Ninth Circuit Holds Plaintiffs Not Entitled To Equitable Restitution Under UCL/CLRA If Adequate Remedy At Law Is Available

Published date03 July 2020
Subject MatterConsumer Protection, Dodd-Frank, Consumer Protection Act
Law FirmMorrison & Foerster LLP
AuthorMs Jessica L Grant and Anastasiya V. Menshikova

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit held that state law cannot expand or confine a federal court's power to issue equitable restitution because federal courts are bound by traditional equitable principles, which require, among other things, a showing of an inadequate remedy at law. Thus, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court's dismissal of plaintiff's claims for restitution where she failed to establish an inadequate legal remedy.1

Plaintiff sought to avoid a jury trial by voluntarily dismissing her damages claim and instead seeking to try her equitable restitution claims to the court.

Plaintiff Kathleen Sonner ("Sonner" or "plaintiff") represented a certified class of California consumers who claimed that Premier's Joint Juice did not provide the advertised joint health benefits. Plaintiff sought damages under the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), restitution under California's Unfair Competition Law (UCL) and the CLRA, and injunctive relief under the UCL and CLRA.

After more than four years of litigation and on the eve of trial, Sonner sought leave to amend to voluntarily dismiss her CLRA claim for damages and proceed solely with claims for equitable restitution under the UCL and CLRA. The unorthodox move to dismiss a claim for money damages was motivated by plaintiff counsel's desire to avoid a jury trial in favor of a bench trial. Plaintiff's counsel advised the district court that it would continue to seek the same $32 million in equitable restitution that it sought as money damages under the CLRA. Premier opposed plaintiff's eleventh-hour maneuver on the grounds that she had an adequate remedy at law (money damages under the CLRA) so plaintiff was prohibited from seeking equitable restitution. Premier advised the court that, if plaintiff were granted leave to amend, Premier would move to dismiss the equitable restitution claims.

Although the district court granted plaintiff leave to file an amended complaint and vacated the jury trial, the judge strongly cautioned plaintiff's counsel that if he ultimately granted Premier's motion to dismiss, he would not allow plaintiff to amend her complaint for a third time to reallege the previously dismissed CLRA damages claim. Plaintiff's counsel disregarded the district court's warning and filed an amended complaint that only contained claims for equitable relief.

Premier moved to dismiss the restitution claims pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that Sonner needed to'but...

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