‘Vanilla vigilante’ lawyer goes after Pop-Tarts, 7-Eleven

Shopper crusader — or opportunistic lawyer?

In recent times, Spencer Sheehan has filed tons of of lawsuits towards the meals and beverage trade — like the dearth of strawberries in Entire Grain Frosted Strawberry Pop-Tarts and the dearth of actual vanilla in Chobani’s Oat Vanilla and Oat Strawberry Vanilla Yogurt.

The Nice Neck, NY-based legal professional has gone after vanilla flavoring in meals merchandise so many instances that he has been dubbed the state’s “Vanilla Vigilante.”

For the previous two years, Sheehan, 42, has been concerned in additional lawsuits towards the meals and beverage trade than some other lawyer within the state. That’s in response to a brand new report from the American Tort Reform Affiliation, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that seeks to scale back lawsuit abuse.

Final week, the group named New York State because the nation’s second-worst “judicial hellhole” — the highest offender was California — and Sheehan was referred to as out for his contributions.

“Notorious Lengthy Island legal professional Spencer Sheehan, also called the ‘Vanilla Vigilante,’ continues to prolifically file lawsuits specializing in product flavoring,” the ATRA report mentioned. “Sheehan filed half of the state’s client class motion lawsuits in 2019 and virtually two-thirds in 2020.”

There have been 183 client class actions in New York state in 2020, in response to ATRA.

And 2021 guarantees to be “a report 12 months for meals litigation filings” — with greater than 300 food-related instances filed up to now throughout the nation, in response to Tommy Tobin, an legal professional at Perkins Coie, who teaches a seminar on meals litigation at UCLA Legislation College.

In April Sheehan's law firm reached a $2.6 million settlement with Blue Diamond's vanilla-flavored milk and yogurt products.
In April, Spencer Sheehan’s agency reached a $2.6 million settlement with Blue Diamond over its Almond Breeze vanilla-flavored merchandise.

“New York courts have been the most well-liked discussion board for these instances, thanks partly to the big variety of filings difficult the labeling of meals merchandise labeled with the phrase ‘vanilla,’ ” Tobin instructed The Put up. “We have now recognized greater than 120 fits filed over the previous two years relating to vanilla . . . It is a outstanding pattern and represented a couple of quarter of total meals litigation filings in 2019 and 2020.”

Dubbed “the king of New York’s client class actions” by the New York Civil Justice Institute earlier this 12 months, “Sheehan’s unrelenting cascade of lawsuits has contributed to New York changing into the nation’s prime jurisdiction for meals litigation and an total scorching spot for client class actions,” mentioned the Albany-based nonprofit in a June report.

Sheehan started 2021 by submitting a January class-action lawsuit towards 7-Eleven’s advertising of Yumions Crunchy Onion Snacks. Based on courtroom papers, the bag of snacks, that are formed like onion rings, options pictures of inexperienced onions however solely comprises onion powder.

“Since every a part of the onion — bulb, root, stem and pores and skin — has distinctive taste and aroma compounds, onion powder essentially is unable to supply the ‘oniony’ taste appreciated by customers,” says the category motion criticism filed in Manhattan’s Southern District courtroom.

In April Sheehan’s legislation agency reached a settlement with Blue Diamond over a proposed federal class motion concerning the firm’s Almond Breeze vanilla-flavored milk and yogurt merchandise.

Whereas Sheehan might argue that he’s standing up for the little man, he’s the one who normally will get paid. The $2.6 million settlement with Blue Diamond, as an example, awards $1 per merchandise with proof of buy and 50 cents per merchandise with out to customers who purchased the merchandise between April 15, 2014, and Could 17, 2021. Based on ATRA, Sheehan’s agency might obtain as a lot as $550,000 for its charges from the settlement.

In October, Sheehan focused Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts in a $5 million class-action criticism. The lawsuit claims that the sugary toaster pastries’ Entire Grain Frosted Strawberry selection comprises no precise strawberries. The primary plaintiff, New Yorker Elizabeth Russett, claims that the corporate’s advertising of the Pop-Tart deceived customers as a result of the pastry comprises a lot larger portions of pears and apples than it does strawberries.

Sheehan filed a New York State Supreme Court filing against Chobani, claiming its use of
Sheehan filed a New York State Supreme Court docket submitting towards Chobani, claiming its use of “vanilla” is deceptive on some merchandise.
Chobani

Sheehan, who has an undergraduate diploma from Georgetown College and graduated from Fordham College Legislation College, in response to his LinkedIn web page, contains detailed diagrams and even pictures in his courtroom filings, dissecting the advanced chemical compounds in flavoring of meals merchandise.

In June, Sheehan’s New York State Supreme Court docket submitting towards Chobani — over the vanilla flavoring in two of its yogurt merchandise — deconstructed the historical past and manufacturing of the vanilla bean from an orchid in Madagascar to the chemical synthesis that produces a vanilla-like style however will not be really the actual factor.

His conclusion: the phrase “vanilla” is deceptive on the Chobani label for its oat-based vanilla and vanilla strawberry yogurts as a result of they don’t actually embody vanilla in its purest type, in response to courtroom papers.

“Though the flavoring used to simulate the Product’s characterizing vanilla taste is
(1) not from vanilla beans, (2) from synthetic petrochemical sources and (3) made by means of synthetic processes, Defendant pretends in any other case, conflating pure and synthetic flavoring and deceiving customers,” courtroom papers say.

It’s not the primary time that Sheehan has focused the yogurt maker. Final 12 months, he sued Chobani in Manhattan federal courtroom, accusing the corporate of deceptive customers concerning the quantity of sugar in its reduced-sugar Greek yogurt.

Sheehan didn’t instantly return The Put up’s request for remark, however instructed the newspaper earlier that ATRA’s report had little benefit.

Sheehan targeted Kellog's Pop-Tarts in a $5 million class-action complaint saying that the  pastries' Whole Grain Frosted Strawberry variety contains no actual strawberries.
Sheehan focused Kellog’s Pop-Tarts in a $5 million class-action criticism saying that the pastries’ Entire Grain Frosted Strawberry selection comprises no precise strawberries.

“If the fits I used to be submitting had been indicative of the ‘hellhole’ they describe, certainly courts could be sanctioning them and penalizing me,” he mentioned. “However they’re not as a result of there may be fortunately no restriction on customers from making an attempt to maintain corporations sincere.”

However Sheehan’s luck could also be working out.

“A number of judicial opinions out of New York’s federal courts have dismissed instances predicated on this ‘vanilla-labeling’ principle,” mentioned Tobin. “Current judicial selections point out that New York courts are rising more and more impatient with this principle.”

In June, a US District Court docket Decide dismissed a proposed class motion introduced by Sheehan towards Mars Wrigley wherein plaintiffs alleged that the corporate had violated New York’s client safety legal guidelines within the advertising of their vanilla-flavored ice cream sandwiches.

Decide Raymond Dearie dominated that the plaintiffs had failed to indicate that “an inexpensive client . . . could be misled by the phrase ‘vanilla ice cream’” as a result of the case, like so lots of the vanilla instances earlier than it, didn’t allege that the “the ice cream bars don’t style like vanilla.”