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Biden Judge Casts Deciding Vote to Authorize Parents to Sue Baby Food Maker For Violating Labelling Law

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Judge Roopali Desai, nominated by President Biden to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals, cast the deciding vote to overturn a district court and allow parents to proceed with a class action against a baby food maker that they contend violated a California baby food labelling law. Desai joined an opinion by President Carter nominee Mary Schroeder, to which Trump  nominee Daniel Collins dissented. The June 2024 decision was in Davidson v Sprout Foods Inc.  


What is the background of this case?


Both federal and state law prohibit baby food manufacturers from labeling the front of baby food containers with the product’s nutrient content. This is because “what is good for adults,” such as limiting fat and cholesterol, “may not be so good” and may be bad “for babies,” and adult purchasers may be misled by such labelling. 


Sprout Foods Inc nevertheless produced and sold pouches of baby food with labels “conspicuously stating” the food’s nutrient content. Gillian and Samuel Davidson purchased some of the pouches for their baby. The federal law can be enforced only by federal agencies, but the California state law can give rise to private lawsuits. The Davidsons filed such a lawsuit as a class action against Sprout’s labelling in federal court, contending that the labels “misled consumers.”


A district court dismissed the lawsuit without discovery as a matter of law, maintaining that the federal law preempted and thus precluded lawsuits under state law. The Davidsons appealed to the Ninth Circuit. 


How did Judge Desai and the Ninth Circuit Rule and Why is it Important?


All three judges on the panel agreed with the lower court on the dismissal of fraud-related claims. But Judge Desai joined an opinion by Judge Schroeder that reversed the dismissal of the state law food labelling claims and ruled that this portion of the lawsuit should proceed. 


Based on a careful review of the laws and relevant precedent, Judge Schroeder explained that the federal food labeling law does not pre-empt enforcement of state labelling laws that contain prohibitions that are “identical” to those of the federal law, and that California law’s prohibition is in fact identical. The district court and the dissent, she went on, were wrong in suggesting that the federal law implicitly preempts such lawsuits. Indeed, as Judge Schoeder pointed out, there is “no reason” why Congress would “permit states to enact” such legislation and also “deny enforcement by their citizens.


The decision made possible by Judge Desai is obviously important to Gillian and Samuel Davidson and all other California parents who seek enforcement of state baby food labelling laws. It is also significant in resolving an important issue concerning the extent to which federal food labeling laws relate to similar state laws. This is particularly true in the Ninth Circuit, which includes California, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.   In addition, the ruling serves as yet another reminder of the importance of promptly confirming more fair-minded judges to our federal courts.