A recent lawsuit alleges that Bumble Bee Foods, one of the nation’s largest producers of canned tuna, does not use a “fair and safe supply chain,” as the company’s marketing claims.
The suit is the latest in a surge of cases filed under D.C.’s unique consumer-protection statute. The plaintiff, a D.C.-based nonprofit focused on labor rights, alleges that Bumble Bee’s primary tuna supplier (and now parent company) relies on fishing methods that are prone to labor abuses.
Separate from the merits, the suit raises thorny issues about when claims under D.C.’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act (“CPPA”) can be removed to federal court.
The plaintiff, International Labor Rights Forum (“ILRF”), is a non-profit that claims to be a “public-interest organization dedicated to fair labor practices, workers’ rights, and consumer education.” ILRF sued Bumble Bee in D.C. Superior Court under a unique provision of the CPPA that authorizes public interest organizations to sue on behalf of the general public in D.C.
ILRF alleges that Bumble Bee sources the majority of the tuna in its major products from FCF Co. Ltd., a Taiwan-based seafood producer that acquired Bumble Bee in 2020. According to the complaint, FCF’s supply chain relies on fishing methods—e.g., requiring vessels to travel long distances from their home waters and then resupplying them at sea—that can facilitate forced labor and mistreatment of workers. ILRF alleges that Bumble Bee’s sourcing of tuna that is harvested through these methods is inconsistent with the company’s public commitment to promoting “fair and safe” and “best-in-class” labor practices.
Recently, Bumble Bee removed the case to federal court. In a tactic used by other organizational plaintiffs suing under the CPPA, ILRF tried to avoid removal by requesting only injunctive relief, not monetary damages. But Bumble Bee has argued that removal is proper either because:
- ILRF’s representative action under the CPPA, ostensibly brought on behalf of D.C. consumers, is for all intents and purposes a “class action” within the meaning of the Class Action Fairness Act; or
- There is complete diversity of citizenship and the amount in controversy (i.e., the cost of remedying the alleged violation plus any attorney’s fees awarded plaintiff’s counsel) is greater than the ordinary threshold of $75,000.
As Bumble Bee signals in its Notice of Removal, both theories raise interesting (and potentially) unsettled legal questions. Their resolution could clarify the limits on organizational plaintiffs’ ability to avoid removal when they sue in a representative capacity under D.C.’s CPPA.