Spencer Sheehan has become the lawyer of choice for people who were not convinced their sundae contained any actual candy, or who discovered a distinct lack of fruit in the fruit filling.
The New York-based attorney makes his living launching class action lawsuits against companies allegedly dishonest in their packaging and advertising — and he has a particular penchant for snacks and drinks.
According to last year’s NPR profile, He’s brought hundreds of these cases, and more than 120 cases focus on vanilla — or more specifically, its lack of it.
Recently, it made headlines in a lawsuit alleging the Kellogg Corporation, defrauded consumers over the content of Frosted Chocolate Fudge Pop-Tarts. The plaintiff in the case said the toaster pastries did not contain milk, butter or yogurt, which she described as “essential for fudge.”
Kellogg’s lawyers have argued that milk and butter are not the “defining ingredients” of the nonsense. They also said that “fudge” refers to the flavor of Pop-Tarts, and that a reasonable consumer “would interpret it to mean that the product tastes like chocolate (which it does).”
The judge agreed and dismissed the proposed class action.
This wasn’t the first time Sheehan had faced Kellogg for the famous light breakfast. In the past year alone, at least three US federal judges have dismissed lawsuits filed by Sheehan claiming that Kellogg did not use enough strawberries in Strawberry Pop-Tarts.
Sheehan spoke to as it happens Guest host Tom Harrington on why he does this kind of work. Here is part of their conversation.
How does an issue like this come to you to begin with?
In cases like these, you start with the people who contact me regarding this matter.
Then I will look at the case. And the [I take it on] If it’s something that I think might be viable – or even if it’s probably not viable or might not work, [but] It still raises important and important questions that need to be addressed.
How often do you win a settlement in these cases?
Using terms like “win” and “settlement,” they have a lot of different meanings. What most people want to know is how often these situations lead to what is called class settlement. This is what most people understand about group actions – a situation in which the general public is able to make claims through a third-party website and get some monetary or other benefit as a result of buying their product.
Now, it is very difficult to get these types of settlements. This is our goal in every case, get it. However, due to a lot of technical reasons and the legal landscape in this country, this is very difficult.
However, we have had certified classes over the past few years related to vanilla products. And we hope to do more – not only about vanilla, but also about other products. Not just food and drinks.
These may seem like little things. I will admit that we do not cure cancer. But it is equally important for any other cause of action that the court may address.Spencer Sheehan is a lawyer
In such class action lawsuits, even when the plaintiffs win, it is possible that the people you represent get only a little money, from what you have read, while the fees that go to you may be much more. So who really benefits from these situations?
Suppose a person, an individual member of a class, spent two dollars on a product. As a result of the settlement, they received $3. So I would say that person got everything he spent back.
Now, the reason the fees are so much higher than for individual plaintiffs is that a class action lawsuit is not designed to benefit an individual plaintiff. It is designed to provide benefits to hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of people.
Also when you think about the amount that is distributed to all plaintiffs, it is often three or four times the amount that attorneys receive.
People will say you’re blocking the courts. People have complained about “disturbing lawsuits” in the US for years. So how do you counter this charge?
This is an unfounded accusation… I have gone to the courts. And when I was there, I noticed it was completely empty. So I haven’t seen any closed courts based on these cases.
If in fact these are troublesome lawsuits, there are mechanisms in place for courts and parties to seek significant penalties against the attorneys and plaintiffs who brought them.
No one has ever done this against me, because all of my cases are viable based on material claims, factual claims, and legal standards.
And frankly, these kinds of situations are the only mechanism by which an individual or consumers in general can say to a company, “Hey, that’s not right. You need to fix this. You need to disclose that this product is flavored or this product does not contain butter.” Or is the vanilla not real vanilla?
These may seem like little things. I will admit that we do not cure cancer. But it is equally important for any other cause of action that the court may address.
I have some experience holding companies accountable for what they do to consumers. But changing their behavior is another thing. What did you see in your experience about the big companies changing their marketing due to their legal efforts?
In terms of changing behavior, I don’t really think that’s something that I or any lawyer can do.
I think on a much smaller scale… there will be changes to labeling. And I certainly see that. And while I don’t know I was responsible for it, I have a feeling it had something to do with the work I was doing.
But I realize, and I tell people often, that legal action through lawsuits isn’t really the way to affect the kind of change and the kind of practices that clients—and society, I think—should receive.
So I’m aware of our role and just want to do the best I can on the issues I can.
By Sheena Goodyear, with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge. Questions and answers have been modified for length and clarity.