Supreme Court Update: Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. (12-761), Loughrin v. United States (13-316), and Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer (12-751)

June 27, 2014 Supreme Court Update

Greetings, Court fans!

This Update will bring you Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. (12-761), on whether a competitor may bring a Lanham Act claim based on misleading advertising where the product's packaging complies with FDA guidelines; Loughrin v. United States (13-316), finding that specific intent to defraud a bank is not always required to state a claim under the federal bank fraud statute; and Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer (12-751), a scintillating decision on ERISA, employee stock ownership plans, and the duty of prudence.

Justice Kennedy took the pen for a unanimous Court (but for Breyer who did not participate) in Pom Wonderful LLC v. Coca-Cola Co. (12-761). Pom Wonderful and Coca-Cola (which we'll refer to as just Pom and Coke) compete in the juice market and both sell a pomegranate blueberry drink. Pom sued Coke claiming that Coke's labeling of its product as "pomegranate blueberry" was deceptive and misleading in violation of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. §1125, because Coke's drink contained only "0.3% pomegranate juice and 0.2% blueberry juice." Coke countered that Pom's claim was precluded by the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA), which prohibits the misbranding of food "including by means of false or misleading labeling," because the administering agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), had issued detailed guidelines for blended juice beverages and Coke had complied with them. For example, Coke's label stated (in smaller letters) that it was a "flavored blend of 5 juices" and was made "from concentrate with added ingredients and other natural flavors." The District Court granted partial summary judgment to Coke and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, reasoning that Congress had entrusted the FDA with juice beverage labeling and that the FDA had promulgated "comprehensive regulation of that labeling" such that allowing a Lanham Act claim to go forward could "undercut[] the FDA's expert judgments and authority."

Proving the old adage that you should never bet on the Ninth, the Court reversed. It began by underscoring that this was not a preemption case because it involved two federal laws, rather than a federal and a state law. The question was thus whether one federal law operated to preclude application of another. Pom argued that both statutes should be given effect unless the FDCA constituted an "implied repeal" of a portion of the Lanham Act and that this high standard could not be met unless it was impossible to comply with both statutes simultaneously. Coke came back with the statutory construction principle that the specific trumps the general (i.e., the detailed labeling requirements for blended juice beverages announced by the FDA trumped the Lanham Act's general proscription on deceptive and misleading conduct) and argued that the two statutes should be read in harmony such that conduct complying with the FDCA cannot form a basis for Lanham Act liability. Noting that interpretation cannons often point in different directions, the Court ducked the question, because in its view, even if Coke were correct that the Court's job was to harmonize the two statutes, the best way to do so here was to allow them both to operate.

The two statutes address the same objective, but are complementary. The FDCA is aimed at consumer protection, whereas the Lanham Act is aimed at protecting commercial interests. Moreover, there is no evidence that Congress wanted the FDA's guidelines to act as a ceiling for required conduct under the Lanham Act. The FDA did not affirmatively approve the label at issue, as it does in other spheres where preemption of labeling claims has been found. Moreover, the two statutes have coexisted for 70 years without issues, providing "powerful evidence" that Congress did not intend the FDCA to be the exclusive mechanism for enforcing proper food and beverage labeling. Indeed, the FDCA contains an express preemption provision and it is narrowly tailored to preclude only some state law actions, suggesting that it did not intend to bar others – including any federal legal remedies.

The Government argued a middle-ground position, under which Lanham Act claims would be precluded to the extent that the FDCA or FDA regulations specifically required or authorized a particular aspect of a label. The Court rejected this option as well, as it raised practical problems about drawing distinctions as to whether the FDA was affirmatively "authorizing" conduct or merely "tolerating" it. More importantly, though, this argument also assumed that the FDCA should set a ceiling for conduct, rather than a floor, a notion the Court had already rejected.

Next, in Loughrin v. United States (13-316), the Court concluded that a provision of the federal bank fraud statute does not always require proof of intent to defraud a bank.

Kevin Loughrin hatched himself a scheme to defraud. "Pretending to be a Mormon missionary going door-to-door in a neighborhood in Salt Lake City, he rifled through residential mailboxes and stole any checks he found." He then altered the checks and used them to purchase goods at Target, which he would then turn around and return for cash. His scheme appears to have netted him about $250 over the course of several months. But the Feds eventually caught on and charged Loughrin with six counts of bank fraud under 18 U.S.C. § 1344(2). That particular clause of the bank fraud statute requires the Government to prove that the defendant knowingly executed or attempted to execute a scheme "to obtain any of the moneys . . . or other property owned by, or under the custody or control of, a financial institution, by means of false or fraudulent pretenses, representations, or promises." In the Government's view (and the jury's), Loughrin's scheme involved an intent to obtain bank funds because his forged checks would eventually be deposited in a bank, drawing on bank funds. (Loughrin attempted to argue that he was indifferent as to whether bank funds were ever drawn, but the Court found that he had waived this argument below.) The question for the Court was whether Loughrin's offense constituted "bank fraud," if his true intent was to defraud Target, and not a bank. Loughrin, argued that "the Government must prove yet another element: that the defendant intended to defraud a bank."

Not so, held the Supreme Court, in a 9-0 decision. Writing for the Court (for the most part; more on that below), Justice Kagan concluded that the text of §1344(2) precludes Loughrin's argument because it focuses on only two things: "first, on the scheme's goal (obtaining bank property) and, second, on the scheme's means (a false representation)." "[N]othing in the clause additionally demands that a defendant have any specific intent to deceive a bank." To read it that way would simply collapse §1344(2) into §1344(1), a separate clause of the bank fraud statute which criminalizes a scheme to "defraud a financial institution." The second clause would then become a mere subset of the first, violating various and sundry canons of statutory construction. The Court rejected Loughrin's attempts to compare his reading of the bank fraud statute to similar language in the mail fraud statute (noting that the "legislative structure" of the two statutes is meaningfully different).

So far, so unanimous. But a schism developed over whether and how the bank fraud statute can be construed to prevent its application to every run-of-the-mill "bad check" case. Writing for six justices, Justice Kagan agreed that §1344(2) should not be construed as "a plenary ban on fraud, contingent only on use of a check (rather than cash)." But it was not necessary to read a new "intent to defraud a bank" element into the clause to avoid that construction because there already exists "a significant textual limitation on §1344(2)'s reach"—namely, that the criminal must acquire bank property "by means of" his misrepresentation. That limitation is only satisfied "when the defendant's false statement is the mechanism naturally inducing a bank . . . to part with money in its control." This textual limitation ensures that federal bank fraud charges will only attach "to deceptions that have some real connection to a federally insured bank, and thus implicate the pertinent federal interest."

Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, concurred in approximately 67% of the Court's opinion, specifically "Parts I and II," "Part III-A except the last paragraph" which glanced at legislative history, "and the last footnote in Part III-B." Basically, Scalia agreed that §1344(2) contains no hidden element of intent to defraud a bank or expose a bank to a risk of loss. But he was "dubitante" on Kagan's opinion regarding the limiting principle in §1344(2)'s text and felt that the question of whether there is a limiting principle that prevents all frauds involving a check from coming within the scope of §1344(2) should await another case where it was squarely presented.

Justice Alito also concurred separately, taking issue with a few passages in Kagan's opinion that seem to suggest that §1344(2) requires a mens rea of "purpose." (Astute readers will recall that Kagan and Alito engaged in a similar debate earlier this term in Rosemond v. United States (2014).) In fact, Congress defined the mens rea for the crime as "knowingly" executing a fraudulent scheme. "The statute requires only that the objective of the scheme must be the obtaining of bank property, not that the defendant must have such an objective." Although generally the defendant and the scheme share an objective, that's not always the case and Justice Alito would like you to know that.

So, while there was dissent around the edges, the Court unanimously concluded that Loughrin's crime, stealing $250 from Target, was indeed a federal offense.

Finally, prudence was the name of the game in Fifth Third Bancorp v. Dudenhoeffer (12-751), where the Court dealt with the scope of the duty of prudence owed by a fiduciary of an "employee stock ownership plan" (ESOP). An ESOP is a type of pension plan that invests primarily in the stock of the company that employs the plan participants. The Court went against the majority of circuits and held that the ESOP fiduciary is not entitled to a presumption of prudence when buying or selling the employer's stock. Instead, ESOP fiduciaries are subject to ERISA's general duty of prudence. However, ESOP fiduciaries should not despair—the Court also erected certain barriers at the motion to dismiss stage that will make it more difficult for plaintiffs to maintain a suit against them for breach of the duty.

The defendant, Fifth Third Bancorp, offered employees an ESOP that purchased and held the company's stock. Plaintiffs—a group of former Fifth Third employees—alleged that the ESOP's fiduciaries should have known that Fifth Third's stock was overvalued based on both publicly available and insider information and should not have continued to hold and purchase stock. When the market crashed, Fifth Third stock lost 74% of its value and plaintiffs sued. The district court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed, holding that the presumption of prudence was evidentiary and did not apply at the pleading stage and that plaintiffs had stated a plausible duty-of-prudence claim.

In an opinion authored by Justice Breyer, a unanimous Court blew up the presumption of prudence. ERISA subjects all pension plan fiduciaries to a general duty of prudence. This duty ordinarily includes a duty to diversify investments. However, by statute, ESOP fiduciaries have no duty to diversify investments. Although lower courts had read this provision to create a presumption of prudence, the Court rejected such a reading. Instead, the Court held that the provision is a simple modification of the duty of prudence.

The Court then rejected Fifth Third's arguments. The Court declined to treat ESOPs differently than ordinary funds even though ESOPs have a different purpose—to encourage employee investment. The Court held that the duty of prudence is not dependent on a fund's non-pecuniary goals. The Court also held that a trust document cannot waive a fiduciary's duties under ERISA.

Perhaps troubled by the practical implications of its decision, the Court emphasized that a claim against an ESOP fiduciary must be plausible and then set out some pretty high barriers to a finding of plausibility. Allegations of imprudence based on a failure to act on public information regarding a stock's value are implausible as a general matter. Absent special circumstances, a fiduciary is not imprudent to assume that a major stock market provides the best estimate of the stock's value. Further, allegations of imprudence based on a failure to act on nonpublic information about a stock's value are plausible only if the plaintiff also alleges an alternative action that the fiduciary could have taken. The alternative (1) must not break securities laws; (2) must be consistent with federal rules against insider trading and corporate disclosure requirements; and (3) must not be a signal to the market that insiders no longer trust the company. Although there is no presumption of prudence, the Court has erected a barrier that will protect ESOP fiduciaries from many lawsuits.

If you read this far, you're a true Court fan. We'll be back again soon as we continue to make our way through the decisions released this week.

Kim, Jenny & Tadhg