B. SANFIELD, INC. v. FINLAY FINE JEWELRY CORP. No. 98-1873.
168 F.3d 967 (1999)
B. SANFIELD, INC., Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FINLAY FINE JEWELRY CORP., Defendant-Appellee.
United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.
Decided February 17, 1999.
Jacqueline M. Zydeck, Office of Attorney General, Civil Appeals Division, Chicago, IL, for Amicus Curiae.
Before COFFEY, ROVNER, and EVANS, Circuit Judges.
B. Sanfield, Incorporated, and Finlay Fine Jewelry Corporation both purvey fine jewelry to the public in Rockford, Illinois. Sanfield filed suit against Finlay alleging that Finlay's practice of advertising its jewelry at discounts of 40 to 60 percent off the regular price constitutes deceptive advertising under section 2 of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act, 815 ILCS 505/2, and section 43(a) the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), because the "regular" price is, for practical purposes, a fiction. See F.T.C. v. Colgate-Palmolive Co.,
Sanfield is a locally-owned retailer. At its one and only store in Rockford, it offers jewelry, floral arrangements, plants, and other gifts for sale to the public. Finlay is a nationwide retailer that also sells jewelry to the public. It does so through fine jewelry departments that it leases from host department stores such as Bergner's, which has thirteen stores in Illinois, including two in Rockford.
Among other items, Sanfield and Finlay each sell gold earrings, gold chains, gold bangles, and gold charms; and this suit centers upon Finlay's efforts to advertise and promote the sale of those four categories of jewelry. Although Finlay prices these items in the first instance at about 5.5 times their cost, it frequently offers them for sale at 40 to 60 percent off the original price, with 50 percent being the most common discount. In fact, Finlay sells the vast majority of these types of jewelry in Rockford at the discounted, rather than the original price. See R. 183 Ex. 77 ¶¶ 9, 10.
The premise of Sanfield's suit is that the "regular" price that Finley sets for its gold earrings, chains, bangles, and charms is a sham. Finlay sets the original price high, Sanfield alleges, with no expectation that it will make substantial sales at that price. The truly regular price is, in practice, the discounted price. Yet, Sanfield emphasizes, although reduced, even the discounted price of a given piece of Finlay jewelry may in fact be substantially higher than the regular, nondiscounted price at which other retailers, including Sanfield, customarily offer that same item. Rational consumers who take the time to price shop would, of course, opt to buy the jewelry at the regular prices offered by the other retailers. Sanfield believes, however, that "50 percent off" has such an alluring ring that many consumers are misled into thinking that Finlay's sale prices are really better than the non-discounted prices at which Sanfield offers its own jewelry. As a result, customers are enticed away from Sanfield.
Consistent with Sanfield's theory, state and federal regulations (which we will set out in full below) both recognize the possibility that the advertising and promotion of discount prices can be deceptive. Like a number of other states, Illinois has adopted a regulation which provides that it is deceptive for a seller to compare the discounted price of an item with the regular price, unless the seller has either (1) sold a substantial number of that item at a price equal to or greater than the regular price or (2) has offered the item openly and actively at the regular price for a reasonably substantial time in good faith with the genuine intent of selling the item at that price. 14 Ill. Admin. Code § 470.220; see generally Alan M. Komensky & Mark D. Wegener, When is a Sale Not a Sale? State Regulation of Price Comparison Advertising, 5 ANTITRUST 28 (Summer 1991). The federal counterpart likewise recognizes the deceptive potential of advertising a reduction in a product's former price when the former price is fictitious; and it poses a similar question for the purpose of assessing whether the regular price is bona fide—has the seller in good faith offered the item at the regular price openly and actively for a
The district court did not consider either of these regulations in finding that Finlay's advertising is not deceptive. The district court found, at the outset of its analysis, that Finlay prices its jewelry with its gross margin goals foremost in mind: the company sets both a regular and discount price for each item simultaneously, and those prices are calculated to ensure that when the item is sold at a 50 percent discount, it still will yield the desired gross margin. 999 F.Supp. at 1105. Consistent with that focus, Finlay's sales records revealed only whether or not a given store was meeting its gross margin goals, not the number of items sold at the discounted versus the regular price. Id. The court was not disturbed, however, by the possibility that the "regular" price in this scenario might serve as little more than a benchmark for the "50 percent off" discounts at which the jewelry will typically be sold. "There is nothing inherent in the term `regular price,'" the court explained, "that suggests that defendant either sells those jewelry items at that price or that it offers them at that price for any particular period of time." Id. The court therefore rejected the notion that Finlay's advertisements and promotions might be deceptive per se to the extent that Finlay does not sell, or does not genuinely attempt to sell, its products at the putative "regular" prices. Id. Only if there were proof that consumers actually believe that Finlay regularly and in good faith offered its jewelry for sale at the regular price could one conclude that Finlay's advertising and promotional practices are deceptive, the court reasoned. Id. Sanfield offered some evidence on that score (as did Finlay), but the court found it insufficient to show that consumers were actually misled. Id. at 1105-08. Consequently, the court found that Sanfield had not carried its burden in establishing the first element of its claim under the Illinois consumer fraud statute—that Finlay had engaged in a deceptive act or practice (id. at 1107-08)—and the first and second elements of its Lanham Act claim— that Finlay had issued false or misleading advertisements which are actually deceiving or likely to deceive (id. at 1108-09). Having so concluded, the court believed it unnecessary to consider whether Finlay's ads comported with the state and federal regulations. Id. at 1108 n. 9.
The thrust of Sanfield's appeal is that the district court erred when it found Finlay's advertisements and promotions not to be deceptive without considering what the state and federal regulations have to say on that subject. Sanfield is joined in that argument by the Illinois Attorney General, who has filed a brief as a friend of the court. As this argument challenges the legal principles that the court applied to the facts, our review is de novo. E.g., Kidd v. Illinois State Police,
To make a case under the Illinois act,
Exercising the regulatory authority granted him by the consumer fraud act, 815 ILCS 505/4, the Illinois Attorney General has determined that "[t]he use of misleading price comparisons is injurious to both the consuming public and competitors and is an unfair or deceptive act and an unfair method of competition under Section 2 of the Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act . . . ." 14 Ill. Admin. Code § 470.110. The following regulation identifies the circumstances under which a seller's comparison of a discounted price to its own regular price amounts to a deceptive act for purposes of the statute:
14 Ill. Admin. Code § 470.220. This regulation has the force of law in Illinois. See 815 ILCS 505/4.
Under the federal Lanham Act, which generally proscribes the false description of goods and their origins,
Congress has empowered the Federal Trade Commission to prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce. 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2); see also id. § 46. Toward that end, the FTC has published a series of guidelines addressing deceptive pricing. 16 C.F.R. Pt. 233. Although they are not "as stringent or detailed" as some of the state initiatives in this area, these guidelines have served as "the benchmark standard" for more than thirty years. See When is a Sale Not a Sale?, supra, 5 ANTITRUST at 29. Like the Illinois regulations, the federal provisions offer specific guidance as to when comparisons between the discount and regular price of an article are deceptive:
16 C.F.R. § 233.1.
Taking its cue from these regulatory provisions,
The district court thought that it did not need to consider either regulation. The court appeared to understand these regulations as pertinent only to the affirmative defense Finlay had raised against Sanfield's state and federal claims. (Finlay asserted that because it had periodically and in good faith offered its jewelry for sale at the "regular" price, and so on, the advertised discounts were not misleading.) Of course, having concluded that Sanfield lacked proof that Finlay's advertised discounts were deceptive, the district court did not need to reach Finlay's affirmative defense. And so, the court reasoned, the state and federal regulations were immaterial to resolution of the case. 999 F.Supp. at 1108 n. 9.
Because the regulations offer substantial guidance as to the very type of discount advertising at issue in this suit, however, the court erred in failing to consider them. The regulations do not simply offer the defendant safe harbor against a charge of deceptive advertising; they essentially define the circumstances under which the advertising of a discount price is deceptive. The state provision, having been given the force of law by the Illinois legislature, see 815 ILCS 505/4, is binding on the court. United Consumers Club, Inc. v. Attorney General,
We reject Finlay's suggestion that the district court was not required to address these regulations because Sanfield's complaint did not cite them. Finlay Br. 24. Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires "a short and plain statement of the claim"; it does not require the plaintiff to plead legal theories. E.g., Goren v. New Vision Int'l, Inc.,
Indeed, portions of the court's analysis stand in evident tension with the regulatory analysis. Perhaps the most obvious example is the court's observation that "[t]here is nothing inherent in the term `regular price' . . . suggest[ing] that defendant either sells those jewelry items at that price or that it offers them at that price for any particular period of time." 999 F.Supp. at 1105. That assessment is nigh impossible to reconcile with either the state or the federal regulation, each of which indicates that an advertised comparison to the regular price is deceptive if the advertiser does not make, or does not genuinely try to make, substantial sales of the product at that price. Both provisions, in other words, presume that the term "regular price" does have an inherent meaning in terms of the sales made or attempted at that price. The court also remarked:
Id. That logic departs from the state and federal provisions in two important ways. Like the court's observation as to the inherent meaning of the term "regular price," it disregards the judgment of state and federal regulators as to the deceptive potential of that term. The Illinois regulation, for example, does not simply suggest that a comparison to the regular price might be misleading if substantial sales have not been made or attempted at that price, it unequivocally provides that the comparison is misleading unless one of those criteria is met. 14 Ill. Admin. Code § 470.220. Moreover, in elevating subjective consumer perceptions to preeminence, the court's approach appears to demand proof of actual consumer deception before an act is deemed deceptive. To that extent, it is at least in part inconsistent with the federal and state statutes alike, neither of which (as we have already noted) focuses strictly on actual perception to the exclusion of practices which are likely to mislead. See 815 ILCS § 505/2 (declaring unfair or deceptive acts unlawful regardless of "whether any person has in fact been misled, deceived or damaged thereby"); United Indus. Corp. v.
We are obliged, consequently, to remand the case to the district court for reconsideration of the evidence in light of the state and federal regulations. Those provisions speak directly to the type of promotions at issue here. Reflecting as they do the considered judgment of the Illinois Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission as to what is likely to deceive consumers, Colgate-Palmolive, 380 U.S. at 385, 85 S.Ct. at 1042-43, they should serve as the starting, if not the ending, point of the court's analysis.
Finlay urges us to affirm the judgment on the alternative ground that Sanfield produced no proof that it was injured as a result of the alleged deception. The Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act grants a private right of action only to a person "who suffers actual damage as a result of a violation of this Act." 815 ILCS 505/10a(a). Therefore, although the Illinois Attorney General can file suit in an effort to stop deceptive advertising without having to prove that anyone has actually been injured, the private plaintiff must establish an injury attributable to the statutory violation. Ryan v. Wersi Electronic GmbH & Co.,
Finlay's argument may or may not have merit, but the district court is best situated to address it in the first instance. The court found it unnecessary to reach the question of injury given its resolution of the case on other elements of Sanfield's claims. See 999 F.Supp. at 1109. However, in denying Finlay's motion for judgment as a matter of law at the close of Sanfield's case, see FED. R.CIV.P. 52(c), the court did find that Sanfield had presented sufficient evidence on all elements of its claims. See R. 168; Tr. 551-52; see also Tr. 746, 752. Obviously, then, the district court was at least preliminarily
The judgment below is VACATED and the case is REMANDED for further consideration consistent with the foregoing opinion.
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