A New Year’s Toast for the Vanilla Vigilante

It was a rocky year for attorney Spencer Sheehan, who has changed the food and beverage litigation landscape.

Alston & Bird

January 17, 2024

3 Min Read
asife, Getty Images/iStockphoto

There is no denying that attorney Spencer Sheehan has changed the food and beverage litigation landscape. There also no denying that Sheehan’s 2023 has been one of his most up and down years in recent memory.

Affectionately dubbed the “Vanilla Vigilante,” Sheehan has led the crusade against hundreds of food and beverage products. The multiyear litigation filing spree caught the eye of the mainstream media, with The New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New York Post covering Sheehan’s work in 2023. If Sheehan has a publicist, they deserve a raise (or at least a subscription to the jelly of the month club) because none of this coverage has mentioned the 2023 headwinds for Sheehan.

It’s no secret that Sheehan is on the naughty list. See Santiful v. Wegmans Food Markets Inc., No. 7:20-cv-02933 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 28, 2022); Karlinski v. Costco Wholesale Corp., No. 1:21-cv-03813 (N.D. Ill. July 21, 2022); and Matthews v. Polar Corp., No. 1:22-cv-00649 (N.D. Ill. Mar. 22, 2023). Then 2023 closed with Sheehan facing little cheer and a lot of disgruntlements both from the bench and from defendants he has sued.

New York federal court makes a case against Sheehan.

In Brownwell v. Starbucks Coffee Co., a New York federal court issued a show-cause order to Sheehan why it should not sanction him for pursuing frivolous litigation after it dismissed allegations about added potassium in coffee that were based on little more than a hunch and a vague reference to “laboratory analysis.” In response to the show-cause order, Sheehan first submitted a five-page letter brief, only to engage separate legal counsel to file another five-page letter as a supplemental submission.

Not buying Sheehan’s cup of holiday cheer, the district court held him in contempt for filing a “complaint without any studies, relevant caselaw, or reasonable interpretations of the wording on the Product label to support the allegations contained within.” Savoring one morsel of good news — the court reserved decision on the nature of the final sanctions.

During this action, a defendant in another Sheehan-led case (Ashley Furniture) filed an amicus brief against Sheehan. It seems, however, that the sanctions order didn’t create quite enough holiday magic for the furniture company, so it filed a lawsuit against Sheehan for malicious prosecution. The case alleges that Sheehan “failed to conduct even a cursory investigation before making [the] false allegations” when he initiated a multistate putative class action based on an extended warranty that had nothing to do with the furniture manufacturer. The furniture manufacturer seeks to recover over $100,000 in legal fees it incurred in preparing a motion to dismiss the Sheehan-filed complaint.

With a hopeful eye on the new year, we would be remiss in not raising a toast befitting Sheehan’s truly roller coaster year (and his recent interest in Napoleon Bonaparte), who said “In victory, you deserve Champagne, in defeat, you need it.”

Referenced cases: Brownell v. Starbucks Coffee Co., No. 5:22-cv-01199 (N.D.N.Y. Nov. 30, 2023); Ashley Furniture Industries LLC v. Sheehan, No. 188052803 (Fl. Cir. Ct. Dec. 14, 2023).

This report is from an Alston & Bird debriefing selected by Packaging Digest with permission from the international law firm. This article and others can be seen in the firm’s recently published 14-page Food & Beverage Digest December 2023 online issue that features briefs on New Lawsuits Filed, Motions to Dismiss, Class Certification, Appeals, and Voluntary Dismissals.

About the Author(s)

Alston & Bird

Alston & Bird

Alston & Bird is an international law firm that practice across a wide range of industries—locally, nationally, and globally. It employs more than  800 lawyers in 13 offices throughout the United States, Europe, the UK, and Asia. The firm provides legal services to both domestic and international clients who conduct business worldwide. These services include issues related to corporate & finance, intellectual property, litigation, tax, regulatory and specialty.

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