A federal appeals court has refused to reopen a lawsuit filed by a retirement system for Hawaii’s public-sector workers that claimed it was defrauded by Whole Foods Market when the upscale grocery chain became ensnared in an overpricing scandal.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, sitting in New Orleans, said on Oct. 3 that the retirement fund, the Employees’ Retirement System of the State of Hawaii, could not demonstrate that it suffered financial harm when it invested in Whole Foods.
The lawsuit had been dismissed by U.S. District Judge Earl Yeakel III, sitting in the Western District of Texas. Whole Foods, which specializes in organic products, is based in Austin.
“[T]he plaintiffs fail to allege that Whole Foods’ true prices were not comparable to its competitors’ prices or were otherwise unattractive to consumers,” said Senior Fifth Circuit Judge Carolyn King, writing for the panel. Judges Jennifer Elrod and Catharina Haynes joined in the ruling.
The dispute began in 2013 and continued until 2015 when separate investigations in California and New York City determined that Whole Foods was charging customers for tare weight—that is, the weight of packaging materials—and not disclosing the practice.
Eventually, Whole Foods paid $800,000 in fines and penalties in California to settle fraud claims.
In New York City, officials at the city’s Division of Consumer Affairs labeled the grocer’s practices as “the worse case of mislabeling … they [had] seen in their careers.”
Whole Foods’ co-CEOs John Mackey and Walter Robb posted a video on the company’s website admitting that the company “made some mistakes” and promised to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.
The company faced a slew of lawsuits from consumers alleging they had been overcharged.
The Hawaii retirement system, in its lawsuit, alleged that investments were harmed because Whole Foods’ revenues dropped and that, after executives made statements about the company’s value that later turned out to be untrue, caused the company’s stock value to drop.
But the appeals court agreed with the trial judge that the retirement fund failed to show that it had actually been harmed by the company’s actions.
“They [Whole Foods officials] did not cause the plaintiff’s loss,” King said.
The retirement fund was represented by Susan Alexander, of the San Francisco office of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd. She did not return a telephone call.
Gregory Casas, of the Austin office of Greenberg Traurig, represented Whole Foods. He declined to comment.