry Weinstein is a Partner in Proskauer's Litigation Department. He is co-head of the firm’s Intellectual Property Litigation Group, and also co-head of the firm’s False Advertising & Trademark Practice. Larry is both a distinguished trial lawyer and counselor, whose practice covers a broad spectrum of intellectual property law, including Lanham Act false advertising and trademark cases, consumer class action cases, NAD and FTC proceedings, and trade secret and copyright litigations, as well as sports, art and other complex commercial cases.

212-969-3240
Jeffrey H Warshafsky, Proskauer Law firm, Litigation Attorney
Associate

Jeffrey H. Warshafsky is an Associate in the Litigation Department, resident in the New York office. He is a commercial litigator with a particular emphasis on false advertising, trademark, and counterfeiting disputes. Jeff also advises clients on trademark portfolio management, anti-counterfeiting strategies, cybersquatting prevention, and other Internet-related trademark infringement matters.

212-969-3241
Brooke G. Gottlieb Litigation Proskauer
Associate

Brooke Gottlieb earned a J.D. from New York University School of Law, where she was a cyber security scholar and served as an executive editor of the Journal of Legislation and Public Policy. While attending law school, Brooke worked as a research assistant for Professor Arthur R. Miller on his Federal Practice and Procedure treatise and was an extern at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. She also earned a B.A. from Barnard College.

212-969-3257
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