Spencer Sheehan, a New York lawyer with Sheehan & Associates PC, has appeared frequently in court and in Law Street Media. The cases often concern what Sheehan described as small instances of consumer harm, where people are not likely to “make a big fuss.” His various lawsuits address many food issues including undisclosed artificial flavors, products which don’t accurately represent their main ingredients, items advertised as “lightly sweet” which contain a large amount of sugar, products which falsely claim to be produced in a certain area or through a certain method, and vanilla products which use mostly or all artificial vanilla.
Sheehan explained to Law Street that there are some issues that only a small percentage of consumers encounter, usually those who use a product frequently. He explained that companies will find solutions for the most prevalent problems leaving those with less prevalent problems left out and unable to get their issues addressed.
“Unfortunately in any system we have various businesses competing that are independent, you’re always going to have one or at least one or more entities that seek to maybe push the envelope, save a few pennies on each item by let’s say using just a little bit less of the real valuable ingredient.”
Sheehan said he filed his first few cases related to food fraud around 2012 and 2013, but he began exclusively focusing on it around 2018, following his longlasting interest in small harm class-action lawsuits. The volume of lawsuits filed by Sheehan has trended upwards in the last two years as he addresses additional products and becomes more familiar with the bumps he will encounter. Recently, he has filed an average of between 2 and 3 lawsuits each week regarding fraud.
Defendants in these lawsuits include companies producing butter products, almond milk, lemon-flavored cookies, cheese, vanilla ice cream, and many others. Sheehan said that he is hoping to diversify further into other types of goods, although he said that keeping a specialization does lead to better efficiency. He filed one camera case last year, and filed another in March against Sony. The firm also filed at least one lawsuit relating to pharmaceuticals.
Just over 5,000 lawsuits have been filed in federal courts under PACER’s fraud category since the beginning of 2019 until April 7, according to Docket Alarm’s data. These filings are fairly consistent, with an average of about 6 lawsuits filed each day.
The most common food company found by Docket Alarm’s data as a defendant under the fraud category is Gerber Products, which received multiple recent fraud lawsuits along with other baby food companies due to allegations that baby food contains small amounts of harmful metals. Sheehan represents the plaintiffs in some of these lawsuits against The Hain Celestial Group and Beech-Nut Nutrition Company.
Spencer Sheehan and his firm, Sheehan & Associates, have filed the most lawsuits in this category, according to analytics, although they have only filed roughly 5% of the fraud lawsuits in federal courts in the last few years. Bursor & Fisher, a firm which has represented plaintiffs in lawsuits related to food, robocallers, guns, and cruises, has filed about 100 fewer fraud lawsuits than Sheehan & Associates in federal courts. The third firm on the list, Greenberg Traurig, has filed less than one third of the amount of lawsuits filed by Sheehan & Associates This fact is even more significant when considering that Sheehan & Associates currently has only three attorneys on staff, while the other firms have dozens.
Spencer Sheehan, who has up to this point mostly filed lawsuits against food companies, has become very prominent compared to other lawyers when considering the last two years of district court fraud lawsuits. He filed 256 such lawsuits from the beginning of 2019 through April 7. The lawyer with the next highest volume, Michael Reese, filed 74. Sheehan noted that some of Reese’s lawsuits could be ones which he was listed on as well because the two have worked together on some cases.
Spencer Sheehan’s Lawsuits
Sheehan files about 2.2 fraud lawsuits a week during the time period considered which fall under and the average has been increasing in recent months, to 2.7. These fraud suits constitute the majority of Sheehan’s litigation activity.
Sheehan said that he is aware of his prominence in food fraud lawsuits, and has seen himself referred to in other legal cases and publications. He also said he has been personally attacked as someone who files a lot of similar cases, specifically relating to all of the vanilla lawsuits he has been involved in. He cited a specific instance where a company referred to “Mr. Sheehan’s frivolous cases,” and said that he contacted the other attorney, but later realized that filing a lot of cases is not necessarily negative, and could be desirable.
“I don’t think it affects any judge … but it’s often framed at least by the defendant as ‘Oh, this one crazy guy with his vanilla theory,’” Sheehan said. “I know that doesn’t in and of itself discredit (a lawsuit) … but it would be nice at least to not be the only one out there.” Sheehan explained that getting these food-based fraud lawsuits before more judges and courts, as well as getting more lawyers to file them, could help the matter have more diversity and lead to more successes.
Most of the lawsuits filed by Sheehan are located in the New York Southern District Court, which has heard 148 of his lawsuits, and the New York Eastern District Court, which has heard 82 of the lawsuits. Sheehan has also filed multiple lawsuits in the California Northern District Court and the Illinois Northern District Court, 12 and 6 respectively, during the last few years.
Sheehan’s lawsuits are spread before different judges, the judge with the highest number of cases is Nelson Stephen Roman of the New York Southern District Court. Cathy Seibel of the same court has heard only two fewer lawsuits.
Although Sheehan has seen some success and settled some lawsuits, he said he is also used to losing. “I lose a lot more than most people … that’s another thing that I’ve come to accept, although that’s never really fun,” Sheehan said.
He also explained that because most of his cases are pleaded as class action matters, even a positive outcome for the main plaintiff could be viewed as a negative outcome because it doesn’t help others dealing with the problem, as winning a class-wide settlement presents even more challenges. Sheehan said he has learned not to take early successes for granted in a case, citing a recent dismissal in a lawsuit he filed against McDonalds regarding their vanilla cones which he initially thought was going well for the plaintiff. He said although the judge said they could modify the action and file again, he does not know if they will do that, citing that in his experience it is rare for a judge to change their minds.
Sheehan has received success in some class action lawsuits, in one lawsuit, Cicciarella v. Califia Farms LLC, the parties reached a class-wide settlement which was given approval by the New York Southern District Court. Califia farms was accused in the matter of using artificial vanilla in its vanilla almond milk, but not representing that to consumers. Sheehan said that another vanilla lawsuit against Blue Almond is in the process of settling, and other vanilla lawsuits against A&W and Bryers are working towards a settlement.
While many of Sheehan’s suits remain unresolved, his unique approach has resulted in creating a reputation for himself in the courtroom, and catapulting his practice above many larger firms onto the top of law firm analytics charts for fraud cases. The rise in food-related fraud litigation, led by Sheehan, could eventually lead to companies being more cautious with the claims they put on packaging and more correct labels. Sheehan told Law Street this outcome would make him happy, despite the possibility of that making it harder for him to find clients.