Consumer Protection Suits over Homeopathic Products Against CVS, Walmart Reopened by D.C. Court of Appeals

On Thursday, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals issued an opinion reopening the consolidated cases Center for Inquiry, Inc. v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc. and Center for Inquiry, Inc. v. Walmart, Inc.

According to the opinion, Center for Inquiry, Inc. (CFI) is a non-profit organization whose “mission is to foster a secular society based upon science, reason, freedom of inquiry, and humanist values.” Through CFI’s complaints, it alleges that homeopathy is a pseudoscience, and its underlying concepts on which it is based “contradict the most fundamental understanding of science.” 

The court states that on July 17, 2018, CFI filed a complaint against CVS alleging that the retailer violated the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act (CPPA) by falsely presenting, through its marketing, labeling and placement of products in stores and online, that homeopathic products are equivalent alternatives to “science-based” medicines. The opinion states that on August 5, 2020, CFI’s complaint was dismissed because the lower court held that it lacked standing and failed to state a claim on which relief could be granted. 

Specifically, the opinion states that it failed to show that it was a nonprofit organization or public interest organization under the CPPA. Additionally, the lower court held that CVS’s marketing and product placement of homeopathic products failed to show an actionable claim under the CPPA.

Further, on May 20, 2019, CFI filed a complaint against Walmart seeking declaratory, injunctive and monetary relief that is almost identical to its complaint against CVS. The opinion states that this complaint was also dismissed because CFI is not “organized and operating . . . for the purpose of promoting interests or rights of consumers” and therefore does not have standing under the CPPA. 

The court states that CFI timely appealed both judgements dismissing the case, and the D.C. Court of Appeals granted a motion to consolidate the appeals leading to the present action. 

Reviewing the lower court decisions de novo, the D.C. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decisions holding that CFI did not qualify as a nonprofit organization or public interest organization under the CPPA. The court stated that the recent opinion in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Hormel, informed its finding that CFI’s activities “align with consumers’ interests” adequate enough to grant standing under the CPPA. 

Additionally, the court stated it disagreed with the lower court’s holding that CFI failed to state a claim. The court held that CVS and Walmart’s marketing, labeling and placement of homeopathic products constitutes an actionable representation under the CPPA. Further, the court held that the question of whether the complained-of practices have a tendency to mislead reasonable consumers is a jury question. 

Accordingly, the court reversed the judgments of the lower court and remanded the cases for further proceedings.