Melissa S. Weiner
Melissa Weiner spends her days fighting for consumers victimized by corporations’ misleading marketing, but the most surprising thing about consumer deception, she says, is that it can affect anyone—even her.
“I am shocked at how frequently I find myself a victim of consumer fraud,” Weiner said.
Weiner is referring to advertising that misleads consumers into thinking they’re buying a better, healthier or different product than the one on the shelf. The fact that it’s so easy for companies to fool consumers is what makes Weiner’s work so important, she says.
As Partner at Pearson Warshaw, LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Weiner specializes in false advertising and consumer protection and has found a particular niche challenging companies that call their products “natural” when the reality is the opposite. She’s won settlements in class action cases against large corporations that make products such as cleaning supplies, sweeteners, and laundry detergent. All of them took advantage of consumers by branding their products as natural when they were actually made largely of synthetic material.
One of Weiner’s biggest legal successes came in 2014, when she won a $6.1 million settlement in a case against the company that makes “nature’s calorie-free sweetener” Truvia. Many people assume, because of misleading advertising, that Truvia is made primarily from ingredients found in nature. But the action alleged that Truvia, in fact, contained substantially non-natural ingredients.
Currently, she is representing clients suing the company that makes Natural American Spirit tobacco products, which markets its cigarettes as “natural,” “organic” and “additive-free.” Weiner says this case is especially significant, as the company’s branding has potentially deadly consequences.
“[Consumers] are making a choice to purchase the cigarettes because they thought they were safer or healthier,” she said. “And in a tobacco case, ‘safer or healthier’ really has to do with preservation of life. It’s life or death.”
But Weiner hasn’t always worked on behalf of consumers. In fact, she started her career defending businesses, although she never felt passionate about it. Her parents had instilled in her a passion for community service, and although she had always been active in her community with organizations like Make-A-Wish®, she felt she could be doing more in her work life.
“I’ve always been an advocate for myself, my education, my family members, my friends,” Weiner said. “Giving back to the community was not optional.”
Unfortunately, Congressional actions are currently threatening her ability to successfully advocate for clients. Congress is attempting to pass legislation that would make it significantly harder to bring class action suits, which could have grave consequences for her practice.
“The legislation is terrifying,” Weiner said. “Class-actions as we know them today will be significantly altered— it will harm consumers considerably.”
Still, Weiner is confident that the bill will not kill class actions, because “people who have passion for justice will always find a way to navigate the storm.”
Weiner passion for justice is what drives her. Halunen’s class action practice has grown considerably in size and scope since Weiner took the helm, but she says she still measures success by her hard work on behalf of clients.
“I honestly try to come into work every single day and do the best I can for my cases and my clients,” Weiner said. “If I can do that every day, and know I put every day into being passionate about my work, that’ll be a good life for me.”