Hot gas. This is not a term of art describing oral argument. It literally refers to gasoline, and its propensity to expand as it gets warmer. In Klein v. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. (January 25, 2012), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) dispensed wisdom, a drop at a time, about the viability of claims related to hot gas. Before I pump up this case any more, allow me to fuel your appetite with some background. After that we'll motor on to the significant holdings.
How does hot gas work again? The Court explained:
Motor fuel expands in volume as it is heated. As a result of this thermal expansion, a gallon of motor fuel at a warmer temperature has less mass and less energy content than a gallon of motor fuel at a cooler temperature. A temperature increase of 15 degrees causes motor fuel to expand in volume by approximately one percent, with a corresponding one percent decrease in energy output. For example, when 231 cubic inches of motor fuel, which equals one volumetric gallon, is heated from 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, the motor fuel will expand to occupy a volume of approximately 233 cubic inches.
Slip op., at 4. Ahh. Anyhow, after a lot of discussion about regulations, and how fuel must be temperature adjusted if sold in amounts about 5,000 gallons, the Court turned to the theories impacted by the trial court's rulings on a demmurer and motion for judgment on the pleadings.
First, the Court held that the trial court erred when it dismissed the plaintiffs' claims arising under the CLRA and UCL:
Chevron's arguments are predicated on the assumption that the only possible form of relief in this case is a court order mandating that Chevron offer its retail consumers temperature-adjusted motor fuel through the implementation of ATC technology or other similar technologies. The plaintiffs' complaint, however, seeks other relief, including a disclosure requirement that, if granted, might not require substantial changes to the way Chevron currently sells motor fuel at the retail level.
Slip op., at 26. That "other relief" mentioned by the Court includes injunctive relief compelling disclosure to consumers. The Court next concluded that no alternative means exist for addressing the plaintiffs' issues. On that basis, the Court concluded that judicial abstention was improper.
The Court then turned to specific claims, beginning with a half-hearted standing challenge. The Court wasn't impressed: "Chevron concedes that, at the pleading stage, a plaintiff asserting a UCL or CLRA claim 'satisfies its burden of demonstrating standing by alleging an economic injury.' (Boschma v. Home Loan Center, Inc. (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 230, 254.)" Slip op., at 35. (Had to get that Boschma cite in there - my colleague, J. Mark Moore, argued that appeal.)
Next, the Court tackled the prongs of the UCL, beginning with the "unfair" prong:
At the pleading stage, we cannot presume that these alleged harms are not “substantial” or are otherwise outweighed by benefits that consumers derive from Chevron's practice of selling non-temperature adjusted motor fuel at the retail level. (Camacho, supra, 142 Cal.App.4th at p. 1403.) Although the evidence in this case may show that consumers do not suffer any substantial injury from the sale of nontemperature adjusted fuel or that the costs associated with remedying such injuries outweigh any benefit to consumers, we agree with the trial court‟s conclusion that such issues must “be determined on a developed factual basis.”
Slip op., at 37. Chevron argued that it was not obligated to pass along or disclose its profit margins. The Court distinguished Chevron's authority:
There are, however, important distinctions between this case and McCann. First, the holding in McCann has no relevance to plaintiffs' claim that, by selling non-temperature adjusted fuel at retail, Chevron is able to charge consumers more in purported motor fuel tax than it is required to pay to the government. Plaintiffs' tax-based claim has nothing to do with Chevron's failure to disclose its profit margins or the price at which it procures motor fuel at wholesale.
Second, unlike in McCann, the “gist” of plaintiffs‟ unfairness claim is not that Chevron was required to “disclose their own costs or profit margins” to consumers. (McCann, supra, 129 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1387, 1395 [“gist” of plaintiff's claim was that defendant “fails to disclose . . . that it gets a more advantageous rate of exchange on the wholesale market than it gives the customer”].) Instead, plaintiffs argue that, by failing to compensate for temperature variations in retail motor fuel, Chevron is engaging in a practice that misleads consumers as to the actual amount of motor fuel they are purchasing and the actual price that they are paying for that fuel. By contrast, the plaintiffs in McCann were informed of the specific exchange rate they would receive in their retail transactions (id. at p. 1382), but argued that the money transmitter had a duty to disclose the more favorable wholesale rate at which it was able to purchase foreign currency and pass those benefits on to consumers.
Were plaintiffs in this case simply alleging that Chevron had a duty to disclose the price at which it procured motor fuel at wholesale, McCann might foreclose such a claim. However, nothing in McCann suggests that the UCL does not, as a matter of law, apply to conduct that allows a retailer to charge more in taxes than it is required to pay to the government or to obscure the true cost of goods at retail.
Slip op., at 39. The Court then dismantled a "safe harbor" argument, explaining that the "safe harbor" statute must "explictly" prohibit liability for the conduct. Chevron's attempt to fashion a "safe harbor" by implication was rejected.
The Court then concluded that plaintiffs stated a claim under the "fraudulent" prong:
At the pleadings stage, we cannot say, as a matter of law, that consumers are not likely to be deceived in the manner alleged by plaintiffs. As the trial court observed, plaintiffs have alleged “facts which, if true, may reveal that members of the public . . . [assumed] that . . . they were receiving standardized units of motor fuel when, in fact, the energy content of each gallon depended on the temperature of the motor fuel at the time of purchase.” Plaintiffs have also alleged facts that, if true, may reveal that consumers were deceived as to the true price of motor fuel, which may vary depending on the temperature at which it is sold.
Slip op., at 43. The Court distinguished Bardin v. Daimlerchrysler Corp. (2006) 136 Cal.App.4th 1255 on the ground that the plaintiffs alleged a specific expectation in the public about what they receive at a gasoline pump. Following that discussion, the Court immediately turned to the CLRA, noting that conduct which is "fraudulent" under the UCL also violates the CLRA. And, stay with me here, since the plaintiffs stated a claim under the CLRA, based on the same deceptive conduct that satisfied a UCL "fraudulent" claim, they, by definition, stated a UCL claim under the "unlawful" prong, since it borrows the CLRA violation. Presto.
The breach of contract and unjust enrichment claims didn't do so well. Saved you eight pages of reading right there.
And to think that I was not impressed with the "hot gas" theory when I heard it years ago. What was I thinking?