isn’t it good? mahogany wood isn’t always mahogany

Golden v. Home Depot, U.S.A, Inc., 2018 WL 2441580, No. 18-cv-00033-LJO-JLT
(E.D. Cal. May 31, 2018)
According to the complaint, authentic mahogany is prized for
its beauty, durability, color, and ease of use in woodworking. It has a
reddish-brown color, darkens over time, and displays a reddish sheen when
polished, and is the wood of several species of trees in the Meliaceae family.
Home Depot advertises, markets, and sells as mahogany some species of
eucalyptus from the Myrtaceae family, commonly known as “Swamp mahogany.” Swamp
mahogany is denser and more difficult to work with than authentic mahogany.
Home Depot also markets Ecualyptus resinifera wood as “Red mahogany” and wood
of the Myroxylon balsamum, a tree in the Fabaceae family, as “Santos mahogany,”
and this is heavier than authentic mahogany and more difficult to work with.
Home Depot discloses the species of some types of wood that
it sells online, but not the species of its mahogany products. “Knowing the
species is important in determining the quality of the wood, and influences
factors including workability, durability, and resistance to rot.” Home Depot instead
advertises that the mahogany board it sells online and in stores is “premium”
and “finest grade.”
Golden bought wood sold as mahogany board. Unnamed employees
of Home Depot told him that he was purchasing “authentic, genuine mahogany,” but
they were in fact made of less valuable Swamp mahogany. He brought the usual
California claims.
The court declined to take judicial notice of definitions
used in various websites submitted by Home Depot.  Although the complaint quoted Woodworkers
Source, a website primarily selling mahogany and other hardwoods and also
hosting FAQs, a blog, and other informational resources for lumber buyers,
citing one page of that site didn’t open the door to treating unrelated
portions of the website as subject to judicial notice.  “The meaning of a disputed term in trade or
common usage is precisely the factual question that is at the heart of this
matter, that is, whether Defendant’s lumber labeling practices were false or
misleading to consumers.”  At the motion
to dismiss stage, the court declined to look to dictionaries or trade and
industry usage to determine the meaning of words.
The court found that the complaint satisfied Rule 9(b) with
sufficiently detailed allegations about the characteristics of wood from
different trees to conclude that genuine mahogany was a different product in
important ways from Swamp, Santos, and Red mahogany; thus, labeling such
species as “mahogany” was false.  The
allegations of oral representations were also specific enough; a plaintiff
alleging fraud “need not name the specific employee who made the misleading
representation when it would be unrealistic to expect a customer to recall that
detail,” and he alleged the approximate time and place of the transaction, as
well as the nature of the misrepresentation.  He also alleged reliance on written
representations in stores and online.  He
was not required to allege justifiable reliance, which is an element of common
law fraud but not consumer protection claims, defeating Home Depot’s argument
that the wood was too cheap for him to have believed he was buying real
Home Depot argued no law or regulation required it to label
its wood otheriwse, that its use of the word conformed with common usage, and
that the lumber industry commonly labels and sells a variety of woods as
mahogany. And its descriptions of its lumber as “premium” and “finest grade” were,
it argued, mere puffery.
But the alleged differences between genuine mahogany and
Swamp, Santos, and Red mahogany were extensive, and it was plausible that a reasonable
consumer could be deceived.  As for “premium”
and “finest grade,” they might be puffery in some contexts, but Golden wasn’t
claiming deception based only on the use of those adjectives. His argument was
that, in this context, the words “premium” and “finest grade” supported
consumers’ impressions that they were purchasing a more valuable or useful type
of wood than they actually did, which could have misled a reasonable consumer.
Likewise, Golden pled an actionable omission under the CLRA
because of the related affirmative representation that the products were
mahogany, without disclosing the actual species. However, negligent
misrepresentation claims failed because those require more than economic loss,
which was all that Golden pled.
The court also rejected Home Depot’s argument that Golden
lacked standing as to unpurchased products made of other species but also
labeled mahogany. The court applied a “substantially similar” standard, as the
majority of 9th Circuit courts do. 
“Even though Swamp, Santos, and Red mahoganies are alleged to come from
different trees, and the purchased and unpurchased products are therefore not
identical in composition, the type of misrepresentation alleged is common to
all three products. The types of harm are also the same for all of the named
products.” Thus, Golden had standing.

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