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Benson v. Fannie May Confections Brands, Inc.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

December 9, 2019

Clarisha Benson, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
Fannie May Confections Brands, Inc., Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued September 4, 2019

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 17 C 3519 - Sara L. Ellis, Judge.

          Before Wood, Chief Judge, and Bauer and Hamilton, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         Proving that almost anything can give rise to litigation, this case concerns chocolates that Clarisha Benson and Lorenzo Smith purchased at their local Fannie May stores in Chicago. Upon opening their boxes of candy, Benson and Smith were dismayed to find that the boxes were not brimming with goodies. Far from it: the boxes appeared to be only about half full. Believing that they had been duped, they sued Fannie May on behalf of themselves and a putative class, alleging violations of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act ("ICFA"), 815 ILCS 505/1- 505/12, and asserting claims for unjust enrichment and breach of implied contract. The plaintiffs contend that Fannie May's boxes of chocolate contain needless empty space, and that this practice misleads consumers. After allowing Benson and Smith to amend their complaint, the district court granted Fannie May's motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint with prejudice. The court found that the plaintiffs had not adequately pleaded a violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act ("FDCA"), 21 U.S.C. §§ 301-399, and that the FDCA preempted their state-law claims. We affirm the judgment, though on other grounds.


         Each plaintiff purchased an opaque, seven-ounce box of Fannie May's chocolate for $9.99 plus tax. Benson purchased Fannie May's Mint Meltaways, and Smith purchased Fannie May's Pixies. (Since their assertions are otherwise identical, we generally refer in the remainder of this opinion only to Benson, understanding that Smith is also a putative named plaintiff and that there are class allegations.) Although the boxes accurately disclosed the weight of the chocolate within (seven ounces) and the number of pieces in each box (ascer-tainable by multiplying the serving size times the number of servings per container), the boxes were emptier than each one had expected. The box of Mint Meltaways contained approximately 33% empty space, and the box of Pixies contained approximately 38% empty space. The cognoscenti call this empty space "slack-fill."

         In the amended complaint, Benson alleges that some of the empty space serves no functional purpose and instead misleads consumers into believing that they are purchasing more chocolate than they actually receive. The complaint notes that Fannie May's fourteen-ounce boxes contain a smaller percentage of slack-fill. Benson insists that she would not have purchased the chocolate if she had known that there was so much empty space inside the box. She seeks compensation based on the percentage of nonfunctional slack-fill in each box.


         We consider the dismissal of a complaint for failure to state a claim de novo. Camasta v. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, Inc., 761 F.3d 732, 736 (7th Cir. 2014). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must allege "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009).


         At the outset, there was some question whether diversity jurisdiction existed pursuant to the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), 28 U.S.C. § 1332(d), because the complaint identified Fannie May as an Illinois corporation and the named plaintiffs as Illinois citizens, and alleged only that at least one (unidentified) class member was a citizen of a state other than Illinois. As the district court recognized, the later allegation was insufficient. But another filing then revealed that Fannie May is a Delaware corporation. The amount in controversy exceeds $5, 000, 000, and so CAFA supports jurisdiction.

         Benson first attacks the district court's conclusion that her state-law claims were preempted by the FDCA and so had to be dismissed as a mater of law. Under the FDCA, a food "shall be deemed to be misbranded" if "its container is so made, formed, or filled as to be misleading." 21 U.S.C. § 343(d). Containers that include slack-fill-"the difference between the actual capacity of a container and the volume of product contained therein"-are misleading if consumers cannot fully view the contents and if the slack-fill is nonfunctional. 21 C.F.R. § 100.100(a). Slack-fill is nonfunctional if it cannot be justified by any of the following reasons: (1) protection of the contents of the package; (2) the requirements of the machines used to enclose the contents in such package; (3) unavoidable product settling during shipping and handling; (4) the need for the package to perform a specific function; (5) the container is reusable, part of the presentation of food, and has value that is significant and independent of its function to hold food; or (6) the inability to increase the level of fill or reduce the package size because, for example, the size is necessary to meet food labeling requirements or discourage theft. See id. § 100.100(a)(1)-(6).

         The FDCA does not create a private right of action. Turek v. Gen. Mills, Inc., 662 F.3d 423, 426 (7th Cir. 2011). Even so, plaintiffs are entitled to seek relief pursuant to related state-law causes of action. See id. The later right, however, is tightly circumscribed by the FDCA's express preemption of state-law theories that ...

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