Articles Posted in False Advertising

In a false advertising case brought under the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), a manufacturer of furniture coverings claimed that an advertisement placed in a trade magazine by a major furniture manufacturer was false and misleading. Design Resources, Inc., the plaintiff, argued that even if the ad and accompanying article were couched in terms of opinion, principles of defamation law teach that statements of apparent opinion can be actionable if they imply the existence of underlying facts. The district court accepted this notion but found that the ad in question did not imply any such facts and granted summary judgment for the defendants, Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc., and Leather Industries of America. On June 18, 2015, the Fourth Circuit affirmed.
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Although a plaintiff asserting a fraud claim in federal court may allege malice, intent, knowledge, and other conditions of a person’s mind in general terms, he must plead the circumstances constituting the fraud with particularity, identifying the time, place, content, and maker of each alleged fraudulent circumstance. Failure to plead fraud with sufficient particularity will result in dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), as demonstrated by the recent failed case against Capella University.

Melvin Murphy had a Bachelor of Arts degree and was pursuing an M.B.A. when he received online advertisements for Capella University’s doctoral programs in business management. Capella’s “enrollment counselors” responded aggressively to Murphy’s initial inquiries with calls, emails and marketing materials. Murphy contends that Capella’s promotional materials contained misstatements and misrepresentations upon which he relied when he enrolled in the school’s Ph.D. program in Organization and Management with a specialization in Leadership. For example, one brochure featured testimonials from supposed Capella doctoral students accompanied by photographs and quotes. Murphy asserts that at least one person pictured and quoted was not a graduate of Capella, was not a current student in the Ph.D. program and did not give permission for Capella to use his image. According to Murphy, the promotional materials were false and misleading as Capella did not award doctoral degrees in the field of Organization and Management and had no plans to do so. Capella agents allegedly reemphasized these misrepresentations when speaking with Murphy.

Murphy complains that Capella also failed to tell him that a doctoral candidate in any subject must pass Comprehensive Exams in order to be eligible for a Ph.D. and that most candidates fail these exams. According to Murphy, only 10% of Capella’s degree candidates obtained their desired degree. He asserts that these material omissions happened despite frequent contact with “representatives of Capella, including the Capella ‘enrollment counselors.'”

Lawyers representing Ryerson, Inc., a metal roofing company, were called upon recently to defend the company against the claims of two homeowners who alleged that Ryerson failed to honor the warranty on its roofing system and that such failure violated the Virginia Consumer Protection Act (“VCPA”). The lawyers argued that Ryerson could not be liable under the VCPA because all statements made in its warranty were statements of opinion rather than factual misrepresentations. The Eastern District of Virginia disagreed.

The VCPA was enacted to promote fair and ethical standards of dealings between suppliers and the consuming public. (See Va. Code § 59.1-197). It contains provisions that make it unlawful for a supplier to misrepresent that goods and services are of “a particular standard, quality, grade, style, or model,” and prohibits suppliers from using “any other deception, fraud, false pretense, false promise, or misrepresentation in connection with a consumer transaction.” (See Va. Code § 59.1-200(A)(6), (14)).

In Gottlieb v. Ryerson, the Gottliebs (according to the Complaint) hired a contractor to install a Ryerson steel roof on their gazebo and house. The roof came with a 20-year warranty, which assured the Gottliebs that the warranty was “low-risk, crumpled.jpgno-nonsense, [and] ironclad.” The warranty materials also stated that Ryerson would honor the warranty “at any time and as often as needed within the 20-year period” from the installation date, and that the warranty entitled the homeowners to “complete repair or replacements of any covered problem–freight and labor included.”

Maryland-based Marriage Savers, Inc., a non-profit marriage counseling service and operator of www.marriagesavers.com, has filed a trademark action in the Eastern District of Virginia against Lovepath International, Inc., another marriage counseling organization, which allegedly has been conducting business using the confusingly similar domain name marriagesaver.com.  As of this writing, www.marriagesaver.com has been taken down.

According to the complaint, Marriage Savers owns the federally registered trademark “MARRIAGE SAVERS” and has used the mark since the early 1990’s in connection with a wide variety of products and services, including writing printed materials and publications in the field of marriage, conducting workshops and seminars to community leaders, and offering counseling to couples.  

975584_broken_heart.jpgLovepath, according to the suit, also offers seminars, books, and online resources geared to marriage counseling and markets them using the name “Marriage Saver.”  Marriage Savers contends that Joe Beam, Lovepath’s founder and president, is not only familiar with Marriage Savers and its trademarks but has actually been a speaker at its conferences.  

On Monday, the company that owns Gatorade (a Pepsi subsidiary) filed suit against Coca-Cola and Energy Brands, accusing them of false advertising and other unfair competition in connection with its two-week advertising campaign for Coke’s Powerade ION4 sports drink.

In the advertising campaign, Powerade (which continues to be marketed as “the complete sports drink“) was claimed to be superior to Gatorade (identified, by comparison, as an “incomplete” sports drink) due to Powerade’s inclusion of trace amounts of two electrolytes, calcium and magnesium.  According to the lawsuit, no evidence exists to suggest that the addition of these two minerals–especially in such tiny quantities–provides any nutritional or physiological benefits.  Pepsi says Coke isn’t playing fair when it displays a photo of a Gatorade bottle lopped in half alongside the slogan, “Don’t settle for an incomplete sports drink.”  In legal terms, it claims Coke is guilty of “false advertising, trademark dilution, deceptive acts and practices, injury to business reputation and unfair competition.”

78976-poweradel.jpg The Lanham Act, on which all of Pepsi’s claims are based in various forms, prohibits misleading advertisements.  Specifically, Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act, found at 15 U.S.C.A. § 1125, makes a defendant liable for false advertising where all of the following conditions are met: (1) the defendant made a misrepresentation in commercial advertising or promotion concerning goods, services, or commercial activities; (2) the misrepresentation actually deceived or tended to deceive its recipients; (3) the misrepresentation was likely to influence purchasing decisions; (4) the misrepresentation injured or was likely to injure the plaintiff; and (5) the misrepresentation was made in commerce.

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