Kavanaugh, Roberts In Crossfire of Battle Over ‘Auer’ (subscription to Law360 required)

  • The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on March 27, 2019 about whether to overturn the principle of judicial review of federal agency actions that requires a federal court to yield to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous regulation that the agency has promulgated.  Under this policy, known as ‘Auer deference’ from the 1997 case Auer v. Robbins, a court must yield to an agency’s interpretation of its own unclear regulation unless the court finds that the interpretation is “plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.”
  • Auer deference was the basis for successful defendant motions to dismiss over the past year in a number of class actions concerning ‘No Sugar Added’ claims on 100% juices.  We reported, for example, on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California granting a motion for summary judgment in favor of Odwalla, in Wilson v. Odwalla Inc. et al. (Case Number 2:17-cv-02763) based on the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) interpretation of paragraph (c)(2)(iv) of 21 CFR 101.60 (“Nutrient content claims for the calorie content of foods”) as permitting juice with no added sugar to be considered a substitute for juice with added sugar and similar sugar-sweetened beverages.
  • Based on the Justices’ comments in the recent hearing, it is not clear if Auer deference will be intact at the end of June, by which time a ruling is expected.  Many food product labels could face renewed attacks under state consumer protection and false advertising laws if courts are no longer bound by FDA’s interpretation of ambiguous regulatory requirements, including the use of ‘no sugar added” under the regulation on nutrient content claims.