Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a $2.6 million fine against beer wholesaler Craft Brewers Guild (a Sheehan family-owned company) for violating anti-price discrimination statutes and commercial bribery regulations. In the same decision, the Court overturned a fine lodged against a bar that received such kickback payments, holding that Massachusetts retailers do not violate commercial bribery regulations by accepting kickback payments.

Beginning in 2013, Craft Beer Guild, LLC d/b/a Craft Brewers Guild (CBG), a licensed wholesaler, implemented a “pay-to-play” scheme involving alcohol beverage suppliers, retailers, and various management and marketing companies associated with licensed retailers. CBG paid “rebates” to these third-party companies in exchange for their associated retailers agreeing to sell CBG products at their bars and restaurants. To hide these unlawful payments to retailers, the third-party companies billed CBG for various unperformed services such as “marketing support” and “promotional services.”

CBG did not offer these rebates to all retailers, and rebate amounts differed among the retailers involved. Rebel Restaurants, Inc. d/b/a Jerry Remy’s (Rebel), a licensed retailer, received a $20 rebate for each keg sold in exchange for carrying CBG-distributed brands. Rebel received the payments through its associated third-party company, Rebel Marketing. Rebel Marketing was not a licensed retailer.

Continue Reading Massachusetts’ Highest Court Upholds Record Fine Against Beer Distributor for Pay-To-Play Scheme But Overturns Fine for Bar that Accepted Kickbacks

In this lunchtime talk at CiderCon 2019 (the annual conference of the US Association of Cider Makers), Marc Sorini discusses the historic development of the current legal structure regulating alcohol beverage businesses. Topics include the origins of “tied house” laws and the evolution of the three-tier system, the often-confusing status of cider under federal law, and cider’s treatment under alcohol excise tax laws.

Marc’s talk begins at the 19:30 minute mark.

Listen to the full presentation.

Last week, in Connecticut Fine Wine and Spirits LLC v. Seagull, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed a lower court’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Total Wine & More challenging parts of Connecticut’s Liquor Control Act and related regulations. Though the decision represents a victory for state alcohol regulatory regimes, the Second Circuit’s ruling was decided on the basis of established antitrust law and did not raise or rely on state regulatory authority under the 21st Amendment. Nonetheless, state alcoholic beverages regulators will embrace the court’s ruling.

In Connecticut Fine Wine, Total Wine challenged three sets of provisions in Connecticut’s alcohol laws. First, Total Wine challenged “post-and-hold” provisions. Under the post-and-hold provisions, state-licensed wholesalers are required to post a “bottle price” and “case price” each month with the Connecticut Department of Consumer Protection. Those prices are then made available to industry participants. During the four days after prices are posted, wholesalers may “amend” their posted prices to match—but not drop below—lower prices offered by competitors. Wholesalers are then obligated to “hold” their prices for a month.

Second, Total Wine challenged the state’s minimum-retail-price provisions. The minimum-retail-price provisions require retailers to sell alcohol beverages to customers at or above a statutorily defined “cost,” which is determined by adding the posted bottle price and a markup for shipping and delivery. Combined with the post-and-hold provisions, the minimum-retail-price provisions bind retailer prices to wholesaler prices.

Third, Total Wine challenged the state’s price discrimination and volume discount provisions. The price discrimination/volume discount provisions preclude wholesalers from offering a given product to different retailers at different prices and from offering discounts to retailers who are high-volume purchasers. Continue Reading Second Circuit Rejects Total Wine Challenge of Connecticut Pricing Laws

116th Congress’ first cannabis-related hearing

Next week, Congress will hold a long-awaited hearing on the future of banking in the cannabis industry.

On Wednesday the 13th, the House Financial Services Committee Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee will convene a hearing entitled, “Challenges and Solutions: Access to Banking Services for Cannabis-Related Businesses.”

Among the discussion points will be the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which was introduced and championed in the last Congress by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a member of the committee. The Perlmutter bill provides safe harbor to banks working with businesses in the cannabis industry operating legally within their jurisdiction. Groups including the Credit Union National Association and the Independent Community Bankers of America support such legislative efforts. Last year, a bipartisan group of 19 state attorneys general sent a letter to Congress urging passage of the SAFE Banking Act. The bill had 95 cosponsors (including 13 Republicans) in the last Congress. Its companion legislation in the Senate, introduced by Jeff Merkley (D-OR), had 20 bipartisan cosponsors.

Banks, particularly the largest financial institutions, remain hesitant to provide services to the cannabis industry for fear of violating federal money laundering laws. That leaves many businesses in the industry to deal in cash. For a $10 billion (and growing) industry, “cash only” is not a sustainable policy. Business interests, regulators and (increasingly) Congress agree that something must be done in order to bring the cannabis industry into the banking system. Next week’s hearing is the first significant step of the 116th Congress to address this issue. In the coming weeks, banking legislation will be re-introduced, negotiated, marked-up in the Financial Services Committee, and possibly brought to the floor of the House.

Hearing details:

House Committee on Financial Services – Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chair

Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions – Gregory Meeks (D-NY), Chair

Challenges and Solutions: Access to Banking Services for Cannabis-Related Businesses

Wednesday, February 13, 2019 at 2:00 pm ET

2128 Rayburn House Office Building

Streaming on https://financialservices.house.gov

Rapid growth in the number of small and independent breweries that rely on taproom sales has received a lot of attention—not all of it positive—across the beer industry. Until this unprecedented growth, taproom sales went largely unnoticed. Competing retailers, beer wholesalers, and even well-established craft brewers were pleased with steadily growing craft beer sales and consumer demand. As demand has leveled out and competition has increased, taprooms are receiving increased scrutiny.

In an article published by The New Brewer, Art DeCelle addresses this disruptive change in a mature market and the unique combination of laws and policies that can oftentimes create confusion. Since each state licensing law authorizing brewery taprooms and brewpubs operations is different, he recommends that brewery owners are best served by gaining a full understanding of their state’s licensing requirements. He notes that some states follow the federal model, treating brewers as manufacturers and authorizing retail sales on the brewery premises. Several states have complex exceptions that permit brewers to operate wholly-owned retail establishments at locations other than the licensed brewery.

Access the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, January/February 2019.

On Wednesday, January 9, 2019, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) announced the leadership team of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus for the 116th Congress. In addition to Mr. Blumenauer, the Caucus will be co-chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Rep. Don Young (R-AK).

Mr. Blumenauer helped found the Caucus in 2017 with the goal of providing a bipartisan forum for discussing and collaborating on sensible federal cannabis legislation. The Caucus has a particular focus on harmonizing federal and state laws with regard to medicinal or adult-use of cannabis. The group also works to address issues related to researching cannabis, providing veterans access to medicinal marijuana and business needs, including reforming the tax code. Two of the founding co-chairs have since left Congress: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who lost his re-election bid in November, and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), who was elected governor of Colorado. Continue Reading Congressional Cannabis Caucus – 116th Congress

In late September 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari (i.e. the Court agreed to hear a case) brought before the Court by the Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association (Tennessee Retailers) in Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Byrd. The petition requested that the Court review the lower court’s decision upholding a finding that Tennessee’s two-year residency requirement for retail license applicants is unconstitutional. Specifically, the question Tennessee Retailers posed to the Court is whether the 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives states that authority to, consistent with the so-called “dormant” Commerce Clause of the Constitution, regulate sales of alcohol beverages by imposing residency requirements on retail (or wholesale) license applicants.

In this article, Mar Sorini and Bethany Hatef discuss the legal background of the dormant Commerce Clause, as well as the Byrd case. Particularly, they examined the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in February 2018 which affirmed the district court decision that invalidated Tennessee’s residency requirements, held that “a three-tier system can still function” without the two-year durational residency restriction imposed by the state. This article examines the potential impacts of Byrd, and how the Supreme Court’s review will address the constitutional validity of the Tennessee law imposing residency requirements on retail alcohol beverage license applicants.

Access the full article.

Originally published in Artisan Spirit: Winter 2018.

As you likely have read in the trade press already, on Wednesday, November 28, 2018, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit issued its opinion in Lebamoff v. Rauner. The opinion adds three judges of the Seventh Circuit to the collection of legal minds rejecting the notion that the dormant Commerce Clause non-discrimination principles applied by the Supreme Court in Bacchus (1984) and Granholm (2005) should be limited to laws discriminating against producers and products.

Like other cases brought by Lebamoff and its legal team, this case involves a challenge to state laws that prohibit direct-to-consumer wine shipments by out-of-state retailers. Illinois, like many states, permits in-state retailers to deliver wine directly to Illinois consumers located anywhere in the state. The law, however, denies that same privilege to out-of-state retailers. This distinction, according to the plaintiffs, amounts to discrimination against out-of-state economic interests in violation of the Constitution’s dormant Commerce Clause.

The Seventh Circuit opinion rejects the reading of Granholm, embraced by the Second and Eighth Circuits, that the Supreme Court drew an implicit distinction between laws discriminating against producers and products (not permitted) and laws affecting the wholesale- or retail-tiers (immune from Commerce Clause scrutiny). Reading Granholm in its totality, the Seventh Circuit finds such an implied bright-line rule unlikely. Moreover, drawing on the Brown-Forman (1986) and Healy (1989) cases, the Seventh Circuit notes that prior Supreme Court opinions have applied dormant Commerce Clause principles to laws that did not regulate producers or products.

The Seventh Circuit, of course, recognized that its opinion could be substantially affected by the Tennessee Wine & Spirits Retailers Ass’n v. Byrd case now pending before the Supreme Court. Moreover, the Seventh Circuit’s discussion of issues upon remand suggests a number of potential distinguishing facts that could alter the outcome of the case. Nevertheless, should the Supreme Court affirm the Sixth Circuit’s Byrd decision, the state of Illinois will have a hard time defending the discriminatory treatment challenged in Lebamoff.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new regulation that would require food manufacturers to disclose information about bioengineered (BE) food and BE food ingredients. The proposed rule is the result of a 2016 law that required the USDA to establish a National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard for all food. For purposes of the BE disclosure law, “food” includes alcohol beverages intended for human consumption as well as non-alcohol beverages.

Read the full article.

Originally published in The New Brewer, November/December 2018.

Earlier this week, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) issued further guidance on the procedures for importers to take the lower tax rates and credits available under the Craft Beverage Modernization Act (CBMA).

Key points of the new guidance:

  1. CBP will process drawback claims on an oldest-entry-first basis.
  2. Failure to substantiate drawback claims by January 31, 2019, risks a loss of the CBMA rates/credits for the entries in question.
  3. Going forward, every entry seeking to claim CBMA rates/credits must be accompanied by a CBMA Spreadsheet based on a template provided by CBP.
  4. Each importer must also submit a Controlled Group Spreadsheet, based on a template provided by CBP, for each controlled group it belongs to (foreign producers have the option of providing this information directly to CBP). Importers are responsible for immediately reporting to CBP any changes to the information in the Controlled Group Spreadsheet.
  5. Each foreign producer must provide their importer or CBP with an Assignment Certification based on a template provided by CBP.

With this guidance, importers can now start benefiting from the CBMA lower rates and credits on entries going forward, and make drawback claims for imports entered since January 1, 2018.