Court Opinions: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinions for Feb. 15

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals

Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.

Renfro, et al. v. Champion Petfoods USA, et al. 

A group of pet owners brought a class action against Champion Petfoods USA, Inc., alleging representations on Champion’s packaging on its Acana and Orijen brands of dog food were false and misleading.

Champion, a pet food producer located in Auburn, Kentucky, manufactures pet food that is distributed throughout the U.S. It launched a food brand called Acana in the 1990s, and in 2006 another called Orijen. Champion’s Orijen brand was aimed at offering a premium product to consumers that would mirror foods dogs might encounter in the wild. Champion marketed Orijen as “Biologically Appropriate” dog food that contained the “richness, freshness, and variety” of meats dogs were “evolved to eat.”

Champion later employed the same nutritional philosophy with its Acana brand as well. The food packaging reflected this branding. For example, on Orijen bags, the packaging explained that “Biologically Appropriate” meant that the food would “nourish as nature intended.” The Orijen packaging also advertised it was “Trusted Everywhere” and contained “Fresh Regional Ingredients” “Grown Close to Home” that were “ethically raised by people we know and trust[.]”

On the packaging of certain dog food formulas, Champion made more specific claims. For example, on the packaging of the Orijen Six Fish formula, Champion listed the approximate amount of each fish included by weight. Champion noted that some of the fish — such as the wild monkfish and wild Alaskan cod — were fresh or raw, while other fish included were fresh, raw or dried. And it also noted that only 11 of the 13 pounds in the bag were fish.

Unrelated to its packaging advertising, Champion was notified in 2018 by the Food and Drug Administration that some of the beef fat it used in certain pet food formulas had been contaminated with pentobarbital, a controlled substance. But none of the dog foods purchased by the plaintiffs in this case contained ingredients tainted with pentobarbital.

The district court dismissed the pet owners’ claims as either “unactionable puffery” or overly subjective and therefore not materially misleading to a reasonable consumer.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the district court that the pet owners failed to allege materially false or misleading statements on Champion’s packaging because the phrases wouldn’t deceive or mislead reasonable consumers on any material fact. The court affirmed the district court’s grant of Champion’s motion to dismiss.

Litzsinger v. Adams County Coroner’s Office

Tiffany Litzsinger worked for the Adams County Coroner’s Office from 2013 until she was terminated in 2018. During her employment with the coroner’s office, Litzsinger suffered from anxiety and depression, both of which worsened in the months leading up to her termination. 

After an anxiety episode, Adams County granted Litzsinger temporary leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. When Litzsinger returned from her FMLA leave, the coroner placed Litzsinger on probation for myriad violations of workplace policies including reports that she excessively used the internet for personal reasons at work, submitted fraudulent timesheets and failed regularly to meet deadlines. Shortly after Litzsinger’s probation began, the coroner terminated Litzsinger for violating the terms of her probation. Litzsinger sued the Adams County Coroner’s Office under the FMLA and Americans with Disabilities Act, claiming the coroner terminated her in retaliation for exercising her rights under both statutes. 

The district court granted summary judgment for the Coroner’s Office because Litzsinger failed to demonstrate that the coroner’s reason for terminating her was pretextual. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, concluding that a rational jury couldn’t find that the coroner’s proffered reason for firing Litzsinger was pretextual.

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