The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on January 10, 2014, in Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Company. The Court must now decide whether the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (“FDCA”) bars Lanham Act claims for deceptive naming and labeling of food products.
Pom Wonderful brought suit against Coca-Cola under the Lanham Act in 2008, contesting the legitimacy of the name, labeling, marketing, and advertising of a Minute Maid juice owned by Coca-Cola. The complaint accused Coca-Cola of deceptive practices concerning a juice consisting almost entirely of apple and grape juices that was sold as a “Pomegranate Blueberry Flavored Blend of 5 Juices.” In May 2012, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment in favor of Coca-Cola, holding Pom Wonderful’s deceptive name and label claims were barred by the FDCA. (Pom Wonderful’s advertising and marketing claims were remanded to the district court.) Pom Wonderful LLC v. The Coca-Cola Co., 679 F.3d 1170 (9th Cir. 2012). The Circuit declared “that the Lanham Act may not be used as a vehicle to usurp, preempt, or undermine FDA authority.”
Coca-Cola and Pom Wonderful dispute the significance of the Ninth Circuit’s decision. In their petition for certiorari, Pom Wonderful claimed that “[u]nder the Ninth Circuit’s ruling, so long as products meet the FDA’s minimum requirements, manufacturers can label them in any manner, without regard to whether their labeling deceives consumers.” Coca-Cola responded that contrary to Pom Wonderful’s assessment, the FDA employs a stringent and comprehensive regulatory framework that effectively protects consumers and supervises food labeling and naming.
Interestingly, the US Solicitor General requested that the Supreme Court decline to hear the case while simultaneously claiming that the Ninth Circuit’s decision over-expanded the preclusive effect of the FDCA. The amicus curiae brief for the United States argued that although the Ninth Circuit’s decision was questionable, the lack of a circuit conflict and ambiguous factual allegations in the record rendered the appeal unworthy of the Supreme Court’s attention.
Justices Alito and Breyer did not participate in the consideration of the petition for writ of certiorari. Therefore, it is possible that only the remaining seven Justices will decide the case. Oral argument is expected to occur in April and an opinion will likely be issued in June.