Fitbit Must Face Lawsuit Over Sleep-Tracking Claims

Marketing for a number of Fitbit wearable fitness trackers claims that these devices can “monitor your sleep trends,” but now the company must face a class-action lawsuit alleging that Fitbits do nothing of the sort.

The complaint was originally filed in May 2015 by Fitbit Flex owners who claimed they were misled by Fitbit’s marketing and purchased the device because they believed it could track their behavior while they slept.

As you can see from the product’s packaging to the right — presented as an exhibit in the lawsuit — the Flex promises to not just track hours slept, but “Times woken up,” and “Sleep quality.”

Both plaintiffs say that after purchasing the Flex they soon realized that it was indeed only tracking their motions, which provided no real indicator of whether they had slept through the night, or provide any useful information about the quality of their time asleep.

“The Fitbit devices do not record anything other than movement,” reads the most recent version of the complaint [PDF], which has been amended several times by the plaintiffs, who contend that the only real way to monitor for potential sleep disorders is through polysomnography, which takes into account “brain waves, eye movements, muscle activity, heart rhythm, and more.”

Additionally, since the most affordable Fitbit — the $60 Fitbit Zip — doesn’t claim to offer this sort of sleep-tracking, the plaintiffs allege that they and other customers were tricked into paying at least $40 more for the Flex or an even more expensive model.

They accused Fitbit of violating state and federal laws and sought to represent other Fitbit buyers who feel similarly misled.

Fitbit asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, citing studies that it believes bolster its assertion that the Flex’s accelerometer can indeed be used to monitor sleep habits. However, the court declined [PDF] to consider those studies at this point because they get to the ultimate merit of the plaintiffs’ claims, whereas the current question is whether the plaintiffs had presented sufficient facts to make a case against Fitbit.

“[T]he parties clearly have sharply divergent views about sleep monitoring technology and what works and what does not,” writes the court, “but those issues of fact are far beyond the scope of this motion to dismiss.”

The wearables maker also argued that the plaintiffs hadn’t demonstrated that a reasonable consumer would be misled by Fitbit’s marketing. Again, the judge said that Fitbit was thinking too far ahead. At this point in the process, the plaintiffs don’t need to “research and present a detailed exposé.” Instead, the plaintiffs need only provide sufficient specific details “to fairly apprise the defendant of the nature of the alleged fraud and enough facts to warrant discovery and further proceedings.”

The plaintiffs pointed to the marketing claims made by Fitbit, cite evidence that is contrary to those claims, and offer their personal experiences with the devices and their utility as sleep trackers. This, says the judge, is enough to satisfy the requirements for the case to move forward.

Fitbit also contended that the marketing claims are just “puffery,” meaning general statements of superiority that can’t be taken as false advertising. Yet the judge found this argument unconvincing.

“The challenged statements are specific representations that Fitbit’s device will ‘TRACK YOUR
NIGHT,'” writes the court [caps in original]. “The product package features a graph depicting sleep tracking. These are not the kind of vague and empty taglines like ‘KNOW YOURSELF, LIVE BETTER’ that courts have treated as non-actionable.”

Finally, the tracker maker asked the court to dismiss the charge of violating federal warranty law. Fitbit cited a federal lawsuit against Apple, in which iPhone owners alleged breach of implied warranty because the phone’s built-in navigation app wasn’t up to snuff. In that case, the court dismissed the complaint because an implied warranty claim requires an allegation of a fundamental defect that renders the product unfit for its ordinary purpose, and the navigation app was not a core use of the iPhone.

However, as the court points out in the Fitbit order, “The Flex and other devices offer sleep tracking as a key feature that is central to their intended purpose of monitoring fitness and well-being. Sleep tracking plays a much more prominent role in the ordinary purpose of the Fitbit devices than a navigation app in an iPhone.”

The judge’s ruling says nothing about the actual merits of the plaintiffs’ case; only that the lawsuit has met the requirements for proceeding on to the next steps.

Fitbit has until July 29 to file an answer to the complaint with the court.

UPDATE:
Fitbit has provided the following statement via email to Consumerist:
“The Court’s ruling does not address the merits of the plaintiffs’ allegations. Due to procedural rules, the Court is bound by the complaint and cannot consider the scientific studies that support Fitbit’s claim.These studies demonstrate that Fitbit trackers do track sleep. Fitbit trackers are not intended to be scientific or medical devices, but are designed to provide meaningful data to our users to help them reach their health and fitness goals. We intend to defend ourselves vigorously and demonstrate that plaintiffs’ case has no merit.”

[via Ars Technica]