Justia Antitrust & Trade Regulation Opinion SummariesArticles Posted in Agriculture Law
Winn Dixie Stores v. Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative Inc
Winn-Dixie sued EMMC, its individual farmer members, and certain downstream distributors claiming their price-fixing agreement violated the Sherman Act. 15 U.S.C. 1. EMMC, a cooperative of mushroom growers, targets the Eastern United States. Initially, EMMC controlled over 90 percent of the supply of fresh Agaricus mushrooms in the relevant market. That share fell to 58% percent by 2005, and 17% percent by 2010. EMMC’s 20-plus initial members shrunk to fewer than five. EMMC’s stated purpose was to establish a “Minimum Pricing Policy,” under which it would “circulat[e] minimum price lists” along with rules requiring the member companies to uniformly charge those prices to all customers. Those minimums were not the price at which growers sold the product, but the price at which EMMC members hoped to coerce downstream distributors to go to market. Certain members were grower-only entities, lacking an exclusive relationship with any distributor. Many members partnered with specific, often legally-related downstream distributors. The precise nature of these relationships varied widely but downstream distributors were prohibited from joining EMMC.The district court instructed the jury to apply the “rule-of-reason” test. The Third Circuit affirmed a verdict in EMMC’s favor. Winn-Dixie argued that the judge should have instructed the jury to presume anticompetitive effects. Because this hybrid scheme involved myriad organizational structures with varying degrees of vertical integration, the court correctly applied the rule of reason. Under that more searching inquiry, the evidence was sufficient to sustain the verdict. View "Winn Dixie Stores v. Eastern Mushroom Marketing Cooperative Inc" on Justia Law
United States v. United States Sugar Corp.
Imperial Sugar went bankrupt in 2001 and suffered a costly accident in 2008, prompting its sale to Louis Dreyfus. Imperial receives from Louis Dreyfus only minimal investment and is an “import-based, price-uncompetitive sugar refinery” that is “structurally uncompetitive” and lost roughly 10 percent of its customers from 2021-2022. Florida-based refiner U.S. Sugar agreed to purchase Imperial. The government sought an injunction (Clayton Act. 15 U.S.C. 18), arguing that the acquisition would have anticompetitive effects, leaving only two entities in control of 75% of refined sugar sales in the southeastern United States. The government applied the hypothetical monopolist test to demonstrate the validity of its proposed product and geographic markets. U.S. Sugar responded that it does not sell its own sugar but participates with other producers in a Capper-Volstead agricultural cooperative that markets and sells the firms’ output collectively but exercises no control over the quantities produced. At capacity, Imperial’s facility could produce only about seven percent of national output. U.S. Sugar argued that distributors constitute a crucial competitive check on producer-refiners that would undermine any attempt to increase prices and noted evidence of the high mobility of refined sugar throughout the country.The Third Circuit affirmed the denial of an injunction, upholding a finding that the government overlooked the pro-competitive effects of distributors in the market, erroneously lumped together heterogeneous wholesale customers, and defined the relevant geographic market without regard for the high mobility of sugar throughout the country. View "United States v. United States Sugar Corp." on Justia Law
In re: Processed Egg Products Antitrust Litigation
In a purported class action, egg purchasers claimed that egg producers conspired to inflate prices by early slaughtering of hens and similar supply-reducing steps; creation of an animal welfare certification program that was actually designed to reduce the egg supply; and coordinated exports of eggs, all as part of a single overarching conspiracy that was anti-competitive per se and unlawful under the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. 1. The defendants countered that the court should look at each alleged stratagem of the conspiracy separately and determine whether to apply the per se standard for antitrust liability or the more commonly-applied rule of reason. In summary judgment briefing, the parties focused on the Certification Program, which the court evaluated under the rule of reason. The case proceeded to trial with all three stratagems being evaluated under that standard. Following the jury’s verdict, the court entered judgment for the defendants. The Third Circuit affirmed. Courts can consider the different components of an alleged conspiracy separately when determining which mode of antitrust analysis to apply. The Certification Program was not an express horizontal agreement to reduce the supply of eggs, much less to fix prices and it is not clear that the Program would “have manifestly anticompetitive effects and lack any redeeming virtue.” It was properly analyzed under the rule of reason. View "In re: Processed Egg Products Antitrust Litigation" on Justia Law
In Re: Processed Egg Products Antitrust Litigation
Purchasers of egg products accused suppliers of conspiring to reduce the supply of eggs and increase the price for egg products in violation of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. 1. Plaintiffs alleged that the producers conspired to reduce the population of egg-laying hens, resulting in a reduced supply of eggs and, given the inelasticity of demand, supra-competitive prices. A trade association coordinated a certification program under which participants had to increase their cage sizes and not replace hens that died. Plaintiffs alleged that the proffered animal welfare rationale was a pretext to reduce supply. The district court, citing a bar on indirect purchaser actions, concluded that the purchaser-plaintiffs lacked standing. The Third Circuit reversed. As a matter of first impression, a direct purchaser of a product that includes a price-fixed input has antitrust standing to pursue a claim against the party that sold the product to the purchaser, where the seller is a participant in the price-fixing conspiracy, but the product also includes some price-fixed input supplied by a third-party non-conspirator. The direct relationship between the purchasers and their suppliers and the fact that the suppliers are alleged price-fixing conspirators, not merely competitors of those conspirators, are key factors. Regardless of who collected the overcharge, the purchasers’ econometric analysis purports to show the “difference between the actual [supracompetitive] price and the presumed competitive price” of the egg products they purchased. This purported difference, and the purchasers’ resulting injury, was allegedly a direct and intended result of the suppliers’ conspiracy. View "In Re: Processed Egg Products Antitrust Litigation" on Justia Law
Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium, Inc.
Most of the world's reserves of potash, a mineral used primarily in fertilizer, are in Canada, Russia, and Belarus. Defendants are producers with mines in those countries. Plaintiffs are direct and indirect potash purchasers in the U.S. They allege that producers operated a cartel through which they fixed prices in Brazil, China, and India, and that inflated prices in those markets influenced the price of potash in the U.S. Defendants moved to dismiss, arguing that the district court lacked jurisdiction under the Foreign Trade Antitrust Improvements Act, 15 U.S.C. 6a. The district court denied the motion. The Seventh Circuit affirmed. The world market for potash is highly concentrated and U.S. customers account for a high percentage of sales. This is not a “House-that-Jack-Built situation in which action in a foreign country filters through many layers and finally causes a few ripples” in the U.S. Foreign sellers allegedly created a cartel, took steps outside the U.S. to drive the price up of a product that is wanted in the U.S., and, after succeeding, sold that product to U.S. customers. The payment of overcharges by those customers was objectively foreseeable, and the amount of commerce is substantial. View "Minn-Chem, Inc. v. Agrium, Inc." on Justia Law
Delano Farms Co., et al. v. The California Table Grape Comm., et al.
Plaintiffs, California grape growers who purchased grapevines covered by the USDA's patents, brought this action to challenge the validity and enforceability of the USDA's patents on three varieties of grapes, as well as the conduct of the California Table Grape Commission (Commission) and the USDA in licensing and enforcing the patents. The court held that the district court correctly held that the USDA was a necessary party to plaintiffs' declaratory judgement claims based on the Patent Act, 35 U.S.C. 1 et seq. The court also held that the waiver of sovereign immunity in section 702 of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. 500 et seq., was broad enough to allow plaintiffs to pursue equitable relief against the USDA on its patent law claims. The court further held that plaintiffs' claims were sufficient to overcome any presumption of regularity that could apply to a certain USDA employee who was one of the co-inventors of each of the three varieties of grapes. The court finally held that because plaintiffs failed to point to anything other than the issuance of a patent for the Sweet Scarlet grapes that would provide a plausible basis for finding that Sweet Scarlet grapes form a relevant antitrust market, the court upheld the district court's decision dismissing plaintiffs' antitrust claim. View "Delano Farms Co., et al. v. The California Table Grape Comm., et al." on Justia Law
In Re: Mushroom Direct Purchaser Antitrust Litigation
In 2000, mushroom farmers and related entities formed a cooperative (EMMC) and established minimum pricing policies and programs to improve their market position. EMMC purchased properties and resold them with deed restrictions that prohibited mushroom farming. The Department of Justice invesigated and concluded that EMMC was an agricultural cooperative organized pursuant to the Capper- Volstead Act, 7 U.S.C. 291-92. In 2005, EMMC and DOJ entered into a consent judgment that required EMMC to nullify deed restrictions and prohibited it from imposing restrictions for 10 years. Soon after the consent judgment, private parties brought suits, alleging conspiracy in violation of the Sherman Act and Clayton Act. (15 U.S.C. 1, 2, 18). Unlike the DOJ action, the consolidated class action involved both the property purchase program and minimum pricing policies. The district court held that EMMC was not a proper agricultural cooperative under the Act because one member was not technically a grower of agricultural produce and that the uncontested facts revealed an impermissible price-fixing conspiracy with a non-member mushroom distribution company. The Third Circuit dismissed an appeal, holding that it lacked jurisdiction to hear the question on interlocutory appeal. View "In Re: Mushroom Direct Purchaser Antitrust Litigation" on Justia Law