HERBALIFE: BELGIAN APPEAL COURT: HERBALIFE IS NO PYRAMID: VALIDATES LEGITIMACY
The Next Chapter in Recognition of Personal Use
BY JEFFREY A. BABENER
Like the Pine Trees lining the winding road, I got a name ... Jim Croce
And that Name is not "Pyramid."
So says a Belgian Appeal Court about American direct selling/network marketing company, Herbalife, a company with thousands of distributors in more than 80 countries.
In a ruling, December 2, 2013, the Court of Appeal in Brussels, came down like a sledge hammer on a lower court ruling of November, 2011 by the Brussels Commercial Court.** (Test-Aankoop v. Herbalife International Belgium NV, A.R. 2004/7787). The Appeal Court categorically reversed a lower court finding that Herbalife was a pyramid. To the contrary, it found the company to be in compliance with Belgian law and non-binding guidance that it referenced from the European Directive on direct selling.
Although a European court ruling, the core issue of "recognition of validity of personal use by direct selling distributors" has dominated discussion about the legitimacy of direct selling companies in the U.S. and internationally for two decades, and the import of this case and its discussion cannot be underestimated in its potential impact on future U.S. and international cases which distinguish legitimate direct selling from pyramid schemes.
The Belgian Lawsuit and the Lower Court Ruling.
Based on a lawsuit brought by a nonprofit group, Test-Aankoop, in 2004, the lower court held Herbalife to be violative of Belgian law prohibiting pyramid schemes, the WMPC, the Belgian Law on Unfair Commercial Practices. The applicable pyramid law, as described by the Belgian Court of Appeal is as follows:
Herbalife argued that many downline distributors joined Herbalife to purchase product for personal use and, therefore, were end consumers. However, the lower court rejected that purchases by Herbalife downline distributors for personal use should be recognized as sales to end consumers, opining that they were really just merchants purchasing within the sales force system, and therefore Herbalife violated Belgian law and was a pyramid.
Rejecting that distributor purchases could constitute sales to end consumers, the lower court dismissed the Herbalife explanation of its system:
And that was the end of the story … at least for the lower court.
The Belgian Appeal Court: Herbalife is Not a Pyramid.
After a two-year appeal period, the Belgian Court of Appeal ruled that the lower court had it "all wrong." The Appeal Court ruling was unequivocal and unambiguous that Herbalife is a legitimate direct selling/network marketing/multilevel marketing business and that it is not a pyramid.
At the core of the decision was the Court of Appeal’s recognition of the legitimacy of personal use by distributors as a legitimate destination for product and basis for payment of direct sales commissions and indirect or override commissions on purchases by downline distributors.
A fundamental finding by the Court of Appeal was that commissions were, in fact, paid on product destined for end consumers, even if some of those consumers were distributors themselves. And the Court found that product, which was not sold to customers or used, was subject to return or buyback and that Herbalife adopted a clawback or reversal of commissions on returned product to make sure commissions were not paid on product that was not sold to customers or used by distributors. In other words, all product was accounted for, either as resold to customers, used for personal use or returned to the company, subject to a "clawback" of commissions.
As a result, the Court of Appeal held that the lower court was wrong in holding that commissions were not paid on sale or consumption of product. At several points in its decision, the Belgian Appeal Court reiterated multiple times its finding that "personal use" of product by distributors is a legitimate destination for product and payment of commissions:
Some Other Applause by the Court of Appeals for the Herbalife Business.
Although the holding on "recognition of personal use" is at the core of the Belgian Appeal Court decision, the Court went on to note several salutary observations of Herbalife’s business:
The Next Chapter in Personal Use.
The issue of recognition of distributor personal use, and its impact on legitimacy, has ebbed and flowed for two decades, since the 1990’s.
In fact, the Belgian lower court’s rejection of personal use and its decision that Herbalife was a pyramid, was an evidentiary poster child for hedge fund short sale critics who claimed, in 2012, that Herbalife stock was destined to be valueless. Obviously, the Appeal Court decision might require some rethinking on this point.
The Belgian Appeal Court decision seems to continue a legal trend toward recognition of personal use in legal cases which differentiate legitimate direct selling from pyramid schemes. The original precedent discussion of "end user" in pyramid cases dates to a 1975 FTC ruling involving a cosmetics company named Koscot, where it appeared that distributors were loaded with inventory and taught to find other distributors to do the same. In re Koscot Interplanetary Inc, 86 F.T.C. 1106 (1975). The program was held to be a pyramid. The Koscot analysis test for pyramid schemes (which is not that significantly different than the Belgian law in the Herbalife case) is that pyramid schemes: "are characterized by the payment by participants of money to the company in return for which they receive (1) the right to sell a product and (2) the right to receive in return for recruiting other participants into the program rewards which are unrelated to sale of the product to ultimate users."
A cloud over the direct selling industry appeared when a gratuitous statement in a 1996 Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision, Webster v. Omnitrition, 79 F.3d 776, called into question whether sales to distributors should fulfill the Koscot standard of sales to ultimate users, i.e., perhaps only sales to nondistributor retail customers should count, as opposed to personal use by distributors.
Industry observers observed that the Omnitrition comment should not be accorded "weight" as the statement was "dicta" (unnecessary to reach the decision) and that the case was really about whether or not Omnitrition implemented safeguards to avoid "inventory loading” which were so clear that a trial would be necessary to determine Omnitrition was not a pyramid. (In reality, the decision did not involve a review of the merits of a trial court decision, but rather an appeal of a summary judgment in favor of Omnitrition.) Nevertheless, the language in Omnitrition created confusion in enforcement, in cases and in discussions by the legal and financial press. On various occasions and in various cases, the FTC argued that "personal use" should be excluded in a pyramid analysis, and that only sales outside the sales network should be considered, for purposes of pyramid vs. legitimate.
To address this confusion, more than a dozen states amended pyramid legislation to recognize the validity of personal use as an end destination of product. And the FTC issued a 2004 Advisory Opinion which accepted personal use in direct selling companies:
Notwithstanding this clarification, and court reasoning in opinions in several subsequent cases (WholeLiving, BurnLounge) the FTC, from time to time, offered inconsistent positions about personal use in briefs and proposed judgment orders. So, some real confusion continues. And this confusion, in addition to the Belgian lower court decision, was exploited by short seller hedge funds in their criticism of the direct selling industry.
The industry continues to look for clarity both in court cases and even possible remedial legislation along the lines of legislation adopted by many states. For this reason, every court case becomes important. And for this reason, the unambiguous statements of the Belgian Court of Appeal in the Herbalife case, cannot be underestimated.
Although the Koscot test (sales to the ultimate user) and the Belgian Court of Appeal analysis of its statute (product does not wander endlessly in the distributor system, but, in fact makes its way to the consumer) are not necessarily identical, the issues explored are so strikingly similar that the Belgian case will likely be cited as precedent in U.S cases on the subject of recognition of the role of personal use in pyramid analysis.
In fact, the discussion here appears to come full circle to the original analysis in the 1979 famous landmark Amway case. Amway has traditionally recognized personal use of product for commission purposes and the FTC Amway decision specifically recognized what it meant by sales to the “ultimate user” in terms similar to the Belgian court’s reference to the “end consumer”:
The Potential Impact of the Belgian Herbalife Decision May be Very Significant.
In fact, the Herbalife Belgian Court of Appeal’s Ruling may well represent the next chapter in the court decisions on the issue of the validity of recognizing personal use as an end destination for product and for the basis of commissions for direct selling companies.
The Belgian Court will undoubtedly be cited in future court cases in Europe in that the Belgian law is pursuant to the European Directive’s definition of a pyramid scheme; that directive calls for full harmonization under which every country in the EU is required to adopt the same terminology. As a result, this decision will be precedent throughout the EU as to how these statutes, in each member country, should be applied.
In addition, the decision will likely be cited in U.S. cases where a central issue continues to be recognition of personal use by the sales force. It will also likely be recognized as probative by regulatory enforcement agencies and legislative bodies as the issue of pyramiding is addressed. And, of course, it will be cited in the financial press on the issue of the legitimacy of the direct selling industry model, a discussion that involves billions of dollars by investors in publicly traded direct selling companies.
For more information on this subject and other important issues in the area of MLM, Direct Selling and Network Marketing, please visit http://www.mlmlegal.com.
Jeffrey A. Babener, of Portland, Oregon, is the principal attorney in the law firm of Babener & Associates. For more than 25 years, he has advised leading U.S. and foreign companies in the direct selling industry, including many members of the Direct Selling Association. He has served as legal advisor to various NYSE direct selling companies, including Avon, Herbalife, USANA, NuSkin, etc. He has lectured and published extensively on direct selling and many of his writings will be found at http://www.mlmlegal.com, of which he is Editor. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California Law School, where he was an editor of the USC Law Review. Post USC Law, he served a one-year term appointment as a law clerk to Hon. David W. Williams, U.S. District Court, Central District of California. Mr. Babener is an active member of the State Bars of California and Oregon.