Guidance Provided on Interplay of “Dormant” Commerce Clause and the 21st Amendment

On April 21, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down its opinion in Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, No. 14-51343.  It provides further guidance, at least within the Fifth Circuit, on the interplay of the “dormant” Commerce Clause and the 21st Amendment following the Supreme Court of the United States’ oft-cited decision in Granholm v. Heald, 544 US 460 (2005).

The case arose when the Texas Package Store Association attempted to revisit the Fifth Circuit’s two-decade old decision in Cooper v. McBeath, 11 F.3d 547 (5th Cir. 1994).  Cooper v. McBeath permanently enjoined the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) from enforcing certain residency requirements imposed on wholesalers and retailers by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code.  In that decision, the Fifth Circuit decided that the residency requirement was a protectionist measure and therefore unconstitutional under the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause of the US Constitution.

In 2014, the Texas Package Store Association (TPSA) moved for relief from the Cooper v. McBeath injunction, arguing that Granholm and its progeny undermined the earlier decision’s reasoning.  The district court ruled that the TPSA lacked standing to seek relief, although it also suggested that TPSA’s motion for relief should be denied on the merits.

In last month’s Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decision, the Fifth Circuit concluded that TPSA had standing to seek relief from the Cooper v. McBeath injunction, but then held that TPSA’s motion should be denied on the merits.  Laying out the standard for relief as whether Granholm and its progeny represent a “significant change in decisional law,” the Fifth Circuit concluded that no significant change had occurred.

The Fifth Circuit begins its analysis by noting that Granholm expressly refused to overrule prior cases holding that the Commerce Clause qualified states’ rights under the 21st Amendment.  TPSA argued that the statement in Granholm labeling the three-tier system “unquestionably legitimate” essentially removed Commerce Clause protections from state laws dealing with the wholesale and retail tiers of the industry.  Characterizing that language in Granholm as “dictum,” the Fifth Circuit rejected TPSA’s argument as “unconvincing.”  Refusing to follow an Eighth Circuit decision that embraced logic similar to the argument advanced by TPSA, the Fifth Circuit instead relied on its own decision in Wine Country Gift Baskets.com v. Steen, 612 F.3d 809 (5th Cir. 2010).  Thus “state regulations of the retailer and wholesaler tiers are not immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny just because they do not discriminate against out-of-state liquor.”  Instead, although the 21st Amendment permits a state to impose a physical-residency requirement that may favor in-state businesses, it may not impose “a durational-residency requirement on the owners of alcoholic beverage retailers and wholesalers.”  (Quoting Cooper v. McBeath, emphasis in original).

The Fifth Circuit accordingly reasoned that nothing in Granholm and its subsequent application represent a significant change in the law.  It therefore reversed the decision of the district court and directed it to enter an order denying on the merits TPSA’s motion for relief.

Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission represents yet another wrinkle in the federal courts’ ongoing struggle to reconcile the holding of Granholm (a state cannot discriminate between the shipping rights of out-of-state versus in-state wineries) with its dictum that the three-tier system is “unquestionably legitimate.”  By drawing a previously unrecognized distinction between “physical-residency” and “durational-residency” requirements and, perhaps, distinctions based on business location versus owner location, the Fifth Circuit also has introduced significantly more complexity and nuance into the Commerce Clause/21st Amendment analysis.

We expect that the Supreme Court will eventually address this subject again to reconcile what is now a clear “circuit split” between the Fifth and Eighth Circuits.  But the Court will likely allow the issue to further “percolate” in the lower courts, as the case law in this area remains quite new.  We also wonder whether litigants seeking to narrow Granholm, who have scored a number of significant “wins” in the Second, Fifth (Steen) and Eighth Circuits in the decade since Granholm, will put those decisions in jeopardy by seeking Supreme Court review of the Cooper v. Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission decision.

Join McDermott Partner Marc Sorini at the Annual Craft Brewers’ Conference

The annual Craft Brewers’ Conference will be held on May 3-6, 2016 in Philadelphia, PA. McDermott partner, Marc Sorini will give two presentations:

  • Wednesday, May 4, 1:20-2:20 pm: Marc will kick off his annual government affairs presentation by summarizing the results of recent research to be published in The New Brewer proving that no legally-mandated three-tier system existed immediately following the repeal of Prohibition. He then will provide an update on the biggest legal issues facing the industry during the past year, including recent tied-house/trade practice activities, the false advertising class actions and a distribution update.
  • Friday, May 6, 1:55-2:55 pm: Marc will join two other lawyers and moderator Bill Covaleski of Victory Brewing to explore the issue of beer “franchise law” reform.

For more information or to register, please visit http://www.craftbrewersconference.com/.

Trademark Tips for Small Distillers

What’s in a name? (Or a slogan, logo, symbol or other source-identifying device?) Well, turns out a lot. While the craft spirits industry is a tight knit and collegial community, businesses must strive to create a unique and distinctive place in the market that makes their products stand out from the rest. For small distillers, who may have leaner advertising budgets than the spirits giants, one effective way to plant your flat in the ground and say “This is who we are, come and join us!” is through trademarks.

A trademark is any word, name, symbol, logo and/or device the identifies the goods and services of one party, and distinguishes such offerings from those of others.

Below we provide some tips and recommendations for small distillers to consider when selecting and protecting trademarks.

Read the full article (originally published in the Spring 2016 issue of Artisan Spirit).

Red Stripe Prevails in Alcohol Beverage Labeling Class Action

The latest merits decision in the ongoing false advertising/labeling class actions appears here.  This case involves allegations that the labeling and marketing of Red Stripe Beer misleads consumers into thinking they are purchasing beer made in Jamaica from Jamaican ingredients.  In fact, production of Red Stripe for the US market moved to the US in 2012.  The Southern District of California’s Dumas v. Diageo PLC decision to dismiss the plaintiffs’ case gives hope that companies with alcohol beverage brands originating overseas can produce those brands in the US without facing significant litigation risk.

The plaintiffs brought their case under several California statues and also alleged negligent and intentional misrepresentation.  Central to the plaintiffs’ allegations were statements on Red Stripe’s secondary packaging and labeling that the beer was a “Jamaican Style Lager” and contained “The Taste of Jamaica.”  The plaintiffs also pointed to the labeling and packaging’s continued display of the original Jamaican brewer’s logo as evidence of deception.  Finally, the plaintiffs pointed to the label’s statement that the beer “embodied the spirit, rhythm and pulse of Jamaica and its people.”  Of course, the labels and secondary packaging did disclose that the US market beer was brewed and bottled in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Looking only at the complaint and before any discovery, the court dismissed the case, concluding that “no reasonable consumer would be misled into thinking that Red Stripe is made in Jamaica with Jamaican ingredients based on the wording of the packaging and labeling.”  More specifically:

  • The mere fact that the words “Jamaica” and Jamaican” appear on the packaging does not support a conclusion that consumers would be confused about the origin and ingredients of the beer.
  • The statements on Red Stripe were similar to those made with respect to a “Swiss Army knife” – just as “Swiss” modified “Army,” in this case “Jamaican” modifies “Style” and does not connote the actual place of production.
  • Red Stripe’s display of “Jamaican Style” and similar claims are similar to Blue Moon making a “Belgian-Style Wheat Ale” and Harpoon making a “Belgian Style Pale Ale.”
  • “Taste of Jamaica” is too vague and meaningless to form the basis of a false advertising claim.
  • Red Stripe presents different facts from the facts that give rise to the false advertising case involving Beck’s Beer, where the labeling and packaging stated “Originating in Germany,” “brewed under the German Purity Law of 1516,” and “German quality.”
  • Even though consumers may have already held an expectation that Red Stripe is brewed in Jamaica based on past production on the island, no legal authority places a duty on marketers to counter such pre-conceived notions.

On the basis of this reasoning, the court dismissed the plaintiffs’ complaint as a matter of law.  It did, however, dismiss the case “without prejudice,” which will give the plaintiffs 15 days (until April 21, 2016) to assert new claims that might survive dismissal.

The Dumas opinion represents merely one battle won (at least temporarily) in what will no doubt prove a long war over alcohol beverage labeling in the United States.  Nevertheless, it provides helpful reasoning that may eventually influence other courts and provide guidance to marketers in the future.

Ruling Could Put Deceptive Labeling Cases on Hold

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit today placed on hold a consumer class action involving yogurt labels until the FDA issues final guidance on use of the terms at issue in the dispute—a decision that could ripple outward to the many other food and beverage cases alleging deceptive labeling.

The plaintiffs in Kane v. Chobani, LLC, No. 14-15670, alleged that Chobani deceptively labeled its yogurt as “natural” in violation of FDA regulations, and improperly used the term “evaporated cane juice” to describe the yogurt’s added sugar ingredient. But because the FDA is currently considering the scope and permissible usage of both terms, the court ordered a stay “until such time as the [FDA] completes its proceedings regarding the use of the terms . . . in food labeling.” The use of both terms “implicates technical and policy question that should be addressed in the first instance by the agency with regulatory authority over the relevant industry rather than by the judicial branch,” the court wrote, noting that it made no sense—and would be inefficient—to continue litigating the case while the FDA was mulling questions at the heart of the litigation.

Today’s ruling directly applies only to the Kane case, but other courts are likely to follow a similar path while awaiting guidance from regulators, rather than expending time and energy on continued litigation that could be rendered moot. The stay comes as other courts within the 9th Circuit and elsewhere are considering similar class actions involving alcoholic beverages, including from consumers claiming they were misled by labels calling popular products “handmade.” Although there are currently no pending FDA proceedings considering use of the term “handmade,” cases involving that word could also end up subject to a stay if that changes. As it is, some courts have dismissed such claims on the grounds that no reasonable consumer can believe spirits brands are “handmade” or because the use of such terms is non-actionable “puffery,” but others have been allowed to proceed.

A Practical Blueprint for Distribution

Whether you’re an experienced brewer getting ready to enter a new state, a startup packaging brewery looking to serve your home market, or a brewpub expanding to provide products to local retailers, you need a viable distribution plan. In recent years, individual brewers have deepened their understanding of industry dynamics in the heavily regulated beer distribution system. While many are effectively advocating reforms to accommodate new brewery business models, change occurs slowly in the political process. Those in business today who want to remain in business tomorrow need to deal with the existing realities of the marketplace. The following is a primer of common questions and answers related to distribution.

Read the full article, originally published in the March/April issue of The New Brewer.

Tied House Laws and Category Management: A Continuing Quandary

On March 16, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) published a list of frequently asked questions expanding further on a ruling issued in February on application of the federal “tied house law” to industry promotional activities, specifically category management practices employed by retailers.

TTB claims that a formal rulemaking to revise its tied house regulations is not necessary: “TTB Ruling 2016-1 merely provides guidance as to the plain meaning of the existing regulation under 27 CFR 6.99(b). It does not change TTB’s longstanding position, nor does it change the meaning of the plain language of this regulatory exception.” So let’s look at the plain language:

The act by an industry member [supplier or wholesaler] of providing a recommended shelf plan or shelf schematic for distilled spirits, wine, or malt beverages does not constitute a means to induce within the meaning of section 105(b)(3) of the [Federal Alcohol Administration (FAA)] Act.

That statement on its face is an open-ended authorization to provide shelf schematics. It says nothing about the products of other industry members or whether the plan is written on a napkin or in a sophisticated IT system that is used for inventory management at hundreds of stores.  Continue Reading

FDA Delays Enforcement of Restaurant Menu Labeling Rule

This week, the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) formally announced that the agency will delay enforcement of its final rule entitled “Food Labeling; Nutrition Labeling of Standard Menu Items in Restaurants and Similar Retail Food Establishments.” The statement marked the second time the agency extended the compliance deadline.  Enforcement of the menu labeling rule was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. The date that the FDA will begin enforcing menu labeling provisions is unknown at this time. The delay is the result of a provision in a federal appropriations law that prohibits the FDA from using funds to implement, administer, or enforce the menu labeling rule until one year after the agency issues its final, Level 1 guidance on nutrition labeling of standard menu items in restaurants and similar retail food establishments. FDA has yet to issue that final guidance.

 

Ohio Court of Appeals Upholds a Successor Manufacturer’s Termination of a Distribution Franchise

The “successorship” provision of Ohio’s franchise law for alcohol beverages has spawned much litigation over the past two decades.  Premium Beverage Supply, Ltd. v. TBK Production Works, Inc. represents the latest chapter of this saga, providing further clarity on several issues in the Ohio Alcoholic Beverage Franchise Act (Franchise Act).

In Premium Beverage Supply, the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Appellate District of Ohio considered whether The Brew Kettle Production Works (Brew Kettle) could terminate an agreement appointing Premium Beverage Supply (Premium) as the sole distributor of TBK craft beers after Brew Kettle purchased all of TBK’s assets.  The trial court held that Brew Kettle could not terminate or cause the termination of Premium’s franchise.  The trial court reasoned:  (1) the terms of the distribution agreement controlled, as opposed to a provision in the Franchise Act permitting a successor manufacturer to terminate or fail to renew a distributor’s franchise in certain situations; and (2) Brew Kettle was not a successor manufacturer within the meaning of the Franchise Act.  The Ohio Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and remanded the case to address Premium’s claim for compensation due to the termination of the distribution agreement.

First, the appellate court examined whether the statutory provisions in the Franchise Act permitted Brew Kettle to terminate or not renew Premium’s distribution franchise.  The Franchise Act generally prohibits a manufacturer from terminating or failing to renew a distribution franchise without prior consent unless the manufacturer has “just cause” and provides sixty days prior notice.  The Franchise Act provides an exception to the usual just cause requirement for termination if “a successor manufacturer acquires all or substantially all of the stock or assets of another manufacturer through merger or acquisition or acquires or is the assignee of a particular product or brand of alcoholic beverage from another manufacturer.”  In such a case, the successor manufacturer has ninety days to give written notice of termination of the franchise to the distributor.  In Esber Beverage Co. v. Labatt USA Operating Co., the Supreme Court of Ohio upheld this exception to the usual just cause requirement and concluded that a written franchise agreement did not override the statutory exception.  Citing Esber, the Ohio Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in finding the distribution agreement prevented Brew Kettle from terminating Premium’s franchise.

Second, the Ohio Court of Appeals reviewed the definition of the term “manufacturer” under the Franchise Act, because the act does not define the phrase “successor manufacturer.”  The appellate court held that neither the law nor the asset purchase agreement required Brew Kettle to hold all necessary production licenses in order to be considered a successor manufacturer within the meaning of the Franchise Act.  The court then evaluated Premium’s argument that Brew Kettle was not a successor manufacturer under the provision of the Franchise Act that defines situations that do not constitute “just cause,” because the owner of TBK also owned a minority interest in Brew Kettle.  Noting the asset sale was an arms-length transaction, the court weighed the totality of the circumstances and held that Brew Kettle was not controlled by the individual with the minority interest.

Finally, the Ohio Court of Appeals considered whether the case should be remanded to address whether the statutory exception to the usual just cause requirement resulted in an unconstitutional taking.  Premium argued that the termination of its distribution franchise was a state-sanctioned taking for private use.  The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio previously determined that a taking did not occur when a private party used the statutory exception to the usual just cause provision to terminate a distributor’s franchise agreement.  The Ohio Court of Appeals agreed and held that the termination of the distributor’s franchise agreement did not constitute a taking.

TTB Issues Ruling on Category Management under Federal Tied-House Statute

Today the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) released TTB Ruling 2016-1 (Ruling), addressing category management practices.  The Ruling seeks to clarify TTB’s position toward category management under the federal tied-house statute and regulations, which generally prohibit an alcohol beverage supplier or wholesaler from providing a “thing of value” to alcohol beverage retailers.

The federal tied-house statute and the TTB regulations implementing that provision require TTB to show both an “inducement” of a retailer leading to “exclusion” of competing products for TTB to find a tied-house violation.  TTB regulations also list specific activities that are exceptions to the general rule that providing anything of value to a retailer constitutes an “inducement.”  Those exceptions include shelf schematics.  See 27 C.F.R. § 6.99(b).

Ruling 2016-1 recites the history of the shelf schematics exception and exhibits an element of “buyer’s remorse,” as the narrative suggests that TTB’s predecessor, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), discounted the possibility of abuses that TTB seems to believe are occurring today.  The Ruling then makes it clear that TTB will strictly interpret the schematics regulation as applying only to the schematics themselves, and not “additional services.”  Current category management practices often involve other activities not directly linked to the provision of shelf schematics, although these other activities (at least arguably) relate to developing, creating and updating shelf plans.  Ruling 2016-1 lists the following examples of “additional services” that may prompt TTB scrutiny:

  1. Assuming a retailer’s purchasing or pricing decisions, or shelf stocking decisions involving a competitor’s product;
  2. Receiving and analyzing confidential and/or proprietary competitor information for a retailer;
  3. Furnishing to a retailer market data from third party vendors;
  4. Providing follow-up services to monitor and revise schematics that involve communicating with a retailer’s stores, vendors, representatives, wholesalers and suppliers concerning daily operational matters; and
  5. Furnishing a retailer with human resources to perform merchandising or other functions, with the exception of stocking, rotation or pricing as permitted by TTB regulations.

Ruling 2016-1 does not provide significant guidance on when category management services may lead to the exclusion of competing products.  Instead, the Ruling generally repeats and/or cites to TTB’s exclusion regulations, which were adopted in the mid-1990s.

In short, Ruling 2016-1 provides only modest specific guidance to the industry.  It does, however, signal quite clearly that TTB will likely direct enforcement resources at current category management practices.

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