The Uncertain Legal Future of Wine Direct Shipping by the Retail Tier

The Supreme Court of the United States’ 2005 decision in Granholm v. Heald, which required states allowing their own wineries to direct-ship to consumers to also grant such privileges to out-of-state wineries, marked the beginning of a new era of wine direct-shipping. With the relaxation of wine shipping laws around the country following Granholm—nearly every state now allows wineries to ship wine directly to in-state consumers—the wine direct-shipping landscape has changed greatly over the past decade. Indeed, wine shipments in 2016 saw double-digit growth in both volume and sales.

At the same time, growth in recent years in the online shopping industry has led to new innovations in the wine retail space: the existence of a multitude of internet wine retailers, wine-of-the-month clubs and mobile wine delivery apps offers consumers greater access to wine. Many states—and courts—though, are now grappling with the legalities surrounding direct shipping of wine by retailers, as well as the role of unlicensed third parties in such transactions. Some states prohibit retailers from directly shipping wine to consumers altogether, while many others give in-state retailers the right to ship wine directly to consumers while withholding the privilege from out-of-state retailers.

Most recently, in January 2017 Michigan enacted legislation allowing in-state retailers to ship wine to in-state consumers, but prohibiting out-of-state retailers from making such shipments. The new legislation, which amends Michigan’s existing statute addressing wine shipments, authorizes a retailer located in Michigan to obtain a “specially designated merchant license” in order to ship wine to in-state consumers. The specially designated merchant license is only available to in-state retailers, so retailers located outside Michigan remain prohibited from directly shipping wine to consumers in the state.

Unsurprisingly, given the requirements of Granholm (which, incidentally, concerned in part a Michigan law), the new legislation retains the right of both in-state and out-of-state wineries to ship wine directly to Michigan consumers upon obtaining a direct shipper license. In fact, the new statute even reduces the burden on wineries shipping to consumers; under the new law wineries will no longer be required to include their direct shipper license number and the order number on each shipping container, or the brand registration approval number for each shipped wine on the accompanying invoice (although label registration requirements will still apply).

The legislation does not go into effect until March 29, 2017, but already litigation involving the new law has commenced. In late January 2017, an Indiana retailer and several Michigan consumers sued Michigan’s governor and attorney general and the head of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in federal court, alleging the statute violates the US Constitution’s Commerce Clause and Privileges and Immunities Clause. Similar lawsuits are pending in Illinois and Missouri.

Some courts have already interpreted the constitutionality of similar laws that treat in-state and out-of-state wine retailers differently. While the US Courts of Appeals for the Second and Eighth Circuits have interpreted Granholm to apply only to differential treatment of producers and products (and not to wholesalers and retailers), the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently struck down as unconstitutional Texas residency requirements burdening out-of-state wholesalers and retailers. The Texas Package Stores Association appealed to the Supreme Court based on the apparent “circuit split” created by the Fifth Circuit’s decision. Although the Supreme Court denied certiorari in November 2016, differing outcomes in the currently pending suits could ultimately bring the issue of wine direct-shipping back to the Supreme Court, providing an opportunity for much-needed clarification of Granholm’s scope.

President Trump Issues Executive Order Aimed at Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs

On January 30, 2017, President Trump issued Executive Order No. 13771, entitled “Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs.” A link to Executive Oder 13771 appears here.  The Order provides:

  1. For Fiscal Year 2017 (which ends September 30, 2017):
    1. For each new “regulation” published for notice and comment “or otherwise promulgated,” the agency in question must “identify” two existing regulations to be repealed. Notably, the Order does not require the repeal to be concurrent with the publication or promulgation of the new regulation.
    2. For Fiscal Year 2017, each agency must ensure that the total incremental costs of all new and repealed regulations shall not exceed zero, unless otherwise required by law or as consistent with the advice of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The Order does not specify whether the costs in question represent costs to the agency, costs to the government or total societal costs. It also does not provide any guidance on how to calculate such costs.
    3. To the extent permitted by law, the costs of any new regulations shall be offset by the elimination of costs associated with at least two existing regulations. Once again, the Order provides no guidance on what constitute costs of a regulation or how to calculate such costs.
    4. The OMB is directed to provide agencies with guidance on how to implement the Order.
  2. Beginning with Fiscal Year 2018 (which begins October 1, 2017):
    1. The semi-annual Unified Regulatory Agenda for each agency must: (i) identify for each new regulation “that increases incremental cost,” two offsetting regulations; and (ii) provide an approximation of the total costs or savings for each new and repealed regulation.
    2. Each regulation approved by the OMB shall be included in the Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    3. Unless otherwise required by law, agencies may not issue new regulations that were not listed in the most recent Unified Regulatory Agenda.
    4. During the budgeting process, the OMB shall notify agencies of the total costs per agency that will be allowed in issuing and repealing new regulations for the upcoming fiscal year.
    5. The OMB shall provide agencies with guidance on implementing the Order’s requirements.

Executive Oder 13771 applies to each “executive department or agency,” but leaves a number of government regulatory functions outside of its scope. These include agencies involved in military, national security, and foreign affairs functions, as well as any government organization arising from the Legislative or Judicial branches. Nevertheless, the Order applies to a vast swath of the federal bureaucracy.

On its face, Executive Order 13771 could have a significant impact on the pace of federal rulemaking during the Trump Administration. The “two-for-one” requirement, in particular, appears to be a blunt instrument aimed at shrinking the Code of Federal Regulations. Moreover, the explicit requirement for cost estimates and “zero” total costs flowing from the rulemaking process plainly seeks to halt the growth and costs of the federal administrative state.

But the jury remains out on the practical impact of Executive Order 13771. Longstanding observers of the federal bureaucracy will, no doubt, recall that the Paperwork Reduction Act (1980), Executive Order 12866 (1993), the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995, and other measures all failed to noticeably slow the growth or improve the functioning of the administrative state. In that spirit, President Trump’s Executive Order leaves many questions unanswered:

  1. Much hinges on the interpretation of “costs” referenced throughout the Executive Order. Does this mean the costs to the Agency, the entire federal government or society at large? And, particularly if “costs” are defined broadly, how will agencies and/or the OMB calculate such costs? The OMB presumably must arrive at answers to these fundamental questions.
  2. While a “rule” has a defined meaning in administrative law, a “regulation” does not. While the Order purports to define the term, as every lawyer in an administrative practice knows, individual “sections” within the Code of Federal Regulations are called “regulations” and come in many sizes. Does an agency satisfy the “two-for-one” rule by replacing two one-sentence regulations with a single ten-sentence regulation? The opportunities to “game” the Executive Order’s mandate seem endless.
  3. The Executive Order might not withstand a legal challenge. While the President yields broad authority over most administrative agencies, nothing in current law authorizes a “two-for-one” rule. While a full analysis is beyond the scope of this note, on its face the Order seems to push the boundaries of what a President can mandate by Executive Order.

Finally, the Executive Order may accelerate the unfortunate trend of agencies to make rules through informal documents instead of the notice-and-comment rulemaking process mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act. During the past several decades, many agencies have sought to shortcut the rulemaking process by asserting that any number of substantive rules are mere “interpretations” not subject to notice-and-comment. Too often, the legal costs and potential for relationship damage involved in challenging such rules outweighs the benefit of a challenge. (For example, how willing is a heavily-regulated brewery, winery or distillery to engage in protracted litigation with the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau?)  As a result, usually the regulated public tacitly accepts this subversion of Administrative Procedures Act requirements – requirements that flow directly from the Fifth Amendment’s requirement for Due Process of Law. By making formal notice-and-comment rulemaking even more burdensome, Executive Order 13771 will likely accelerate the pace of regulation by internet posting, bottom-drawer regulation, letter ruling and other means that do not provide the regulated public with notice and an opportunity to comment on legal requirements that will affect them.

In the end, then, President Trump’s Executive Order on Reducing Regulations leaves many important questions unanswered and, like other like-minded actions before it (e.g., the Paperwork Reduction Act), may not progress the objective of simplifying and reducing the federal bureaucracy.

The TTB Proposes New Definition of Hard Cider

On January 23, 2017 the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau (TTB) published a Temporary Rule and a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) related to the new definition of hard cider. Congressional action required a new definition when Congress amended the Internal Revenue Code in December 2015 by enacting the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act. The Temporary Rule lays out TTB’s current thinking on regulations to implement the revised definition, while the NPRM requests comments on the regulations spelled out in the Temporary Rule.

We view the following provisions as most significant:

1. Requiring a new mandatory tax classification statement on all products eligible for the hard cider tax rate, effective January 1, 2018.

2. Requiring the words “sparking” or “carbonated” on all hard cider with carbonation in excess of 0.392 grams per 100 ml.

3. Codifying in the regulations (although this reflects longstanding TTB policy) that materials like honey, hops, spices and pumpkin may be added to hard cider without jeopardizing the hard cider tax rate.

4. Establishing a .009 gram per 100 ml tolerance for carbonation in cider.

5. Suggesting in the pre-amble that treating materials, regardless of source, could render a product ineligible for the hard cider rate if those materials imparts a fruit flavor other than apple (under the new regulations apple or pear).

6. Codifying in the regulations for the first time (although this reflects longstanding TTB policy) that the hard cider definition and most rules also apply to imported hard cider.

The current deadline for comments on the proposed regulations is March 24, 2017, but TTB generally grants reasonable extensions (typically 60 or 90 additional days) upon request.

Avoiding Misleading Labeling

Current conventional wisdom in the craft beer business holds that being local helps sell more beer. This has led many brewers to emphasize their local roots on their labels and in their marketing efforts. In some ways, the trend has a “back to the future” feel, as labels and marketing materials once again feature place names that often became the brand names for many of the first generation of craft brewers in the 1980s.

But the emphasis on place can come with a price: the prospect of legal hurdles, including lawsuits, over allegations that a brand name, label, or advertisement misrepresents the beer’s place of production. Legally this subject usually goes by the name “geographic misdescription,” itself a subset of false advertising law. How can brewers minimize their chances of becoming the target of a lawsuit or government investigation alleging that a beer’s labeling or marketing deceived consumers?

Read the full article, originally published in the January/February 2017 issue of The New Brewer.

Eighth Circuit Hints at Unconstitutionality of Missouri Restrictions on Alcohol Advertising

Last week, the US Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit weighed in on the legality of restrictions on alcohol advertising under the First Amendment, issuing an opinion in Missouri Broadcasters Association v. Lacy that could eventually broaden free speech protections for alcohol beverage advertisements. After the lower court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and plaintiffs appealed, the Eighth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal, finding that plaintiffs’ claim alleging the unconstitutionality of a Missouri statute and two regulations should be heard.

The case concerned three Missouri provisions – two regulations and a statute – that restrict the advertising of alcohol beverages:

  1. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising price discounts outside of the licensed premises (but allowing the advertising of discounts by using generic descriptions (e.g., “Happy Hour”), as well as the advertising of specific discounts within the licensed premises);
  2. a regulation prohibiting retailers from advertising prices below cost; and
  3. a statute requiring manufacturers and wholesalers choosing to a list a retailer in an advertisement to exclude the retail price of the product from the advertisement, list multiple unaffiliated retailers and make the listing relatively inconspicuous.

Plaintiffs – a broadcasting industry group, radio station operator, winery and retailer – sued Missouri’s supervisor of liquor control and attorney general, alleging that the three provisions are facially invalid under the First Amendment in that they prohibit truthful, non-misleading commercial speech, are inconsistently enforced by the state and the challenged statute unconstitutionally compels speech.

To state a claim that a statute is facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment, Supreme Court precedent instructs that plaintiffs must show that there are no set of circumstances under which the challenged provision would be valid, or that a substantial number of the provision’s applications are unconstitutional. Alcohol beverage advertisements involve commercial speech, which receives less protection under the First Amendment than other constitutionally protected forms of expression. In Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), the Supreme Court articulated a four-part test for determining the constitutionality of laws restricting commercial speech:  whether (1) the speech concerns lawful activity and is not misleading; (2) the governmental interest justifying the regulation is substantial; (3) the regulation directly advances the governmental interest; and (4) the regulation is no broader than necessary to further the governmental interest.

Applying the third and fourth factors of the Central Hudson test (plaintiffs and defendants agreed on the first two factors of the test), the court found that the facts plaintiffs alleged were “more than sufficient” to state a plausible claim. First, the court opined, plaintiffs made sufficient allegations that the challenged provisions do not directly advance Missouri’s substantial interest in promoting responsible drinking. Although defendants argued that a link exists between advertising promotions and increased demand for alcohol beverages, the court noted that “multiple” inconsistencies in the regulations demonstrate that the regulations do not advance Missouri’s interest in promoting responsible drinking. Likewise, the court determined, plaintiffs pled sufficient facts to support a finding that the statute does not directly advance Missouri’s asserted interests: the court noted that because the statute is an exception to Missouri’s general tied-house law, it “actually weakens,” rather than furthers, “the impact of the overall statutory scheme.”

Second, the Eighth Circuit found that plaintiffs alleged “more than sufficient information” to show that the challenged provisions are more extensive than necessary to further the state’s interests, noting that there are alternatives to the provisions that would be less intrusive to plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment. Finally, the court determined that the challenged statute compels speech and association in that it requires manufacturers and wholesalers to both associate with more than one retailer and to list more than one retailer, if they choose to list any in advertisements.

The Eighth Circuit’s decision is timely: last week the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held an en banc hearing in Retail Digital Network, LLC v. Appelsmith, a case involving a First Amendment challenge to California’s restrictions on alcohol advertising, which we discussed in more detail last year.  One key issue in Retail Digital Network – but only glossed over in a footnote in the Missouri Broadcasters case – involves the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2011 decision in Sorrell v. IMS Health, Inc., which called for a “heightened” level of judicial scrutiny when determining the constitutionality of restrictions on commercial speech.

The Trump Administration’s View on Marijuana: Reading the (Tea) Leaves

The incoming Trump Administration may usher in a more hostile climate to state efforts to legalize the sale and distribution of marijuana and products that contain the drug. The Obama Administration opposed the federal legalization of marijuana, but its enforcement approach, which focused on persons and entities whose conduct interferes with eight drug enforcement priorities, is outlined in a memorandum. This guidance does not have the force and effect of law, which means that the incoming Administration may replace it with a new guidance addressing prosecutorial discretion in marijuana cases. Below we examine the positions taken by President-elect Trump and his nominee for Attorney General, Senator Jeff Sessions, on (1) medical and recreational marijuana, (2) states’ rights, (3) attitudes toward marijuana use, and (4) enforcement of federal drug laws.

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TTB Publishes a Federal Register Notice Adjusting the Civil Monetary Penalty under ABLA

On January 10, 2017, TTB published a Federal Register notice adjusting the civil monetary penalty imposed for violations of the Alcohol Beverage Labeling Act of 1988 (the ABLA). The ABLA requires the labels of alcohol beverages sold in the United States to bear the now-familiar Government Warning Statement. When first enacted, the maximum civil penalty for violations was $10,000 per day.

Under TTB’s latest inflation adjustment, the maximum penalty will stand at $20,111 per day, beginning with all penalties assessed after January 10, 2017. This new amount will apply even in cases where the underlying violation occurred prior to the effective date of the new penalty amount. View the full text of TTB’s notice here.

TTB Modified Tax Filing Timeframe for Some Taxpayers

On January 4, 2017 TTB published in the Federal Register a temporary rule, T.D. TTB–146, modifying the tax filing timeframe for taxpayers who fall below a certain monetary threshold and removing the bond requirements for certain eligible taxpayers who pay taxes below certain maximum amounts on distilled spirits, wine and beer. See 82 Fed. Reg. 1108 (Jan. 4, 2017). Congress mandated these changes when it enacted the PATH Act in December 2015, and the changes became effective on January 1, 2017. The temporary rule involves two primary changes:

  1. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $1,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $1,000 in the prior year can pay their taxes annually rather than quarterly or semi-monthly. If a taxpayer has multiple locations, the $1,000 threshold applies to the combined total. A taxpayer must select the return period on its return.
  2. Taxpayers who do not reasonably expect to be liable for more than $50,000 in alcohol excise taxes (for distilled spirits, wine and beer) in the calendar year and were not liable for more than $50,000 in the prior year are exempt from filing bonds to cover operations or withdrawals. In order to take advantage of this exemption, the taxpayer must notify TTB of its eligibility and receive TTB approval. New applicants will do this during the initial application process and existing taxpayers can do so through an amendment to their registration or brewer’s notice. Ironically, the bond exemption does not apply to taxpayers that conduct operations or withdrawals of wine or spirits for industrial (as opposed to beverage) use.

TTB has issued additional guidance on the PATH Act’s impact in Industry Circular 2016–2 (Dec. 30, 2016).

DC Council Passes Amendments to Alcohol Beverage Code

In early December 2016, the Council of the District of Columbia (the Council) unanimously passed the Omnibus Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Amendment Act of 2016 (the Act). The Act amends a number of provisions of DC’s alcohol beverage laws, several of which particularly affect DC manufacturers, brew pubs, wine pubs and distillery pubs.

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TTB Changes Under the Fall Edition of the Unified Agenda

On December 23rd, 2016 the federal government published its Fall edition of the “Unified Agenda” – a bi-annual compilation of all ongoing federal rulemaking projects. Attached is a copy of the TTB detail from this latest Unified Agenda. As always, projected future publication dates should be viewed with a very healthy dose of skepticism.

TTB’s portion of the Unified Agenda identifies the following “priority” items:

  1. Final rules implementing the International Trade Data System (ITDS). TTB published these final rules on December 22, 2016 – mission accomplished.
  2. Revisions to TTB regulations to implement the “Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015” (PATH Act). Among other things, the PATH Act amended the Internal Revenue Code definition of “hard cider” and changed the bonding requirements for small excise taxpayers. While listed as a priority for action in late 2016, TTB has shown little ability to quickly amend its regulations to reflect statutory changes enacted by Congress (see Taxpayer Relief Act note below).
  3. Revisions to modify and streamline TTB’s wine, distilled spirits, and malt beverage labeling regulations. This item has appeared in the Unified Agenda for several years, and apparently stems from a January 2011 Executive Order requiring the identification and elimination of outmoded and burdensome regulations. The Unified Agenda lists a December 2016 publication date for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on this subject.
  4. Back on the “priority” list of this Unified Agenda is the NPRM permitting the self-certification of nonbeverage product formulas. Projected publication of that NPRM now has slipped to September 2017.
  5. A project to combine the current four forms required for reporting by distilled spirits plants (DSPs) into two report forms now receives priority status. Originally proposed in December 2011, TTB now expects to publish a 2017 “Supplemental NPRM” to gather more comments on the subject.

Among the other TTB rulemaking projects industry members may take an interest in are the following:

  1. TTB’s allergen labeling rulemaking, initiated in April 2005, remains on the Unified Agenda, but under the heading of “Next Action Undetermined.”  This suggests that TTB may walk away from mandatory allergen labeling altogether.
  2. TTB is considering amendments to the “standards of fill” for wine and distilled spirits, with an NPRM projected date of April 2017.
  3. A new item proposes an NPRM to amend the wine labeling regulations in order to better address the labeling of flavored wines.  The project arises from a petition received by TTB and projects an April 2017 publication date.
  4. TTB has withdrawn (and presumably abandoned) the rulemaking project, commenced in 2010, to further define the use of terms like “estate bottled” on wine labels.
  5. TTB continues to plan for a “Supplemental NPRM” to solicit additional comments on the use of an American viticultural area as an appellation on a wine finished in an adjacent state.  TTB now expects to publish the Supplemental NPRM in January 2017.
  6. Final rules arising from the August 2016 NPRM proposal to impose certain Federal Alcohol Administration Act labeling requirements on wines below 7% alcohol by volume are expected in September 2017.
  7. TTB expects to publish an NPRM to permit the labeling of fortified wines in a manner that discloses the addition of grape spirits or brandy to the wine in September 2017.
  8. TTB still promises action to adopt regulations implementing the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997.  That NPRM now is scheduled to appear in April 2017.
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